The University of Florida recently added to its long history of leading the discussion of the relationship between the United States and Latin America.
The UF Center for Latin American Studies 63rd annual conference, held in March, focused on Panama, a prospering country often referred to as the “Shanghai of Central America.”
The conference featured multiple speakers, including Bob Graham, former Florida governor and U.S. senator, and Jorge Quijano, CEO of the Panama Canal Authority.
The event was timely, with an expansion of the 100-year-old Panama Canal that will nearly double its cargo-carrying capacity scheduled for completion by the end of 2015.
“This is one of the oldest centers for Latin American studies,” Graham said. “Latin America and Florida have many economic, political and cultural ties, and the center is a leading academic voice to enhance understanding of the area.”
At the conference, Graham and two former U.S. ambassadors to Panama, Simon Ferro and Ambler Moss, discussed the treaty that led to the United States turning over ownership of the canal. The treaty created joint Panamanian-American ownership from 1979 to 1999, followed by Panama assuming full ownership in 1999.
“Negotiating the treaty was an important part of world history, and it was good to hear about it while the people involved were still alive and their memories were fresh,” Graham said.
The U.S. needed to relinquish ownership of the canal, he explained.
“The era of colonialization is over, and U.S. ownership of the canal was having a negative effect on our relationships with Latin America; the harm outweighed the benefit.”
Just before the conference, Quijano had completed tough negotiations with the builders of new canal locks who wanted an additional $1.6 billion beyond the authority’s total expansion budget of $5.2 billion.
For the two weeks before Quijano spoke, the coalition of builders had shut down all construction work, but Quijano still refused to yield to its demands. When he spoke at the event, three of the four companies in the coalition had agreed to Quijano’s proposed settlement, and he was awaiting confirmation that the fourth company was willing to settle.
The confirming call came after he spoke, representing a victory for Quijano after the coalition abandoned its $1.6 billion demand and agreed to abide by the dispute-resolution provisions of its contract, which Quijano remains confident will greatly reduce any additional payments.
“We built the contract as a very tight box, and we’re all in it,” Quijano said. “The consortium expects us to somehow pay for claims it didn’t substantiate. We weren’t going to do that.”
Conference speaker Richard Wainio, who performed graduate work focused on Latin America while at UF, discussed the economic effects of the canal expansion.
Wainio’s qualifications include working for the Panama Canal Authority for 23 years in roles including senior economist and director of executive planning as well as serving as CEO of Port Tampa Bay, a position he left in 2012.
Many U.S. ports, including Miami’s, are dredging or planning to dredge deeper channels while also adding bigger cranes and more warehouses in an attempt to “keep up with the Joneses” and accommodate the expected increase in imports and exports following the canal expansion. However, Wainio explained that not all ports will benefit equally from the canal expansion.
“It’s going to be difficult for certain ports to generate the revenue streams to support their investments, which can cost $1 billion or more for each port,” he said.
The ports in Tampa and Jacksonville have done limited work directly related to the canal expansion, while the Port of Miami is making an investment that it may have trouble recouping, he added.
Florida’s ports are hampered by the limited amount of exports generated by the state, which has little heavy manufacturing and a declining amount of agricultural exports.
Much of shipping today is through “containers,” which can be transferred from a ship to a truck or train without reloading.
“The container trade can’t be a one-way business,” Wainio said. “Container ships need to be nearly full going both ways in order to be profitable, so the Florida ports are at a disadvantage.”
The conference was a shining example of the center’s work, said Philip Williams, the center’s director and professor of political science and Latin American studies.
“We help students engage their passion to learn; we help businesses figure out the meaning of events; we help the media tell the public about Latin America,” he said.
For alumnus Steve Keats, the center was a steppingstone for his career. As an undergrad studying at the center, he did research on the potential for Miami to become a major player in shipping, an industry then dominated by New York. This research led to a career in shipping.
Today, Keats is a partner and sales manager for Kestrel Global Logistics, which ships furniture and décor for hotels and other buildings throughout the Caribbean.
Although Keats has been traveling to Panama for 35 years, he learned much about the history of the country and the developments of the canal expansion from the three-day conference, he said.
Hearing from Graham and the two former ambassadors was especially important to Keats.
“They were part of the canal’s history,” he said. “It was tremendous to hear them.”