Manuel Baruco at the Intersection of the World in Panama

Manuel Baruco of Panama with family member – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingAt the edge of the Atlantic, which a persuasive current has aided the migration of Europeans to cleave the Isthmus of Panama for the Canal, and now mid- stream central to the modern jet route along the north/south latitude of the Latin regions, Manual Baruco is in the perfect position to contemplate his country’s position in the world. Jet Metier also discovers that Manuel could be also considered an all- American boy.
Jet Metier: Hi, Manuel. Good afternoon. What’s in the news in Panama countrywide? What are people talking about?
Manuel Baruco: A lot of things are happening today in Panama. Basically it’s a culmination of lots of construction and a real estate and artistic boom that is going on throughout the city.

If you go back in history, Panama has always been like that. Development comes and goes, mainly because we are so connected to the world.  Furthermore, the economy of Panama is very much connected to all of Latin America.  We are a financial hub. We have a cosmopolitan way of life. We have always been a country that accepts foreigners with open arms. You see people from all over the world.

You can see the combination of cultures and the culmination of things that are happening here in Panama. It’s great.Blue Venoa, Dekel Development, Pedasi, Panama – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
(Interior of a home in Blue Venao, Dekel Development, Pedasi, pictured.)
There is actually a Panamanian saying that we are “the heart of the world.” Because of the Canal and because we have been a hub, we have so many people and so many things coming and going all the time. I can give you an example. Most of the South American flights that are going to North America make a stop in Panama. We have this unique position in America and also a unique position around the world. We benefit from the connectivity that is provided by our geographical. It’s easy to connect everywhere from here.

Jet Metier: You said that Panama is connected like a hub, but is there anything that happened in other countries that would make people interested in investing in Panama?
Manuel Baruco: I was reading the papers a year or two ago, that the economic boom that is happening to Panama has a lot to do with Venezuela. Venezuela used to be the commercial and economic center in Latin America. Back in the 80s and the 90s, Venezuela used to be called “the Miami of Latin America.”  All the multinational companies, all the commerce, all the trading happened through Venezuela.
Now, due to the political situation of Venezuela and due to several other factors, a lot of multinational companies, and a lot of international trading (basically every single economic aspect) has been moved to Panama.  The reasons are:
  • Panama is really easy to access.
  • We are situated as a geographic hub.
  • We benefited from the Americans running the Canal Zone, so a lot of our workforce speaks English.
  • We now own the Panama Canal.
Arial of Panama Canal – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living(Arial view of the Panama Canal, pictured.)
The trading through the Canal is great. We’re moving all sorts of cargo. Everything happens here in Panama.

Jet Metier: What kinds of people are leaving Venezuela?  What kinds of professions do they have?  What kind of investments are they making in Panama, and what is the impact on Panama of the activities of these Venezuelans?

Manuel Baruco: There is some sort of an issue with the socio-economic aspect of the Venezuelan immigrant who comes to Panama. Usually, the socio- economic levels of these immigrants are from middle class to upper class. They are usually coming to open businesses.
One economic aspect that Panama was lacking for a time was industry. Here in Panama, we didn’t manufacture many of our own goods. Mostly, it is because importing things here to Panama is so cheap.
I’ll give you an example.  Take paint. We didn’t really have to produce it here in-house because importing ready-made goods like paint here to Panama was so economical.  In contrast, Venezuela was a really industrialized country back in the 80s and 90s. And since the Venezuelans are moving to Panama, these immigrants are coming in to open businesses in this sector, and are producing manufactured goods, like paint.

Jet Metier: That’s so exciting! What other kinds of things are you manufacturing now in Panama?
Manuel Baruco:  I’ve seen things like furniture and steel.

Jet Metier: Does Panama have the raw materials? Do you have iron ore for steel?
Manuel Baruco: Yes, we do have ore in Panama, mostly in the Central part of the country. There is a huge iron ore mine located near Cocle. And also right next to Cocle, you have one of the biggest copper ore mines in Latin America. They discovered it a few years ago. And now there’s a Canadian company that came and bought the plague found Cocle Panama 800-1500 AD – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
(Gold plaque found in Cocle Panama 800-1500 AD, pictured.)
Jet Metier: When these Venezuelan companies come in, are they doing business as Venezuelan companies or are they doing businesses as Panamanian companies?
Manuel Baruco:  They are opening corporations here in Panama. It’s not that they’re branching out from Venezuela. Most of the Venezuelans that are relocating are relocating for good; that is what I understand. This is the situation. I am not sure if it is going to get any better in Venezuela for the next few years.
Jet Metier: Are they bringing in Venezuelan workers?
Manuel Baruco: They are actually hiring Panamanians.

Jet Metier: Are there unions there in Panama?
Manuel Baruco: Yes. We have unions for construction, and we have unions for a lot of different things.
Jet Metier:  Let’s talk about the history between Panama and the US.  I don’t know very much about the history between our two countries.
Manuel Baruco: In Latin America, we are actually one of the few countries that declared war on the United States. We did it twice within a 150 years period. Once it was because of watermelons.
Jet Metier: Watermelons!?!!
Manuel Baruco:  Believe it or not, watermelons.  It was in the 1850s.1850 Panama City – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
(1850 etching of Panama City, pictured.)
The story goes that an American stole from a guy in Panama City that was selling watermelon in the middle of the street. The American refused to pay for it. It only cost five cents at that time. And because of that piece of watermelon, we declared war on the United States. A lot of people were killed, a lot of US soldiers and a lot of Panamanians, because of the altercations that this incident provoked.

Jet Metier: How did it escalate, Manuel? This was a small vendor. Did Washington bring soldiers down, or were the soldiers already there?
Manuel Baruco: Supposedly there was a small garrison of American soldiers here, because at that moment, the United States had a contract to build the railroad in Panama that went along the Canal. They were there to protect the builders and the workers. We have never been really fond of external forces being here in Panama.

Jet Metier: What was the second war or the second battle?
Manuel Baruco: The second altercation happened in January 1964. According to a treaty that was signed in regards to the Canal, both the United States and the Panamanian flags were supposed to fly equally. Each one of the public offices in the Canal area, such as the school administration buildings, were supposed to have both the Panamanian and the US flags next to each other.
This was supposed to take effect starting January 1st 1964. So January 1st 1964 came and went, but there were no Panamanian flags waving next to the US flags. So a group of Panamanian students decided to take the Panamanian flag to one of the schools inside the Panama Canal Zone. While they were approaching the school (it used to be called Balboa High School), they ran into the Canal Zone police and a group of teachers and the parents of the kids from the school. One thing led to the other, and the Panamanian flag was ripped in two. Because of the Panamanian flag being ripped in two, we basically ended up killing a bunch of people.  A lot of Panamanians died, an again, we declared war against the States. Balboa HS Canal Zone 1997 – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
(Balboa High school, 1997 in the former Canal Zone, pictured.)

The Canal Zone at that point of time used to be US grounds; not Panamanian. There was an altercation for two or three days in the frontier area between the Canal Zone and Panama. It was a fight between the American armies and Panamanian civilians. The United Nations had to come in, which eventually helped make peace between the two sides. This incident led to the Panamanians signing a treaty in 1977 to get the Canal back. If that earlier situation would not have happened, Panamanians would not own the Canal now.  
Jet Metier: This is really interesting history.  Please tell us the story of Panama and its South American neighbors.Simón Bolívar Plaza_Bolívar – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
Manuel Baruco: There was a guy named Simon Bolivar 250 years ago who decided to make some sort of United Nations of South America, which was comprised of areas covering much of modern borders of Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, northern Peru, and northwest of Brazil.
(Monument in Simón Bolívar Plaza, Casco Antigua, Panama, pictured.)

Jet Metier: What did they all have in common?
Manuel Baruco: We were all shareholders in this union. This was right after the independence of most of these countries from Spain, at the beginning of 19th century. Since we had declared independence from Spain, our economy suffered a lot. We were left without any resources because most of the resources were taken by Spain when they left.

Jet Metier: What kind of resources did they take?
Manuel Baruco: Everything, including gold. Yes, in Panama, we do have a lot of gold. They are mining gold right now in the Western part of Panama in the Chiriquí Province They are extracting gold from gold ore.
Jet Metier: How do they mine it? Is it in the water or is it in the mountainside?
Manuel Baruco: It is in the mountainside and usually they use chemicals, which are not really good for the environment. I have mixed feelings because I understand how much they need the gold for a lot of stuff, not just for jewelry and for decoration. You actually need gold for medical purposes, for technology, and many computer parts are made of gold, but nevertheless, I don’t totally agree with what they are doing there.  It’s an isolated area, and the impact is environmental. It’s not necessarily affecting the people, but in the long term, that affects everybody.    

Jet Metier:
So you were talking about the relationship between Panama and the other countries in the region who were part of the union envisioned by Bolivar. Panama was the only one from Central America, right?
Manuel Baruco: Right.  We were the only one in Central America, mostly because we were right next to Colombia.1855 map that shows Panama with New Granada, Venuzuela, Equador – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
(1855 map that shows New Granada, which included modern day Panama, Columbia, Venezuela and Ecuador, pictured.)
We declared independence from Spain in 1828, and a few years after, we decided to join the coalition of countries. But after the coalition of countries of South America split, we remained stuck to Colombia until 1903. It was not independence. We agreed to separate from Colombia.
A lot of this happened during the time the Panama Canal was being built. The Colombian government gave the contract to the French to build the Panama Canal. The French were not doing that well, so the US government offered help to Panama to separate from Colombia. And since we separated from Colombia, we removed the contract from the French and gave it to the United States to continue building the Canal. So we were a natural country since 1903 and the Panama Canal was completed in 1914.
Jet Metier: You’re working in Pedasi. Are you from Pedasi?
Manuel Baruco: I’m actually from Panama City. I’ve been working in Pedasi for four years now.

Jet Metier: Let’s go back even further. Where’s your family from? Are you Panamanian on both sides of your family?​

Manuel Baruco: My parents were born here in Panama, but none of my great grandparents were born in Panama. On my mom’s side, my grandparents were born in England. And from my father’s side, one grandparent was born in Mexico and the other one was born in Italy.
Jet Metier: That’s quite an international background.  How did your grandparents find themselves in Panama?
Manuel Baruco: Both my great grandparents were doctors in agriculture who were hired by the Panamanian government back in the 20s to conduct experimental farming where Pedasi is located now.Chorrera, Panama small town in interior of  Panama 1916  – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living

(Chorrera, a small town in the interior of Panama, circa 1916, pictured.)
Jet Metier: What did they look like, Manuel?
Manuel Baruco: We as a family are considerably taller than the regular Panamanians. For example, I’m six foot three.

Jet Metier: Yes, you are tall. What about your grandparents? Were they fair- haired and blue eyed?
Manuel Baruco: My little brother has blue eyes, and I’m sure it is because of my great grandparents.
Jet Metier: Is there a British expat community in Panama that you would know about?
Manuel Baruco: Yes, but it’s not that big, though.  We have a lot of Scottish people here in Panama. I don’t know why, but the Scottish expat community is bigger than the actual English community.

Jet Metier: Why do you think the Scottish found Panama attractive?
Manuel Baruco: Well, because Scotland is pretty damn cold. So they’re coming for the warm weather.

Railway and dedging machine along the Panama Canal – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingNevertheless, you have to understand that Panama has received waves of immigrants because of the large construction projects in this country. For the construction of the railroad that goes along the Canal, we received a lot of Chinese people.  After the construction of the Canal, most of the workforce that came to work on the construction of the Canal was from Europe. This is actually the story of my great grandparents on my father’s side. They came to Panama for the construction of the Canal. You have a lot of families with that kind of background here in Panama.

(Railway along the Panama Canal with dredging equipment, pictured above.)

Jet Metier: Your other set of grandparents came in 1914, and you said one grandparent was Mexican and the other one was Italian.  Please tell us about them.
Manuel Baruco: My grandfather was Italian, but he came here when he was two years old. He came with his entire family because my great grandfather was the one who came here to work for the Canal.
My grandmother was born in Mexico, but her family was already here in Panama.

Jet Metier: Is there any tradition when you were growing up that was English or Italian or Mexican?Transformer action figure – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
(Manuel's Transformer action figure, pictured.)
Manuel Baruco: Yes. For example, it always bothered me when I was growing up that the Christmas gift exchange in my family never happened on the 25th. It always happened on the 6th of January because that is the European tradition.

Jet Metier:? Baruco. What kind of name is that?
Manuel Baruco: Italian, although it’s not that common a last name. There is just one family here in Panama that has that last name, which is, of course, my family.

Jet Metier: So tell me what it was like growing up in Panama City. Did you grow up in the city itself or in the suburbs?
Manuel Baruco: I grew up in the city itself in an area called San Francisco.

Jet Metier: What was it like when you were growing up?View of Panama City 1990 – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
Manuel Baruco: It was really nice. Panama back in the 90s was really like Latin America. Right now we are not like Latin American anymore. Panama City is so cosmopolitan and so full of different things to do. But before, back in the 90s, when I was growing up, Panama City was like a big town in the States. We didn’t have skyscrapers and I remember only one cinema.
(A view of Panama City featuring the defensive wall of Casco Viejo in 1990, pictured.)
I was living in a single-family home. In that area in San Francisco, in Panama City, there weren’t a lot of single-family homes.  We were in the middle of the city, but it seemed like we were living in the suburbs. We used to play in the street. We even played soccer in the streets. You can’t do that anymore. The only things you have in San Francisco now are buildings and restaurants. It’s a really nice, though, a cosmopolitan area. Nevertheless, it’s not suited for families anymore. They bought the land and they tore the houses apart and they built skyscrapers.

Jet Metier: Is your house still there that you grew up in?
Manuel Baruco: No, it’s not.19th century painting of Panama City – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living

(19th century painting of a neighborhood in Panama City, pictured.)

Jet Metier: Do most Panamanians live in single-family homes or do they have multi-generational arrangements?
Manuel Baruco: They are multi-generational. It’s not only Panama. That’s really all of Latin America.  But my younger brother and I lived with just our parents. My dad was really independent.
Jet Metier: What did your dad do?
Manuel Baruco: My dad is an economist and he’s been working for multinational companies for a long time. He went to school here in Panama at the National Public University of Panama and graduated with a master’s degree.  But now he is just “living the life” and semi-retired.

Jet Metier: Good for him. Is that part of your family background to pursue higher education?
Manuel Baruco:  Most of my family is well- educated. On my father’s side, which would be the Italian-Mexican side, and on my mother’s side, also, all of them are really well-educated. My mom is a psychologist and has a human resources degree and a psychologist degree.

Jet Metier:  Is she “living the life” now, too?traffic Panama City at night – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
Manuel Baruco: Yes, she’s “living the life.”
Jet Metier: Are your parents still living in the city?
(Traffic at night in Panama City, pictured.)
Manuel Baruco: Both of them moved out to the suburbs for a quiet life.

Jet Metier: You were interested in sports in school, weren’t you?
Manuel Baruco: I used to play a lot of sports when I was in high school.  I played American football.  [Editor’s note: In Boston.] Now, it’s quite popular. My little 13-year-old brother has already joined the team.

Jet Metier: Can you get a scholarship in high school to play football on a college level?
Manuel Baruco: There are no sports scholarships here in Panama.

Jet Metier: What were your favorite topics in school?
Manuel Baruco: I have always been into math, physics and chemistry; the sciences.VideoJuegosadiario  – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
(VideoJuegosadiario pictured right, for which Miguel Baruco is the editor in chief.)

Jet Metier: So when you were a kid, you must have loved all the American movies that had to do with things like that.
Manuel Baruco: Yes. I have always been a fan of science fiction. My favorite movie is Star Wars. It has always been and it always will be. I grew up watching Star Wars. I was talking to my dad the other day and I told him that I have watched Star Wars more than 50 times throughout my life.
Jet Metier: Speaking of wars, as a Panamanian, do you have to register for the draft or do you have any kind of military obligation?
Manuel Baruco: No. We don’t have an army here in Panama.

Jet Metier: How does that work, for example, in the case you get invaded by Colombia or Venezuela?
Manuel Baruco: The main reason why we don’t have an army is because there are so many international eyes on top of us. So many people have their money here. Countries from around the world have investments here. So I don’t think that anybody would ever mess with us. 

Jet Metier: That is a very interesting. What uniqueness does Panama have in the world?
Manuel Baruco: Our geographical position is a blessing. We even have an ocean current that comes all the way from Europe that crosses the Atlantic and ends up here. It’s the same current that Christopher Columbus used from Europe to come here to the Americas. And the multicultural aspect of Panama is something really cool, too. We are located in Central America; nevertheless, our culture is mostly Caribbean.(1855 map of the West Indies and the Caribbean Sea, which includes Panama, pictured.)  – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
((1855 map of the West Indies and the Caribbean Sea, which includes Panama, pictured.) 

Jet Metier: Is that so?  What are the features that make it more Caribbean rather than Central American?
Manuel Baruco:  The food, the way that we speak Spanish, the music; everything is Caribbean, not Central American.

Jet Metier: Why do people leave Panama and why do they come back?
Manuel Baruco: I left because my dad was working in Boston for three years.

Jet Metier: When you moved to Boston, what were the things that you missed about Panama that you knew you were really Panamanian at heart because those things were very dear to you?Manuel Baruco with friends in Panama – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
Manuel Baruco: The party spirit. If you ever come to Panama, you will realize that Panamanians like their parties a lot.  Actually it’s quite intense; a lot of alcohol, loud music, and firecrackers.
Jet Metier: Now that you’ve made your home in Pedasi, that must be a different experience from urban Panama.
Manuel Baruco: Yes, Jet, it is.  Next time, I would like to talk to you about Pedasi and the Azuero Peninsula, and everything this whole area has to offer.

Jet Metier: Yes. We’ll do that. We’ll talk again soon. Give my best to everyone at Dekel Development.
Manuel Baruco: Thank-you. Enjoy!


Next A Guided Road Trip From the City to Pedasí, Azuero Peninsula, in the Republic of Panamá

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