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


  • A Strategy for the Torrijos Meeting—February 23, 1980 (S)

I start with the following assumptions: Torrijos is interested in playing an important role in the future of Central America, and he is interested in trying to steer El Salvador towards a reformist, socially more responsive regime. Torrijos also has enormous respect for Jimmy Carter, and would not mind being used as Carter’s chosen instrument in Central America. Torrijos is also fascinated by Castro, although he harbors certain lingering concerns that he was used by Castro in Nicaragua. (S)

I would suggest we begin the discussion with a nostalgic walk back to Nicaragua and that we try to get him to see that Castro used him2 as the vehicle to legitimize Castro’s involvement with the Sandinistas. It is clear that Torrijos now resents the way he has been squeezed out of Nicaragua by Cuba, and we need to play on that, and hope he will draw our lessons from the Nicaragua experience. (S)

Our objectives in the meeting should be the following:

(1) To get Torrijos to identify the leftist groups and help us to sort through the leftist leaders, placing leaders in the following categories: (1) hardline intransigents; (2) hardcore Communists (who may be quite pragmatic, like Borge in Nicaragua), (3) pragmatic Marxists (non-Party; more academic), and (4) reasonable moderate-leftists. We are extremely weak in this area, and I’m sure Torrijos could help. He could also help us to identify the best source of foreign influence over each of the groups. (S)

(2) To get Torrijos to help us to divide and neutralize the left. The first step here is to begin a dialogue with each group, but one at a time or perhaps several if they fall into the same categories. Our task is twofold: (1) to try to pull the pragmatic Marxists and the reasonable, moderate left back into a position where they can support the reform process [Page 615] undertaken by the junta, and (2) to try to get the hardliners to suspend their fighting for the moment. (S)

(3) To try to get Torrijos to keep talking with the Cubans but to stop working with them. This means Torrijos has to stop giving passports to revolutionaries travelling between Salvador and Cuba and not let the Cubans send any arms or aid through Panama.3 (S)

(4) To try to get Torrijos to keep talking with the Nicaraguans but try to restrain them. My guess is that Torrijos has limited leverage over them; ironically, perhaps his greatest influence is in warning the Nicaraguans that he will tell the Americans if he finds out they are helping the Salvadorean guerrillas, and frankly, the Nicaraguans don’t want to lose U.S. aid.

(5) To mobilize Torrijos to do three tasks: (1) try to restrain the extreme left; (2) try to persuade the moderate left to support the junta; and (3) to use whatever influence he has in the Army to keep them from starting a coup. (S)

(6) To try to get Torrijos to deprive the extreme left of its most effective instrument, seizing embassies and buildings. Torrijos is quite proud of his success in dislodging the leftists from the Panamanian Embassy in Salvador by seizing leftists in Panama. We should encourage him to repeat this or seek other ways to get the extremists to stop blackmailing the Junta. (S)

Torrijos probably shares the objectives of the Archbishop and the moderate left: to try to split the moderate military off to support the “popular forces.” He may see his first step as trying to shift U.S. support from the Junta to the “popular forces.” He probably thinks such an action would encourage the moderate military to shift their allegiances and for the oligarchy to cut and run for Miami. (S)

We will need to persuade Torrijos that the Junta is a winner, and we intend to throw our full support behind it. Our objective is to help this Junta carry out its reforms. We are prepared to discuss ways the U.S. and Panama can do it, and how the government might have to modify its policies or itself to attract more support, but we are not prepared to negotiate a new Junta.4 (S)

Torrijos is desperately afraid that the right will launch a coup, and the country will be plummeted into a ghastly civil war. In reiterating our desire for peaceful reforms, we should suggest that we would be prepared to do everything we can to restrain the right from a coup if he will restrain the left from violent acts.

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A deal. And we will help each other. Our objective, in short, is to get Torrijos to help the Junta gain time to implement real reforms. (S)


That you approve this general approach.5 (U)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 60, Panama: 2–4/80. Secret. Sent for action. Denend wrote: “Urgent. Bob departs tomorrow morning Saturday 2/23.” An unknown hand wrote: “See DA note p. 3.”
  2. Brzezinski underlined “him to see that Castro used him,” highlighted this sentence, and wrote in the left margin: “But be careful not to put him off.”
  3. Brzezinski highlighted this paragraph and wrote in the right margin: “v. important.
  4. Brzezinski highlighted this paragraph and wrote in the left margin: “Probably need to be more specific.”
  5. Brzezinski checked the approve option. Aaron wrote beneath the recommendation: “ZB—Looks ok but not very realistic. What is in it for Torrijos? Let’s not permit this to deflect us from action in El Salvador. Also shouldn’t the new ambassador who will have to deal with these groups be plugged into the loop. You can be sure the groups will know Torrijos met with Pastor.” In telegram 1719 from Panama City, February 24, the Embassy reported on the February 23 meeting, stating that Bowdler, Pastor, Moss, and Torrijos and his aides agreed on “the need to strengthen the junta in El Salvador and to promote a dialogue which would include all groups from the extreme left to the armed forces and the private sector.” Bowdler and Pastor proposed they accompany Torrijos’s aide Salamin to El Salvador to discuss the plan with the junta and other groups. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Box 42, Pastor, Country, Panama, 3-12/80)