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".
Thursday, July 18, 2013
This seems to be an era of a new kind of "patriot"...that being the individualist who questions or exposes the fascism and cover-ups of their own government. Some people are calling these people traitors while others are calling them heroes. I think it is hard to say which it is until we can know the true motivations and circumstances these individuals have acted upon.
There are basically two big cases currently...one being the ongoing incarceration and delayed trial of one Private Bradley Manning for his role in the Wikileaks "scandal", and the most recent case of the NSA whistle-blower, 29 year old Edward Snowden. Unfortunately most of the general public's perspective on these events are going to be determined by media coverage...and it is very difficult to trust today's media with fair and balanced coverage from either perspective...the government's or the accused. Lets suffice it to say most of us will never have a complete picture of the issues from either side. At the same time, I think we can think about and debate the general issues these circumstances bring to light.
Lets start with...one country's "traitor" is another country's "hero". In modern nationalism, which we have been thinking and writing a lot about lately, it is obvious the worlds larger battlefield is primarily about ideologies of best forms of government and how much control a particular religion, race or political party should have over defined nations with borders. I have lived long enough to remember growing up with the most basic definition of the "free world"...meaning democratically controlled governments...versus the captive world of communists or socialist countries run by dictators or worse. In that era, most Western citizens were so proud to be "free" and able to vote their leaders in and out of their lives. Capitalism and democracy were THE cause of liberty and justice for all. Just a few decades later, there are no black and white systems of capitalism or constitutional democracy. Today's nation/states are quickly reverting to protectionist, individualistic countries who not only spy on each other, but spy on their own citizens en masse.
While globalism is about "pluralism" of nation states...much of the world's current conflicts are about sectarianism, racism and religious divides. For all our education and increased access via technology to communication and information...we remain very naive and uninformed about these differences of ideologies. Out of fear and ignorance, movements propagate the same inane and centuries old conflicts of false ideals and beliefs. Apparently the truths of science are too real or conflicting to be digested by the masses. The contradictions to these fundamentalist factions are drowned out by simple chants and flag waving exercises which in many regimes is bringing out the guns and water canons...and causing new prisons to be built everywhere to house all "dissidents" and "traitors" found within their jurisdictions. It is my observation that the international institutions such as the United Nations and other blocks of countries united in ideology have been dismal failures at bringing about world unification or even distribution of goods and services. Individual freedom is still a misnomer in most countries of the world. People are NOT free to come and go as they please...even in their own countries. And now in the USA you have growing number of malcontents who are challenging big government and the corporate elite that supports them when it comes to our undeclared global wars and conflicts. Patriots are starting to demand accountability for the economy and injustices within our own borders. In many areas the land of "immigrants" is becoming the land of "intolerance" of diversity.
Lets look at the agencies who are in charge of the USA's "homeland security". The FBI was founded to be focused on protecting domestic territory from criminals and outsiders within our borders. The CIA was put together to handle foreign covert activities to protect our country outside our borders. Now we have FBI operators all over the world (that we pay for as citizens) and the CIA is spying on American citizens inside the USA. The biggest "criminals" these organizations seem to be going after are not Al Qaeda operatives or Muslim extremists within our country...but young WASPish citizens in the military and government services who are "blowing the whistle" on so many in-clandestine and secretive government activities...most of which in my opinion deserve to be public knowledge. It seems these organizations have learned a lot of their operational approaches from the Gestapo and KGB of old.
A very sinister case has come to light in recent days...the mysterious death of a well known and highly respected journalist, Michael Hastings, who only hours after emailing friends and colleagues that he was on to a big story and would be "under the radar" for a while, was killed in a high speed car crash into a tree. His body was quickly cremated against the wishes of his family. They have not been allowed to do an independent investigation of the Mercedes in which he crashed. All of this intrigue was performed by our California LAPD. There is enough public scrutiny on this that I think more will come out in the wash on this affair eventually...but it surely calls into question the rights and safety of Americans in their own country to know and report what is going on in within domestic governments. Between this and the treatment of the Edward Snowden whistle-blowing affair, our USA government is making the Russians and Chinese look like the "good guys" when it comes to human rights and due process of law.
Where will all this end? Will enough of the sleepy American masses wake up and force their government leaders to come clean and change their tyrannous activities and attitudes? Will the "uprising for liberty" supposedly supported by the USA government in so many parts of the middle east and beyond come to the homeland of the "free and the brave"? Will our huddled masses continue to be manipulated and herded into attitudes of complacency or blind support of runaway governmental powers...much like the Germans under the Hitler spell early in the last century? In my opinion, the longer American citizens take to correct these things, the bloodier and more difficult restoring constitutional governance is going to be.
Fortunately for the lovers of freedom and independence, technology is still able to allow us access to truth and data that reveals the ugliness of clandestine government behaviors. For all the money and controls exercised by governments, there are enough smart people who protect our sovereign access to information and communications with each other. How long this will be the case depends on how long we tolerate runaway governance to do what they like versus honoring OUR wishes.
I just had a childhood memory from when my grandfather was trying to teach me to type on his old IBM typewriter when I was probably 7 or 8 years old. He had me type a then common line 100 or more times which said "now is the time for good men to come to the aid of the country". This was used in typing classes because it filled exactly one line of 70 characters. It now has new meaning for me. I believe it is now or never for "good men" to take back control of their countries, the runaway economies, the inflationary practices of printing more empty currencies to cover their multitudes of sins and voodoo accounting over decades. This will be a time for martyrs, pundits and whistle-blowers to step forward, risking everything just like the forefathers of our country, to stand against tyranny, despotism and unchecked imbalances of power.
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
These violent reactions to the innocent verdict seem very hypocritical to me. If people get their way in courts, they think justice has been done. If they don't get the verdict and "blood" they want from courts and juries...they want to take justice in their own hands and continue these violent, racial tirades. Ignorance and violence is perpetuated by these racial reactions and emotions. Blacks didn't riot in the streets when OJ Simpson was pronounced innocent of killing his Caucasian wife, and in my recollection, neither did whites. Where is the balance here?
It once again appears to me that the "powers that be" want to continue these racial divides. I think I can actually see sinister motivations from many sides in keeping racism alive in America. Number one, "a country divided cannot stand" as was often said during the Civil War and the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s. Politicians and race leaders love to stir the pot of racism to maintain the cause that keeps them in office or in the media spotlight. Whenever there is an incident such as this involving two different races, you get the ever spinning heads of all sides coming out of the woodwork like roaches to a garbage heap to have their two minutes in the sun spouting off with extreme racial positions. The manipulation and sensationalism of these events is what perpetuates the racial divides in our culture. Ignorance reigns in all colors of this theme. People focus on the differences versus similarities. They continue to focus on the injustices versus the great strides that have been made in equality of our systems. Instead of focusing on these advancements, these spokespeople continue wanting more and more reparations for unjust actions of past generations. They keep everyone focused on the past instead of a more hopeful future.
I was really dismayed when President Obama early on entered the fray of public opinion when this incident happened. No one knew the facts that early in the affair...and to speak out as he did only intensified public reaction to appearances of racism. It obviously doesn't take much to open up old wounds. It seemed to me a very politicized reaction to a terrible tragedy...but these Politicos don't really care about due process of law or objectivity. They just want to stir up their hidden cause and agenda...on the back of such a tragedy and loss of life.
It is also my opinion that my black brothers and sisters need to find some new spokesmen to represent the race overall. To allow the Jesse Jacksons and Al "not so sharp" Sharptons of the world to speak for you in the public domain does not in my opinion advance the call for interracial understanding. These guys have built their whole lives on continuing the racial divide through sensationalism and race baiting...and there are so many other, better educated, rational and reasonable black minds out there who can speak much more intelligently. Thomas Sowell, Condelessa Rice, Colin Powell...where are these experienced and educated black leader's voices when it comes to dealing with this case? Why do we only hear from the most profane and bigoted of all black leaders in the media? They are building walls, not bridges, of human understanding. If I were a black man, I would be appalled at these people who speak out as my representative. For me it is like accepting the Ku Klux Clan to speak out as my representative for the white race.
This is just another example of institutionalized control and manipulation of the masses. There are always people who profit from these divisions...on both sides of the race divide. The politicization of race is endemic to our country's past. I don't know what all happened that dark night in Sanford, Florida when Zimmerman shot Trayvon. Neither do you. I don't think anyone from judge to jury, after weeks of court hearings, know 100% of the story either. We may never know the true motivation of Mr. Zimmerman pulling that trigger. But, for now our country's laws dictate respect for the outcome of this trial.
It is a travesty that Eric Holder, our black Attorney General, has already pandered to the NAACP this week, stating that the Federal Government is considering continuing a case again Zimmerman. This is obviously a politicized and racist reaction to a bad situation...and our constitution does not support Executive branches of our government to intervene on the judicial branch in this manner. It is the wrong reaction at the wrong time by the wrong person. It seethes of reverse racism, sponsored by our federal tax dollars. I am calling this administration out on this right now. If they keep this up, they will have a return of the 60s era racial conflicts and riots in the streets. At that point it will have nothing to do with Trayvon Martin, and everything to do with just unleashing the combined and continued hatred and anger on all sides of this racial divide. Everyone in America will lose what advancements we HAVE made in uniting the melting pot that is the USA. I hope that does not happen. We need some true leadership from all sides of this situation.
(As an afterthought...I conclude with this article today from Thomas Sowell, in my opinion a great contemporary black intellectual leader...)
"There are no winners in the trial of George Zimmerman. The only question is whether the damage that has been done has been transient or irreparable.
Legally speaking, Zimmerman has won his freedom. But he can still be sued in a civil case, and he will probably never be safe to live his life in peace, as he could have before this case made him the focus of national attention and orchestrated hate.
More important than the fate of George Zimmerman, however, is the fate of the American justice system and of the public's faith in that system and their country. People who have increasingly asked, during the lawlessness of the Obama administration, "Is this still America?" may feel some measure of relief.
But the very fact that this case was brought in the first place, in an absence of serious evidence -- which became painfully more obvious as the prosecution strained to try to come up with anything worthy of a murder trial -- will be of limited encouragement as to how long this will remain America.
The political perversion of the criminal justice system began early and at the top, with the President of the United States. Unlike other public officials who decline to comment on criminal cases that have not yet been tried in court, Barack Obama chose to say, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."
It was a clever way to play the race card, as he had done before, when Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard was arrested.
But it did not stop there. After the local police in Florida found insufficient evidence to ask for Zimmerman to be prosecuted, the Obama administration sent Justice Department investigators to Sanford, Florida, and also used the taxpayers' money to finance local activists who agitated for Zimmerman to be arrested.
Political intervention did not end with the federal government. The city manager in Sanford intervened to prevent the usual police procedures from being followed.
When the question arose of identifying the voice of whoever was calling for help during the confrontation between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, the normal police procedure would have been to let individuals hear the recording separately, rather than have a whole family hear it together.
If you want to get each individual's honest opinion, you don't want that opinion to be influenced by others who are present, much less allow a group to coordinate what they are going to say.
When the city manager took this out of the hands of the police, and had Trayvon Martin's family, plus Rachel Jeantel, all hear the recording together, that's politics, not law.
This was just one of the ways that this case looked like something out of "Alice in Wonderland." Both in the courtroom and in the media, educated and apparently intelligent people repeatedly said things that they seemed sincerely, and even fervently, to believe, but which were unprovable and often even unknowable.
In addition, the testimonies of the prosecution's witness after witness undermined its own case. Some critics faulted the attorneys. But the prosecutors had to work with what they had, and they had no hard evidence that would back up a murder charge or even a manslaughter charge.
You don't send people to prison on the basis of what other people imagine, or on the basis of media sound bites like "shooting an unarmed child," when that "child" was beating him bloody.
The jury indicated, early on as their deliberations began, that they wanted to compare hard evidence, when they asked for a complete list of the testimony on both sides.
Once the issue boiled down to hard, provable facts, the prosecutors' loud histrionic assertions and sweeping innuendos were just not going to cut it.
Nor was repeatedly calling Zimmerman a liar effective, especially when the prosecution misquoted what Zimmerman said, as an examination of the record would show.
The only real heroes in this trial were the jurors. They showed that this is still America -- at least for now -- despite politicians who try to cheapen or corrupt the law, as if this were some banana republic. Some are already calling for a federal indictment of George Zimmerman, after he has been acquitted.
Will this still be America then?"
Thursday, July 4, 2013
I start with the fact that "independence" is more a state of mind and condition of being rather than a right or a blessing. While many this day thank their country or their God for freedom or independence, it is more a testament to the courage and sacrifice of individuals over long periods of time that leads to a life of independence. We are not just talking here about sacrifice or courage in warfare or on a battlefield...sacrificing ones life for your country or God. On a higher level it is about the sacrifice and courage it takes to stand for yourself and be comfortable "in your own skin". It is more about learning ways of life where you owe no man and no man owes you. It is more about solid values and responsible living where one strives to make the most of themselves and therefore leading by example in how to live...no matter the external circumstances...whether rich or poor, in good health or bad. It is all about the integrity, attitude and willpower of the individual mind that determines whether one is truly free and independent...or not. It is about living free from the hind tit of government systems and handouts.
Often times, independence means standing ALONE when no one else agrees or supports your ideas, goals or way to go about them. Taking full responsibility for every decision you make, every person you associate with, every job or business you enter...and doing your best to make those relationships and commitments successful is what creates independence. Independence can be a very lonely and costly mode of living.
Independence often means standing up for truth and righteousness even when it means standing beside the "little guy". It takes no courage to gang up with the majority, the popular, the accepted in our societies. It is much more difficult to stand for minorities or self rights in the face of ugly demands from the masses of men. Most people cave every day to what is popular, acceptable or pressured by the mass consciousness of societies. Very few individuals stand out in a crowd...and I don't mean physically. I mean by actions, statements and attitude. Most of us strive to look alike, think alike and just "get along". Very few are willing to state their independent minds or take the "road less traveled". In most cases, we humans live our whole lives trying to please others and our institutions. Most hardly ever think about how they can make a difference in the world. In most cases, it takes a bit of personal suffering before true independence can be achieved.
So...what does it take to truly be free? While there are surely times it means taking up arms and protecting freedom and independence from tyranny in the physical world...usually the process starts well before that point. A truly free and independent individual must first agree to live according to certain principles. For me, a few core statements representing these principles are:
"I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."
My rights end where another's begins...
You cannot be truly independent when you OWE people or institutions money or your allegiance. Money and allegiance are to be given voluntarily, not at the end of a gun barrel.
"True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made."
"All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient." It is my responsibility to define expedience for myself and not judge others for their definitions.
"There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences."
"Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you."
Finally...my greatest perplexity regarding independence and freedom is how people will sacrifice tremendously for their religions or governments, yet sacrifice very little to reach their own potentials as individuals or take pride in their personal accomplishments.
May you all live free, independent...and prosper.