247. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Vice President’s Conversation with President Royo of Panama, September 30, 1979


  • The Vice President
  • President Aristides Royo


Both President Royo and the Vice President reaffirmed the intention of the two countries to be guided by the Panama Treaties in their action, and both expressed confidence in successful Treaty implementation and the future of the Panamanian-US relationship. The Vice President told Royo that we took very seriously the Soviet combat unit in Cuba and President Carter would address the subject quite directly October 1.2 Royo expressed concern regarding the Cuban military [Page 590] build-up, stating that the Latin American armies considered the Cuban Army aggressive in design. On Nicaragua, Royo urged we provide not only food and economic assistance but also non-lethal military help and technical assistance. At the moment, he said, the moderates were in the stronger position in Nicaragua, but they needed help to withstand radical forces. The Vice President said we understood the need and wanted to work through the OAS and Latin American countries.

After amenities, President Royo explained that his remarks regarding the implementing legislation had been misquoted.3 He did not say that the legislation violated the Treaty. He did say that Panama intended to act in accordance with the Treaty, which was its guiding criterion.

The Vice President said the Treaty was also the foundation of our action. President Royo understood our constitutional processes—no one by now knew them better—and he and other Panamanian leaders had shown remarkable restraint despite severe provocation. Some of the harsh statements had undoubtedly been made to provoke an imprudent reaction. But we expect to continue to make progress. This is a historic moment for both countries. We are proud of our actions and intend to fulfill our commitments.

President Royo said it would be helpful if the Vice President made this point in his speech. The Vice President said he would do so.4

President Royo said the Vice President would see tomorrow (October 1) how strong the friendship between our countries is. The people were happy and everything concerned with the event was going well.

The Vice President remarked that the Panamanian Government had taken abuse because of its attitudes. So had our Government. But we know we have done the right thing. We are here in that spirit.

President Royo said that Ambassadors Bunker and Linowitz, whose absence he regretted, had repeatedly warned the Panamanian Treaty negotiators that various points would give them “a hard time on the Hill.” At times his colleagues had thought these references to Congress were a negotiating trick; but it turned out that the Ambassadors were only telling the truth. President Royo hoped the US people would understand the significance of what had been done. Everything would depend on how we managed the new relationship.

The Vice President noted that it was a human relationship. It would be grounded in mutual respect.

[Page 591]

President Royo praised Ambassador Moss and General McAuliffe for their contribution to the successful initiation of the Treaty. They were wise men of good will.

Congressman Brademas stated that he and Congressman Hanley were with the US Delegation because what the US had done was the honorable thing to do. We wanted good relations with Panama and with all of Latin America. He regretted that Father Hesburgh, who lived in his district (Notre Dame), had been prevented by bad weather from joining the Delegation in Washington.

The Vice President recalled that Archbishop McGrath had brought Father Hesburgh to Panama, and the latter had helped persuade President Carter to make the Panama Treaty the first great foreign policy objective of this Administration.

President Royo praised the President and noted that he had made his feelings very clear in his statement at the Non-Aligned Movement Conference in Havana.5

The Vice President remarked that this had taken tremendous courage, and we recognized that. At this point, he presented to President Royo a pen President Carter had used to sign the implementing legislation into law; a photograph of Presidents Carter and Royo taken during the latter’s visit in Washington; and a bound copy of President Carter’s formal Proclamation of September 27 putting the Panama Treaties into effect for the US 6 as well as a copy of the President’s public statement on the occasion.7

The Vice President said that on Monday night October 1 the President would be speaking on the problem of Soviet activities in Cuba. Soviet military actions there had serious potentialities not only for the fate of the SALT II Treaty but for future Soviet/US relations generally. In past years we had extracted commitments from the Soviets to limit their offensive potential in Cuba, and not to establish a naval base at Cienfuegos.8

Now we see a Soviet combat unit in Cuba, acting not to train Cubans but in its own independent maneuvers. We are not certain how far back its origins go, but we know now that it consists of 2,500 to 3,000 men, and that there are 1,000 to 1,500 other Soviet military [Page 592] personnel in Cuba. Cienfuegos is being modernized. The Soviets are furnishing Cuba modern military equipment in large quantities. President Royo knew how active Cuban forces were as Soviet surrogates in Africa. The USSR subsidized Cuba at a cost of millions of dollars a day. All this was taken very seriously in our country. Without giving any details, the Vice President could say that in President Carter’s speech the US would respond in an appropriate way. He hoped Panama would consider carefully what President Carter said, and let us know if it seemed to make good sense. We are rejecting radical schemes, but we would take specific steps designed to restrain the Soviets.

President Royo asked if we thought that if the Russians wanted SALT II they would remove their troops.

The Vice President said, confidentially, that we had no evidence they were prepared to remove the combat troops. The Russians would say they were there only for training purposes. They say the brigade is not a combat unit, but we have too much direct evidence to the contrary to believe that. This development has put a substantial strain on our relationships with the Russians. We do not want to link it with SALT, but we must act.

President Royo said all the Latin American armies would be happy if we acted, including the small Panamanian Army. There was a general concern, not about the Russians in Cuba but about the continued strengthening of the Cuban Army. It was not “correct” to have such a strong military force in this area.

The Vice President said he would report Royo’s views to President Carter. The Soviets were steadily building up Cuban strength. He recalled last year’s episode over the stationing in Cuba of nuclear-capable MIGs. Reverting to the brigade, he said we did not know how long they had been there, but we did know they maneuvered on their own as a combat unit. The Soviet naval presence had also been increased. If we did nothing to discourage it, this strength would continue to increase, and we could not say where this would lead. The President would, therefore, speak quite directly on Monday night.

President Royo said that in Havana he had found Fidel Castro quite worried about the situation. Fidel had wondered why the US had raised the subject at just the moment of the Non-Aligned Conference. He had pointed out that the Russians had been in Cuba for many years, working as friends. He was concerned at the possibility of a US blockade. But, Royo concluded, the Latin American armies believe the Cuban Army is more aggressive than defensive in its design. He then asked if the situation resembled that in 1962.

The Vice President pointed out that this was a different matter. No nuclear forces were involved in today’s problem. The combat troops in themselves constituted no threat. But they enabled Cuba to project [Page 593] its military power in Africa on Russia’s behalf. We had to stand up against all this.

President Royo then said that the US must be more active in Nicaragua or we would lose the country. The Cubans were there as experts, etc. They were influential. The US must step up its assistance, not only with food and equipment but with technical assistance for Nicaragua’s armed forces and non-lethal military supplies. We must get involved with the Nicaraguan military; this was very important.

The Vice President said that when the Nicaraguan Junta members and the Foreign Minister were in Washington, we told them we wanted to cooperate.9 A military relationship was hard for us. We have encouraged others, including the Andean Pact countries, to become engaged. The Vice President would report Royo’s views to President Carter. We would continue to work for moderation in Nicaragua. Did Royo think the moderates were gaining strength?

President Royo said he could not tell. Some of the Sandinistas are close friends of Cuba. Any kind of assistance will help stop radicalism. At the moment, the moderates are ahead. While far from conservative in doctrine, they do not want to socialize the Nicaraguan economy.

The Vice President said we understood the situation. We did not mind taking criticism for our ideas. We will show restraint in Nicaragua, but want to work in the OAS and with other countries to help it. We want to take actions which will strengthen our President’s hand—not the kind of thing we did in Chile by covert action.

President Royo remarked that sometimes Latin America leaders must speak as Leftists and then act as Rightists. The Vice President said this was not unknown in the US. At this point the meeting ended.

  1. Source: Carter Library, Papers of Walter F. Mondale, Box 34, Vice President’s Visit to Panama, 9/30/79–10/2/79: Bilateral Talks—Meeting with President Royo. Secret. Drafted by Popper and cleared by Pastor. Copies were sent to Clift, Vaky, Pastor, and Haar.
  2. The full text of Carter’s speech is printed in the Public Papers: Carter, 1978, Book II, pp. 1802–1806. For more on the U.S. response to the Soviet military unit in Cuba, see Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VI, Soviet Union, Documents 221224.
  3. Not further identified.
  4. For the text of Mondale’s October 1 remarks in Panama, see the Department of State Bulletin, November 1979, pp. 54–55.
  5. In telegram 7263 from Panama City, September 11, the Embassy reported that the Panamanians at the NAM were “notably courageous in some of their public utterances,” and Royo’s plenary statement was “a full endorsement of the treaties, coupled with public praise” of Carter. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790415–0446)
  6. Not found.
  7. See footnote 2, Document 245.
  8. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XII, Soviet Union, January 1969–October 1970, Documents 225 and 226.
  9. Message is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XV, Central America.