Panama says it's close to landing FTAA secretariat
By Shannon Pettypiece and Susan Stabley
While Miami is in the spotlight this week in its bid to host the Free Trade Area of the Americas' permanent headquarters, officials from Panama City, Panama, say they are close to luring the secretariat.
"We are getting very close," said Panama's vice minister of education, Adolfo Linares, who is leading Panama's campaign. "We will need the support of most of Latin America, and we expect to obtain that."
Panama has 50 officials in its delegation, including the country's president and vice minister of foreign affairs, who are lobbying in Miami this week.
Panamanian officials would not say what countries are endorsing them, but they said they are optimistic that they will get a consensus among the 34 nations involved in discussions about the proposed free-trade zone.
"We have official endorsements at the highest level," said Panama's foreign affairs vice minister, Nivia Rossana Castrellon. "Our aspiration has a lot of endorsements, and many people see Panama with very good eyes. ... We have been doing a very good job to build a consensus."
Jorge Arrizurieta, executive director of Florida FTAA Inc., said Panama is Miami's top competitor for the secretariat.
"Panama is always considered the ideal competitor to Miami," Mr. Arrizurieta said. "We've got a firm opponent in Panama."
Mr. Arrizurieta said Panama has an advantage over US cities because larger countries would not feel threatened by the small country.
The only country that has publicly endorsed Panama is the Dominican Republic. But Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz, who is lobbying for Miami, said that endorsement was made two years ago - before Miami had jump-started its bid.
But, he said, "Panama is a threat, just like any other country."
Officials from Brazil, who are not trying to get the secretariat in their country, say it is too early for any country to be overconfident about landing the headquarters.
"It is too early to have any word on that," said Glaucio Jose Nogueira Veloso, Brazil's second secretary of social communications. "Many cities are competing for this, and we still have a deadline open until (midnight today, 11/20). Other cities could present their candidacy, and it is too premature to comment on that right now."
FTAA organizers said Monday that the location of the secretariat will be decided next year, and Mr. Arrizurieta said there is talk that more countries - such as Puerto Rico - would present a bid before tonight's deadline.
Panamanian officials say Panama City would be a better home for the secretariat than Miami because:
NIt has closer ties to South and Central America and the Caribbean.
NIt is technologically better equipped - with the world's five most-important fiber-optic cables.
NIt has 7,000 buildings and about 350,000 acres of highly secure land provided by the US in 1999.
NThe country claims to be the biggest banking center in Latin America, has low inflation and controls 6% of world trade through the Panama Canal.
"It has to be a city that represents each country's interest," said Ms. Castrellon. "We have a multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious society."
Those campaigning for Miami say there are many things that set it above Panama City.
Panama officials say there are one or two direct flights weekly between Panama City and all FTAA countries' capitals except Washington and Ottawa. Miami International officials say they have 1,211 nonstop flights per week to 56 FTAA destinations. Miami International Airport had 1,196 flights to FTAA cities, compared with Panama's 202, last November, said Miami airport spokeswoman Trenae Floyd.
Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of the University of Miami's North-South Center, a think tank on Western Hemispheric policy issues, said Tuesday that a decision on the secretariat is not to be part of the Miami ministerial meetings.
"It is premature for Panama to celebrate," said Mr. Rosenberg.
Florida has many advantages politically, he said, including the fact that Gov. Jeb Bush is the brother of President George W. Bush. He also said the US has much to offer in exchange for endorsements for the secretariat.
The US could concede tariff issues affecting citrus or quotas on sugar, important to FTAA co-chair Brazil, in exchange for that country's support of Miami, he said.
Other cities vying for the secretariat planned town meetings and receptions for officials from the 34 nations.
Atlanta has not scheduled a reception, said a spokeswoman for its lobbying effort. But Miami's main US rival will co-sponsor Friday's Latin Trade Bravo Business Awards, a black-tie affair at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. Honorees will include Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is not expected to attend.