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Year 2000 Signals a Time for Renewal in Panama

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Former Panamanian President Nicolas Ardito Barletta looks over a map of the 500 square miles of former Panama Canal Zone, all of which Panama is to take back from the US by Dec. 31, 1999, and breathes a sigh of relief.

At least one-quarter of the vast territory is a crucial watershed for the Panama Canal, and can never be developed. Yet, that still leaves tens of thousands of acres and thousands of buildings that Panama will be receiving and trying to put to profitable use over the next few years.

It's a daunting challenge, but one Mr. Ardito Barletta, as general administrator of the Interoceanic Region Authority (ARI), appears to relish. The government created ARI to sell off and redevelop former US assets. "We have the opportunity to give impetus to and project the new reality of Panama," he says.

ARI's job is nothing less than coordinating Panama's transformation from a rather passive beneficiary of a foreign power's presence to master of its own destiny - a destiny ARI sees as an international business and commerce hub, a regional center of learning and research, and a top ecotourism destination. To accomplish that, Ardito Barletta will have to transform the feasibility studies that abound in his office to reality.

Most observers here, including US officials involved in the reversion process, say Panama's focus on the reversion challenge has shifted into higher gear since Ardito Barletta assumed ARI's top post last year.

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