All That Glitters …

For a half-dozen years Panama’s glowing economy has stunned many. Working on ships I get the opportunity to bring people to Panama, many for the first time, and many whose image of Panama is stuck somewhere in the past, frequently a quarter of a century ago when they’d read about Noriega.  When they see Panama City for the first time they are stunned!  Similar thing happens when they fly into Tocumen International either to visit, or just to connect at the “Hub Of The Americas.”  They expect a “third-world” style airport, which frankly is pretty much what it was when we came here 11 years ago.  Today when I get lost in Tocumen I am reminded that it could be any international airport anywhere in the world … yes, and unfortunately, they all are pretty much the same.

I try to present a balanced view of Panama … both the Panama we love and the Panama that drives us nuts.  One of the important chapters that I’ve added through the years as I’ve continually updated my book, THE NEW ESCAPE TO PANAMA: OUR EXPERIENCE LIVING & RETIRING IN PANAMA, is entitled “The Devil You Know” … as in “The devil you know is sometimes better than the devil you don’t know.”

Many people decide to move to Panama assuming that the legal system here is pretty much the same as from whence they came.  Assuming anything is the worst thing you can do it Panama. That is particularly true when it comes to the legal system which is vastly different from that in North America and many other places. The basis of law is different.  Many of us are used to a law that features trial by jury, law based on statutes interpreted from custom and judicial precedent, which is why law students are always searching for cases in the past which can be used to benefit their clients.  In the US, at least prior to the Patriot Act, the accused was entitled to a speedy-of-sorts trial.  Many of us come from places where practicing the law is an honored profession requiring long study and preparation, passing a rigorous bar exam proving that you not only have a paper saying you graduated, but that in fact you know the law.  We have ideas like “time is of the essence” – good luck with that in Panama!, “agency” – oh, what a can of worms here, yada yada.  Get involved with the legal system here and you can sit in prison for months, even years, waiting while folks sort out what, if anything, you are being charged with, and if, and when you might be tried, depending on what connections and how much money you have.  “Justice” can be bought if the price is right and if you have enough political clout and the right family pedigree … but not always as the Former President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli and his family and cohorts are finding out. Senor Martinelli is apparently on the run, whereabouts unknown although he still has his Twitter account.  Half of his cronies have fled the country, half are in “protective custody”, and half are quivering at home.  I know that three halves don’t generally make a whole, except in Panama.

The current government is obsessed with rooting out corruption … at least the corruption of the previous government … and seeking transparency.  And these are good, and much-needed objectives, but … in the meantime the engine of progress must continue.  Martinelli’s “get ‘er done” style of government pushed ahead approving a myriad of projects without competitive bidding (Ah-ha!) which many allege opened the door for Martinelli and his inner circles … like Versailles there were many concentric circles … to line their pockets with essentially stolen funds which is alleged to be as much as $3 Billion.  But while the mess is sorted out a giant hospital complex, new convention center, hospitals and medical centers across the country sit unfinished and deteriorating.

How successful the current government will be in seeking transparency will depend on what happens when the next government … and democracy in Panama seems to require switching political control in each presidential election … investigates the present government.  Knowing that certainty the present government, the new team that came in when the old team left, are super cautious and almost afraid to move on anything fearing that in five years they will be the ones under the microscope.

A lot of folks are intrigued by the idea of a country that isn’t lawsuit happy … but remember, when you’ve been wronged, or cheated, or the victim of malpractice … what recourse do you have?  “So, sue me!”  Yep.  So unless we both have deep pockets to pay endless legal fees for years and years … and the cost of the suit, should you win, wouldn’t cover your years of legal fees.  The alternative, if either of you has the money, would be to buy off the judge and legal system for settlement.

Before you pick up and decide to move to Panama or any other country you need to really do your homework and know what you are buying into.

The former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is already sitting in jail.  Then this morning this was the news …

According to research by Assistant Prosecutor Marcelino Aguilar, the group – which included assistant judges, clerks and lawyers — intentionally delayed cases, bribed jurors and tampered with evidence on behalf of defendants.

According to evidence collected in the case, this included at least one case where a judge’s signature was forged reports La Prensa.

The investigation was launched when allegations surfaced that a jury in the case of murder suspect Hilario Chen Quintana had been tampered with. That trial has been suspended until next year so while the corruption investigation takes place.

Evidence collected also included the seizure of whatsapp messages that showed officials negotiating prices for verdicts with lawyers.

So far, 12 court officials and one other individual have been charged. More arrests are likely say sources.  [NEWSROOM PANAMA]

Caribbean Expat Paradise Without Hurricanes

Chuck Bolotin of had this interesting piece in THE STREET about moving to Bocas …

If the only thing holding you back from moving to a Caribbean paradise is your fear of hurricanes, there’s good news.


Bocas del Toro

Like all of Panama, at just 9 degrees latitude, Bocas del Toro is located too far south to get hit by hurricanes. Situated close to Costa Rica, the sparsely populated province of Bocas del Toro stands out as the most popular Caribbean location in Panama for North American expatriates.

So what would it be like to live in Bocas del Toro? Best Places In The World To Retire has in excess of 6,000 answers provided by more than 400 expats who live in Panama, Belize and Nicaragua. Here’s what they say about life in Bocas del Toro.

If you like lush jungle and crystal clear, warm, calm water, you’ll like Bocas del Toro. Many residents don’t have cars; they have boats. It’s not unusual to take a water taxi to your favorite restaurant for dinner, boat home to watch the sunset and then enjoy a quiet, relaxing evening, watching brightly shining stars, because there is so little competing light.

The main town (predictably called “Bocas Town”) is small, with a Caribbean vibe. This makes it distinct from much of the rest of Panama, where the major population centers are on the Pacific side of the country, and have a different feel.

Anne-Michelle Wand, who moved to Bocas del Toro from Colorado, describes it this way: “In Bocas, you take a water taxi like you take a land taxi, since most of the places you want to go, you can only get to by boat. Most of the drivers know where all the beaches and islands are and where to take you for lunch or dinner on an island, where the restaurant is on stilts over the water and you can snorkel while they cook for you.”



You’ll meet plenty of interesting characters in Bocas del Toro. Here is how JB Seligman, who has had careers as a bluewater yacht captain, Texas cowboy, and radio personality, describes how he came to Bocas del Toro 11 years ago: “I was looking for new adventures and a place to call home like Jimmy Buffett’s Key West 40 years ago. I found both here.”

You’ll find a mix of people in Bocas del Toro, from Ian Usher, who “sold his life on eBay,” purchased a small private island in Bocas del Toro and built a house on it, to those living a more traditional lifestyle. As Seligman said, “There are people here who are reclusive, who like to live out on the outer islands. You have also the social set, who are the people who live in town. There is always live music and bars here in Bocas Del Toro.”

The expats on our site tell us that you can get by if you only speak English, but it’s better to learn some Spanish.

Bocas del Toro Cost of Living

According to Wand, “I know people living on $1,000 a month, including rent. If your income is $2,500 per month, you can live very well in Bocas. You would have no problems renting a home, buying your groceries, going out to eat, or doing any kind of activities, and you can afford extra services such as a maid and a gardener. Even $2,000 a month would give you a great life.”

Local food costs less than in Bocas del Toro than in the U.S. but more than in other parts of Panama. Imported food costs more. That maid or gardener that Wand mentioned would set you back only $20 per day or less.

You can take a car taxi anywhere in the main town for 60 cents. A water taxi can be $1 to $3.

Most people tell us that their entertainment consists of getting together with friends, and just enjoying the spectacular jungle and water activities such as snorkeling and kayaking. If you like the symphony, however, you’ll have to go somewhere else.

Bocas del Toro Safety

Bocas del Toro is a small, touristy place, so crimes of opportunity are not uncommon. If you leave your iPhone or laptop out for any length of time, there’s a very good chance it will be gone when you return. However, like the rest of Panama, unless you’re involved in the drug trade, violent crimes are very rare.


Bocas del Toro Real Estate

In certain areas of Panama, and particularly in Bocas del Toro, some real estate is “rights of possession,” which means that it does not have clear title like you would expect in North America. Still, many people buy these properties and many real estate firms offer them. Be sure to work with a reputable agent so that you know the risks if you buy one of these properties.

Your choices of homes range widely. For example, you can buy a house in Bocas Town close to a disco for a low price of $200,000 because it’s noisy, or you can purchase your own island, like Ian Usher. Wand tells us that you can buy a rather large half-acre lot in Bluff Beach (a surfer beach that’s desirable but lightly populated) for $150,000 and build your house on it.

For more standard fare, Aberto Socarraz (originally from Miami) reports that prices for a 3-bedroom/2-bathroom home on Isla Colon (the main island of Bocas del Toro), start at $200,000. According to Socarraz, “For the same style home on a nearby island (Isla Carenero, Bastimentos or Solarte), prices start at around $150,000.”


Bocas del Toro Downsides: Health Care and Shopping

Bocas del Toro is lightly populated, so it’s not surprising that the province doesn’t have higher-end medical facilities. Like almost all of Panama, it does have very basic local care if you have a general health issue. However, if you have a heart attack or a stroke, health professionals in Bocas will do their best to stabilize you, but it could take hours to evacuate you to Panama City for sophisticated, high-tech treatment. If you have a chronic health care problem that requires ongoing medical care or if you think you’ll have health care issues, Bocas del Toro is not for you.

By North American standards, all of Panama is slow, but Bocas del Toro is even slower. It’s fairly remote, so it doesn’t really have the trappings of a sophisticated life. There’s no golf, the mall shopping is nonexistent, and the ballet is nowhere to be found.

Bocas at Night

Oh, one other thing, it is hot, really hot in Bocas, but if you are looking for a laid-back, water-oriented, tropical, Caribbean-style escape, Bocas may well be your paradise.

Panama One of The Happiest Places on Earth

No, number one is not Disney-anything.

013 (2)Latin America is world’s happiest region… with Panama and Paraguay boasting the planet’s most cheerful people

Anthony Bond reporting in MAIL ONLINE tells reports the results of a recent Gallup survey of 150,000 people worldwide . . .

As the richest country in the world, you’d expect that Qatar would also be the happiest.

And you’d also expect Japanese people to be extremely positive, seeing as though they have the highest life expectancy.

But clearly wealth and good health do not guarantee happiness after both countries failed to make the top ten most positive countries.

The poll of nearly 150,000 people around the world found that seven of the world’s 10 countries with the most upbeat attitudes are in Latin America.

Gallup asked about 1,000 people in each of 148 countries if they were well-rested, had been treated with respect, smiled or laughed a lot, learned or did something interesting and felt feelings of enjoyment the previous day.

In Panama and Paraguay, 85 per cent of those polled said yes to all five, putting those countries at the top of the list. They were followed closely by El Salvador, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand, Guatemala, the Philippines, Ecuador and Costa Rica.

The people least likely to report positive emotions lived in Singapore, the wealthy and orderly city-state that ranks among the most developed in the world. Other wealthy countries also sat surprisingly low on the list. Germany and France tied with the poor African state of Somaliland for 47th place.

Many of the seven countries which were most positive do poorly in traditional measures of well-being, like Guatemala, a country torn by decades of civil war followed by waves of gang-driven criminality that give it one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

Guatemala sits just above Iraq on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, a composite of life expectancy, education and per capita income. But it ranks seventh in positive emotions.

‘In Guatemala, it’s a culture of friendly people who are always smiling,’ said Luz Castillo, a 30-year-old surfing instructor. ‘Despite all the problems that we’re facing, we’re surrounded by natural beauty that lets us get away from it all.’

The poll shows that prosperous nations can also be deeply unhappy ones. And poverty-stricken ones are often awash in positivity, or at least a close approximation of it.

It’s a paradox with serious implications for a relatively new and controversial field called happiness economics that seeks to improve government performance by adding people’s perceptions of their satisfaction to traditional metrics such as life expectancy, per capita income and graduation rates.

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan famously measures policies by their impact on a concept called Gross National Happiness.

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a national well-being program in 2010 as part of a pledge to improve Britons’ lives in the wake of the global recession. A household survey sent to 200,000 Britons asks questions like ‘How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?’

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which unites 34 of the world’s most advanced countries, recently created a Better Life Index allowing the public to compare countries based on quality of life in addition to material well-being.

Some experts say that’s a dangerous path that could allow governments to use positive public perceptions as an excuse to ignore problems. As an example of the risks, some said, the Gallup poll may have been skewed by a Latin American cultural proclivity to avoid negative statements regardless of how one actually feels.

‘My immediate reaction is that this influenced by cultural biases,’ said Eduardo Lora, who studied the statistical measurement of happiness as the former chief economist of the Inter-American Development Bank.

‘What the empirical literature says is that some cultures tend to respond to any type of question in a more positive way,’ said Lora, a native of Colombia, the 11th most-positive country.

For the nine least positive countries, some were not surprising, like Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Haiti. For others at the bottom, Armenia at the second lowest spot, Georgia and Lithuania, misery is something a little more ephemeral.

‘Feeling unhappy is part of the national mentality here,’ said Agaron Adibekian, a sociologist in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. ‘Armenians like being mournful; there have been so many upheavals in the nation’s history. The Americans keep their smiles on and avoid sharing their problems with others. And the Armenians feel ashamed about being successful.’

The United States was No. 33 in positive outlook. Latin America’s biggest economies, Mexico and Brazil, sat more than 20 places further down the list.

Jon Clifton, a partner at Gallup, acknowledged the poll partly measured cultures’ overall tendency to express emotions, positive or negative. But he said skeptics shouldn’t undervalue the expression of positive emotion as an important phenomenon in and of itself.

‘Those expressions are a reality, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to quantify,’ he said. ‘I think there is higher positive emotionality in these countries.’

Some Latin Americans said the poll hit something fundamental about their countries: a habit of focusing on positives such as friends, family and religion despite daily lives that can be grindingly difficult.

Carlos Martinez sat around a table with 11 fellow construction workers in a Panama City restaurant sharing a breakfast of corn empanadas, fried chicken and coffee before heading to work on one of the hundreds of new buildings that have sprouted during a years long economic boom driven in large part by the success of the Panama Canal. The boom has sent unemployment plunging, but also increased traffic and crime.

Martinez pronounced himself unhappy with rising crime but ‘happy about my family.’

‘Overall, I’m happy because this is a country with many natural resources, a country that plays an important role in the world,’ he said. ‘We’re Caribbean people, we’re people who like to celebrate, to eat well and live as well as we can. There are a lot of possibilities here, you just have to sacrifice a little more.”

Singapore sits 32 places higher than Panama on the Human Development Index, but at the opposite end of the happiness list. And things weren’t looking good Wednesday to Richard Low, a 33-year-old businessman in the prosperous Asian metropolis.

‘We work like dogs and get paid peanuts. There’s hardly any time for holidays or just to relax in general because you’re always thinking ahead: when the next deadline or meeting is. There is hardly a fair sense of work-life balance here,’ he said.

In Paraguay, tied with Panama as the most-positive country while doing far worse than Panama by objective measures, street vendor Maria Solis said tough economic conditions were no reason to despair.

‘Life is short and there are no reasons to be sad because even if we were rich, there would still be problems,’ she said while selling herbs used for making tea. ‘We have to laugh at ourselves.’


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