GATUN, Panama – Work on a third set of locks on the Panama Canal was officially begun on Wednesday at a ceremony presided over by Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Spanish Deputy Premier Manuel Chaves.
“Today, a new future begins for the country,” said Martinelli at the ceremony, which was also attended by the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras: Alvaro Uribe, Alvaro Colom and Porfirio Lobo, respectively.
The ceremony, which was delayed by a rain shower, included the activation of a siren by Berlusconi that served as a signal for the heavy machinery operators to begin their work at the new site of the locks, the most important project ever undertaken to expand the Canal.
“A man of his word like Silvio Berlusconi had to be the one to perform the initial kick off,” said Martinelli.
The project is being carried out by Grupo Unidos por el Canal, a consortium led by Spain’s Sacyr Vallehermoso construction company and including Italy’s Impregilo, Belgium’s Jan De Nul Group and Panama’s Constructora Urbana.
Grupo Unidos was awarded the contract on the strength of its $3.12 billion bid.
Martinelli expressed pride at having Sacyr and Impregilo working on the project and said that with the participation of those firms Berlusconi and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero had committed “European pride” to the task.
The canal, designed in 1904 for ships with a 267-meter (875-foot) length and 28-meter (92-foot) beam, is too small to handle the “post-Panamax” ships that are three times as big, making it necessary to expand by building the new set of locks.
The Panama Canal Authority, a government agency that manages the waterway, wants to double transit capacity.
Sacyr CEO Javier Gayo expressed to Efe his “joy” at the broad political representation at Wednesday’s ceremony.
“I think that it’s a very important work of engineering, and that it’s brought so many presidents to be able to see it is a matter that pleases us,” he said.
The 80-kilometer (49-mile) canal, which currently handles about 5 percent of world trade, has been under Panamanian management since Dec. 31, 1999, when the United States surrendered it in keeping with the 1977 Torrijos-Carter treaties. EFE