Torrijos-Carter Treaties

Torrijos-Carter Treaties

The Torrijos–Carter Treaties are two treaties signed by the United States and Panama in Washington, D.C., on September 7, 1977, which abrogated the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903. The treaties guaranteed that Panama would gain control of the Panama Canal after 1999, ending the control of the canal that the U.S. had exercised since 1903. The treaties are named after the two signatories, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the Commander of Panama's National Guard, General Omar Torrijos. Although Torrijos was not democratically elected as he had seized power in a coup in 1968, it is generally considered that he had widespread support in Panama to justify his signing of the treaties.

This first treaty is officially titled The Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal (Spanish: Tratado Concerniente a la Neutralidad Permanente y Funcionamiento del Canal de Panamá) and is commonly known as the "Neutrality Treaty". Under this treaty, the U.S. retained the permanent right to defend the canal from any threat that might interfere with its continued neutral service to ships of all nations. The second treaty is titled The Panama Canal Treaty (Tratado del Canal de Panamá), and provided that as from 12:00 on December 31, 1999, Panama would assume full control of canal operations and become primarily responsible for its defense.


Panamanian efforts to renegotiate the original Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty had been ongoing almost since it was first signed in November 1903, a few weeks after Panama obtained its independence from Colombia. However, activity to renegotiate or abrogate the treaty increased considerably after the Suez Crisis, and events in 1964 precipitated a complete breakdown in relations between the U.S. and Panama. On January 9 of that year, Panamanian students entered the canal zone to fly the Panamanian flag next to the American flag, as per a 1963 agreement to defuse tension between the two countries. Panamanians watching the event began rioting after the students raising the Panamanian flag were jeered and harassed by American school officials, students, and their parents. During the scuffle, somehow the Panamanian flag was torn. Widespread rioting ensued, during which over 20 Panamanians were killed and about 500 were injured. Most of the casualties were caused by fire from U.S. troops, who had been called in to protect Canal Zone property, including private residences of Canal Zone employees. January 9 is a National Holiday in Panama, known as Martyrs' Day.

The next day, January 10, Panama broke off diplomatic relations with the United States and on January 19, President of Panama Roberto Chiari declared that Panama would not re-establish diplomatic ties with the United States until the U.S. agreed to begin negotiations on a new treaty. The first steps in that direction were taken shortly thereafter on April 3, 1964 when both countries agreed to an immediate resumption of diplomatic relations and the United States agreed to adopt procedures for the "elimination of the causes of conflict between the two countries". A few weeks later, Robert B. Anderson, President Lyndon Johnson's special representative flew to Panama to pave the way for future talks. Negotiations over the next years resulted in a treaty in 1967, but it failed to be ratified in Panama.

Negotiations were resumed on February 15, 1977 and were completed by August 10 of that year. On the American side the negotiators were Ellsworth Bunker and Sol Linowitz; the Panamanian side of the negotiations were headed by Rómulo Escobar Betancourt. Senator Dennis DeConcini sponsored a critical amendment to the Panama Canal Treaty that allowed the Senate to come to a consensus on giving control of the Canal to Panama. A few days before final agreement on the treaties was reached, President Jimmy Carter had sent a telegram to all members of Congress informing them of the status of the negotiations and asking them to withhold judgment on the treaty until they had an opportunity to carefully study it. Senator Strom Thurmond responded to Mr. Carter's appeal by stating in a speech later that day, "The canal is ours, we bought and we paid for it and we should keep it".


Statement on the Panama Canal Treaty Signing
File:Statement on the Panama Canal Treaty Signing (September 7, 1977) Jimmy Carter.ogv
Jimmy Carter's speech upon signing the Panama Canal treaty, 7 September 1977.

Statement on the Panama Canal Treaty Signing
File:Carter Panama Canal speech.ogg
audio only version

Problems playing these files? See media help.

Both treaties were subsequently ratified in Panama by a two-thirds vote in a referendum held on October 23, 1977. To allow for popular discussion of the treaties and in response to claims made by opponents of the treaty in the U.S. that Panama was incapable of democratically ratifying them, restrictions on the press and on political parties were lifted several weeks prior to the vote. On the day of the vote, ninety-six percent of Panama's eligible voters went to the polls, the highest voter turnout in Panama up to that time. The neutrality treaty was of major concern among voters, particularly on the political left, and was one reason why the treaties failed to obtain even greater popular support.

The United States Senate advised and consented to ratification of the first treaty on March 16, 1978 and to the second treaty on April 18 by identical 68 to 32 margins. On both votes, 52 Democrats and 16 Republicans voted in favor of advising and consenting to ratification, while 10 Democrats and 22 Republicans voted against.

The treaties were the source of controversy in the United States, particularly among conservatives such as Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms who regarded them as the surrender of a strategic American asset to what they characterized as a hostile government. In the year preceding the final transfer of canal assets there was an effort in the United States Congress, notably House Joint Resolution 77 introduced by Helen Chenoweth-Hage, to declare the Carter-Torrijos treaties null and void. Despite the fact that the pullout of the United States is now complete, there are still organizations (primarily conservative ones such as the John Birch Society) that urge the United States to declare the treaty null and void, saying that the Spanish text is different from the English text. Support of HJR 77 was part of the 2000 platform of the Texas Republican Party but no longer appeared in the 2004 platform.[1][2]

Possible sabotage

According to The New York Times, the day after the U.S. Senate advised and consented to ratification of the treaty, Torrijos declared that his regime had contingency plans to sabotage the Canal if ratification had failed. In August 1990, the Chicago Tribune reported that documents captured by the U.S. military revealed that Torrijos had asked Manuel Noriega to prepare such plans. Noriega's handwritten notes on the plan were found during the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama.

These reports were confirmed in Noriega's book, America's Prisoner published in 1997. The contingency plan was code-named "Huele a Quemado" ("It smells like something's burning"). In Noriega's account, Panamanian military specialists had infiltrated the U.S. security cordon and lived for two months, posing as peasants and fishermen. They were prepared to assault the Canal and the Panama-Colón railway with explosives and rocket launchers upon Torrijos' signal, to be broadcast as a coded message on the program of a popular radio personality.

In the book, Noriega also repeats the charge made by critics of U.S. foreign policy that the invasion of Panama under Operation Just Cause was launched primarily to circumvent the treaty [citation needed].


The treaty laid out a timetable for the transfer of the canal, leading to a complete handover of all lands and buildings in the canal area to Panama. The most immediate consequence of this treaty was that the Canal Zone, as an entity, ceased to exist on October 1, 1979. The final phase of the treaty was completed on December 31, 1999. On this date, the United States relinquished control of the Panama Canal and all areas in what had been the Panama Canal Zone.

As a result of the treaties, by the year 2000 nearly 370,000 acres (580 sq mi; 1,500 km2), including some 7,000 buildings, such as military facilities, warehouses, schools, and private residences, were transferred to Panama. In 1993, the Panamanian government created a temporary agency (Autoridad de la Región Interoceánica or "Interoceanic Region Authority", commonly referred to as ARI) to administer and maintain the reverted properties.


  • J. Michael Hogan; The Panama Canal in American Politics: Domestic Advocacy and the Evolution of Policy Southern Illinois University Press, 1986
  • Thomas Hollihan, "The Public Controversy Over the Panama Canal Treaties: An Analysis of American Foreign Policy Rhetoric," Western Journal of Speech Communication, Fall 1986, p. 371+
  • Mellander, Gustavo A.; Nelly Maldonado Mellander (1999). Charles Edward Magoon: The Panama Years. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial Plaza Mayor. ISBN 1-56328-155-4. OCLC 42970390.
  • Mellander, Gustavo A. (1971). The United States in Panamanian Politics: The Intriguing Formative Years. Danville, Ill.: Interstate Publishers. OCLC 138568.
  • George D. Moffett III, The Limits of Victory: The Ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties Cornell University Press, 1985.
  • M. Noriega and P. Eisner. America's Prisoner — The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega, Random House, 1997.
  • David Skidmore, "Foreign Policy Interest Groups and Presidential Power: Jimmy Carter and the Battle over Ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties," in Herbert D. Rosenbaum and Alexej Ugrinsky, eds. Jimmy Carter: Foreign Policy and Post-Presidential Years Greenwood Press. 1994. pp 297–328
  • Craig Allen Smith, "Leadership, Orientation and Rhetorical Vision: Jimmy Carter, the 'New Right,' and the Panama Canal," Presidential Studies Quarterly, Spring 1986, p. 323+
  • The New York Times, April 4, 1964. U. S. and Panama Sign Agreement to Restore Ties, Tad Szulc.
  • The New York Times, April 20, 1964. Andersen Goes to Panama as President's Special Envoy.
  • The New York Times, February 8, 1974. U.S. Agrees to Yield Sovereignty of Canal to Panama, David Binder.
  • The New York Times, August 9, 1977, Canal Negotiators Said to Seek Accord by Tomorrow, Graham Hovey.
  • The New York Times, August 11, 1977, U. S. and Panama Reach Accord to Transfer Canal by year 2000, Graham Hovey.
  • The New York Times, April 20, 1978, U. S. Was Prepared to Defend the Canal.

External links

  • Jimmy Carter Library
  • House Resolution 77
  • ARI homepage