For the first time in its history, the American Association of Port Authorities this week will see a non-U.S. chairman succeed a non-U.S. chairman.

When Raul Urzua Marambio, director of Empresa Portuaria de Chile, takes the helm from David Bellefontaine, president and chief executive officer of Halifax Port Corp., Canada, it will symbolize an important evolution at the AAPA: a growing emphasis on the Americas, rather than just the United States.The evolution is largely member-driven, as the AAPA sees growing involvement and demands from its Latin American members. This is fueled by the decentralization and privatization of ports in Latin America, and the growth in intra-Americas trade.

Erik Stromberg, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based association of Western Hemisphere ports, said that Canadians became involved in the organization within a few years of its establishment in 1912.

In contrast, "Only in the last half dozen years have we really seen a surge in interests, activities and expections" from Latin American ports, Mr. Stromberg said.

This surge came about as Latin ports "wrestled with changes in their institutional arrangements, namely moving toward decentralization and privatization," he said.

U.S. ports generally are privatized, acting primarily as landlords to commercial stevedores, according to Tom Dowd, professor of port and marine transportation management at the University of Washington/Washington Sea Grant in Seattle.

In contrast, Latin American ports traditionally have been government- operated, Mr. Dowd said. Thus, Latin ports looking to privatize operations are asking their northern neighbors for advice.

"Their common goal is greater efficiency," Mr. Stromberg said. "And the AAPA is being asked to provide more examples, more information on the parameters that have guided port management in the U.S. and Canada."

The AAPA is moving to meet the growing needs of its Latin members. One response is the forging of meetings in Latin America on regional topics. The AAPA helds its first meeting of Latin American port authorities last year in Chile; a second get-together was held in August in Argentina.

"It's a meeting primarily of Latin American members that allows them to come together under the auspices of the AAPA and discuss solutions" to common challenges, said Mr. Bellefontaine.

The AAPA also sponsored its first-ever port seminar for the cruise ship industry this year. The meeting, held in Jamaica, was designed in part to attract more Caribbean members.

Another initiative for Southern members was the publication of a Spanish- language version of an AAPA strategic planning manual for port management. ''It's been a hit," Mr. Stromberg said.

In another nod to the growing importance of Latin members, the AAPA two years ago split the Latin American and Caribbean ports into two separate delegations; they had been represented by one group.

"This acknowledged Latin America as an area of great importance, and showed an understanding that the problems affecting North American ports are different from the ones affecting Latin America," Mr. Urzua said.

U.S. members benefit from the increasing Latin involvement because of improved opportunities to generate business contacts, said Doug Marchand, general manager-port director, Port of Galveston, Texas.

"It's a two-way street," Mr. Marchand says. "This is definitely something that helps to further business opportunities in foreign countries."

The growing ties also are boosting AAPA's membership rolls. Mr. Urzua said Uruguay recently joined the AAPA, and Peru and the Chilean port of Ventana are planning to apply.

The number of members is likely to grow further still as national port authorities are divided into numerous regional officials. As the number of port authorities increases, so does the potential number of AAPA members.

Mexico's national port authority, for example, is being decentralized, which could result in some 30 port authorities - all potential AAPA members. "It's clearly our greatest membership potential," Mr. Stromberg said.

Mr. Bellefontaine said: "And the more members you represent, the stronger your hand."

Nonetheless, some Latin American nations have no AAPA representation, including Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

The expansion of the AAPA's horizons does not come without challenges, including language gaps. Mr. Urzua, the incoming chairman, reportedly is not fluent in English, although he's been studying the language.

The AAPA headquarters now has a least one staff member who speaks Spanish to field calls from Latin members. At this week's meeting, simultaneous translations are planned in English, Spanish and French.

Mr. Dowd said organizations such as the AAPA have strong international relevance because ports frequently face the same issues as their colleagues in other nations.