Students will replace soldiers as the United States relinquishes control of the Panama Canal in 2000.
Plans are well advanced for a vast tax-free higher education and research facility on sites left empty as thousands of US soldiers, who have overseen the canal since its completion, hand the region to Panama.
Already, 120 hectares of the US military's base at Fort Clayton, complete with theatres, schools, sports facilities and housing for thousands, has been allocated to the Fundaci"n Cuidad del Saber (Foundation City of Knowledge), the non-profit private organisation charged with establishing the higher education centre. Several international universities and research institutions are believed to have agreed to run collaborative courses at the site outside Panama City.
One of the first is likely to be the new International Maritime University of Panama, a collaboration between Texas A&M University, the Nautical School of Panama and Santa Maria La Antigua University in Panama. It will offer postgraduate courses in maritime training.
Montreal's McGill University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute have agreed to offer joint courses in biological and environmental science. Collaborations in tropical medicine and postgraduate medical training are being discussed.
Jorge Arosemena, the foundation's executive director and former provost of the University of Panama, said the venture will bring together international partner institutions to offer degrees while drawing students from the largely untapped markets of central and south American and the Caribbean.
Professor Arosemena, the vice-minister of education from 1984 to 1988, said discussions are under way with several European universities who are being offered facilities and accommodation at minimal cost, and tax incentives, to set up courses.