In 1977, then President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty that returns the 900,000-acre Panama Canal Zone to the Panamanians on Dec. 31, 1999. Now, as that date approaches, the Panamanians are deciding what to do with the land.
The Interoceanic Region Authority (ARI), custodian of the zone, with the help of the International Executive Service Corps (IESC), is trying to find businesses to buy the land. They held a conference last week at the National Aquarium in Baltimore to discuss the issue. Their hopes are for decreased unemployment and increased tourism and trade for Panama.
What do you think Panama should do with the land?
In general terms, directly or indirectly, the land should be used for social and economic development -- directly by leasing or selling the land and facilities for productive purposes, or indirectly by selling the land and facilities to create a fund for social investment.
There is so much land and facilities that there are no unique single areas. There are port areas, tourism areas, areas for the future -- like forests that we would prevent the development of.
Former military bases are being transformed into export processing zones [industrial parks]. The housing part of the bases are being used for normal expansion of the cities.
I. Jay Warren
Real estate & industrial development consultant, IESC, Ruxton
The United States has been in Panama for 90 years; they'll be out in two more years. There are so many success stories in Baltimore and the surrounding counties -- like Holabird Business Center, a former military base -- these cases are similar to the situation in Panama.
Maritime-related interests should look there because of the Panama Canal. We hope to show the magic of the National Aquarium to the Panamanians because it is the only country in the world so close to two oceans; they could have a two-ocean aquarium.
We had UMBC speak at the conference so that the Panamanians could see a success story about a university tied to a research park. There could be a research park tied to the University of Panama.
There are 4,000 U.S. military personnel still there. They will be phased out almost completely, but they will probably maintain the drug program because Panama is a great point for surveillance.
The military bases could be retirement communities or industrial parks, and the thousands of military houses are ideal for moving in low-income families. The golf courses and marinas are ideal for tourism.
During the course of any year, there are probably 8,000 cruise ships that go through the canal that never stop. There is potential there for developing that kind of tourism. There is also eco-tourism like rain forests and birds. The Panamanians are very conscious of preserving their environment.
The improved political climate also makes it prime for investing institutions.
One of the aims as we look to 1999 is the development of the cities. We hope to create a multimodal, a combination of transportation and infrastructure.
We are modernizing our ports and railroads because we want to arrange for cargo to be dropped off at one side of the canal and transported down to the other end for large ships that cannot go through.
We have the Colon free trade zone, the largest trade zone on the Atlantic ocean. It is a possible distribution center; it does $11 billion each year in trade already. If manufacturing companies set up shop, they can use the free trade zone. It could really be a logistical center for the region.
There are only 2.8 million people in Panama. Seventy percent of our gross national product is services such as the canal bridge, an international banking center and ship registration. The government has made incentives into law to attract businesses to Panama.
Vice president for Latin America and Caribbean
We're trying to help ARI determine the highest investment uses that the land is able to hold by using retired experts like Jay Warren.
We are working with ARI to strengthen them as an institution so they are able to help with the commercialization.
The experts are trying to help ARI develop profiles that they can bring to Western investors to show the business opportunities. China and the Far East have shown the most interest in the land.
Right now Argentina, Brazil and Mexico get all the attention from the government and the press.
Central America seems off the map, but entrepreneurial businesses are interested. United States businesses think the area is too crowded. That's a tragedy.
Pub Date: 11/02/97