Panama 2018: Contrasts

Here, in a nutshell, are the contrasts of Panama City: million dollar condos and office buildings sit side by side with ordinary Panama, the places where most residents of the city live.

Wealthy Panama is as rich as the top earners anywhere. Buenaventura, which hosts events for Panama’s elite, exceeds the 1M threshold for bookings on a reliably regular basis. Start with 400 guests, dinner and open bar for wedding or quinceaneros plus ancillary meals and receptions and brunches, facilities rentals, taking over essentially the entire hotel room capacity plus most of the nearby villas — you do the math.

At the same time, ordinary middle class people like bank managers and teachers make in the mid-20K range, and laborers in the rural areas still work for about $20 a day when there is work. Mari still sells her charming and life-like pinatas for $3 a pop.

I sometimes get the chance to talk with people who are thinking of retiring to Panama, because it’s cheaper for U.S. residents to live there, the currency is the same, good medical care is available if you can pay for it, and the sun shines for 6 months of the year. All of that is true. But it’s not “just like living in the U.S. only cheaper”, as some promotional material suggests. In our country, the boundary between rich and poor is far more impermeable and more clearly buffered. We in Seattle, with no small sense of angst but little beyond that, regularly walk by homeless persons sleeping in doorways in winter’s drenching rain. But our actual contact with those fellow Seattle-ites is nil, unless we volunteer for one of the agencies that serves their needs. In Panama, rich and poor are far more intermingled. One of the biggest outbreaks of dengue fever in recent years happened in Betania, an upper class neighborhood of the city. Rich and poor who navigate city streets, in private cars or Uber or busses or taxis, find the same choking traffic.

To live in Panama, or to vacation there, is to be reminded every day that success in life begins with the randomness of birth: being born here, instead of there. I’m not smarter than Minga and Gloria, or more resilient or hard working or insightful. I’m just luckier.

Photos by Bob Levy.

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9 thoughts on “Panama 2018: Contrasts

  1. I agree with your analysis of just being born luckier. I figure I was born white middle class and as such I had life easier from Day 1. I also made some good choices…but I had choices which others simply did not have.

  2. Whoa, in reading my comment I don’t like the way you could interpret it. I can just say in the 50’s there was so much prejudice against people of color. I never had to experience the prejudice those of color experienced. It was nothing I did it was just the randomness of my birth.

  3. for Joyce: I knew what you meant, and feel other readers would too — thanks for clarifying, though. There was a great deal of prejudice toward people of color where I lived too in the 1950’s. My path into the middle class was not easy, especially after my father’s death. But there was a path, in a way that there never has been for Gloria and Minga. Even now, I would like to help Gloria finish high school. But there is no GED in Panama, no community college system that would take her without a high school diploma. She’d have to go to Anton, the next town up, and sit in a high school class with juniors. Not going to happen. And she doesn’t have reliable enough internet to do anything online.

  4. I just returned from Panama last night. I completely agree with you with what I observed this trip. A distant cousin, Panamanian-born, though she now lives in the US, retains one of the expensive condos you mentioned in one of the prominent high rises in Panama City, was visiting and drove us around. We got a lot of inside information on how things work. She knows everybody that “matters” and is privy to all the political intrigue. We certainly got to see how the rich, white Panamanians live. Quite a contrast. As we sat in one of the best restaurants, with a wonderful view, she happened to mention that one of our other Panamanian friends (a physician who was once a minister of health for PAHO) would not have been allowed in. I told her that had I known that I would not have come. She seemed very surprised.

  5. for Frances: Sounds like we just missed each other! I’d love to meet you, either in Panama or wherever you live. Hoping that sometime soon our dates cross. Interesting story, and I’m not surprised about your experience in the restaurant.

  6. I would love to meet you as well. We overlapped a few days in Panama and I did consider contacting you and maybe driving out to Rio Hato to meet you. We just got busy. I, however, am now the proud recipient of a Panamanian Cedula receiving the benefits of a Jubilada.

  7. for Frances: A cedula! Congrats — that conveys lots of benefits. Would you ever think of retiring to Panama? On meeting: I have lots of flexibility around the dates that I go. Perhaps next year we can coordinate. That would be very enjoyable for me.

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