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Latin American Navies Settle In Jacksonville For Panama Canal Training Exercise

Ryan Benk
Peru's Rear Admiral Alberto Alcala

Military officials from 18 Latin American nations are meeting in Jacksonville to discuss the security of the Panama Canal.

It’s been a little more than a month since the first super-vessels made it through the newly expanded canal, but the future of trade in the region is uncertain.

Members of 18 navies from Latin American countries are crowded into a small conference room at Naval Station Mayport Monday.

The admiral in charge, Peru’s Alberto Alcala, sits at the head of the table.

“The challenge is to put together almost 1,300 people with 19 different nations and try to accomplish one mission,” Alcala said.

That mission is the same as always for the annual Panamax exercise — to foster cooperation among the nations that rely on the Panamanian trade route the most.

Outside the base, anti-trade sentiments are strong on both ends of the American political spectrum, and a 2011 agreement between Panama and the U.S. is being blamed for helping multinational corporations avoid taxes.

And, a Chinese proposal to dig an even larger canal farther north in Nicaragua is stoking industry fears that the U.S. may be losing influence.

To that, Peru’s Alcala said his country will cross that canal when it comes to it.

“If we can use the Panama Canal as a line to transit from the Pacific or from the Caribbean or vice versa, we’re going to use that. If Nicaragua wants to build another canal we can choose one of each other,” he said.

The Nicaraguan canal, which broke ground last year, has been halted after the Chinese billionaire funding it lost 80 percent of his fortune, as reported by the New York-Times.

Nicaragua was slated to participate in this year’s exercise, but was unable to.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.