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Alemán Zubieta staying on as canal administrator
by Eric Jackson
At an August 16 special board of directors meeting Alberto Alemán Zubieta was reappointed to a seven-year term as administrator of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP). The vote was unanimous, but came after a period of jockeying in which it seemed as if Minister of Economy and Finance Ricaurte Vásquez, who heads the ACP board of directors by virtue of his ministerial post, might have won the post.
Alemán Zubieta came to the canal's top job toward the end of the waterway's American period. He oversaw the transition from the US government's Panama Canal Commission (PCC) to the Panamanian government's Panama Canal Authority, which appeared nearly seamless from the narrow but most important perspective of canal operations but manifested itself in several important ways. Some of the changes he oversaw include:
· A shift from the PCC's non-profit break-even approach to the ACP's management of the canal as a for-profit enterprise with most of the attributes of an ordinary business corporation;
· The adoption of Spanish as the canal's principal working language, although English is still widely used because most ship captains use that tongue to communicate with canal authorities;
· A change in information policies from the US Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act to a substantially more restrictive system now in place; and
· The shedding of many functions that are not directly canal related, including the dismantling of the PCC's print shop, the closing of Gatun Lake to many recreational activities for which it was renowned in the American era, the expulsion of the Panama Primate Refuge from islands in the lake, moves to oust the Pedro Miguel Boat Club and the demolition of much of Gatun's housing.
The ACP's sharp toll increases have prompted grumbling in parts of the world shipping industry and particularly from impoverished Ecuador, whose economy is heavily dependent on the canal. They have, however, brought hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue to the Panamanian government.
Probably most controversial of all has been Alemán Zubieta's handling of the process of elaborating possible canal expansion plans. Through a carefully managed publicity campaign most Panamanians have been told that canal expansion is good and necessary, and a few details of how it might be accomplished, but no plan has been put before the nation so far. Most of the farmers who live in the canal's Western Watershed, some or all of which may be flooded to provide water for a larger canal, are unhappy about the prospect of being moved off of their land. A minority --- but a prominent one --- of business leaders also question the ACP's contention that the cost of a canal expansion could be amortized only through canal revenues. Polls indicate that a substantial majority of Panamanians like the idea of expanding the canal.
Alemán Zubieta came to the canal from the construction industry, in which he headed the family business Constructoras Urbanas SA (CUSA). As such he has become something of a symbol of the canal's non-partisan operation.
ACP hiring has in fact been kept off of the political patronage system on Alemán Zubieta's watch. However, the ACP board of directors is composed of presidential appointees and almost without exception its members are political activists who have no experience with the canal or any other maritime industry. One of the ways that the ACP has compensated for this lack of expertise on its board has been by creating an international advisory board primarily composed of shipping industry leaders.
During the American PCC period Alemán Zubieta was questioned, particularly by right-wing Americans who never accepted the canal's transfer to Panama, because his old company CUSA bid on and won some Panama Canal contracts. But US authorities looked into the matter and concluded that there was no undue influence and nothing was hidden in the bidding process. More recently canal employee unions have denounced the ACP board and administrator for carrying out privatization policies by outsourcing dredging and other work that used to be done entirely in-house, and the possibility that CUSA may get some of this work has sometimes figured in the criticism.
Despite such misgivings, no serious scandals affecting the Panama Canal have come to light during Alemán Zubieta's watch.
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