related blog from last year, "Is Panama Safe". Also, part 2. 3 and 4 of this series are "Is Panama an Illusion?" and "Further Notes on Panama Living" and "Pros and Cons of Living in Panama" )
This posting could be deemed a continuation of our series on "Living in Panama"...but this discussion I want to take to a higher, more generalized level in discussing cultural differences a "westerner" will encounter living most anywhere in the Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) region.
The series on living in Panama has provoked the most emails and followup questions of any of my blog posts or subjects. Many of the questions come down to the curiosity (mostly by USA and Canadian readers) of what is it REALLY like to live in Latin America as an expat. Having lived in 3 different LAC countries over 14 years and traveled to many others...there are some general similarities shared by every LAC country.
When I first moved to Mexico back in 1991, the most helpful book I read to help me understand what I was facing culturally was "Distant Neighbors, a Portrait of the Mexicans" which is the classic book that is still relevant in explaining the many cultural and political differences between North America and Mexico. While the book is Mexico-centric, I have found that most of the core observations hold true for all the LAC countries I have visited if in varying degrees. Panama's cultural idiosyncrasies line up similarly to the tenets of the book as a "distant neighbor" of Westernized countries like Canada and the USA.
While one would think that after 100+ years of sharing the Panama Canal zone and basically having the USA sponsor the existence of Panama as a separate state from Colombia in 1903 when the USA "paid off" the Colombia government to recognize Panama as a separate nation without revolution or bloodshed, the two countries and cultures would share more in common. While there is perhaps more use and understanding of English in Panama than other Central and South American countries due to this past history, I don't see any more connectivity of the true Panama culture to our "western ways" than you will find in Mexico or elsewhere. There are obviously many Panamanians who got Americanized by working for the Canal Zone in the many decades that the USA owned and controlled it, but many of those Panamanians now live in the USA or stay in the "zonian" community. Many get so Americanized, they are no longer comfortable living in their home country.
For the sake of a short blog I will probably overgeneralize many things here. The culture in Panama, like most Latin cultures, is stratified by class distinctions. This small country of less than 4 million citizens is controlled by a few rich families, commonly called the "oligarchy", who control a major portion of the country's politics, justice system, banks and economic systems overall. Most of these families are of Spanish, Jewish or more "European" ethnicity, and if you don't have them as partners somehow in business here, you are not going to compete on a level playing field in domestic business. They say "if you want to make a million dollars in Panama, bring two".
Almost half the population lives at poverty or "extreme" poverty levels. The difference between haves and have nots is growing in extreme just in the past 8 years I have lived here. Gas prices are up, food and liquor prices are almost double what they were when I moved here...and yet the wage base in Panama has not kept up for the average Panamanian at all. I sincerely don't understand how they live on their wages. The city and interior areas are heavily stratified by rich and poor neighborhoods. The poorer areas are typically going to be problematic and unsafe for tourists and wealthier citizens to travel in. (Of course this is true in most major USA cities as well). Based on the increased cost of living and continued trafficking of drugs and black market products, we are seeing significant increases in crime...especially in certain neighborhoods, and also at interior beach resort areas where the most tourists or seasonal residents reside. Security is being beefed up in many areas and you need to be comfortable with "army looking" police running around with sub machine guns if you want to live here.
In addition to outright home invasions and petty crime, there are other forms of "subtle" thievery. Prices for products and services are often two tiered...one price for locals and another for tourists and non residents. Many of the public golf courses are 25-30% cheaper for residents. Taxis typically charge double for non-Spanish speaking tourists than they do the locals. For a decade there has been talk of going to a meter type system, but there has been much resistance to this "honest system" for obvious reasons. They would either have to increase the costs to the average Panamanian, or reduce the price to the foreigners. These things just don't change quickly in these cultures.
Many regular Panamanians are resentful of the much heralded "pensionado residency" program that gives foreign retired residents significant discounts on food, entertainment, airline tickets and hotel rooms. While this program has obviously been the reason many foreigners have retired here, I personally am not convinced it is a good thing long term for this culture. Service is terrible overall...and when business owners and service personnel are forced to give huge discounts to often dis respectful foreigners compared to fellow citizens...there is no impetus to improve these service levels. They perceive North American visitors here to all be wealthy, yet cheap. They find it hard to understand why we argue about extra charges in a bar bill, an included 10% tip, or arguing between a $2 or $3 taxi ride while we stay in $200 per night hotel rooms. I have seen many instances of reverse discrimination against foreigners because of these cultural differences or perceptions.
When you enter the country at the international airport...there are often twice as many immigration people attending the shorter line of "Resident arrivals" than are handling the much longer "foreign" immigration line. Many local restaurants or bars will give preferred service to locals over foreigners...sometimes subconsciously I am convinced. Many servers are afraid to attend foreigners because they are not able to communicate or understand tourists who don't speak Spanish. I have often observed a server brighten up with me when I speak to them in decent Spanish, because when most look at my Caucasian countenance here, they assume I don't speak Spanish and will be difficult to deal with. With good reason, since most North Americans come here with little or no Spanish...and often demonstrate an "attitude" when the locals cannot understand their orders or requests in English. This creates an aura of uneasiness between locals and foreigners in many instances. Don't believe some of the hype you will see from Panama tourism promoters who say there is little language barrier here. Its just not true.
One of the positives that I like about the Latin culture is the importance of family and how they care for the elderly. Where in Western society we tend to isolate the elderly into homes or institutions, you will rarely see that here. The family cares directly for their elderly either in the home where they have always lived, or their children take them in to live with them. You see fewer barriers between generations here because of those traditions. You often see grandparents arm in arm with teenagers here...a site not often seen in the USA anymore. People hug and kiss with family and friends...and even upon first introductions, men and women greet with a light kiss to the cheek. Cold, halfhearted handshakes here are deemed unfriendly or closed. People here are more physical than verbal about their affections. Sometimes when I go back to the USA now, I forget about this difference and people stiffen up if I hug them or kiss a lady on the cheek. Too bad really.
The most fundamental difference culturally is that Latins "work to live" versus "live to work". Compared to many of us Westerners in first world countries...these people do not live or define themselves by their jobs or careers. Yes, positions and layers of management are formal and important in the workplace with stronger lines of delineation or respect shown between various management levels. Yet, at almost all levels, these people are all about putting in their time so they can get home to family or meet up with friends. They are not as likely to "take their job home with them"...whether that means actual paperwork or carrying the stress of work into their home. It is refreshing that people don't define themselves so much by their jobs as much as we do in North America. Sure, there are definite lines in society based on wealth and race...but it is not so much about what you do.
Finally, on the political front, there tend to be many more parties running for various offices in Latin America. Election cycles can be quite entertaining and very different than in North America. In Panama, the President is elected for a 5 year term. They cannot run for consecutive terms by constitutional decree...though the current President made some attempts to change that without success. People change political parties like they change underwear it seems...and there is very little loyalty anywhere when it comes to politics. While politics is corrupt worldwide right now...it is even more so in Latin America. The party in power makes as much money for themselves off the public dole as they can during their 5 year stay. The last few months of an administration, like we are coming into now, very little gets done because most people realize the next administration is likely to UNDO as many things as legally possible when they come into power. All of this means to me that it is hard to count on long term contracts or consistent economic management in most of these countries. So much is manipulated and if you do not have political connections or protection, your business can be totally torn asunder by local competitors. Even though they claim the Justice system is independent of the Executive or Presidency...I just don't see that as true. The judges are all appointed by the President...as are all the notaries and many other legal positions in the country. These appointments are not "lifetime" like they are in the USA. This gives the "politico" a lot more legal controls in Panama and can totally determine the outcome of justice in very subjective ways.
It makes a big difference in how you will get on in Panama depending on if you are retiring and wealthy, versus if you are trying to do business and make money as a foreigner. It is much easier being retired and independently wealthy living in Latin America where your funds will go further and/or more easily influence the outcome of things. If you are trying to MAKE your money here, it is a much bigger challenge. It is not for the faint of heart or misinformed. If you think you can build your business for say $500,000, you had better bring double or triple that. Paying for access or covering the longer time to make relationships and accomplish your goals in this culture will require that extra funding.
Most simply put, Latin America and Panama are great places to spend your living...but not for MAKING it if you don't have the Latin language and culture within you. If you come here with your eyes wide open, you have a chance. If you come ignorant or closed minded...you will have NO chance of making it here.
Make no mistake, overall the Latinos are very friendly and warm people...including the Panamanians. Yet, in Panama it will be very unlikely that you will be invited any time soon to their home and shown that kind of hospitality. In some cases they may feel self conscious about having less or living differently than you do. People are generally more private and closed with their private lives than westerners are. I have learned not to be offended by that. It is just the price we pay for being "distant neighbors".