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A life-changing experience

By Feroz Fernandes
School of Public Service 
panama city

Fifteen students from DePaul University’s School of Public Service sailed through the 100-year-old Panama Canal in July.

Professors Barbara Kraemer and Nick Kachiroubas led the Panama Study Abroad
program, which fueled the interest of those students.

We visited institutions, met with public officials and talked to local people, all of which made me one of the lucky 15.

Tourism and Trump

Gustavo Zevallos served as the official English-speaking guide and Spanish interpreter for our group. He said, “Panama is a boiling pot of race, ethnicity, and culture.”
Then he added: “Well, it was … until tourism started.” His comments implored us to keep local sentiments in mind when engaging in public policy.

During our first two days, we explored the Pacific side of the Canal — one of the world’s most important waterways — and the historic city of Panama. Flamenco Marina was our point of departure for sailing through the old locks of the Canal.

We were in a small tugboat, following a 5,000-container-capacity-cargo ship. We had
a captivating view of the Pacific Ocean along Panama Bay. The passengers clicked selfies or groupies to capture memories.

Interestingly, we learned that the Canal relies on a lock system that uses millions of
gallons of water to raise ships to the Canal’s level. Ships get lowered again as they depart the Canal and return to the ocean — to the Atlantic if they enter from the Pacific, and to the Pacific if the enter from the Atlantic.

J.C. Carlos, guide of Canal and Bay Tours, told us the easiest way to remember how the Canal operated was in five steps: IN. UP. THROUGH. DOWN. And OUT. One can
picture it as “a water bridge for cargo ships,” he said.

We walked about the old city of Panama under a midday sun as the sea breeze tried to combat the humidity. Gustavo offered some advice, “Do it the Panamanian way — stay in the shade.”

In the old town, high-rise buildings and the buzz of tourism co-existed with people
living in dismal shelters. I wondered whether the prosperity in Panama was dispelling
poverty or increasing it. “There is progress in Panama,” said Melwin Rubin, a tourist taxi operator whom I had hired with classmates Arlinda Bajrami and Kaliah Liggons the day before our program started. “But the share of benefits is never equal.”

I wanted to know the locals feel about then-Republican candidate and now-President
Donald Trump.

“Panamanians knew Trump long before the 2016 Presidential race began,” Melwin said. “Trump owns the biggest casino in Panama. Trump said really disturbing things about Panama. But this guy has something; when he started to invest, real estate prices zoomed in Panama.”

I asked Melwin about the Panama Papers, the leaked documents that revealed information on thousands of offshore business activities and shell companies of wealthy people and public officials from around the world. Melwin defended the government, putting the blame on private companies.

Panama has a long history with the United States due to the building and operation of the Panama Canal Zone. On Dec. 31, 1999, the Canal was handed over to Panama, ending decades of U.S. strategic presence there.

Arlinda said it with confidence: “The Panama study aboard trip is an eye opener to understand how the United States has influenced a country’s political system, culture,
and urban development.”

Climate and crisis

“Due to the El Niño,” said our guide, Gustavo, “I have seen the lowest level of the lake basins.”

When it rains in Panama, it pours for hours without stopping. Still, during the dry season, the taps run out of water. Even the Canal restricts traffic due to the
availability of water.

As Professor Guillermo Castro, vice president of research and education at Panama’s
City of Knowledge sustainable development platform, told us, “If we do not understand water management, then we cannot have sustainable development in

We observed the results of the Canal’s $5 billion expansion project, which doubled its capacity through a new set of locks and creation of wider and deeper lanes that allow larger ships to pass.

Ana Vazquez, a young guide at Panama’s Frank Gehry Museum of Biodiversity, made a simple observation: “Why not make the old locks of the Canal more environmentally friendly by installing water-saving basins like in the newly expanded locks?”

Will the Panama Canal Authority build new reservoirs?

The organization has a major policy decision to consider.

Poverty and policy

The The bilingual program of the Ministry of Education focuses on the young. One can notice the economic divide between those who speak English and others who can speak only Spanish.

We visited various institutions to gauge their leadership initiatives. Each institution had a unique mission and challenges.

At the Technological University of Panama, Prof. Augusto A. Cedeno touted the
geographic location of Panama as an asset.

“We have a stable government and weaker public institutions,” said Prof. Castro of the City of Knowledge. “Leaders of the indigenous communities feel their people have done their part, but the government has not kept its promise to provide infrastructure
and support.”

We visited the Inter-American Cooperative Institute, involved in the integral formation of leaders.

Dr. Carlos Manuel Lee Vasquez, the executive director, advocates solidarity economies, rooting economic activity in principles of solidarity, participation, cooperation and reciprocity.

This is a contrary view to mainstream capitalistic economies based on individual
competition with less emphasis on community.

Alfredo Junca Wendehake, director of the plenary at the National Assembly of Panama, views representation, even unequal, as an imperative for the implementation of public policy.

Prof. Kachiroubas asked Flor Eugenia Villalobos, founder and national coordinator
of the Madres Maestras (Mother-Teachers) organization, to share leadership lessons for success. Flora responded with a quick sense of humor, “Don’t get sick.”

Risk and rewards

The SPS Panama Study Abroad program was a life-changing experience.

From our trip, I learned to risk in favor of possible positive change and to view
leadership as service.

I owe these insights to the diversity of our group. You will face it: Group decisions are
tough. We found it difficult to decide which restaurant to choose for dinner.

“We understand better why the School of Public Service is International by Design,”
wrote Prof. Kraemer before reading our executive memos.

DePaul gives its best to its students — meet real faces, face challenges and offer
policy solutions to positively change people’s lives.

Feroz Fernandes is pursuing a Master’s of Science degree in Public Service Management at the School of Public Service.