Beating Poverty with Free Zones in Panama

Surse Pierpoint, Panama

Antigua Forum 2014 and 2015



Surse Pierpoint came to the Antigua Forum 2014 gathering with a big idea. A native of Panama and the general manager of the association representing the country’s free trade zone, he was witness to how markets and trade improve the well-being of people. He also was aware of the gut-wrenching poverty that characterizes the Colón neighborhood adjacent to the Canal Zone.  He asked the Antigua Forum participants to help him sell Panama’s political leadership on a free trade zone for one of the poorest areas of his country.

Surse left the 2014 gathering with a strong pitch to sell his idea to the presidential candidates from the country’s three main political parties. He went home and spent the next few months marketing his idea, and all three of these parties and their candidates heard him. In May of that year, the candidate who won was the first to embrace the idea and the most vocal about the need to do something for Colón. After he was elected, President Varela named Surse the co-chairman, with the minister of finance, of the committee to establish rules for a free trade zone in this area. 


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Soon faced with a new set of challenges—as the “dog that caught the bus” he now had to figure out what to do—Surse reminded himself of the questions that had been raised at the Antigua Forum for projects that were further along. Then he asked to return to Antigua Forum in 2015.


Once again working with a team of talented and committed participants, Surse and friends came up with a strategy to address the challenges his new project would face. In particular, multiple constituencies would have an opinion about the possible free trade zone, including leaders from the business sector and political, religious, and community leaders. How could the project come to fruition with a set of rules that would allow trade to flourish? Surse left the Antigua Forum with a strategy that he could put in place immediately, as well as lessons that he could draw upon in the months ahead.


In March 2016, the Panamanian congress passed, and the president signed into law, clear rules to establish the Colón Puerto Libre. Investment is now coming to this new zone.

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“I’m constantly reflecting on our discussions when I’m in meetings to work on this project. I hear the voices of my friends from Antigua Forum–‘Watch out for this!’ ‘Don’t forget about that!’–and then I avoid saying something I shouldn’t, or I make a suggestion that helps move things along.”  Surse Pierpoint, Panama

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