21. Memorandum From the Deputy Director for Operations of the Central Intelligence Agency (Wells) to Multiple Recipients1


  • Reactions of Panamanian Government Officials to the February Round of Canal Treaty Talks

1. [3 lines not declassified] While the information in this report represents the personal views of the official cited, it is believed that the comments reflect the general reaction of the negotiators and other high level officials of the Panamanian Government to the latest round of negotiations.

2. [1½ lines not declassified] the canal treaty negotiations, “disaster,” in the form of a rupture in the treaty talks, was narrowly averted twice during the February negotiating round. The first instance was the initial representation made by the United States negotiators. The Panamanian negotiators, believing that the inclusion of Ambassador Linowitz as negotiator signaled a better understanding and acceptance of Panamanian aspirations, were shocked at the tone and substance of the United States position.2

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3. The United States presentation, which was characterized as “hard” and “coarse” by the Panamanian negotiators, provoked an immediate angry reaction from the negotiators and from Chief of Government Brigadier General Omar Torrijos. The product of Panama’s ire was the “declaration of war” read by negotiator Jaime Arias Calderon at a subsequent session early in the round. The draft of Arias’ diatribe was pieced together jointly by the negotiators and Torrijos at the home of Torrijos’ adviser Rodrigo “Rory” Gonzalez in Panama City. Observers described Torrijos as “enraged” during the drafting meeting. His final orders to Arias regarding the delivery of the response were “Let it be hard . . . very hard.”

4. The second near-disaster came on the heels of negotiator Adolfo Ahumada’s hard-line, ultimatum-like presentation on 20 February. When faced with the United States negotiators’ reaction that the Panamanian position was unacceptable, and that the United States team would depart on 23 February, Ahumada wanted to call yet another meeting on 21 February. Fearing that such a meeting would cause a crisis, the other Panamanian negotiators convinced Ahumada that the best course was to await the return of Torrijos and chief treaty negotiator Romulo Escobar Bethancourt from Colombia.

5. Meanwhile, over the weekend, Torrijos and Escobar had briefed Colombian President Adolfo Lopez Michelsen fully during a two-hour meeting in Barranquilla, Colombia. When informed that the talks were in trouble, Lopez Michelsen counseled that the Panamanians should make every attempt to avoid a rupture, and that some point of understanding should be reached with the United States negotiators. Upon the return of Torrijos and Escobar to Panama, where they were greeted with the news of the near break in the negotiations, both agreed that a more conciliatory attitude was necessary. Escobar’s presentation at the morning session on 22 February put into effect that decision.

6. The proposal for the turnover of the administration of the canal entity to Panama in the year 1990 was a decision made in the classic Torrijos style.3 When the Panamanian negotiators pointed out to Torrijos that the precedent for the 1990 date had come during a “what if” presentation made by the United States side during 1975, he ignored the fact that the other part of the “what if” was an extension of the treaty’s duration and United States defense rights on a 20-to-30 year sliding scale, dependent on subsequent discussion.

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7. Despite the stormy atmosphere which pervaded the round, the situation as of 23 February could best be summed up as difficult but at the same time having some positive elements. The most important result of the discussions was the presentation of a Panamanian position paper for subsequent transmittal to the United States President.4 The insistence of the United States negotiators that Panama provide such a document forced the Panamanians to construct what they consider to be the key elements of a treaty formula—good or bad, exaggerated or not.

8. The above information is being made available to the United States Ambassador to Panama. No further distribution is being made.

William W. Wells 5
  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, Office of the Deputy Director for Intelligence, Job 80R01362A: Committees Task Forces Boards Councils Files, Box 2, Folder 18: CPS Latin America. Secret; [handling restriction not declassified]. Sent to Saunders, Bunker, Linowitz, Dolvin, Bell, and Pastor. All brackets except those that indicate omitted text are in the original.
  2. See Document 17.
  3. During the fourth session on February 21, the Panamanian negotiators proposed the year 1990 as the date when the administration of the Panama Canal would be turned over to Panama. Bunker and Linowitz both stated that date would be unacceptable to the United States. (Department of State, American Embassy Panama, Panama Canal Treaty Negotiation Files, 1964–1977, Lot 81F1, Box 127, POL 33.3.2)
  4. See Document 20.
  5. Printed from a copy bearing [name not declassified]’s stamped signature indicating he signed for Wells.