People in Panama City, meanwhile, say their country is under construction — not only because of the canal expansion but also because of road projects, new office towers and a Panama City subway system that are being built.
“Panama City is doing great — it’s almost like an American city,’’ said Moreno, the Colombian researcher. The problem, he said, is “growth isn’t generalized across the country.’’
Last year, the Panamanian economy grew by 10.5 percent and the boom is expected to continue this year with ECLAC predicting 7.5 percent growth.
The canal expansion, as well as Panama’s status as a financial and trading center, has helped pique interest by banks and corporations interested in planting regional headquarters in Panama City. And that in turn has piqued interest in the commercial trophy towers that dot Panama City’s skyline, said Asieh Mansour, head of Latin American research for CBRE, a global real estate services company.
“This type of space just hasn’t been available before,’’ she said.
“Overall, she said, Latin America’s growing middle-class, improved labor markets, and the trend toward pro-growth fiscal policies combined with very limited supply of commercial space “is fueling growth within Latin America’s key commercial real estate markets.’’
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges ahead for the region.
The World Bank says with the exception of oil, commodity prices are expected to fall this year.
And count Venezuela, Argentina and Jamaica in the challenging column because of internal problems
Argentina is plagued by high inflation and strapped for cash. Efforts to build up reserves and to better balance imports and exports have led to exchange rate controls and import restrictions that traders say have had a chilling effect on their business.
Argentina also has been under fire for its statistics-keeping.
The government, for example, has said the inflation rate last year was 10.8 percent, but private estimates place it closer to 25 percent. The recent price set by the government for a 27-item basic food basket for a family of four worked out to about six pesos per person per day — an amount the Associated Press found would buy little more than a cup of yogurt in Buenos Aires. The government uses the food basket to help determine the inflation rate.
“Argentina has been faking its inflation rate for a number of years and everyone knows that,’’ said Heath, and when you underestimate inflation, you overestimate growth. “The situation in Argentina is probably much worse than reported.’’
The International Monetary Fund board met Friday and voted to censure Argentina for not providing accurate economic data — a step that could eventually lead to sanctions such as barring Argentina from access to IMF loans.
“We’re just not sure how the business of exchange controls will shake out this year,’’ said Victor Mora, managing director for global operations for Lennox International, a Texas company that’s a global leader in the air conditioning, heating and refrigeration markets. Lennox’s Latin American operations are based at the Miami Free Zone.
The past year was especially challenging for U.S. exporters because of the import permits that Argentina required before products could be shipped. “The permits are valid for 120 days and if you don’t ship in that time period, you need a new one — and they are not easy to get,’’ said Mora.
Although the impact still isn’t clear, late last month , Argentina announced it would be eliminating the import licenses for hundreds of products.
But as difficult as doing business in Argentina is, Mora said, “Venezuela is even more of a question mark.’’ Venezuela may have the world’s largest oil reserves and rank as Latin America’s fourth-largest economy, but it’s having trouble keeping flour and toilet paper on the shelves.
As President Hugo Chávez languishes in a Cuban hospital recovering from a fourth round of cancer surgery, analysts say the economy is also precarious, pounded by soaring spending and draconian price and currency controls that are slamming importers and leading to shortages.
Even so, Venezuela saw its gross domestic product grow by 5.5 percent in 2012 on the back of strong crude prices and a spike in public spending, particularly in construction, in the run-up to Chávez’s October re-election.
But industry is getting hammered by foreign exchange controls. The official rate for the bolivar is 4.3 to the dollar. But importers, industries — and even people who want to study or travel abroad — find it exceedingly difficult to get those dollars from the government. Many turn to the black market, where the dollar fetches about 18 bolivares.
The disparity fuels inflation, foments speculation and drives a vicious circle of shortages and hoarding that have sparked mini-riots in supermarkets over items such as chicken and toilet paper. Inflation hit 20.1 percent last year, the highest in Latin America.
The government says reforms are coming, but has provided few specifics.
A devaluation, which undercuts spending power, would be highly unpopular and many analysts expect such a move would come only after new presidential elections, which could be triggered if Chávez were to step down or die as a result of his battle with cancer.
The economic troubles have provided fodder for an opposition that’s hoping it will have a second shot at the presidency after losing in October.
At a rally last month, the head of the opposition coalition, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, said it was “inexplicable” how in the midst of an oil boom the country was deeper in debt with record-high inflation.
“Our infrastructure is destroyed, our streets, avenues, roads and highways have deteriorated,” he said. “We have blackouts in the whole country.”
For the most part this also will be a year of tepid growth for the Caribbean.
ECLAC projects economic growth of 3.5 percent for Cuba — and that would make it one of the Caribbean’s better performers. Cuba is in the midst of economic reforms that give the individual a greater role in the economy but the pace of overhauling its creaky economy is moving at a slower pace than many would like.
However, economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago, who has written a book in Spanish about the process, Cuba en la Era de Raul Castro: Reformas Económico-Sociales y sus Efectos (Cuba Under Raul Castro: Economic and Social Reforms and their Effects), says while there are contradictions in the reforms, they are not stalling. “I think there is an acceleration,’’ he said.
Cuba’s neighbor, Jamaica, has the unenviable position as the Caribbean nation expected to experience the lowest economic growth — a scant 0.1 percent. Jamaica was already saddled with a large fiscal deficit and significant debt when it was walloped by Hurricane Sandy last October, causing infrastructure damage that must be repaired with meager public funds.
“This year is definitely going to be a mix in terms of markets,’’ said Lennox’s Mora. “It depends on whether you view it as a glass half empty or a glass half full. I prefer to view it as half full.’’
The Miami Herald’s Bogota Bureau Chief Jim Wyss contri buted to this report.