224. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Summary of the President’s Meeting with President Aristides Royo


  • The President
  • Secretary of State Cyrus Vance
  • Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher
  • Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander
  • Assistant Secretary of State Viron P. Vaky
  • Ambassador Ambler Moss, US Ambassador to Panama
  • Robert Pastor, National Security Council Staff Member
  • President Aristides Royo of Panama
  • Foreign Minister Carlos Ozores
  • Ambassador Gabriel Lewis, Director, Panama Canal Authority
  • Ambassador Alfredo Lopez, Panama Ambassador to the United States

Presidents Carter and Royo met for 20 minutes privately in the Oval Office first. (U)

President Carter opened the meeting by giving President Royo two books as a gift and saying that it was a great honor to have Royo visit the US. President Carter followed Royo’s travels throughout Europe, and had received good reports of his meetings with Members of the House of Representatives. (C)

President Carter explained that the problems that have emerged during the implementing legislation were the result of an unstructured democratic system, and an independent Congressional branch. He hoped that President Royo would not forget that President Carter and all of the members of his Administration are absolutely committed to implementing both the letter and the spirit of the Canal Treaties. To pass the implementing legislation in an acceptable form will not be an easy task. It is quite possible that the House of Representatives may pass a bill with some significant problems, but the honor of the US Senate is at stake. The President had spoken with Sen. John Stennis, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and will be managing a good part of the bill in the Senate, and the Senator assured the President that even though Stennis had opposed the original treaty, he recognized that the treaty had been ratified, and he will honor the [Page 552] will of the Senate and pass implementing legislation compatible with those treaties. (C)

President Carter said that he had met with about 100 of the most doubtful members of Congress the previous Tuesday.2 He asked his staff to prepare a verbatim transcript of the meeting with those Congressmen,3 and to give it to President Royo. He thought that President Royo would be reassured to see in the questions and answers the commitment by President Carter and other members of his Administration to passing fair implementing legislation. He asked President Royo to review the transcripts, and if he had any ideas on how to refine the arguments, he should get directly in touch with President Carter. (C)

President Carter expressed gratitude for Panama’s increasing cooperation since the ratification of the Treaties. There are about 250 specific commitments in the treaties which we are working to implement, and Panama’s cooperation is unquestionably the best way to assure a favorable outcome on implementing legislation and on maintaining an efficient and open canal. (C)

President Royo said that he appreciated the words of President Carter. Royo said that he wanted to reiterate the confidence that Panamanians had in the US and in President Carter’s Administration. Panamanians appreciate all the efforts that President Carter has made to get proper and adequate legislation, and Panamanians also understand all the difficulties and the obstacles to passing this legislation in good form. Royo said that he thought that his visit could be helpful in this task, and he hoped to explain Panama’s position in the meetings he would have. He intended to say that if the US wanted a good and efficient canal, then all that is needed is the passage of implementing legislation which follows the spirit of the Canal Treaties. Members of Congress have expressed to Royo their concern that the Canal Treaties may have been a give-away, but Royo has explained that rather than a give-away, it is a new form of cooperation between a big country and a small country. He explained that the Panamanians have a new confidence and trust in the US as a result of the Canal Treaties and the respect the government has accorded a small Latin American country. (C)

President Royo , however, expressed great concern about the possibility of violations of the treaty being added to the implementing legislation, and he gave President Carter an aide-memoire which listed such [Page 553] “violations.”4 President Royo said that he agreed that we should wait until the Senate considers the implementing legislation before taking steps to try to change the bill. He said that Panamanians have confidence that things will come out properly in the end. (C)

President Carter said that he and President Royo had a private conversation on Nicaragua, and that they agreed on ultimate goals. President Carter also said that he had asked Royo in their private conversation to continue to work with us closely in the implementation of the treaties. October 1 is a memorable day not only because it is the day in which full jurisdiction is transferred from the US to Panama of the Canal Zone, it is also President Carter’s birthday. President Carter said that he is eager to help to make the transfer a day of excitement and celebration, rather than dissent or disagreement. With regard to the five-year agreement on operation of the School of the Americas, President Carter said that he would like to consult with the Panamanian Government on mutually acceptable terms at that time. He expressed gratitude on the part of the US for President Royo’s visits to the Zone and his talks with the Americans in the Zone; this has helped to alleviate the concerns and assure the residents; it was very helpful, and President Carter personally thanked Royo for it. (C)

President Carter said he is committed to seek a restoration of the economic and military assistance to Panama which Congress had cut. The problem was that the House of Representatives used that to express its displeasure with its inability to vote on the Canal Treaties. However, President Carter said that he thought that this was just a phase, and he would work to restore the assistance. He cannot guarantee success, but he will work toward that objective. Furthermore, within the bounds of the law, President Carter pledged that he would carry out the commitments of the Treaties. It would be a tough fight, but his integrity and his word of honor are at stake, and he pledged again to consummate the treaties in a fair and acceptable form. He reminded President Royo that when the treaties looked hopeless, he redoubled his efforts. Furthermore, President Carter said that he viewed his pledge to Panama to be fair and generous and cooperative and still binding on him. There will be some problems in the future. For example, he will have to negotiate the transfer of movable property, and we may have a specific law to deal with this. If so, we will try to assess the property at a low [Page 554] but fair price. With regard to the tugs that serve the canal, our first priority is to have these continue to serve the canal, but we also hope that they will be able to serve the ports under an agreement which would be acceptable both to Panama and to the tugs’ owners. Our inclination is to keep the relationship undisturbed. (C)

Ambassador Moss said that he had already discussed many of these issues with the Panamanians, and he feels that the cooperation between both sides is excellent. (C)

President Carter said that we had become increasingly disturbed about the enormous environmental problems in the Zone, especially as related to soil erosion and the prospect of floods in the future. The President regretted the unfortunate incident which involved the burning of two homes in the Zone,5 but he hoped that this wouldn’t stand in the way of continued cooperation on these important environmental matters, which could have such a devastating impact on the operation of the Canal. President Carter said he hoped that the concern surrounding the burning of the two homes would not stand in the way of our mutual goal and mutual environmental concerns. (C)

President Carter expressed his appreciation for the progress made in Panama on human rights and democratization, as illustrated by Royo’s election and by the return of political exiles. He said he was sure that this is a source of great satisfaction to Panamanians. While done on Panama’s own initiative, it also has set an important example for other countries in the hemisphere. (C)

President Carter said that he hoped Panama would not be timid in using its influence in international meetings, including in the Non-Aligned Summit which will be held in Cuba.6 President Carter said that he hoped Panama will use its voice to express democratic principles, and that President Royo would consider our views in preparing for these meetings. He said that he understood that our attitudes on Puerto Rico are precisely the same as President Royo’s—that Puerto Rico’s status should be determined by the people of Puerto Rico. President Carter said that he has always had this position. However, the Cubans have tried to use the Puerto Rican issue to embarrass the US, and he hoped that President Royo would express the view that Puerto Rico should be free to determine its own future. He hoped that Panama would do that not just because we are friends or partners, but also [Page 555] because he wanted Panama to exert its influence to stand for what is right. (C)

President Carter said that he believes in the Non-Aligned Movement, and he thinks that it is a very powerful and useful force for developing countries to express their concerns in world affairs. We don’t want to see it controlled by authoritarian governments or used for totalitarian purposes. This is very important to the US. If Panama’s views are compatible with those which President Carter expressed, he hoped that President Royo would understand his views of the Non-Aligned Movement and of these issues, and convey them in an appropriate way at the Summit. (C)

President Royo said that on October first Panama would give President Carter a very nice birthday present. Ambassador Moss is working very closely with the Panamanians on this. He said that the progress of democracy in Panama is not always easy. When President Royo said that he wanted the School of the Americas to remain open with some important changes, such as the greater cooperation and participation of the Latin American countries, he was called a traitor by his people and even “a bastard.” But he said that he will keep his word on keeping the School of the Americas open with some fundamental changes. With regard to economic and military assistance, President Royo promised not to make any statement on this issue. He said that he realizes that a sensitive job needs to be done, and that Panamanians know that in the end the issue will be resolved, and so it does not make any sense to talk about it any further now. “We need to go forward with other issues, rather than just be concerned about the assistance.” On unmovable property, President Royo said that he is working closely with Americans to try to clean the table on past problems. On environmental concerns, President Royo said that Panama is currently spending $10M to preserve the forest. He recognizes that each ship that passes through the canal uses 52 million gallons of water, which is almost as much as Panama City uses in a single day, so Panama is very interested in working and cooperating with the US on environmental matters in the Canal Zone. (C)

President Royo said that with regard to the democratization process in Panama, political parties have been legalized, students have begun to organize for elections which will take place in 1981, with a presidential election in 1984. He is very pleased with this progress. (C)

President Royo said that he thinks that the Non-Aligned Movement can help Panama, and Panama will remain a member of it. President Carter expressed his positive agreement with President Royo’s statement. President Royo said that Panama is not a radical in the Movement, and when he goes to Havana in September, and makes his speech before the Summit, he will mention the US, and he will say that he is [Page 556] very proud of the good relations which Panama has been able to establish with the US, and is very proud of the Canal Treaties which the two governments have developed together. (C)

On Puerto Rico, President Royo said that he does not agree with the actions of the Non-Aligned Movement. He thinks that the Independence Movement is Communist and that the headquarters is not in Puerto Rico, but in Havana. It is the government of Cuba which is trying to force the Puerto Ricans to be independent. President Royo agrees with President Carter on this issue; he supports self-determination for the Puerto Rican people. (C)

President Royo said that in addition to these issues, there are a number of economic concerns, but he does not want to raise them at this time. He hopes that the State Department and the Treasury Department and other departments will help to resolve the problems which are outstanding on sugar and on tuna in the same spirit that President Carter has brought to this conversation. He said that he came to confer with President Carter on the treaties, and that this is not the right moment to discuss these issues. (C)

President Carter said that on economic concerns, when Ambassadors Moss and Lopez Guevara considered it advisable, President Carter said he would be glad to take whatever action he could to increase American business investment and trade in Panama. (C)

Ambassador Moss said that his embassy has been actively engaged in helping the American business community invest in and trade with Panama. He thought that the establishment of a new Chamber of Commerce in Panama was a good sign. Ambassador Moss said that he thought Panama offers a good business investment climate for the US. (C)

President Carter said that if Secretary Blumenthal or Secretary of Commerce Kreps could be helpful in any way, President Royo should let President Carter know right away, and he would be in touch with them. (U)

President Royo asked whether it would be convenient for the US to send a team to Panama like the Strauss mission to Egypt and Israel,7 to look around Panama and to encourage US business to invest in and trade with Panama. President Carter said he thought that that would be very good idea and would be very helpful to US–Panama relations.8 (C)

President Royo added that with regard to narcotics, Panama has done all it can under President Royo’s administration to control the [Page 557] traffic of drugs in Panama. A few months ago he reminded President Carter that Panama had confiscated several big planes and ships; it had been a big haul. But perhaps the US and Panama could reach a new agreement on narcotics trafficking to increase our cooperation in this area. (C)

Both President Carter and Secretary Vance said that it would be easy to send a team like the Strauss mission and that the US would like to do something like this. They also agreed that the United States would look into a new agreement on narcotics cooperation. (C)

President Carter closed the meeting by saying that he was looking forward to receiving any questions or comments or advice that President Royo might have on the transcript which he had given to him that day. (U)

President Royo thanked President Carter for the books that he had given him, and said that he would like to give President Carter a book, but the only one that he had written was on the Panamanian penal code. (U)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Subject File, Box 37, Memcons: President: 4-5/79. Confidential. The meeting took place in the Cabinet Room at the White House.
  2. May 8.
  3. See Document 223.
  4. In telegram 5835 from Madrid, April 27, the Embassy transmitted the text of a letter from Royo to Carter, in which Royo expressed concern that the spirit of the draft treaty implementation legislation was in open opposition to the spirit, objectives, and goals of the treaties. (Department of State, Classified Political Subject Files, 1979, Lot 82F93, Box 2, 33.3; U.S-Panama General Relations, 1979) A copy of a translation of Royo’s letter is in the Washington National Records Center, OSD Files, FRC: 330–87–0068, 1977–1979 Govern of Panama Treaty View—Implementing Legislation.
  5. In an undated briefing paper on environmental matters, the Department noted that Canal Zone policemen burned one or two squatters’ huts and the Panamanian government protested and claimed damages. The Embassy was handling the situation. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Box 43, Pastor, Country, Panama: Visit by President Royo, 4–5/79)
  6. The Non-Aligned Movement Summit took place September 3–9 in Havana.
  7. On April 10, Carter asked Special Trade Representative Robert Strauss to lead a U.S. trade mission to Egypt and Israel April 16–20.
  8. See Documents 226, and 248.