Tales about Aviation, Coaching, Farming, Software Development

Leaving Panama

Panama has been an interesting place to be. We made many experiences - good and bad. It was clear from the beginning that living in Latin America is going to be different from Europe or the United States. In our case - a German and a Colombian - there shouldn't be a culture shock and there wasn't.

As I write this we have officially left Panama.

A work related opportunity has made it more stressful to continue living in Panama. Staying would require too much travel back and forth with too much time away from the family.

The other reason - and it's the thing I would like to say a few more words about - is that I consider my attempts to solve the legal problems regarding the land purchase a failure. On paper I am the owner of 128 ha of land in the Chepo district in eastern Panama. The office of land reform has refused to confirm my right of possession despite the fact that the former owner signed it over to me and then breached the contract he signed and causing damages to me. The office of land reform is even violating written Panamanian law to a certain extend but that doesn't really matter much unless someone would care enough about it and has the power to apply legal pressure. By now a new entity has been established to replace the office of land reform. The name is ANATI but right from the start there has been a few bigger scandals of more valuable land than the one in question in my case. The initial director of ANATI had to resign. There are a lot of games being played and if you are interested in knowing more about crazy Panamanian politics you may read more about it at the Panama Guide website.

To assess the situation I had a few longer talks with different lawyers and learned that I can force the seller to leave the land he officially signed over to me and take possession in a matter of a few weeks. However, that doesn't make me the legal owner. I would still have to fight for that in court and in the very end I do need the recognition of my ownership by ANATI, which is uncertain and can be in limbo for many years. I would be investing in improving the land, putting up infrastructure and even build a house without being sure that all of that is really mine.

As I don't look forward to paying a huge amount of money to a lawyer and still have no legal security, I decided to stop right here and abandon the project "farming in the rainforest". It has been a tremendous adventure. I learned many things and did many things that I would probably never have learned about or done without coming to Panama. The experience has enriched my life.

There is another problem with doing business in Panama and it is of social and cultural nature. It is something that shows human weaknesses.

While I was doing software development in my own office in Panama City I provided opportunities to a few Panamanians to learn about modern software development. I have been happy with their personal development towards becoming software craftsmen and they certainly were happy with the compensation received. However, after a while it turned out that due to comparisons to their friends working in more sales oriented companies a high salary became more important than their professional development. I am talking about 24 - 26 years old who were still living at home. Eventually some switched to the higher paying regular job or were pulled back in from their parents to help in the home business (subsistence agriculture). In retrospective I have to say that they themselves or their parents clearly did not understand the huge opportunity that were presented to them. I don't blame them. It is likely that they were not believing in it because it's not offered by anyone in Panama.

Later when I was pursuing the idea of setting up a farm in the rainforest I met a few good young people who worked for me in different capacities being it harvesting teak, building an off road trailer or a transmitter tower to bring Internet to a village. I have been very happy, we had a very good relationship and I helping them and their families here and there when the need was huge. However, after a while of enjoying the good life, they wanted more than the proverbial fair share and things went sour. In looking back it is probably a good thing that the farm project did never really start due to the land dispute. From at least two wealthier Panamanian acquaintances I was told that - despite the poverty in rural Panama - it is extremely difficult to find reliable people.

It appears that the pattern I have observed myself is a huge problem for many businesses. Panama has what is called locally a juega vivo culture. At its core is to be smarter than the other guy and have no consideration. Politicians and other elected officials demonstrate this behavior in front of everyone and so it is no wonder that it influences behavior.

Still - and I would like to stress that - I enjoyed living in Panama. There are many positive things that one can enjoy. Running a business is not one of them but other than that it can be a very relaxing and quiet place to enjoy life. Especially if one's income comes from outside Panama.


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