Advice to Anyone Moving to Panama

Here is some advice for people moving here from other countries:
The path is always easier here if you get to know people. Knowledgeable locals can give valuable advice on how best to do something, and they can also mention you to people who make a difference such that, when your situation comes up, they don't say to themselves, “Hmm, another gringo situation I can just toss into the basura,” or, “Another gringo I can exploit for a little extra cash,” but actually help you. Get advice from several local folks and take everything you’re told seriously; I can just about guarantee the advice will be (apparently) conflicting, but that’s because, unlike North America or Western Europe, this is a land where it’s not all spelled out down to the smallest fine print. This is a land where individuals have a great deal more leeway.
Mostly, in my experience, professionals and officials are reasonably honest. But that fact comes with caveats:
First, there is a very wide range of personal interpretation on the part of whatever official you’re working with. Officials often just say whatever they feel like saying (on the pretext that they are the officials, so they can decide what to tell you), sometimes motivated by laziness or the hope to extort you a little bit. This is especially likely when they don’t really know how the law applies to your situation, or can’t be bothered with the law, or the law (as is not uncommon) is nonsensical, or they don’t know you, or they don’t like you, or they don’t like gringos in general, or are too unmotivated to bother with your needs so they cite unfacts to get rid of you. Given the nature of the system, there is little opportunity for you to challenge or question such pronouncements, and officials tend to back each other up.
Second, gringos are widely seen as the financial equivalent to a gas station – you drive your wallet up and put the hose from the gringo’s bank account into your account and pump away. Hence my advice, again, is that you get to know people so they’re less likely to put up all sorts of artificial impediments to be surmounted by financial means. A lot of gringos, blinded by their incomprehension of Spanish and the “system” here, blinded by their U.S.-bred expectations, decide it’s easier simply to throw money at these artificial impediments. Conversely, Panamanians and Native people alike commonly let people in powerful positions muscle them around and claim it’s the law, boxing them in so it seems they don’t have any recourse but to accept the bullying and meekly do as they’re told. Get to know the facts.
Instead, get familiar with the system, including the laws. As an example, I was riding in the city with some gringo friends when the driver of a Panamanian pickup backed out of his parking spot without looking, hitting my friends’ car. The Panamanian said in Spanish, “No problem; let’s exchange names and addresses, and later I can send you the money for repairs.” But my friends, who know how things go here (especially with gullible gringos), knew that once they let him go they would never hear from him again, let alone get reimbursed. So they replied, “No, we’re going to follow the letter of the law.” While I stood behind his pickup so he couldn’t drive away, they called the police to report the accident. And, yes, they eventually were properly reimbursed.
I have been told that a Panamanian law states that, if a Native American family has lived on a property for a certain length of time, eviction is almost impossible – but most Indian families are ignorant of the law/system, which renders them helpless, and so, when Panamanians bully them off their property, they are culturally disposed to just going with the flow, to accept eviction and just quietly move on.
Being an inveterate reader, I import books every now and then. It amazes me that sometimes I am charged an import duty, and sometimes my boxes of books are sent through with no impuesta imposed. My hunch – I could ask, but I cannot afford to have the postal system decide to consistently charge me the duty – is that it depends on who’s working that day in the impuesta office, and what mood the individual is in.
For another example, one time when I was crossing into Costa Rica to renew my passport, the Panamanian border guard refused to admit me unless (as the law requires) I produced a bus ticket good for six months to prove I was able to leave the country again. I said that no such bus ticket is available. He told me to go back into Costa Rica, take the local bus to the town of San Vito, and purchase one at the bus terminal. So I took the half-hour trip, but the ticket lady in San Vito confirmed what I already knew, that the maximum a bus ticket is good for is three months. Finally I managed to talk my way back into Panamá, but then the same border guard noticed that his colleague on the Costa Rican side – clearly far more lax in seeing to his responsibilities – had failed to change the month on his stamp from September to October. Since it was the eight of the month, who knows how many people had gone through the border getting stamped with an incorrect date! At any rate, I had to return yet again into Costa Rica to get my passport stamped with the correct date. (I might add that this particular Panamanian border guard is a rarity, a Ngäbe Buglé, and one who clearly is pursuing his job with care so perhaps more of his people will be given such responsible positions.)
And then there was the time that I was on the bus coming back from a border town. (I myself had not crossed the border into Costa Rica.) As is customary, Panamanian police stopped the bus to check everyone’s identifications (Panamanian cédula or foreign passport). Fine. But hardly a thousand feet further along, and without any intervening stops, another group of police again halted the bus and, in a waste of everyone’s time, again checked everyone’s identifications.
This is a selection from the book A Writer in Panama, copyright © 2012 by James David Audlin.

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