The 1977 Treaties

Panama Table of Contents

On September 7, 1977, Carter and Torrijos met in Washington to sign the treaties in a ceremony that also was attended by representatives of twenty-six other nations of the Western Hemisphere. The Panama Canal Treaty, the major document signed on September 7, abrogated the 1903 treaty and all other previous bilateral agreements concerning the canal. The treaty was to enter into force six months after the exchange of instruments of ratification and to expire at noon on December 31, 1999. The Panama Canal Company and the Canal Zone government would cease to operate and Panama would assume complete legal jurisdiction over the former Canal Zone immediately, although the United States would retain jurisdiction over its citizens during a thirty-month transition period. Panama would grant the United States rights to operate, maintain, and manage the canal through a new United States government agency, the Panama Canal Commission. The commission would be supervised by a board of five members from the United States and four from Panama; the ratio was fixed for the duration of the treaty. The commission would have a United States administrator and Panamanian deputy administrator until January 1, 1990, when the nationalities of these two positions would be reversed. Panamanian nationals would constitute a growing number of commission employees in preparation for their assumption of full responsibility in 2000. Another binational body, the Panama Canal Consultative Committee, was created to advise the respective governments on policy matters affecting the canal's operation.

Article IV of the treaty related to the protection and defense of the canal and mandated both nations to participate in that effort, though the United States was to hold the primary responsibility during the life of the treaty. The Combined Board, composed of an equal number of senior military representatives from each country, was established and its members charged with consulting their respective governments on matters relating to protection and defense of the canal. Guidelines for employment within the Panama Canal Commission were set forth in Article X, which stipulated that the United States would establish a training program to ensure that an increasing number of Panamanian nationals acquired the skills needed to operate and maintain the canal. By 1982 the number of United States employees of the commission was to be at least 20 percent lower than the number working for the Panama Canal Company in 1977. Both nations pledged to assist their own nationals who lost jobs because of the new arrangements in finding employment. The right to collective bargaining and affiliation with international labor organizations by commission employees was guaranteed.

Under the provisions of Article XII, the United States and Panama agreed to study jointly the feasibility of a sea-level canal and, if deemed necessary, to negotiate terms for its construction. Payments to Panama from the commission ("a just and equitable return on the national resources which it has dedicated to the . . . canal") were set forth in Article XIII. These included a fixed annuity of US$10 million, an annual contingency payment of up to US$10 million to be paid out of any commission profits, and US$0.30 per Panama Canal net ton of cargo that passed through the canal, paid out of canal tolls. The latter figure was to be periodically adjusted for inflation and was expected to net Panama between US$40 and US$70 million annually during the life of the treaty. In addition, Article III stipulated that Panama would receive a further US$10 million annually for services (police, fire protection, street cleaning, traffic management, and garbage collection) it would provide in the canal operating areas.

The second treaty, the Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal, or simply the Neutrality Treaty, was a much shorter document. Because it had no fixed termination date, this treaty was the major source of controversy. Under its provisions, the United States and Panama agreed to guarantee the canal's neutrality "in order that both in time of peace and in time of war it shall remain secure and open to peaceful transit by the vessels of all nations on terms of entire equality." In times of war, however, United States and Panamanian warships were entitled to "expeditious" transit of the canal under the provisions of Article VI. A protocol was attached to the Neutrality Treaty, and all nations of the world were invited to subscribe to its provisions.

At the same ceremony in Washington, representatives of the United States and Panama signed a series of fourteen executive agreements associated with the treaties. These included two Agreements in Implementation of Articles III and IV of the Panama Canal Treaty that detailed provisions concerning operation, management, protection, and defense, outlined in the main treaty. Most importantly, these two agreements defined the areas to be held by the United States until 2000 to operate and defend the canal. These areas were distinguished from military areas to be used jointly by the United States and Panama until that time, military areas to be held initially by the United States but turned over to Panama before 2000, and areas that were turned over to Panama on October 1, 1979.

One foreign observer calculated that 64 percent of the former Canal Zone, or 106,700 hectares, came under Panamanian control in 1979; another 18 percent, or 29,460 hectares, would constitute the "canal operating area" and remain under control of the Panama Canal Commission until 2000; and the remaining 18 percent would constitute the various military installations controlled by the United States until 2000. The agreements also established the Coordinating Committee, consisting of one representative of each country, to coordinate the implementation of the agreement with respect to Article III of the Panama Canal Treaty, and an analogous Joint Committee to perform the defense-related functions called for in the agreement with respect to Article IV of the treaty.

Ancillary agreements signed on September 7 allowed the United States to conduct certain activities in Panama until 2000, including the training of Latin American military personnel at four schools located within the former Canal Zone; provided for cooperation to protect wildlife within the area; and outlined future United States economic and military assistance. This latter agreement, subject to the availability of congressionally approved funds, provided for United States loan guarantees, up to US$75 million over a 5-year period, for housing; a US$20-million loan guarantee by the United States Overseas Private Investment Corporation for financing projects in the Panamanian private sector; loans, loan guarantees, and insurance, up to a limit of US$200 million between 1977 and 1982, provided by the United States Export-Import Bank for financing Panamanian purchases of United States exports; and up to US$50 million in foreign military sales credits over a 10-year period.

The speeches of Carter and Torrijos at the signing ceremony revealed the differing attitudes toward the new accords by the two leaders. Carter declared his unqualified support of the new treaties. The statement by Torrijos was more ambiguous, however. While he stated that the signing of the new treaties "attests to the end of many struggles by several generations of Panamanian patriots," he noted Panamanian criticism of several aspects of the new accords, particularly of the Neutrality Treaty: Mr. President, I want you to know that this treaty, which I shall sign and which repeals a treaty not signed by any Panamanian, does not enjoy the approval of all our people, because the twenty-three years agreed upon as a transition period are 8,395 days, because during this time there will still be military bases which make my country a strategic reprisal target, and because we are agreeing to a treaty of neutrality which places us under the protective umbrella of the Pentagon. This pact could, if it is not administered judiciously by future generations, become an instrument of permanent intervention.

Torrijos was so concerned with the ambiguity of the Neutrality Treaty, because of Panamanian sensitivity to the question of United States military intervention, that, at his urging, he and President Carter signed the Statement of Understanding on October 14, 1977, to clarify the meaning of the permanent United States rights. This statement, most of which was subsequently included as an amendment to the Neutrality Treaty and incorporated into its instrument of ratification, included a declaration that the United States "right to act against any aggression or threat directed against the Canal . . . does not mean, nor shall it be interpreted as the right of intervention of the United States in the internal affairs of Panama." Despite this clarification, the plebiscite that took place the next week and served as the legal means of ratification in Panama, saw only two-thirds of Panamanians registering their approval of the new treaties, a number considerably smaller than that hoped for by the government.

Ratification in the United States necessitated the approval of two-thirds of the Senate. The debates, the longest in Senate history, began on February 7, 1978. The Neutrality Treaty was approved on March 16, and the main treaty on April 18, when the debate finally ended. To win the necessary sixty-seven Senate votes, Carter agreed to the inclusion of a number of amendments, conditions, reservations, and understandings that were passed during the Senate debates and subsequently included in the instruments of ratification signed by Carter and Torrijos in June.

Notable among the Senate modifications of the Neutrality Treaty were two amendments incorporating the October 1977 Statement of Understanding, and interpreting the "expeditious" transit of United States and Panamanian warships in times of war as being preferential. Another modification, commonly known as the DeConcini Condition, stated that "if the Canal is closed, or its operations are interfered with [the United States and Panama shall each] have the right to take such steps as each deems necessary, ... including the use of military force in the Republic of Panama, to reopen the Canal or restore the operations of the Canal." Modifications of the Panama Canal Treaty included a reservation requiring statutory authorization for payments to Panama set forth in Article XIII and another stating that any action taken by the United States to secure accessibility to the Canal "shall not have as its purpose or be interpreted as a right of intervention in the internal affairs of the Republic of Panama or interference with its political independence or sovereign integrity." Reservations attached to both treaties made the United States provision of economic and military assistance, as detailed in the ancillary agreements attached to the treaties, nonobligatory.

The inclusion of these modifications, which were never ratified in Panama, was received there by a storm of protest. Torrijos expressed his concern in 2 letters, the first to Carter and another sent to 115 heads of state through their representatives at the UN. A series of student protests took place in front of the United States embassy. The DeConcini Condition was the major object of protest. Although the reservation to the Panama Canal Treaty was designed to mollify Panamanian fears that the DeConcini Condition marked a return to the United States gunboat diplomacy of the early twentieth century, this provision would expire in 2000, whereas the DeConcini Condition, because it was attached to the Neutrality Treaty, would remain in force permanently.

Despite his continuing concern with the ambiguity of the treaties with respect to the United States role in defense of the canal after 2000, the close Senate vote made Torrijos aware that he could not secure any further modification at that time. On June 16, 1978, he and Carter signed the instruments of ratification of each treaty in a ceremony in Panama City. Nevertheless, Torrijos added the following statement to both Panamanian instruments: "The Republic of Panama will reject, in unity and with decisiveness and firmness, any attempt by any country to intervene in its internal or external affairs." The instruments of ratification became effective on June 1, 1979, and the treaties entered into force on October 1, 1979.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress