OF PROGRESS AND PORT-CALLS

Panama 2017 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Jorge García Icaza, President of the Chamber of Commerce, Industries, and Agriculture of Panama, on eliminating bureaucracy, boosting trans-continental and value-adding shipping, and smartening the public sector.

Jorge García Icaza
BIOGRAPHY
Jorge García Icaza is a mechanical engineer specialized in thermo and fluid dynamics. He graduated from WPI in Massachusetts and has a finance and marketing MBA from Boston College. His first job was at the Texaco oil refinery in Panama. After this, he moved to Copa Airlines for 15 years.

2016 saw an historic expansion of the canal. How is it impacting the national economy and what sectors are benefiting the most?

The expanded canal has increased transit capacity. We had the biggest RoRo ship passing through the Panama Canal in early 2017. Mexico has become one of the biggest exporters of cars and now uses the canal to reach the east coast of the US. Asian cars also pass through the canal, RoRos are interesting. Panama is considering building a specific port just for cars from Asia where we offload them in Panama and add value—such as specification stickers in Spanish—before reloading and sending them onward, specifically to South America. Another important impact has been on the natural gas industry. We just had the biggest natural gas ships go through the Panama Canal, and the government is looking at the possibility of building a port on the Pacific side to supply natural gas. We definitely made the right decision to expand the canal; the numbers are there but the world market and shipping industry are having a tough time. Revenues have held even because we raised the fares a little to meet the lowered tonnage. But there are still great opportunities out there.

What are the main obstacles and challenges that international companies face when doing business in Panama?

The president of Panama visited the Chamber of Commerce in June, and we made him a presentation of the things we thought the government should do to help the economy. Our first issue was bureaucracy and trying to expedite processes and make government transactions more efficient. In that regard, we have been working with AIG and the FTA of Panama, which provide certification. They are working on a process to improve the time it takes for approval of medicines, cosmetics, and other personal-use products. The approval for construction blueprints has been a challenge, and they appointed a new municipal engineer. We cannot automatically fix a bad process; we have to redesign and reengineer the process and then automate it. Therefore, we are working with the government to redesign processes, working with medical issues, construction, and customs. We want to become the port for Central America and are trying to expand because we are the only country that has one port with two oceans. To do this, we need to fix customs, especially the process of going through Paso Canoas in Costa Rica. The Panama Canal shows that Panama can have a publicly owned company that really works. We are proposing a law to grab some of these public companies and make them more like the Panama Canal.

The WBG foresees 6.4% growth for Panama in 2017. What segments will drive this?

There are three sectors. The first is logistics and the second is tourism. We are a country with two oceans, history, ruins from colonial forts, native tribes, jungles, and mountains. The Pearl Islands are an archipelago on the Pacific coast that look like Aruba or San Martin—the sand is so white and there is a lot more fish, more food, and a lot of calm. On the Pacific side, we have Coiba, the largest island on the Pacific side of the Americas. We have mountains, nice cool weather, and both oceans; where else can you find that?