31. Briefing Report Prepared in the Department of State1


Last week we briefed Presidents Perez of Venezuela and Lopez Michelsen of Colombia concerning the Panama Canal negotiations.2

Our purpose was threefold:

—to explain the Administration’s policy and approach;

—to provide a United States perspective on the negotiations to two Presidents who had previously been exposed almost exclusively to Panama’s view; and

—to review the issues to the degree that each President desired.

We made several general points:

—a new Canal treaty is a foreign policy priority of the Carter Administration;

—the United States is prepared to negotiate reasonable terms, but not to sacrifice its continuing interest in the Canal’s secure and efficient operation;

—Panama must decide whether it prefers a ratifiable treaty or a continuing Canal problem;

—if Panama were to choose to hold to its unrealistic demands, the United States would not be ashamed for the world to know of its current position.

We judge as a success this first effort to take our case directly to Latin American heads of state. The Presidents:

—displayed considerable knowledge about the details of the negotiations (presumably learned from their regular meetings with Torrijos);3

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—spoke favorably about the “reasonableness” of our position, but suggested that the United States would be blamed for any treaty breakdown;

—commented that our Canal posture evidences the good intentions of this Administration with respect to the hemisphere as a whole;

—expressed understanding of the need to provide for our continuing security interest in the Canal’s neutrality after the new treaty’s expiration but cautioned that Torrijos cannot appear to agree in advance to United States post-treaty intervention;

—offered to define informally a possible accommodation of United States and Panamanian needs (Perez proposed a joint informal initiative by Venezuela, Colombia and Costa Rica, while Lopez spoke of a separate Colombian effort).

We will visit Costa Rica and Mexico on a similar trip in the near future.4

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Official and Personal Files of Ambassador at Large Ellsworth Bunker, Lot 78D300, Box 8, Chron Jan–June 1977. Confidential. Forwarded to Christopher on March 31 under a covering memorandum from Bunker and Linowitz. Christopher chose not to forward to Carter because the information was already summarized in an evening note to him. (Ibid.)
  2. Bunker and Linowitz briefed Perez on March 24 in Caracas and Lopez Michelsen on March 25 in Bogota. The memoranda of conversation for these two meetings are in the National Archives, RG 59, Official and Personal Files of Ambassador at Large Ellsworth Bunker, Lot 78D300, Box 2, Briefing of Colombian and Venezuelan Presidents, March 23–26, 1977.
  3. In telegram 69426 to Caracas, March 29, the Department transmitted a more detailed summary of the meeting with Lopez Michelsen, who expressed that he thought it unfortunate that such an important matter as the Panama Canal was being handled as a bilateral issue between Panama and the United States, rather than “with other, more advanced countries.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770108–0075)
  4. Not found.