Pirates of the Caribbean … and of the Pacific.

We are currently in Costa Rica, in Liberia to be precise where the party (the annual fiesta) is starting. I just finished a couple of work reports so can now resume the blog without guilt. We stayed in Panama about a month ago at the end of January and the beginning of February and have been in Costa Rica since February 3.

Panama city skyline. Where does the money for all these skyscrapers come from?


I have a serious problem with Panama. I rarely I find myself disliking people or a country. I like to assume the best of people and I am not often disappointed. However, in less than a week in Panama we had four experiences with dishonesty, which seem to be rife in the country.

We’re not talking about crime here, which is everywhere in the world. Or about petty corruption of officials, which is endemic in poor countries where civil servants have low pay. Or the high level corruption even our Canadian governments are guilty of, whether it’s the Tories under Mulroney and Harper or the Liberals under Chrétien and Charest. We are talking here about a more fundamental dishonesty, lying for the sake of lying, even in petty things. It reminds one of the old joke, this time applied to Panamanians: “How can you tell a Panamanian is lying?” “His lips are moving.”

Our first experience of dishonesty was at the car rental place at the airport. We had a reservation from Dollar rent a car for a car at $20 per day, unlimited mileage, etc, through Expedia.ca. But at the counter, we were told there would be a charge of $US18 per day for insurance. And that was only for third party liability as I declined the other insurance. This almost doubled the cost of the rental. This was particularly galling as the next day I got third party liability insurance from an Italian insurance company for my truck for $US116 for a whole year! I felt pretty ripped off, but I figured what the hell, bad apple and all that. But it turns out the barrel is rotten.

Doug & Mitch & Luigi in the kitchen at Panayukana in Chame.

Our next experience was a petty one in Chame. Doug Dupont and I had a few beers with a couple of Panamanians while my truck was getting washed. Mitch and Doug are wonderful people and run an absolutely first class boutique hotel in Chame (Panayukana, more on a later post when I talk about the good sides of Panama).

One of the guys asked us to give him a ride home which he said was in the next village over & — Bejuco. Well it turned out that he lived two villages away in Santa Cruz. Like who cares, why don’t you tell us you live six kilometres away instead of three? Like what’s the big deal? Why do you feel the need to lie?

Number three was one we witnessed. Someone has a firm price contract where they have to pay half the cost up front. No problem. Half of the contract price is counted out in front of one of the contractors and he signs a receipt. The next day, the guy claims that he was $1,000 short when he went to deposit the money at the bank. The problem, though, is that you can’t afford to piss them off because they can take revenge. We were told a story of some expats who pissed off their contractor, so they raped the wife and wounded the husband. Not even drug dealers operate that way: a deal is a deal.

The fourth was with Panamanian customs (motto: purportedly “Servicio y honestad” but in reality “Incompetencia y corrupción“). The day after I arrived, I went to the customs office in Panama City to find out what I should do about my truck as the temporary importation permit had expired. The customs officer I spoke to told me that there would be a $250 fine and I had to get the truck out of the country ASAP and then come back after 72 hours. When I asked her if I could make the arrangements right there in Panama City, she told me no and that I had to go to the Paso Canoas border post where I had entered the country. OK so far. So after spending a great weekend at Mitch and Doug’s place, we head out north to the Costa Rican border.

About a third of the way – at a small dorp1 not on the map call Divisa – we are stopped at a road block by the police and a customs officer who asks for the truck papers. Well, they keep us waiting for four hours, charge us $411 instead of the $250 as the customs administrator claims the law allows him to charge up to $500 dollars or even to seize the vehicle, so I should count myself lucky. All with strong hints that we can get out of it with a bribe. Well, he got his kicks by keeping us waiting and by insisting that a customs officer escort us to the border, like the nasty criminals were. I almost kissed the ground when I entered Costa Rica and had the usual helpful and pleasant interchanges with the Costa Rican customs officials. A tour guide I met in Costa Rica told me that he routinely gives the Panamanian customs guards $20 just so they won’t give him a hard time.

This is very different from the attempted shake downs by police in Honduras and Mexico State, where eventually they gave up after trying it on and we parted with smiles when it became clear that I was not going to give them a bribe.

My theory is that this dishonesty is rooted in the country’s history. It started with collaboration with English pirates – like “Sir” Francis Drake and William Morgan – in the 16th century. Panama was then used as a land route where the Spanish loot from Peru was brought from the Pacific to waiting ships in the Caribbean. Before that there was Balboa who supposedly “discovered” this part of the world, and ended up beheaded after a lot of chicanery among the Spanish conquistadores.

The Peruvian loot was used to fund the Spanish takeover of Italy, the Netherlands and the German Holy Roman Empire. The English buccaneers and French flibustiers stole some of the loot while their monarchs successfully resisted and eventually defeated Spanish hegemony in Europe. We would be speaking Spanish today instead of English and French if had not been for the success of these pirates. But, I digress.

The creation of Panama was another less than honest act. Panama was part of Colombia, but the US did not like the terms the Colombians were imposing on eventual canal builders. So Teddy Roosevelt and co. used gunboats and a few locals to orchestrate the independence of the isthmus and massively bribed the Panamanian ambassador (who wasn’t even Panamanian) to the US to give them the Canal Zone.

There are other contemporary political aspects to that dishonesty. Panama invented the idea of “flag of convenience” for ship owners who want to avoid all forms of regulations, whether it be safety, seaworthiness, or labour and environmental standards. Quoting the unimpeachable wikipedia:

Flag-of-convenience registries are often criticized. As of 2009, thirteen flag states have been found by international shipping organizations to have substandard regulations. A basis for many criticisms is that the flag-of-convenience system allows shipowners to be legally anonymous and difficult to prosecute in civil and criminal actions. Ships with flags of convenience have been found engaging in crime and terrorism, frequently offer substandard working conditions, and negatively impact the environment, primarily through illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Panama also supports criminals and terrorists through its banking secrecy laws that rival those of the Cayman Islands, and are certainly more liberal than that European den of tax evasion and criminal refugees known as Switzerland. If you want to launder your ill-gotten gains, Panama seems to be the place to go.

view from our hotel room

What I found particularly strange is the large number of high rises under construction in Panama City. One wonders where the financing for all that real estate comes from. And much of it seems to be empty, including the wonderful hotel we stayed in called “Esplendor Panama”, where a high-end one-bedroom suite only cost us $100 a night.

1 Dorp is Marilyn’s term for a really small place, originally applied to places like Upper or Lower or Middle Hainesville, New Brunswick.

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One Response to “Pirates of the Caribbean … and of the Pacific.”

  1. Richard Says:

    Ah Luigi…

    You are quite the adventurer, to go to the end of the line just to say I been there, it takes a very special person with lots of determination.

    We had a great time listening to some of your stories, and one of the ones Iv’e already related to a few people is a comment you made to a road block police officer when asked “were are you from” and you said I live at the other end of this road 1,500 miles away, I told this to some Panamanian friends over a beer and they all cracked up trying to imagine the face on that cop when you said that.

    You were definately a great guest to have and lots of fun to be around. I was thankful for a very special gift from you, that is now proudly displayed in my boat, I can say for sure that everyone that sits on that seat will be thankful to you as much as I was when you gave it to me lol…

    I hope the rest of your journey is uneventfull and you make it back safely to your wife and the Yukon. You will always be welcomed here any time.

    I feel we have made a new friend.

    Hoping your travels will bring you out this way again.

    Warm regards,
    Richard, Anita and Caterina

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