I read an article today by Panamanians about their country, reflecting during this “Patriotic Month” of November when Panama celebrates Independence from Spain and Separation from Colombia. The premise of the article is that Panama will always be a “Banana Republic” until it firmly establishes transparency and the rule of law. These comments are set against a background of the former President who is now sitting in jail awaiting trial amidst tales, yet to be proven, that he and his cronies may have embezzled more than $3 billion, and yes, that is “billion” with a “B.” Several former justices of the country’s supreme court are sitting in jail. Not a day goes by without headlines stories of corruption. It is rampant from the top down. The “Panama Papers” scandal was just the tip of the iceberg. Not that any country is immune from the sin of corruption. It’s just that some countries, including the US, are just better and hiding the corruption, nepotism, and using elective office for personal gain.
The leadership at the top sets the pattern and the expectation, but it is unfortunately more than that. The national sport in Panama is not football or what is called soccer in the US, nor is it baseball, or boxing. The national sport of Panama is called “the game of life” in which the goal is to scheme, steal, defraud, and screw everyone else, more than they screw you. Now there are over 4 million people in Panama and most people are too busy working hard, taking care of their loved ones, doing their best, and living honest and productive lives and are too busy with their positive lives than to be bothered playing “the game of life.” However, unfortunately, there are those folks, who sometimes pop up where you least expect them, who are out to screw you.
When we first bought our farm my wife picked up a neighbor guy who was very helpful teaching us all about coffee. A friendship developed. And at the time we had an extra car which eventually we planned to sell, but when his car broke down we loaned the car to him for a few weeks. Then he wanted to buy the car. So being nice folks, and ignorant gringos, we arranged for him to buy the car. He made a significant down payment, and was paying us off monthly. Now you see where this is going …. But we didn’t. And we should have! At one point we owed him some money for his coffee consulting and said we’d drop it off at his mom’s house up the road since he lived with her. His response was, “Don’t give it to my mom!” He didn’t trust his own mom, who worked in the justice department, so that should have told us something. Anyhow, he didn’t keep up the insurance, crashed the car, and the last time we saw him was in a local attorney’s office and his response to not paying us the $8,000 he owed was, “So sue me!” Although in his late 30s he still lived with his mom! Anything he had he had already put in his mom’s name, and he, and we knew that a suit would drag on forever and cost us far more than the $8,000 he owed us. One Easter or something, his mom visited us and told us how bad she felt, particularly since she worked in the criminal justice system, and she had a dream, and God had convicted her that she should pay and she was going to start paying us. I guess making the offer made her feel better and maybe God stopped talking to her, but she never paid us a dime.
Although this creep sticks in my crawl, we have scores of neighbors who are the salt of the earth, whom we trust and who have been wonderful. As a people perhaps, middle class US retirees seem to come from a more trusting culture which sometimes gets us into trouble. Having been a Boy Scout way back when, there are certain principals that stick with you and the concepts of honor and trustworthiness you learned as a kid sometimes work against you in a foreign culture with different values.
If you are thinking of moving abroad to a new culture it is important to realize that cultural values can be very different. You cannot do too much research and due diligence before making a dramatic move to a new culture. Assume nothing! Just reading a book about living in Panama, even my book, or attending a seminar or tour, or even making repeated visits to a country, can fully prepare you. It IS an adventure and like most adventures there is an element of risk, and if you commit fully you probably will get a few bumps and bruises along the way, which is OK as long as you don’t loose your life. “Losing your life” as an expat, aside from the obvious, is when you lose the joy and sense of adventure because of a few hard knocks, and you may look longingly at the life you left behind. And some of these folks end up leaving and going back to the familiar and less challenging ways of life which they hope still bears a resemblance to the way they remember.