183. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter1


  • Your Visit to Panama: The U.S.-Panamanian Dimension

Your visit to Panama has two dimensions:

Panama, U.S., and the Canal. Your trip will serve to symbolize and solidify the new and warm relationship between our two countries and to launch a new partnership for running the Canal. The transitional period between U.S. and Panamanian control of the Canal (1979–2000) will require a fair amount of goodwill by both sides if it is to be smooth and successful.

Inter-American and North-South Relations. The attendance of the Presidents of Venezuela, Colombia, Jamaica, Costa Rica, and Mexico permits you to underscore the broader dimension of the Canal Treaties and the wide support they received in the hemisphere. In this sense, the Treaties represent not just the end of a commitment to Panama, but the beginning of a new kind of relationship with Latin America and the developing world.

This memo will deal with the first dimension.2

I. Panamanian Politics

On June 10, Arnulfo Arias, three times elected President and thrice deposed, returned to Panama, and before nearly 100,000 people, he gave a hard-driving campaign-like speech in which he directly insulted Torrijos and his government in the most provocative way. Though 77 years old, Arias is said to still possess the charisma and forcefulness which made him a Panamanian equivalent of Juan Peron. He is a populist of the far right.

Since 1968, Torrijos has mostly feared the left in Panama, and his rhetoric reflects that. The return of Arias alone has changed the political [Page 450] spectrum, forcing Torrijos to admit recently that his greatest fear is from the right, from “those in the National Guard”, in his words, “who still want to serve the oligarchy”.

Within a day of his return, Arias sent one of his confidants to negotiate the overthrow of Torrijos with Col. Noriega, Panama’s Intelligence Chief. Our judgment is that Noriega reported the contact immediately to Torrijos, and since Arias must have been aware of the great risk of Noriega telling Torrijos, one has to conclude that Arias is trying to deliberately provoke Torrijos. Our intelligence suggests that Torrijos and Noriega do not want to do anything which detracts from your receiving the warmest welcome in Panamanian history, and so we expect that Torrijos will try to overlook all but the most flagrant and dangerous transgressions. It is not clear how far Arias will go this week towards his goal of re-assuming power. Arias has told us that he also does not want to spoil your visit, but he is less trustworthy.

In a word, you are arriving in a highly volatile political situation—the first real test of Torrijos’ control over the Guardia and the country for nearly a decade. Torrijos hopes that the trip will solidify his grip, and the opposition may coalesce around Arias to try to prevent that from happening. My guess is that the situation in Panama will remain relatively stable and quiet during your trip and that Torrijos will retain considerable flexibility to define Panama’s future political system in the months ahead.

Our bilateral goals are not so personalistic as Panama’s politics, but to a certain extent, they are closely identified with Torrijos:

We want to strengthen Panamanian support for the Treaties and encourage Panama to approach our new relationship in a genuine spirit of partnership and goodwill. In his speech, Arias attacked the Treaties as a sell-out of Panama’s sovereign rights, and said that it created a new source of friction between the U.S. and Panama. Torrijos is surprisingly vulnerable on this issue from both the right and the left, and Panama’s “middle” will need some outside support if Torrijos is to rely on it to build a peaceful and stable transition.

We want to continue to prod Torrijos towards increased democratization. He will make a series of critical decisions in the next six months, defining Panama’s political future. Perez is likely to push him very hard on this front, as did a number of Senators. Since your presence is likely to help Torrijos, a gentle nudge on your part would probably be acceptable and is likely to have some positive impact.

We want to show our support for the social and economic reforms undertaken in the last decade in a way which will encourage the Panamanians to continue down that path. Until Torrijos overthrew Arias in 1968, Panamanian politics was, to a large degree, a contest between political parties representing the relatively narrow interest of the oligarchy. [Page 451] Government was minimal and primarily oriented to serving Panama City. This partly explains Torrijos’ extreme distaste for political parties. (Last year, Torrijos, in a typical interview, said that while “it is not exactly correct that political parties make me feel like vomiting [as the press had quoted him], decisions on the country’s fate should not be confused with the private interests of these groups.”)

Torrijos rather dramatically shifted the government from serving Panama City to serving the rural areas and placed greatest emphasis on education, health services, and agrarian reform. His Finance Minister, Barletta, has also undertaken a number of expensive investment projects, including a large hydro-electric project which will open up much of southern Panama to new cultivation. These investments and reforms deserve our support.

We also need to seek the support of the Americans in the Zone, who are uncertain and anxious of the future. Their cooperation is essential to a smooth transition, and we should let them know we are counting on them.3

We will want to seek the support of Torrijos on a number of international issues in which he has a considerable amount of influence because of Panama’s role in the Non-Aligned Movement and his personal interest, involvement, and influence on a number of Third World leaders, including Castro.

II. Events on Your Trip

You will have an opportunity to pursue all of these goals in your public statements and meetings. In your bilateral with General Torrijos, the issues which he will raise will probably depend on which of his Ministers attend. If it is a small breakfast between the two of you, Torrijos will probably concentrate on international issues like Nicaragua, Belize, Cuba, and perhaps even the Middle East.4 Torrijos may also recommend that you take advantage of your new credibility with the Latin American Left—a result of your idealism—and that the USG extend itself to groups like the Sandinistas (of Nicaragua) or the Montoneros (of Argentina). We have reservations about being in touch with these groups on an official basis at this time.

If Torrijos brings several of his Ministers to the breakfast, he is likely to focus more on bilateral and treaty implementation issues, like [Page 452] military and economic cooperation and the Coco Solo Container Port. Those issues are covered in your briefing papers.5 We will inform you when we know more about the composition of the breakfast meeting.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Trip File, Box 12, President, Panama, 6/16–17/78: Briefing Book (I). Secret.
  2. The June 14 memorandum from Brzezinski to Carter dealing with the second, or multilateral dimension, is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Trip File, Box 13, President, Panama, 6/16–17/78: Cables and Memos, 6/14—16/78. The memorandum of conversation of the first multilateral meeting, held June 16, is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XXIV, South America; Latin America Regional, 1977–1980. The memorandum of conversation of the second multilateral meeting, held June 17, is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XXIV, South America; Latin America Regional, 1977–1980.
  3. Carter and other executive branch officials met with Canal Zone employees and residents on June 17. A draft memorandum of conversation of this meeting is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Box 41, Pastor, Country, Panama, 7/78.
  4. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Carter and Torrijos had breakfast from 8:12 to 8:40 a.m. on June 17. (Carter Library, Presidential Materials, President’s Daily Diary)
  5. The State briefing paper for Carter’s visit is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Trip File, Box 12, President, Panama, 6/16–17/78: Briefing Book (I).