New, wider Panama Canal in the offing

My memories of Panama and the Panama Canal go back some 50 years when, as counsel to Sen. Kenneth B. Keating, I was part of a congressional tour through Central and South America. Little did I know at that time, I would be named to the board of the Panama Canal Commission by President George H. W. Bush in 1989 and move on to be elected as the first and only chairman of the commission who was not an official of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Even after the transfer of the Canal to Panama, I kept close to my friends in Panama through my service on the board of the U.S.-Panama Business Council and as a lecturer on cruise ships transiting the Canal.

Attending the transfer ceremonies in December 1999, I could not help but reflect on how the canal would operate after the transfer.

Could a nation with a population of around 3.5 million and a GDP of less than 1 percent of the GDP of the United States take on the management of the canal? Did Panama have the caliber of executives to manage the canal?

The answer to all of these questions today is a resounding, “Yes!” Under the leadership of Alberto Alemán Zubieta, the Panama Canal has been run just as efficiently and as effectively as when the United States was responsible for it. In fact, Panama, beyond the enlargement of the canal, has taken steps, at a cost of some $1.5 billion, to add new mechanisms for the locks and purchase new locomotives and tugboats — all of which add to an even more efficient operation for ships transiting the passage.

That leads me to the current expansion project that was announced by President Martín Torrijos in April of 2006 and overwhelmingly approved, in a vote, by Panamanians in October 2006. The $5.25 billion project is currently under way and should be completed by early 2015. The expansion projects will more than double the capacity of ships currently passing through the canal. The construction process has been totally transparent. The expansion has been managed effectively by Jorge Luis Quijano, who took the place of Alemán Zubieta who retired this past September.

First of all, the Panama Canal Authority selected The University of Texas at Dallas to train its executives and staffs to better handle all aspects of the expansion effort. Some 145 employees received extensive training in Panama.

There is no doubt that this program has contributed significantly to the effective implementation and management of the expansion effort.

In addition, two world class law firms were selected to oversee construction contracts and loan agreements. Mayer, Brown, Rowe and Maw has handled general legal advisory services for construction contracts, and Sherman & Sterling has provided international legal advice for financial matters related to the project. Deloitte, one of the world’s largest accounting firms, has worked closely with the Canal Authority’s staff to ensure that the Third Set of Locks Evaluation Committee follows the rigorous guidelines established for the selection process relating to contractors and equipment suppliers.

Since the transfer to Panama in 1999, traffic has steadily increased — a signal that maritime interests fully respect the way Panama has managed the canal’s operations.

The increase in tolls is logical and, in the short and long term, will benefit the marine industry and the people of Panama.

Finally, the legacy of what Americans brought to Panama in the construction and operation of the Panama Canal cannot be overlooked. In talking to most Panamanians, there is no doubt that there is a complete respect for our involvement in both the construction and the efficient operation of the canal. The lessons were well learned and with the canal’s expansion, there is no doubt that Panama and the Panama Canal will have a bright future.

Robert McMillan is a former chairman of the Panama Canal Commission.