BY LARRY LUXNER
JOURNAL OF COMMERCE STAFF
WASHINGTON -- When people talk about free- trade zones in Panama, they usually mean the Colon Free Zone -- a heavily guarded, merchandise-packed city within a city, which last year imported and re-exported $10.6 billion worth of electronics, clothing, liquor and other luxury goods.
But now, Panamanian officials are promoting a different animal, called Export Processing Zones. These sprawling industrial parks -- housed in former U.S. military buildings now being turned over to the Panamanian government -- hope to copy the success of Mexico's border-area maquiladoras, nurtured by preferential tax and duty treatment.
Speaking Wednesday to 100 potential investors at a conference in Washington, Nicolas Ardito-Barletta, administrator of Panama's Interoceanic Regional Authority, outlined his government's plans to boost the relative importance of manufacturing in Panama's service-oriented economy.
Alvaro Aguilar, a Panama City attorney attending the conference, said EPZs could also offer data-processing and database maintenance services under a draft law that Panama's Ministry of Foreign Affairs is preparing.
"It's not just apparel and sweatshops. Under this law, they'll get all the same incentives and benefits as if they were doing apparel," he said, noting that "now, with Y2K (Year 2000 computer) problems, they're hiring tons of programmers from India. Our idea is that Panama can do that, too."
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