As heads of state gather in Panama for Dec. 14 ceremonies in advance of the transfer of the Panama Canal on the Dec. 31, the small Caribbean nation of 2.8 million prepares to step out of Washington's shadow. Since the U.S.S. Nashville guaranteed Panama's independence from Colombia in 1903, the U.S. has maintained a military garrison in Panama and kept administrative control of the canal it built across the isthmus.
For decades, Panamanian nationalists rallied to the cry of "one flag, one territory," calling the 10-mile (16 km)-wide U.S.-controlled Canal Zone a "stake through the nation's heart." But when that stake finally comes out at noon on Dec. 31 and the 50-mile (82 km) waterway passes to Panama's control, it will wake up to the challenge of full nationhood.
Panama's service-led economy is tipped for growth of 3.5 to 4 percent in 1999, but the key to future prosperity depends on how the country responds to the challenge of going solo.
"The biggest effect the U.S. withdrawal will have on the economy will be the international perception of what's going to happen now that Uncle Sam's not here to protect Panama," said Chamber of Commerce President Jose Manuel Paredes. Panama's standing army was abolished after the 1989 U.S. invasion that ousted military strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega, leaving security in the hands of an 18,000-strong police force. Short on equipment and training, the force has been charged with maintaining sovereignty against increasing incursions by Colombian armed groups in the wild Darien Gap frontier region.
As the U.S. withdrawal reaches completion -- leaving just the quasi-governmental Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute from a presence that once included 65,000 U.S. troops -- security has achieved a higher profile.
"In a scale of concern, it is a minor issue for me. But it's an issue that just didn't exist a year ago," a prominent U.S. businessman with service-sector investments in Panama said, asking to remain anonymous.
As the canal passes to Panamanian stewardship at year's end after 85 years under U.S. government control, the shipping community sees the new administrators in a favorable light.
"We are confident that Panama will continue to operate the canal in an efficient manner. After all, it needs the canal more than the shipping world does," Panama Chamber of Shipping President Jurgen Dorfmeier said.
The waterway has been run like a public utility on a break-even basis for more than eight decades. Now Panamanian administrator Alberto Aleman Zubieta has promised to run it as a competitive business after year's end.
"Commercializing the canal is positive," Dorfmeier said, adding that increased profitability should delay toll increases to shippers in the future.
Panama also faces the challenge of establishing a new relationship with the canal's largest customer, the U.S., as almost a century of close cohabitation in the former Canal Zone draws to a close.
"In the short run, there will be some rocky moments," Richard Millett, senior adviser to the Political Risk Services Group, said, adding that the outlook for relations with the U.S. remained positive in the longer term.
Panama continues to demand that Washington clean up remaining areas of three former Canal Zone firing ranges, contaminated with grenades, mortar rounds and artillery shells during more than half a century of live-fire practice.
Some U.S. conservatives, meanwhile, continue to see a Chinese threat to canal security after Hong Kong-based shipping firm Hutchison Whampoa acquired port operations in 1977 at Balboa
and Cristobal on the Pacific and Atlantic approaches to the Panama Canal. "We have to reformulate our relationship with the U.S. and not create conflicts where they don't exist," President Mireya Moscoso said in a keynote speech at the end of November. -(Tim Gaynor, Reuters)
Columbia Coastal Christens Container Super-Barge
Columbia Coastal Transport, LLC, a U.S.-flag container feeder barge operator, is adding one of the largest container barges ever built, the Columbia Elizabeth, to its fleet, following a barge christening ceremony held in Portland, Ore.
The 912 teu barge is available to transport empties, full container and project cargoes moving between U.S. West Coast, Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard ports as it makes its more than 5,900 mile journey from the U.S. West Coast to the Eastern Seaboard through the Panama Canal.
"We've built a super-barge for a new millennium," said Columbia Coastal president, Bruce Fenimore. "As carriers consolidate services and load center ports are created, Columbia Coastal has the fleet and capacity to offer them an all-water alternative for port-to-port container moves."
Built by Gunderson
, Inc. in Portland, the Columbia Elizabeth is a 343' x 94' x 21' deck cargo barge specially fitted to carry 20-, 40- and 45-foot ISO containers, including reefers. Its 912 TEU capacity adds another 16.7% to Columbia Coastal's total fleet capacity, for a new total capacity of 6,302 teu.
"More and more carriers realize the wisdom of shifting their port-to-port freight
to an all water alternative," Mr. Fenimore continued. "Not only because it's reliable and cost-effective, but because it aligns with today's environmental concerns. Transporting large numbers of containers by barge rather than moving them over land or by rail helps reduce congestion on major thoroughfares, wear and tear on roadways, and even pollution long-term."
Named after Port Elizabeth in the Port of New York/New Jersey, Columbia Coastal's super-barge is expected to enter service in early January 2000. It will be used in the company's Gulf Services linking the ports of Houston and New Orleans, according to Mr. Fenimore.
"This new super-barge indicates our commitment to serving our customers, as well as our confidence in the future of feedering," Mr. Fenimore concluded.
With the arrival of the Columbia Elizabeth, Columbia Coastal will deploy a fleet of 11 U.S.-flag container barges in regularly scheduled feeder service operations on the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts, plus Freeport Bahamas. The company offers weekly and twice-weekly container services linking the ports of New York/New Jersey with Boston in the Northeast, Baltimore and New York in the Mid-Atlantic, Baltimore and Norfolk in the Chesapeake, Wilmington, Charleston and Savannah, Savannah and Miami in the Southeast, Houston and New Orleans in the Gulf, and Freeport, Bahamas in the West Indies.