198. Memorandum of Conversation1


    • U.S.
    • Zbigniew Brzezinski, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
    • Warren Christopher, Deputy Secretary, Department of State
    • Frank Moore, Assistant to the President for Congressional Liaison
    • Robert Pastor, Staff Member, NSC (notetaker)
    • Panama
    • Nicolas Gonzalez-Revilla, Minister of Foreign Relations
    • Ricardo Bilonick, Chargé to the U.S.
    • Gabriel Lewis
[Page 480]


  • Nicaragua

Dr. Brzezinski began by expressing the President’s apologies that he would be unable to meet with the Panamanians as he had wished, but it might be possible to see the President briefly when he leaves for Pennsylvania at 12:302 (they did).

Dr. Brzezinski said that the President has given the issue of Nicaragua his personal attention. Frankly, Dr. Brzezinski said, the U.S. Government was very unhappy about the message which was received early Friday morning from Gen. Torrijos.3 There are two ways to interpret that message. First, that Gen. Torrijos really intended to launch an attack, and if this were the case, that would have had very serious consequences for Panama, for U.S.-Panamanian relations, and for all of Central America. The second interpretation is that the message was intended to stimulate the U.S. to action, and we, frankly, don’t appreciate that either. The U.S. is trying to work out a peaceful solution to the problem, and this kind of action is not helpful.

Dr. Brzezinski stressed that it was not only a matter of overthrowing Somoza, but of creating stable and peaceful conditions for a genuine move to democracy. It’s very easy to polarize the situation, but if that occurs—if the Communists win, or if Somoza wins after a long, hard civil war—that will produce serious consequences for the entire region. The difficult thing is to create a political environment where peace and democracy will prevail. This is the path which the U.S. is pursuing, and we did not find Gen. Torrijos’ message helpful in that regard.

Gabriel Lewis explained that it was “not my message, but I had a responsibility to deliver it.” He also said that it was a matter of great concern to him.

Dr. Brzezinski said that in medieval times, the bearer of bad news would lose his head! In a more serious vein, Dr. Brzezinski said that either of the interpretations is not the proper way to deal with the U.S. Whatever the reason for the telephone call, we don’t appreciate it, and the Panamanians should understand the consequences for our relationship of taking such action.

Dr. Brzezinski said that the U.S. is serious about working out this problem, which we see as not only getting rid of Somoza but also creating conditions through a mediation process which will lead to an enduring solution. He said that international intervention would make [Page 481] that difficult. In answer to a question from Gabriel Lewis, Dr. Brzezinski said that the U.S. is determined to be very frank and equally direct on this point with the Salvadoreans and the Hondurans as we are with the Panamanians.

Lewis said that Torrijos had been very disturbed about the possibilities of Salvadorean P–51 Mustangs fighting in Nicaragua, and Dr. Brzezinski said that Nicaragua also had Mustangs.

Dr. Brzezinski said that there were reasons to believe that Somoza would try to distract the U.S. by proposing an internal mediation formula, but the U.S. believed some external mediation would also be important. He closed by saying that it was important for the U.S. and Panama to work closely together in pursuit of these objectives.

Foreign Minister Gonzalez-Revilla said that what had moved Panama was a lack of progress by the U.S. The Panamanians were concerned that Somoza’s program to pacify the country by killing so many people would consolidate his hold for another 40 years. Panama recognized the implications of what Dr. Brzezinski said, but was still very concerned that if this opportunity for change in Nicaragua was lost, it might not occur again for a long time.

The Foreign Minister said he had spoken with Gen. Torrijos, and Torrijos said he will fully support the process of mediation and the U.S. effort, and he will not undertake any military action. In short, Torrijos said that he will trust the U.S., but this leaves a very large responsibility on the shoulders of the U.S. General Torrijos has already called many leaders to support the mediation effort. And he agrees that we should begin considering alternatives. Torrijos suggested that the three Rs—Rivas, Robelo and Ramirez—are a feasible solution to the problem. Torrijos also said that CONDECA (the Central American Defense Council) could serve as a “liberation army” under U.S. patronage if a peacekeeping force were necessary.

The Foreign Minister said, however, if there is no progress, the internationalization of the conflict is almost inevitable, so Panama is now fully behind the U.S. effort.

Deputy Secretary Christopher welcomed the Foreign Minister’s statement on a mediation effort. He explained that U.S. policy has to work within a kind of paradox. On the one hand, the U.S. wants to be modest in its approach, but at the same time, others want us to play a leadership role. We first tried to throw our support behind a Central American mediation effort, but everyone said that the U.S. should take the leadership. We have reluctantly assumed that leadership, but still we want others to be involved in a genuinely multilateral effort. While Panama perhaps should not be directly involved in the mediation effort, Christopher said that he hoped Panama would continue to signal its support for the effort.

[Page 482]

Christopher said that the U.S. does not intend to let Somoza manipulate the mediation to his own ends. One item that has to be on the table in the mediation effort is Somoza’s tenure in office. Bill Jorden has instructions to see Somoza this afternoon and to be firm on this point.4 If Somoza agrees to mediation, the U.S. will designate a distinguished lawyer to be our mediator. Other countries should also designate mediators.

Christopher said that the U.S. understands Panama’s concern that Somoza may reassert himself, but the U.S. does not see an end to the conflict now. There is only a lull; we realize it won’t last.

Christopher said that we have been working in the OAS for a resolution, which we hope will pass today. It is not all that we wanted, but it will be satisfactory. If the resolution is defeated, it will send the wrong signal to Somoza by showing him that the hardliners in the Hemisphere have prevailed.

The Foreign Minister said that he would support the U.S. resolution.

Dr. Brzezinski said that mediation is a process which we want to set in motion, but we don’t want to set in train an ideological emotionalism which will try to sweep away a number of leaders in the Hemisphere. If this is the case, who will be next? Pinochet? Castro? Or someone else? If we are not careful, this will open the gates to ideological warfare and chaos. The reason we are involved in Nicaragua is because the situation has clearly gotten out of hand, but we need to be very careful because this is an extremely dangerous game.

Lewis asked Dr. Brzezinski whether he meant that during the mediation process, it is essential that other parties be more careful and lower their profile rather than raise it? He asked whether Dr. Brzezinski was referring to Venezuelan planes in Costa Rica.

Both Dr. Brzezinski and Christopher said that the U.S. is discouraging military intervention from all quarters. The Venezuelan planes suggest a muscularity that is not helpful to the process.

Christopher said that the real danger is that the planes could be used.

Dr. Brzezinski said that danger of escalation is very great. Suppose Somoza invited some help; this then would provoke a counter response. He suggested that the presence of Venezuelan planes in Costa Rica should be phased-out.

The Foreign Minister asked whether it was correct to assume that the mediation process is based on a phase-out of the Somoza regime.

[Page 483]

Dr. Brzezinski said that will be the outcome of the process, but the U.S. wants to contribute to a process which mobilizes the great variety of moderate forces in Nicaragua to help create something that is democratic and viable. The alternative is chaos.

The Foreign Minister said that under those circumstances, Panama will push very hard, even with President Perez and the rest of the anti-Somoza groups. The Foreign Minister said that he understands that this mediation process will not stop even if Somoza believes he has pacified the country.

Dr. Brzezinski stressed that Somoza has to be one of the parties to the mediation process to assure that the transition is stable and certain.

Christopher said that we don’t expect Somoza to manipulate the process in a way which will permit him to remain in power. Both the schedule of departure and the nature of the transition are very important elements of the process.

The Foreign Minister asked if the U.S. would consider it a failure if, after 12 months, Somoza is still in power and Nicaragua is pacified.

Dr. Brzezinski said that he would not put a deadline on the process. The purpose is to create a process which will affect the Nicaraguan political structure, from one which is dominated by Somoza to a more pluralistic system. We do not want to change the system by violence. He said that the U.S. accepts and shares a part of the responsibility, but the responsibility also rests with Panama, Venezuela and others. It is necessary that all of our countries work together, and Panama should work towards that end with other governments and with the opposition, including the extremists, which Panama has been supporting. Dr. Brzezinski said that there is a larger historical point which we should not overlook. Do we really want to change the internal politics of other governments? We have problems with that, but believe that to the extent it is done, it must be a genuine collective endeavor.

Lewis said that he had spoken to Torrijos, and Torrijos had said that there was some confusion about who is helping and who are the extremists. Torrijos claims that the extremists are isolated in Cuba and that the Sandinistas who are fighting in Nicaragua only intend to change Nicaragua into a kind of Costa Rica. Before going to Panama last time, Lewis said that he had spoken with Bob Pastor and gotten the strong impression that the U.S. does not like the Sandinistas. He had conveyed this to Torrijos.

Dr. Brzezinski stressed that much more was at stake than apparent. The U.S. wants a more natural, cooperative relationship with Panama, but support for extremists would make that difficult.

Christopher said that there needs to be a reconciliation in Nicaragua. The last thing the U.S. wants is to substitute a system in which one person is dominant, for a system where one group dominates.

[Page 484]

Lewis said that Nicaraguans cannot wait until 1981, and that Panamanians assume that something will have to be done before that.

Christopher said that he had never been confident that Somoza will leave in 1981 and that his personal view was that the situation wouldn’t hold until then. But as to the exact date, that would be something which the mediators would have to decide themselves.

Dr. Brzezinski asked that the Panamanians help us identify good prominent leaders in Nicaragua to bring into the political process.

Lewis said that he would hate to see Nicaragua turn Communist and asked if we knew anything about the three R’s.

Pastor said that Robelo was a prominent young businessman, Cordova Rivas was a relatively traditional politician, and Ramirez was from the Group of 12 and probably a Sandinista.

The Foreign Minister asked whether we contemplated the mediation effort to be within the OAS or outside?

Christopher said he thought it would be outside the OAS since Somoza has too much support in it. We hoped, however, that the OAS would include in its resolution something which urged other nations to offer their good offices.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Box 38, Brzezinski Office File Country Chron., Panama, 7–12/78. Secret. The meeting took place in Brzezinski’s office.
  2. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Carter flew to Pittsburgh to meet with state and local Democratic Party officials. (Carter Library, Presidential Materials, President’s Daily Diary)
  3. Presumably a reference to Document 195.
  4. In telegram 4618 from Managua, September 25, Jorden summarized his meeting with Somoza during which Somoza accepted mediation but balked at the U.S. Government’s preferred mediator. (National Archives, RG, Central Foreign Policy File, D780392–0120)