Opinion Extra

O'Donnell: S.C. should take advantage of new Panama

This week, Panama celebrates the 10th anniversary of the transfer of the canal to Panamanian authorities on Dec. 31, 1999, and the 20th anniversary of the U.S. arrest of Manuel Noriega to stand trial in Florida on charges of money laundering, racketeering and drug trafficking.

I was in Panama as the economic counselor in the U.S. Embassy during the final Noriega years and the U.S. military's Operation Just Cause. Later I returned to Panama as deputy chief of mission and charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy as we prepared for the turnover of the canal.

As Americans, we should be pleased with the results of both anniversaries. Though controversial at home, the transfer of the canal completed a treaty commitment under international law. Operation Just Cause fulfilled another commitment of the United States - to protect American lives, promote democracy and end Noriega's support for drug trafficking. U.S. policy in the late 1980s utilized increasing diplomatic pressure, including economic sanctions, to force Noriega to relinquish his hold on power. Simultaneously, the U.S. government continued to prepare for Panamanian management of the canal.

On Dec. 20, 1989, 26,000 U.S. troops ended the terror of Noriega with military action. This was a war of several weeks, resulting in Noriega being transported to trial in Florida, where he remains incarcerated. Both Americans and Panamanians died and were injured during the fighting. The best tribute to those brave Panamanians and Americans who sacrificed is the resulting democracy and economic prosperity in Panama, including the successful management by Panamanians of the canal.

In the intervening 20 years, Panama has experienced four presidential elections and peaceful changes of government between rival political parties. The new president, Ricardo Martinelli, is a graduate of the University of Arkansas and is pro-business and pro-United States. Panama has a young democracy with some growing pains, but Panamanians have demonstrated that their commitment to democracy runs deep. And in the past 10 years, the Panama Canal Authority has effectively managed a world-class transportation and logistics center.

South Carolina - especially the Port of Charleston - and export-oriented companies in the state should develop strategies for doing business in Panama, given the $5.25 billion investment to widen the canal that will allow the larger post-Panamax vessels to transit it and increase the daily ship traffic. Government and business leaders should plan a high-level trip to Panama and invite Panamanian Ambassador Jaime Aleman to visit South Carolina for a major business conference to discuss opportunities. We also should voice our support for quick approval by the Obama administration and the U.S. Senate of the pending Free Trade Agreement with Panama, which will create more export opportunities for S.C. companies.

East coast ports are competing to become the port of choice as international traffic increases from Asia to the East Coast. Our state should be aggressive in reaching out to the Panamanian government, the Panama Canal Authority, the world-class Colon Free Trade Zone (a virtual supermarket for goods sold into Latin America) and the private sector to develop an expanding network of business relationships. Not only will the ship traffic be important, but the widening of the canal will fuel economic growth in Panama and in Latin America that will offer valuable opportunities to S.C. exporters.