35. Briefing Memorandum From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Saunders) to Secretary of State Vance1

Panamanian and Latin American Views of the US Negotiating Stance

A while back, you suggested that periodically we take a look at how the current U.S. negotiating stance is viewed in Panama and elsewhere in Latin America. In sending you this analysis, I hasten to point out the obvious—that this memorandum reflects that range of views available from intelligence sources, Foreign Service reporting, and the press. Our negotiators, of course, can add another dimension.

Torrijos’ Perceptions. Judging from clandestine reporting and other sources, we believe that Torrijos’s present perceptions of the situation are that:

U.S. proposals always contain some degree of “give” and, because the new administration wants a treaty quickly, it will be willing to make concessions if pushed.

—Washington is under domestic and international pressure to be more forthcoming; if it does not give in to Panama’s “reasonable” demands, the justice of the Panamanians’ position will allow them “to go to the world.”

—Panama has already made real concessions; so far the U.S. has failed to match these, and nothing more can be expected from the Panamanian side until it does.

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—The remaining matters in the dispute are “political” rather than technical, and final US decisions on these issues must be obtained directly from the White House.

It also seems clear that the Panamanians have little sympathy for Washington’s domestic constraints.

—Preoccupied with their own serious internal pressures, they regard these as purely a U.S. concern (a belief expressed publicly in January by the Panamanian Chargé here).2

—They also appear either unable or unwilling to accept the reality of the U.S. constraints. When U.S. negotiators in March refused, on the grounds of Congressional opposition, to yield to Panamanian demands on “secondary matters” such as the possession of Ancon hill or the ports and railroads in the Canal Zone, the Panamanians could not believe that “these matters are really so important that Congress will get that upset.”3

The sense of urgency to achieve a treaty that Torrijos exhibited late last year has apparently ebbed,4 possibly because of the calm situation in Panama since the September food price riots.

—He allegedly indicated to guests at his birthday party in February that he did not expect or really need a new treaty this year.5

—Panamanian officials and media representatives are constantly deprecating indications that a new treaty is imminent; sensitivity to statements by U.S. officials on the negotiations has faded greatly; and the media no longer trumpet descriptions of 1977 as the “year of decision” (though Torrijos did make such a reference during his April visit to Libya6 and told Newsweek recently he still expects a treaty this year).7

Torrijos’s attitude has probably been reinforced by apparent belief that his present strategy has left the next decisions up to the U.S.,8 and his feeling that in the past protracted negotiations have led to a soften[Page 136]ing of the U.S. position. Still, given Torrijos’s erratic character, this confidence could vanish quickly.

The Latin Viewpoint. While popular and official support for Panama in Latin America has lost some of its fervor over the years, it remains strong, and Washington would still bear the brunt of public blame if the talks broke down.9 The U.S. could probably reduce the intensity of adverse reaction if it were able to show that its positions had been reasonable and fair. But, if a collapse were accompanied or followed by bloodshed, U.S. arguments would have little weight in the minds of the Latins.

Nonetheless, the drop in Latin American support is noteworthy because Latin backing plays a key role in Torrijos’ thinking10 and may affect the stands he takes. A meeting with Colombian President Lopez Michelsen (who counseled moderation) during the February negotiations,11 for example, may have contributed to the Panamanians’ somewhat more conciliatory attitude toward the end of the round.12

The main reason for the decline in backing is fear of the practical effects13 of Panamanian control of the Canal now that such a takeover seems increasingly likely. More than half of the hemispheric states did not sign a letter presented in January to President-elect Carter14 pushing for a quick settlement of the dispute, and at least some of these were motivated by this fear.

—The more conservative governments15 (whose numbers have increased in the past few years) distrust Torrijos’s16 judgment and fear Cuban penetration of the isthmus. Most recently, Embassy Managua has reported that President Somoza—although he did sign the January letter—shares this view of Torrijos’s reliability;17 and Mexican support for Panama has reportedly cooled now that Lopez Portillo has replaced Echeverria.

—The South American west coast and landlocked countries, which are most dependent on the Canal, fear that Panama will be unable to run it efficiently or will charge exorbitant tolls. The Paraguayans are [Page 137] the latest to express these concerns, following earlier similar indications from Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile.

In a few instances, bilateral problems have weakened support for Panama. Both the Argentines and the Chileans were irritated by Torrijos’s backing for UN resolutions on human rights which affect them unfavorably18 (the Chileans’ anger at recent U.S. policies have caused them to swerve back to support of Panama). The Guatemalans are displeased with Panama’s support of Belize and have consequently declared themselves neutral on the Canal question.

Panama’s closest neighbors, Venezuela, Colombia, and Costa Rica, which Torrijos consults frequently, have balanced their general backing of him with more tempered positions on his extreme demands. All three have indicated some sympathy with the U.S. stand on neutrality and defense, though cautioning that Torrijos cannot appear to agree in advance to US post-treaty intervention.

—Foreign Minister Facio of Costa Rica told Assistant Secretary Todman, February 21, that he understood our unwillingness to accept a UN guarantee for the Canal’s neutrality (“no one could predict what the UN machinery would look like in 20 years”) and that a bilateral arrangement was best under the circumstances.19 An editorial in a pro-government newspaper a few days earlier made the same point, though Deputy Foreign Minister Jimenez more recently stressed publicly the importance of the principle of non-intervention to Panama’s sovereignty over the Canal.

—In Colombia, President Lopez, according to a clandestine source, declared in February that the “U.S. should not give any weight to what he says publicly about Panama” and he told Ambassadors Bunker and Linowitz during their March visit to Caracas and Bogota (the first such visit by US negotiators since talks were resumed in 1973) that a joint U.S.-Panamanian guarantee on neutrality “appears appropriate and desirable.”20

—Venezuela’s President Perez reportedly said in early February that he believed Torrijos’s inflexible position on the Canal neutrality was “absurd.” (On the other hand, Torrijos was elated by Perez’s report to him on the Venezuelan’s talks in March with Bunker and Linowitz.)

There is thus some support in Latin America for the U.S. positions in the negotiations.21 But the fluctuating nature of such backing and the tendency of most hemispheric states publicly to support Panama regardless of their private views, makes it perilous to give this sympathy too much weight in developing a US negotiating strategy.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Box 38, Brzezinski Office File Country Chron, Panama, 1–5/77. Secret; Noforn; Nocontract; Orcon; Exdis. Drafted by Harvey D Lampert (INR/RAR) on April 18. Packman initialed for Saunders. Tarnoff forwarded the document to Brzezinski under an April 27 covering memorandum. (Ibid.)
  2. Not found.
  3. A quote from the afternoon session of the March 13 meeting between the U.S. and Panamanian negotiators, during which Escobar asked: “Are these matters really so important that Congress will get that upset?” See Document 27.
  4. An unknown hand underlined: “The sense of urgency to achieve a treaty that Torrijos exhibited late last year has apparently ebbed.”
  5. An unknown hand underlined this sentence.
  6. In telegram 2630 from Panama City, April 13, the Embassy reported that Torrijos “reiterated the importance of 1977 as ‘a decisive year in which there must be an answer to our demands.’” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770129–0250)
  7. After his trip to Libya April 12–16, Torrijos granted an interview to Newsweek during which he stated that, despite difficulties faced in reaching an agreement, “I think we will reach an agreement this year because my intuition says that Carter is the greatest defender of human rights.” (“Torrijos: ‘The U.S. has Lied,’” Newsweek, April 25, 1977, p. 41)
  8. An unknown hand underlined: “apparent belief that his present strategy has left the next decisions up to the U.S.
  9. An unknown hand underlined: “Washington would still bear the brunt of public blame if the talks broke down.”
  10. An unknown hand underlined: “Latin backing plays a key role in Torrijos’s thinking.”
  11. See Document 21.
  12. An unknown hand underlined this sentence.
  13. An unknown hand underlined “the decline in backing” and “fear of the practical effects.”
  14. See footnote 2, Document 9.
  15. An unknown hand underlined: “more conservative governments.”
  16. An unknown hand underlined: “distrust Torrijos’s.”
  17. See telegram 378 from Managua, January 25, in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770027–0688.
  18. Not further identified.
  19. See telegram 43626 to San Jose, February 26, in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770067–1206.
  20. See Document 31.
  21. An unknown hand underlined this sentence.