270. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • US-Panamanian Relations on the Canal; Panamanian Relations with the USSR and the Peoples Republic of China; and El Salvador (S)


  • President Jimmy Carter
  • Frank Moore, Special Assistant to the President for Congressional Relations
  • Robert Pastor, National Security Council Staff Member
  • Romulo Escobar Betancourt, Special Adviser to General Omar Torrijos
  • Gabriel Lewis, Former Panamanian Ambassador to the United States

Lewis began by saying that he was called by General Torrijos on Thursday, September 25, 1980, and asked to escort Escobar to New York. He did not learn of the mission until he was on the plane. They have just returned from New York where they met with Hwang Hwa, Foreign Minister of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). (S)

Escobar said that he wanted to thank the President for giving time to meet with them, and to express General Torrijos’ own pleasure with the results of the Canal Treaties. The Treaties have succeeded in releasing tensions, which could have been destructive, within Panama. General Torrijos’ strategy has always been to try to provide something for both the left and the right. The right is pleased because business has improved since the Canal Treaties. Now the General was thinking of establishing relations with the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China. The principal reason is to improve capabilities to resist terrorism in Central America and in order to try to quiet leftist groups in Panama. The General thinks that a step like this will show greater independence of Panama in the international sphere without making any basic changes in the structure in Panama. In short, such an act will both reflect and increase the tranquility and peace in the country. They have had a similar experience in establishing relations with Cuba; something that other countries in the area did not do. Panama has found that the establishment of relations with Cuba has helped them to stop internal disorder, and it allows them to handle revolutionary groups in their country much easier. (S)

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In this context, Lewis and Escobar met with Huang Hua in New York on Saturday for the purpose of studying the possibility of reestablishing relations with China. But General Torrijos wanted the President’s opinion on whether Panama should take this step at this time since the General is concerned about its possible impact on the election in the US, and he wanted the President to know that he supports the President in his re-election. The reestablishment of relations with the Soviet Union and with the PRC is currently set for October 11, which is the anniversary of the Torrijos regime. But Torrijos is worried because of the close association that now exists between the US and Panama, and especially between Torrijos and Carter, that such a step could possibly be used against the President in the campaign. Escobar repeated that they wanted the President’s evaluation first, and want him to know that if the President thinks it could be used against him in the electoral campaign, General Torrijos will not think twice about postponing it. (S)

Escobar said that a second reason that General Torrijos wanted him to come to Washington was to talk about El Salvador. Since the coup in El Salvador, the Panamanians have had much contact both with the Junta and the revolutionary groups. Perhaps Panama is the only country that has met with the leaders of both the Junta and the revolutionary groups. At the beginning, it was thought that the Junta would take some action which would bring real reforms to El Salvador. But the Junta did not take advantage of the initial truce after the coup on October 15, 1979, so the violence started again. (S)

Panama’s position has been to support the consolidation of a moderate government in El Salvador. We told the Junta they had to rapidly dissolve groups like the Treasury Police, the National Guard, and Orden, which have committed terrible repression. These groups worked with the approval of the government and some sectors of the military, but neither the Army nor the Junta dissolved these groups. What they did do was increase the killing. Panama next tried to consolidate the position of Colonel Majano, and tried to put him into contact with the revolutionary groups, who often met in Panama. First, we tried to help Majano take control of the Junta because we knew that the revolutionary groups would be able to play ball if Majano could take control of the Junta. On this point, the groups are divided. One of the revolutionary groups would like to have the Junta consolidated under Gutierrez, as this would signify a sharp shift to the right, and give the left an excuse to continue the war. Another group would like to see Majano’s influence strengthened so that they could begin communicating with him. (S)

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Escobar said that the Panamanians have had sessions with both the revolutionary groups and the Junta, and their conclusion is that El Salvador is living in complete anarchy today. The leaders of the revolutionary groups said they could not stop the war against the Junta. Colonel Majano has weakened himself, and Col Gutierrez has become much stronger with the help of the United States. Also, Orden is getting much stronger as is the Treasury Police and the National Guard, and all are taking advantage of the US political campaign and hoping that Ronald Reagan will be elected. If this happens, the repression will worsen dramatically. (S)

Escobar said that the Panamanians have tried to keep the Sandinistas out of El Salvador as much as possible, and they have definitely pulled out somewhat from Salvador. But the Sandinistas are afraid that El Salvador is moving toward fascism, and the Sandinistas are nervous because Guatemala is so close to the war there. Panama has tried to encourage the Sandinistas to understand that US strategy is not necessarily to surround their revolution. But the Panamanians feel that the reports that reach Washington are not accurate because the United States does not have access to the revolutionary groups, and therefore the United States is not in a position to analyze what they are thinking. One thing that Escobar is certain of is that the right feels that they have the support of the United States again, and if they intensify the repression, they believe they can destroy the revolutionary groups. And the revolutionary groups are happy that the right takes this attitude, because the ultra-leftists feel that in the end, they will destroy the right. At this time, however, both sides cannot destroy the other, but they are destroying Salvador. (S)

Escobar said that General Torrijos believes that the situation could very well spill over to other countries. He feels that it has not been possible to undertake the social reforms and to pursue the democratic path as the violence worsens. He thinks that as the situation in El Salvador intensifies, world opinion might put the blame on the United States, and that is against the image that President Carter has built for the US in the world. Torrijos considers that when the situation gets critical, there will be groups in the United States who will request military intervention by the United States. General Torrijos does not give any importance to this view, because he knows that that is not the President’s policy. (S)

President Carter interrupted to say that he had to go soon. He said that it is true that it is not our policy, but he would like to know what General Torrijos wants him to do. (S)

Escobar said that when intervention has to be taken, it should be by the United Nations, not by the United States or by the OAS, but by the Security Council of the United Nations. (S)

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President Carter asked whether Torrijos will take it to the OAS or to the United Nations to begin to prepare for that possibility. (S)

Escobar said that he wouldn’t. Torrijos just wanted the President to know all of the problems at this time. (S)

President Carter said that first the United States has no intention to intervene in El Salvador. Secondly, the United States would be pleased to see the UN or the OAS take action if necessary on this problem, but he asked who would take the initiative in the UN. Will Torrijos do that? (S)

Escobar said that he was sure that Torrijos would say that if it has to be taken, he would do it. (S)

President Carter asked if he had any idea when this would be necessary. (S)

Escobar said that there will be a crisis between Majano and Gutierrez in one month, perhaps after the election. (S)

President Carter asked if the Panamanians wanted us to be closer to Gutierrez. (S)

Escobar said no. They wanted the US to be closer and more supportive of Majano. (S)

Bob Pastor said that we are already supporting Majano, that is part of our policy. (S)

The President said that he understood that to be the case. He asked Escobar if the influence of Majano is declining. (S)

Escobar said that it was. (S)

President Carter asked whether Majano could re-establish his leadership. (S)

Escobar said that if Majano has the support of the moderate forces, he will. (S)

President Carter said that we have supported Majano, and we would like to help him to stay in the Junta. (S)

Escobar said that as far as he knows he will stay in the Junta for the time being. (S)

President Carter asked Bob Pastor whether we should send someone down to meet with General Torrijos, and Bob Pastor responded that we could do that. (S)

President Carter asked Frank Moore about the issue of Panama establishing relations with the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China. (S)

Frank Moore said that it would be very harmful to the President if Panama did this now, and that it would definitely affect the elections. (S)

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Ambassador Lewis said that he had the same feeling. He said that he thought that the situation came up because President Royo gave a very high profile to the visit of the Premier of Taiwan to Panama recently. Instead of a low profile, Royo bent over backward to give him a lot of publicity, and so Lewis thought that General Torrijos figured that this would be a good time to establish relations with the Peoples Republic of China. He thought that October 11, the Anniversary of the Revolution, would be such a time. (S)

President Carter said that he hasn’t thought this issue through, but if Frank believes that this would be very damaging, then he would encourage that Panama reconsider it at this time. (S)

Frank Moore said that this still is very much an issue in the south and in the southwest, and even in Pennsylvania where he spoke, it remained a political issue, and an action like that would definitely inflame public opinion. (S)

Ambassador Lewis said that such a step would help with the left in Panama. (S)

President Carter said that if Torrijos could wait one more month, that would be very beneficial. (S)

Frank Moore said that even the fact that Panama was considering it would not be helpful. (S)

Escobar said that was the reason he came to Washington for consultations. Because Torrijos feels it is important for him to do this to maintain peace in Panama. (S)

President Carter said that if Reagan is elected, then it will be even more difficult for Torrijos to maintain peace in Panama. (S)

President Carter said that first, he appreciates Escobar and Ambassador Lewis, his good friend, coming to see him. He said that if consideration of establishing relations could be delayed until after the election, that would be better. Secondly, he said that he does not intend to intervene in El Salvador and he very much appreciates Escobar’s assessment of the situation there. He said that we also want to support in Salvador a moderate government committed to important changes there. We do not want to intervene. We will continue to support Majano and try to keep the Junta in a moderate direction. If there is a need in the UN for a peace-keeping force, we will work with Panama to that end. He then asked Escobar to stay and to talk with Bob Pastor about El Salvador tonight, and if necessary tomorrow.2 And he said in addition he would be glad to send someone to speak directly with General Torrijos on his behalf if that is necessary. (S)

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On the way out, Gabriel Lewis said that although Pamananians cannot vote in the Presidential election, they are all praying for the President’s re-election. (S)

The President thanked him. (U)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Box 42, Pastor, Country, Panama, 3–12/80. Secret. The meeting took place in the Cabinet Room at the White House.
  2. See Document 272.