When Jimmy Carter sneaked away from the big Democratic gala at the Washington Hilton Thursday night it was at the personal request of Panama's President Ricardo de la Espriella. Still mucho grande with the Panamanians because of the Panama Canal treaties, Carter spent about 15 minutes upstairs with de la Espriella. "He's a very good friend of Panama," says a Panamanian embassy official. "It was simply a friendly conversation."

The next day at the National Press Club, de la Espriella, in office only two months, was asked how it was that president Aristedes Royo, ousted in a July 30 coup since described as "constitutional," left office when he evidently wasn't ill. "Well," replied de la Espriella, flashing a wry smile, "President Royo might not have been sick but he definitely wasn't feeling well that day."

Latest of the Central American heads of state to visit Washington this summer, de la Espriella sidestepped a question about whether Panama would join the new if controversial U.S.-backed Community of Democratic Countries (CDC), an amalgam of Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Guatemala that Royo found unpalatable. When de la Espriella, who may not at first have understood the question, replied "what democracies?" in Central America, a few NPC eyes turned to watch the reactions of assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs Thomas O. Enders and newly nominated U.S. Ambassador to Panama Everett Briggs. "Momentarily stunned," said one observer later.