PANAMA CITY — Former Panamanian President Nicolas Ardito Barletta looks over a map of the 500 square miles of former Panama Canal Zone, all of which Panama is to take back from the US by Dec. 31, 1999, and breathes a sigh of relief.
At least one-quarter of the vast territory is a crucial watershed for the Panama Canal, and can never be developed. Yet, that still leaves tens of thousands of acres and thousands of buildings that Panama will be receiving and trying to put to profitable use over the next few years.
It's a daunting challenge, but one Mr. Ardito Barletta, as general administrator of the Interoceanic Region Authority (ARI), appears to relish. The government created ARI to sell off and redevelop former US assets. "We have the opportunity to give impetus to and project the new reality of Panama," he says.
ARI's job is nothing less than coordinating Panama's transformation from a rather passive beneficiary of a foreign power's presence to master of its own destiny - a destiny ARI sees as an international business and commerce hub, a regional center of learning and research, and a top ecotourism destination. To accomplish that, Ardito Barletta will have to transform the feasibility studies that abound in his office to reality.
Most observers here, including US officials involved in the reversion process, say Panama's focus on the reversion challenge has shifted into higher gear since Ardito Barletta assumed ARI's top post last year.
Negotiations with US hotel and cruise ship companies on the development of striking Fort Amador, a peninsula facing Panama City's center, are said to be advancing. Taiwanese interests are already embarking on the redevelopment of former Fort Davis on the canal's Atlantic side as an import-export processing zone, which eventually could create 10,000 new jobs.
Another project is to make Panama the principal container transhipment point for Latin America. Currently 14,000 ships pass through the canal annually - "They pay a toll, buy fuel, and that's it," says Ardito Barletta. And a quarter of them pass through empty.
One plan is to modernize Panama's admittedly obsolete ports, and quadruple container shipments by 2000. This would make the canal's use more efficient and capitalizing on the waterway to develop related shipping and distribution activities.
Less tangible is the idea to develop a "city of knowledge" on one of the former US bases, where universities and research institutions from across the Americas would locate study centers and a technology park with a regional focus.
Some Panamanians worry that the country's focus on the reverting properties is coming too late. "We need more concrete proposals, not just ideas," says Ricardo Munoz Tijeira, an economic-development specialist here. Panama's complacency has left it relatively unknown internationally, he says.
But Ardito Barletta says Panama is better prepared to profitably assume control of the US properties than even many Panamanians think.
It's a transitional process, he says, but he is confident that Panama's "more open and competitive environment" will convert the country's central challenge to success."