Living, buying property, doing business, and investing overseas come with challenges, including some you might not expect.
Chief among the roadblocks you might not be prepared for is corruption.
Transparency International produces an annual index. On it, Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Japan, most of Europe, and Uruguay rank as among the least corrupt places on earth.
What about the rest of the world?
Some of the most corrupt places to spend time are places I know well. They include countries I’ve called home, and they are some of the world’s most interesting spots, full of potential and opportunity.
I’ve also learned that, in these places, bribery, skimming, profiteering, and old boys’ networks are part of the reality of life. Depending on your personal circumstances and agendas, this reality could be invisible to you. Or it could affect your experience. It has mine, sometimes dramatically.
This has been the case in Panama, where I have been spending time and doing business for nearly 30 years. I have started a business, bought apartments, built houses, raised a family, and made friends. My husband Lief Simon and I are more invested in this country than any other.
Over the years we’ve been living and doing business here, some have had their hands out.
Lief has been pulled over by traffic cops asking for a mordita, or a “little bite,” dozens of times.
“It sure is a hot day,” they say. “I could use a cold beer.” The implication is that you should buy them a drink. Pass over a five-dollar bill with your driver’s license, and the imagined infraction is forgotten.
Lief ignores the game.
He pretends he doesn’t speak Spanish. He makes the conversation so difficult and lengthy that the cop loses interest. The officer realizes he’s wasting time that could be spent pulling over a more obliging gringo.
I’ve witnessed the scene many times but have fended off cynicism to hold on to my naturally romantic perspective. As my Panamanian friend Dalys tells me, with affection, I’ve stayed a sucker.
In 2008, we made our biggest investment in Panama yet. When we bought hundreds of acres of raw land on one of the most remote coastlines in the world, in Panama’s Veraguas Province, we tied our futures to this country.
At the time, we had no idea where that decision would lead. The deeper we integrated into our adopted home’s culture, the more corruption we encountered, in small and big ways.
The most troubling confrontation has been over a fence. We want to build a fence at our entrance. It should be a simple thing.
However, the man who sold the property where we want to erect our fence, our neighbor Señor Sanchez, decided to forget the sale. He insists the land is still his. He and his sons have threatened violence and even attacked our work crews with machetes.
In response, we’ve filed complaints with the police, the justice of the peace, and eventually the courts. First one judge ruled in our favor, then another. The conflict should have been over.
But Señor Sanchez and his family continued to harass us and our workers. The local authorities in the remote region where we’re operating wouldn’t uphold our land rights.
We filed more complaints. More rulings were made, all in our favor. Still, the authorities sided with our neighbor.
We began to suspect something must be going on behind the scenes to keep this clear-cut case open.
We arranged a meeting with our attorney Fernando to have a frank conversation. “This country is run by the rich and connected Panamanians,” Fernando told us when he joined us in our office.
“Panamanians without money or connections don’t stand a chance. Foreigners, even foreigners with money and connections, don’t stand a chance either.
“Rich and connected Panamanians only work with each other. They look out for each other. They do favors for each other. If one is in trouble, another who is a cousin or a friend of the judge makes a call and the ruling is changed.”
“Yes, that is the way of things in Panama,” my friend Dalys confirmed. “It is not the right way, but it is the way here. The law does not always win.”
Panama is a civil law country. In common law countries like the United States, case law and judicial opinions inform decisions. Interpretation and precedent count.
In civil law systems, codified statutes rule. As long as a document has been signed, sealed, stamped, and filed away, that’s the black and white. The process is all that matters. I’ve come to hate the word. Panamanian attorneys, bureaucrats, and politicians pull it out to pass the buck.
“It’s not my fault. It’s the process,” they insist. The process continues as long as someone is willing to pay the associated costs. I’d blamed Napoleon until I remembered he based his code on Justinian’s. The Romans set us up for this fight.
Lief and I have stayed our course. What has been our option? To throw down in the mud with the rest and begin paying off government officials like everybody else? No. Like when Lief is pulled over by a cop on a hot day, we’ve refused to play the game.
The situation with our fence and our neighbor Señor Sanchez began four years ago and continues still. Fernando reports that Panama’s highest court has issued an ultimate ruling. He assures us that this decree cannot be dismissed or ignored.
We intend to resume work on our fence. The court says they’ll send a representative to oversee. I remain optimistic.
The story of our fence is an extreme example. You’re unlikely to experience trouble on this level in your new life overseas.
But you could encounter corruption on a smaller scale. You might be short-changed or overcharged or asked for a little something to expedite your residency application.
These realities are no reason not to embrace the opportunities our big, beautiful world offers. Lief and I don’t regret a single day or dollar invested in Panama. Our experiences in this country have brought the biggest struggles but also the greatest rewards of our lifetimes.
As with all challenges associated with living and investing overseas, the key is to be prepared. Educate yourself about the culture in the place where you’re considering spending time and money. Don’t bury your head in the sand. Acknowledge the local ways. Maybe double-count your change.
Then push ahead into the adventure that awaits.