PANAMA CITY, Panama -- Just before December 31,1999--the day the United States handed Panama control of one of the world's main arteries of maritime trade--a reporter asked Panama Canal CEO Alberto Aleman what came next. "January 1, 2000," he said, confidently trying to calm global concerns that a tiny country a decade removed from military dictatorship could be a worthy steward of the strategic waterway.
Those were nervous times. Although the canal's transfer proudly made Panama a sovereign, contiguous country--the 50-mile waterway and a 10-mile-wide buffer zone around it belonged to the United States--most bets were that Panama's government would bungle the famous shortcut between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
"In those days there was a lot of doubt externally; as well as internally, about the capacity of Panama running this very important waterway," Aleman says in an interview with Latin Trade.
"[It] was being transferred from the most powerful nation in the world to a very small country in Latin America.
"People thought we were going to run this very badly," he says.
Time and Aleman proved the skeptics wrong. The Panama Canal transformed from a break-even U.S. military installation to the highly profitable bedrock of one of the most dynamic economies in Latin America. It is now undergoing a $5.25-billion expansion that Aleman says will be a "game changer" for maritime trade when completed in 2014. The massive infrastructure project already is sending ripples through the shipping industry as U.S. ports prepare to handle post-Panamax ships, vessels nearly three times the capacity of the largest that now transit the canal.
Aleman, 60, is about one year removed from the end of his tenure as head of the Panama Canal Authority, or ACP for its initials in Spanish, and he looks back proudly on how far the canal has come.
The Texas A&M-educated civil engineer first became involved with the canal in 1995 as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was preparing the Panama Canal modernization before the handover. As the CEO of Panama's top engineering firm, Constructora Urbana, Aleman handled Panama's review of the Corps' evaluation. Aside from a $700 million renovation of the waterway, the joint studies also showed that the canal was near capacity and needed to expand to avoid becoming obsolete, Aleman says.
Soon after the review, Panama's then-president, Ernesto Perez Balladares, asked Aleman to make a serious career change...