Panama Chamber of Shipping central figure in maritime-logistics hub

After the signing of the Torrijos-Carter treaties, in the late 1970’s, shipping agents on both sides of the Isthmus of Panama saw that new rules governing their operations were imminent.So they created the Panama Chamber of Shipping to have a unified voice in unfolding events affecting the sector.

First president elected to the new entity was the late Edmond Wachtel, then owner of the Wilford & McKay Shipping Agency.For the Chamber, he was a very fortunate choice, as it would fall to him to steer the maritime community through some tricky waters.

At that time there was a military dictatorship involved in the private sector, which required careful maneuvering on the issue of ports and railroad in domestic political bases for the governments installed by the military regime. From his years of experience dealing with tricky shipping affairs, Edmond Wachtel had developed an astute political outlook.

When The Bulletin was founded, just a few years after the Chamber, in 1981, Mr. Wachtel saw its value as a media tool for the Chamber to use on many issues over the following years.

Canal ampliado

Canal ampliado

His political philosophy was simple. Often, in the interviews he invited The Bulletin to cover, he would point this out with a wry smile: “Don’t directly attack those in power,” he would say.. “Always find something to praise and flatter them first and then make the statement or complaint.”

Over a long term of 11 years, he saw the US invasion of Panama in 1989, the privatization of Panama’s ports and railway and the hand-over of the Canal to Panamanian hands.

He was followed as president by Michael A. Ross.

One of the best testimonies of the vital role played by the Chamber of Shipping in their development of the maritime sector are the following excerpts from a 53-page interview made with the late Panamanian statesman and sub-administrator of the Panama Canal in the lead-up to its reversion. In his words:

“We have not gotten, unfortunately, information on 1914 people, but we have found people like you who are researching, who are studious,” said the interviewer. “We are talking about a period today, and you are talking about how they did it in Chagres. We found people like Edmond Wachtel who was the first president of the Chamber who told us everything, “Michael Ross, Juergen Dorfmeier,” said the interviewer.

“We have already interviewed all of them and they gave us anecdotes. So here we come to the period of 77 when the Torrijos-Carter treaties are signed, and it is a very interesting time for Panama.

“Three years later (79) it is put it into effect and in 99 at noon the assets are returned. Thirty years and that’s what we want to talk with you about, basically the 30 years of Panamanian involvement,” the interviewer explains.



“Let me tell you that in the year 79 when McAuliffe (Dennis P. McAuliffe, the US administrator) and I arrived at the Canal, none of the two had maritime experience,” replied Manfredo. “So we depended on the help that the people who knew the maritime industry linked to the Canal could give us.

And what was our best ally? The Maritime Chamber of Panama. And there were frequent meetings where we explained what were the measures that were going to be taken, the reasons for some measures that had been taken and there was not always consensus. “Many times they warned us and we made the corrections; otherwise we could not do it. I had a disadvantage (along) with McAuliffe: we both went together to make it understood that it was a binational scheme, an administration of two countries.

“My weakness was that I did not play golf and after all the meetings there was a game of golf and in that game of golf differences were settled.

“What was happening? The year before our arrival, the Canal had already recorded losses, and the administration decided to postpone some investments that had to be made. “When we arrived, the Alaskan oil begins to arrive. Then we did not have enough equipment to attend to it. We had the capacity in the Canal, but we did not have the tug equipment, etc. “And buying them was not a matter of going to a store; obviously it had to be done at least one year in advance. Then outside, outside not here; the Maritime Chamber in London had sold the idea that what was happening was that the Panamanians had taken the Canal and were kicking the butt of the Americans.

“I spoke with McAuliffe to see what we could do to take away that bad image of the Panamanians. He tells me: you travel and you meet those people.

“One of the things that we did notice from the beginning is that we should not have a direct communication with the shipping companies, but we had to do it through the agents in Panama,

“Thus, agents in Panama would have a leading role. It was not just paying for travel; it was to represent the interests of the company beyond the service they provided. So we had the support of the Maritime Chamber and they made the appointments so that I could meet with those people in the industry and say: ‘Look, I am the Panamanian.’ “Then, after that question, the arrival of ships with Alaskan oil caused delays in Canal waters. “Normally the time in the waters of the Canal was 24 hours; The Canal water time climbed to 40 and 60 hours due to the arrival of Alaskan oil ships. That hurt more certain shipping companies than others. The companies that had a fixed schedule were the most affected.

“Then the only one that had a preference for traffic were passenger ships (we never knew since when they were given that preference). But then we said, what can we do if we can not change the system that the first one who arrives is the first one we serve? “Later we talked with the Maritime Chamber; We are going to establish a system through which the ships that have containers, for example, have preference and are the ones that are most affected by the service and are the ones that we can most lose if the delays in the Canal continued.

“Then we had agreements but the issue was, how many boats are going to be favored per day with the minimum delay for those who did not use the system?

“So the reservation system was established jointly with the Maritime Chamber, but there was so much fear of that system that nobody wanted to take responsibility for the paternity of the system.

“Finally the system worked. One of the problems we had at the beginning is that all the boats wanted to use the system. As a measure of what was actually used by those who needed it, we set a rate but we also agreed that this was not an increase in the toll in disguise but it was a fund that was going to be created to correct the system and that this money would be used only for investments in the Canal to improve the quality of services.

“That’s how the reservation system started. But they had no objective of maximizing Canal revenues, but simply improving service to those ships that needed rapid transit.

“After that question also, I faced another problem and it was that the people outside thought that the Canal was still handling the ports and the ports lost efficiency, but we did not have any jurisdiction over the ports.

“But for outsiders, what was important was not who had the jurisdiction, but the quality of the service. So I also had to be a spokesman for the ports. For me it was easy to be a spokesman for the Canal where I could present very positive things, but in the case of the ports I had to see how to explain the deterioration of the ports. “That’s why when I thought about privatizing ports, I was one of the first to support that measure; and really that was salvation.”

“Now we can not blame Panama for the ports. With the ports it happened the same as with the railroad. As early as the 1964 negotiations, the United States had proposed transferring railways and ports to Panama because they did not need them.

“The ports played a leading role in the construction of the Canal; also the railroad. The only thing the railroad had was that it linked military railways that were not linked by land. “So that’s why they were going to be transferred to Panama at some point, but they made no effort to improve the equipment, which was totally obsolete.

“But in the case of ports, the United States never, never thought of using them as a business; therefore, when we took the ports they did not have gantry cranes to handle containers and that cargo was going to Jamaica.”

It is interesting to note how times have changed and that today, the ports are some of the heavyweight members and supporters of the Panama Chamber of Shipping.

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