230. Memorandum From Robert Pastor of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Mission to Panama

Ambassador Ambler Moss and I arrived in Cantadora Island (off Panama) for five full hours of talks with Torrijos. On Tuesday,2 we met with President Royo.

The objectives we set for ourselves were: (1) to calm Torrijos down and try to persuade him not to escalate his involvement in the Nicaraguan civil war, as he hinted he would do; and (2) to seek assurances, preferably in writing from Royo and Torrijos, that Panama would not involve itself in Nicaragua’s affairs. We were skeptical of achieving the second objective since we were informed before arriving by Bill Rogers, who had spoken with Gabriel Lewis, that Torrijos’ objective was to try to get the US to recognize the Sandinista Front when it established a provisional government in Nicaragua as he expected it to do soon.

Torrijos began by saying that he regretted that because the US always seemed so slow to recognize new realities we hadn’t bothered to “buy a share” of Sandinista stock. He said he believed the Sandinistas would triumph, perhaps in a matter of days. I countered by saying that we had come to Panama not to buy Sandinista stock but to try to get Panama to sell its stock. This divergence in perspective characterized much of our discussion.

In sorrow as well as anger, I said that our two governments had worked in such a painstaking way over 2½ years to negotiate and ratify the Canal Treaties and to develop a new relationship based on mutual respect and non-intervention. President Carter had invested his prestige in this effort, which most Americans either didn’t understand or opposed. As we approached the last and in some ways the most difficult stage—the implementing legislation—in our journey, Panama seemed to be doing everything to jeopardize the treaties. I told him that the Murphy hearings and the OAS meeting called by Nicaragua were intended to scuttle the treaties by tying Panama to the Sandinistas. [Page 564] Murphy and Sevilla Sacosa would try to show that Panama had violated their sacred principle of non-intervention, that Panama was aiding the communists, and that Panama was not a reliable partner. Passing the legislation was a difficult enough task in itself; playing with the Sandinistas could make a difficult task impossible.

Torrijos said that he had never trusted Murphy and thought we were foolish to have trusted him. Somoza had warned Torrijos that either Panama would help Nicaragua, or it would lose the implementing legislation. Torrijos said he was not prepared to make a pact with the devil. I told him that he didn’t have to support Somoza; all we were asking was that he not try to overthrow him.

Torrijos continually tried to pull me into a discussion on Nicaragua, but I insisted at the beginning that we deal with the implementing legislation. Finally, in frustration, he said: “I am out of the Canal Treaty business.” Because of his friendship for Carter, he said he wanted to make sure we were aware how directly our interests would be affected by a Sandinista victory. He seemed sincere in his statement that he didn’t want to cause problems for us or anyone, and was prepared to leave Panama for a year if we wanted him to.

(Personal comment: He said that, I believe, in order to support his point that he wasn’t trying to push us to do everything. Torrijos was curiously withdrawn. I had expected him to try to push us into a new position on the Sandinistas, but, on this occasion, that was neither his purpose nor his style. Rather it set out his view of developments, and it was Ambler and I doing the lobbying.)

Torrijos was joined, after a time, by Marcel Salaman, a very intelligent “political scientist” who serves as his personal representative to the Sandinistas, Gabriel Lewis, Col. Noriega (his Chief of Intelligence), and Panama’s military attache in Managua. All painted a picture of a rapidly deteriorating situation in Nicaragua. They showed us letters from several National Guard leaders who defected and sought asylum in Panama. They believe that the Sandinistas have begun a general offensive which will be joined by a general strike in Managua and will lead soon to the downfall of Somoza and the installation of a transition government dominated by the moderate opposition and the Terciario faction (the more pragmatic, less ideological faction) of the Sandinistas. I told them that I believed this second cycle of violence would see more fighting and deaths than last September, but that Somoza would prevail. However, after this cycle, Somoza might finally come to realize that he will never defeat the Sandinistas and the longer he blocks a political solution the more likely a Sandinista “military solution” will occur. Then, the democracies in the hemisphere will need to assist the people of Nicaragua to find a political solution. I said that we are reviewing our policy, that we would be sending a new Ambassador [Page 565] to Managua soon,3 and that I expected we would be adopting a more active role to try to work with other nations in the region in a constructive and collective effort to resolve the Nicaragua crisis.

Salaman compared the situation in Nicaragua to that of Iran. In both cases, he said the US was too slow to see or act on the imminent downfall of a dynasty. In both cases, we failed to understand or recognize the many dimensions of the opposition (i.e. Sandinista opposition) and therefore failed to exploit the differences between the opposition. Even today, the US has not established a liaison at the policy level with the Sandinistas. When we finally agreed to speak to Eden Pastora, for example, we sent an intelligence agent to “interrogate” him rather than a policy-level person to dialogue with him. The Panamanians asked if we would meet with several Sandinista leaders, and we said we wouldn’t. They said that even the Chamber of Commerce in Managua recognized the divisions in the Sandinistas and were providing financial support to the Terciarios. If we couldn’t meet with some Sandinistas, Torrijos asked if we would consider having an American intermediary like Bill Rogers meet with them on our behalf.

I asked Torrijos bluntly whether Panama was sending arms directly or indirectly to the Sandinistas or whether Panama was helping Cuba send Sandinistas back to Nicaragua to fight. (We have some evidence of both.)4 Torrijos denied both charges flatly. I asked him three times whether he would convey his assurances of Panamanian non-intervention in Nicaragua’s internal affairs in a letter to President Carter and whether he would ask President Royo to do the same. At 12:30 a.m., on the third try, Torrijos said he would send such a letter.

But before doing so, he wanted to know whether we would be as diligent in seeking an end to intervention by El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to bolster Somoza as we were in seeking the termination of assistance to the Sandinistas. We informed him that the USG had already made demarches to those governments and had received assurances from them, but that we would repeat demarches during this period of crisis. Torrijos pressed me very hard for signs of a double standard or lingering support for Somoza. I told him that I could not say precisely how the US would react if troops from one of Nicaragua’s neighbors were sent to assist Somoza, but I felt that our reaction would be similar to our reaction if any of Nicaragua’s southern or eastern neighbors were to come to the aid of the Sandinistas. I recommended a collective and a legitimate, overt effort to solve the problem.

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Meeting with President Royo

Ambler and I prepared drafts of both letters and negotiated them with Romulo Escobar, Royo, and by phone with Torrijos, Tuesday morning. We reached agreement, and the letters (at Tab A)5 not only provide firm and unequivocal assurances that Panama “is not intervening and will not intervene” in Nicaragua’s internal affairs, but they also put Panama’s concern about the Sandinistas in an international context, with Panama standing alongside Mexico, Costa Rica and the Andean Pact countries (Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru). Ambler and I believe these letters could be very helpful to the President in delinking the Nicaraguan and Panamanian issues in the Congress; it will be more difficult to suggest that the Sandinistas are a bilateral Panamanian-Nicaraguan problem. The letters will also help assure wavering Congressmen that Panama is not providing arms to the Sandinistas (and indeed has adopted the same approach to Nicaragua that the US and more than seven Latin American countries have).

Royo made several other points worth noting. He really has the deepest admiration for Carter and said he intends to send a “personal letter” to the President soon summarizing his feelings.6 He restated strongly his assurances that Panama is not providing weapons or assistance to the Sandinistas. He repeated his pledge that he will be very supportive of our goals at the NAM Summit in Havana,7 and while he singled out Puerto Rico and Egypt as two issues he will follow our guidance, he welcomed more detailed briefings on the NAM. (Comment: Represented by its President, Panama could have really significant influence at the NAM since I think the Yugoslavs are going to try to establish regional co-chairmen as a way of diluting Cuban influence, and Panama is the most likely candidate for that position—which it held last year in Belgrade.)

On Nicaragua, Royo said that Somoza is the most hated man in all of Latin America, particularly among the young. Pinochet and Stroessner are almost likeable in comparison. Torrijos said that the crisis in Nicaragua would be solved with the departure of three men: Somoza, his son, and his half-brother.

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When I asked Torrijos what he would have us do in Nicaragua, he said simply: “Make declarations every other day,” condemning the wanton slaughter of a civilian population by a “madman.” Lead the way with moral statements; other nations will follow, and the pressure will ultimately work on Somoza.


That you send the summary of the mission at Tab I to the President with the letters at Tab A.8

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Box 38, Brzezinski Office File Country Chron, Panama, 1-7/79. Confidential.
  2. June 5.
  3. Lawrence A. Pezzullo.
  4. See Document 233.
  5. Tab A is not attached. The letters to Carter from Royo and Torrijos containing their assurances of non-intervention in Nicaragua were transmitted in telegram 4157 from Panama City, June 6. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, President’s Correspondence with Foreign Leaders, Box 15, Panama: General Omar Torrijos Herrera, 8/78–12/79)
  6. Royo sent Carter a July 11 letter detailing his concerns with the implementing legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on June 21 (see footnote 2, Document 237). A copy of an informal translation of Royo’s letter is in the Carter Library, White House Central File, Subject File, Box 22, FO 3–1/Panama Canal 6/22/79–7/17/79.
  7. See footnote 6, Document 224, and footnote 4, Document 247.
  8. There is no indication of approval or disapproval of the recommendation. An unknown hand wrote beneath the recommendation: “ZB signed memo to Pres.”