Un-Happy New Years, New Years tears, grandmother, short story, short stories, imagination, writing, Panama, beach, time to celebrate, time to mourn, death, grief, healing, heal

Un-Happy New Years

It was 9.01 pm, and she was late getting ready for the New Year’s Eve party.  Once again, she had no desire to go. Days before, she had felt excited and eager.  But as the day dawned, and the hour neared, she drew back into her shell, wanting to shun it all and stay home.

The excitement was already replaced with anxiety.  And she was feeling pressured into going.

“What will they say when I don’t show up?”, she thought.

She was already thinking about the excuses she could make up. I have a headache (no one will believe it, of course).  My stomach is playing up again and I don’t want to drink anything feeling like this (that was actually true, but they still wouldn’t believe it).

A drink would, without a doubt, leave her with an upset stomach overnight and probably for days to come.  Multiple trips to the bathroom throughout the night would make for a bad night’s sleep and a thick head in the morning.  The woes of a weak digestive system that could no longer withstand even one glass of wine or bubbly.

But that wasn’t really what she was avoiding.  It was the overwhelming feeling of being lost within a sea of energy – some dark, some light, but all crashing into her, bombarding her.  The extroverts in the room completely unaware of the energy they threw out… the damage it caused as it crashed into her unabated.  Nowhere to hide, even if she locked herself in the bathroom.

How she hated the multitudes and gatherings in closed quarters.

She thought, for a moment, about the invitation to join her family at the beach.  At least at the beach, there was space to get away from everyone, and she could go for a solitary walk.  But how she loved her own bed and really disliked going away overnight. And if she left now, she wouldn’t reach the beach until almost 11.00, and there would be no chance of turning around and driving back home.

For a moment she was lost looking at a photo from years before.  Happier times, younger days.  Times when she loved being at the beach with her family – when all the cousins would still get together and the neighbours would all come over. That single sparkler in her hands, a reminder of a happy childhood spent with family and friends.

She sat down with the photo in her hands. For a moment, she felt the joy of the party and the multitude.

It was almost enough to motivate her to finish getting ready and leave for the party.

But then she heard the sound  of the car horns and the traffic jam on the street outside. The sound of the traffic as the stragglers that had gone for drinks before driving home and were now stuck in late traffic as they tried to make their way out of the city.

What traffic would she have to navigate to get to the party?

And just like that, her mind was made up.

Pijamas it was!  Another New Year’s Eve at home alone.  In bed before 10.00.

But was that really so bad?  Un-happy for some – perhaps.

But at 6.00 a.m. on New Year’s Day, she would have the promenade to herself as she went for a run with the dogs, enjoying the first sunrise of the New Year.  Beautiful solitude.

Quiet.

Ah. Bliss.

Advertisements

Tears in my Soup

Another tear rolled down her face, gently dropping off her perfectly groomed cheek. Plop! Straight into the bowl of soup.  The waiter noticed that her makeup remained impeccably set, as if nothing had happened – no running mascara or watercolor mess. It was as if it had never happened.

With her perfectly manicured french nails, she pushed her bowl away, across the rough surface of the wooden table, and broke off another chunk of bread from the fresh baked bread that was already cool on the plate beside her.  Lathering it in creamy butter, she stopped the train of thoughts rushing through her mind… carrying her back to  a time and place not visited in a long time.

Somehow, this simple soup in a small roadside cafe, with its rustic tables & chairs, warm fireplace and occasional traveller, had transported her from the cold wintery weather back to the tropics.

She struggled to get ahold of herself – this was no place to cry!

“That’s not who I am!  Big girls don’t cry!”

Pulling herself back together, and wiping away the tears, she asked for the check.  The waiter pretended not to have noticed the breakdown, and in a simple black server book handed her the bill.  She paid hastily, leaving much too large a tip, but in a hurry to get out of there.

She’d wanted a coffee, but she would find somewhere else for that.  Perhaps, instead of travelling down country roads, she would find her way back to the motorway and pull over into a Services. There was always Starbucks, Greggs or something equally familiar.

As her boots tapped along the cobblestones, she put her gloves back on, thankful for the fur lining on her wool coat.  Even after so many years, she still felt the cold acutely.  It was hard to adjust, after the tropics.  She touched the button on the remote and the door opened, and she gingerly sat down at the wheel.

As she looked at the three-pointed star of her steering wheel, the tears started to fall freely.  She gripped the wheel, even though she hadn’t even started the car and certainly was in no state to do so now.

Soup.

That’s all it took to bring back the memories.

Soup.

Everything she had worked so hard to forget and leave behind her, and a simple bowl of homemade soup had brought it all bubbling back to the surface.  The years faded away and she was transported back to another time and place.

The floor beneath her feet was harden dirt, the walls a mix of straw and dirt that had been roughly patched and painted in places.  It was dark, but cool inside, as she sat at the wooden table, that wobbled on the uneven floor. A single window, with a wooden frame with gaps all around it as it was rudely stuffed into the hole. The door frame was just as rustically made –  no masterpiece of woodwork, crookedly hanging on its hinges, and had to be lifted to actually shut in place.

Over to her right, the wall had a hole broken through the dirt & clay, to let the water out when it rained too hard and the roof started to leak.  Luckily, the house wasn’t perfectly flat and all the water run into that corner.  So, the hole had been made to let the water out, and then a rudimentary screen covered it, to keep the rats and rodents out.

In front of her, a bowl of soup that her mother had made and beside her a slice of bread for dipping in the soup.

In the dark corner, over to her left, she knew there was hanging a smoked pork loin, which was rationed out each day.  It hung inside a woven basket and was covered in a cloth to keep the flies off it! Just one small piece…

Yesterday she and her brother Ramón had eaten the last of the pork rind crackling while their parents were out.  Her back still hurt from the beating her father had given them both when he discovered what they had done.  Was it really so bad to be hungry and have eaten the crackling?

Mother lay on the bed they all slept in, recovering from the beating Father had given her when she had stepped in to defend them both.

That was the day she had decided she would not grow up to be poor.  That she would eat whatever she wanted when she was hungry. She would never depend upon a man to say what she could or could not eat.

Angry tears now started to flow as she remembered.

And finally, she gave in to the tears… Mother was dead and she had been unable to convince her to move with her. She had left it all behind to build a new life and never looked back.

Mother was dead, and he had finally killed her.

December, Panama, madness, road rage, traffic jams, inconsiderate drivers, emotional intelligence, cutting off, blocked intersections, blocking intersection

December Madness: Road Rage

Unfortunately, we are back in that time of  year when Panama’s road rage escalates and the traffic jams just seem to be crazy!  Everyone that has a car is out and about, and there does not seem to be a single day where there aren’t any traffic jams.  Obviously, Panama’s traffic in the central business district is pretty bad all year round – but December is nightmarish.

Every year, we see the government make the Corredor Norte & Corredor Sur (toll highways) free for some of the December period (often December 7 or 8 – Mother’s Day; and then again for Christmas – one year they made it free from the 19th to the 23rd!).  This is because some 2 million cars transit through Panama City every week.

It was so bad in 2016 that the Government changed the working hours of public offices so that they would leave work earlier and be able to get home before the worst of the traffic.  Hopefully this year it will be repeated, and we will see some employers offering alternative working hours to their staff to accommodate the Christmas traffic.

Road Rage

In Panama, all year round, it’s quite common to find drivers aggressively jumping queues, blocking intersections (even with the traffic cop directing the traffic), honking, flashing their lights, and speeding up to block you out as you try to change lanes or merge.  But this inconsiderate driving in bad traffic conditions seems to get worse in December.

What is essential to realise – while you cannot change or control how others respond & react in the traffic – you can control yourself! You can choose how you are going to view the problems around December traffic and stress.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence – something that many times appears to be sorely lacking in Panama – is the capacity to perceive, access & manage yourself and understand others.  It’s quite similar to empathy – with the added bonus of being self-aware.

It’s important to note – this is not intellectual.

This is intelligence.

It refers to our ability to learn – to continually change and adapt the information we had and then choose to respond differently.  One of the biggest challenges with emotional intelligence is that there is communication between the emotional and rational centres of our brain – and they occur at different speeds.

The lymbic system, which receives and processes a stimulus (leading to an emotional response), actually receives and processes faster than the neocortex (rational brain).  So, inevitably, we react emotional BEFORE we have had a chance to think.

road rage, just breathe, count to 10, Panama traffic, traffic jams, Christmas traffic, Costa del Este, Corredor Sur, Corredor Norte, Calle 50, Vía España, malls, Altaplaza, Multicentro, Multiplaza, Albrook

So, while it’s true that Panama needs to come up with new solutions to the December madness that leads to the road rage in the first place – there’s also a place for self-regulation!

Panama, traffric, road rage, Panama madness, Christmas traffic, December, Panama City, Calle 50, Vía España, Cinta Costera, Costa del Este

In  my ideal world of PanUtopia, all driver’s ed courses would include the following education:

  1. Pause & count to 10 —
    1. The brain struggles to process more than one thought at a time.  So you cannot count to 10 AND be thinking about why you are so mad at the other person.
    2. This allows the anger and emotions to dissipate until you can engage the rational brain
    3. Don’t take this frustration home with you – release & let go before you walk in the door!
  2. Engage your brain – think & visualize the consecuences of how you are planning to respond
  3. Practice empathy – recognise that they are driving in their own circumstances
  4. Defensive driving – not simjply driving according to the rules, but awareness that others might not be following the rules. It’s better to be safe than to be right.
  5. General education about timeliness – if there’s always bad traffic in Panama (and we all know that there is) – always calculate your travel time to the worse possible scenario, so that you are always on time.  It’s not the traffic’s fault you are running late.

Solutions

So, let’s really talk solutions to this December madness.

More public transport

I would love to see Panama actually start planning and announcing public transport options during the peak traffic.  To know that during the December traffic, there will be buses running more often than during the rest of the year.

And I would like to see Panamanians using public transportation more during the Christmas period:

  • metro
  • buses
  • Uber/taxi
  • Pedestrian

Carpooling

I would love for Panama to simply do away with their not-so-well and not-so-brilliant carpooling legislation! Who would think that legislating carpooling would actually work?

The problem is that in other countries a police officer will not pull you over in the morning traffic to find out whether the person(s) travelling with you in the car are friends/family or an officially carpooling which is registered… they will simply be glad for less traffic on the road.  However, in Panama, the taxis and transport unions are so strong, that they have made it impossible for anyone to give a neighbour or co-worker a lift to work – because apparently that’s unfair competition with the public transport sector!

Who in their right mind thought that this was a good idea?

If we want to address the traffic nightmare, we need to accept that maybe, perhaps, a neighbour will ask you for petrol-money!  And that’s okay.  It’s one less car on the road.  It’s not an illegal taxi service!

Changed working hours

In past years, the government has changed public offices working hours in December, in order to alleviate the congestion at peak hours.  This means that public officials were getting out of work by 3.30 p.m., allowing them to be home before 5.00 when the rest of private enterprise was getting off work.

More TV time – educational videos

I would love to see the transport authorities / police spend money on educational videos!

  • how to use a roundabout (circular intersections  – rotaries – what do you call them?)
  • reminder that a passing lane is for “passing” – go back into the right lane if you are not passing
  • give me a comedy about the rudeness of queue jumping
  • pet peeve – teaching drivers NOT to block intersections – don’t move forward into an intersection until it’s clear to exit.  And give this education, especially, to the traffic cops that are directing traffic.  Yes – even if you are directing traffic, there’s still no reason to allow ANY car to block the intersection!
  • tailgating versus defensive driving
  • purpose & uses of indicators – maybe another tongue-in-cheek comedy routine

But really – be safe as you are out there driving in the December madness.

Remember – while you have no control over how others are driving – you are 100% responsible for your own responses.  How will you choose to drive this December?

Panama, traffic jams, car, cars, transport, network, train, metro, bus, buses, quality, life, work, employment, jobs, commute, commuting, driving, riding, stuck

Traffic jams

It’s 4.44 a.m. and I am awake with my hot chocolate. This, for me, is quite a normal time to be awake and up.  But that’s just my body clock – that loves getting up hours before dawn to welcome the day!  I love the quiet morning – no interruptions – just to sit and write.

Most Panamanians, however, have a waking time similar to this – with alarm clocks and a commute that I do not envy!  One friend tells me she leaves home before 5.50 a.m., otherwise she will be stuck in traffic for 2 hours.  If she leaves before then, it only takes 30 minutes.  So, she gets to work at 6.30 a.m. every morning!  But it’s better to be at work than stuck in traffic for hours!

Another lady in my office leaves home (Chorrera) every day before 5.20, so that she has a “hope” of getting on the unlicensed buses (known here as bus pirata), because at least then she can come with air-conditioning and sitting down.   All in order to get to the office before 8.00 a.m.  Most people that live in Chorrera are awake at 4.00 a.m. to get to work by 8.00 – to me that is simply unimaginable!

It’s quite normal for a Panamanian to spend 4 to 5 hours a day stuck in traffic on their way to and from work!  Imagine the quality of life they could have if they could recover 3-4 hours a day!

While it’s true that the Metro train runs from Los Andes to Albrook Mall in 20 minutes, that’s only a partial solution to Panama’s commuting problem!  Panama has built suburbs in three directions:

  1. Los Andes / Milla 8 / San Miguelito
  2. Tocumen / Pacora / 24 de diciembre
  3. Arraijan (pop. 300,000)  / Chorrera (pop 200,00)

Of these three areas, the current metro line only services the first of these.  The second metro line – under construction but “almost finished” will cover Tocumen, 24 de diciembre & Pacora – but will not actually go to the airport!  So, for now, we can forget about the option of coming into the airport and just catching the metro home!  Once again, I see no plans for any parking at the final station.

And the third line of the metro – that will take care of commuters from Chorrera & Arraijan, is still in planning phases – with the largest part of the plan being the bridge across the Canal for the train & more traffic.  Chorrera and Arraijan used to be in the same Province as Panama City – until the populations grew so much, that the west side of the bridge was divided off into a new province: Panamá Oeste.  Chorrera is now the capital of that province!  But it doesn’t “act” like a provincial capital in many ways.  It continues in its role of sleeping & housing satellite for Panama City.

As Ursula Kiener stated earlier this year in a tweet – building 20 bridges across the Canal isn’t going to solve the problem – the issue lies with having Chorrera & Arraijan simply as dormitory cities.  We need to start developing the rest of the country and creating jobs there.

But even if I look at New Zealand – and their commuting problem for Auckland’s central business district – is it really all that different? Twelve KM from New Lynn to CBD in about an hour – which is half the distance that commutes have from Tocumen or a third from Chorrera (34km) into Panama City’s CBD.

Panama attempts to solve the commuting issue by having all of the lanes of the Interamerican highway coming INTO town from 4.00 to 8.00 a.m. – meaning that if you want to go out of Panama City, you take the Puente Centenario!

Basic culture – driving:

And that’s without even talking about the traffic in downtown Panama City!  Unfortunately, Panamanians do not appear to have learned the basics of how to handle intersections – exacerbating the traffic jams and frustration for other drivers.

What’s worse — you watch the traffic cops telling drivers to pull up over the intersection while they wait in line… doing nothing to help in the education of drivers who are respecting an intersection.

 

Pet peeve # 2 – Panamanians do not seem to have learnt the correct way to use a roundabout!  Panama would be a slice closer to Utopia, if every driver would just follow the simple etiquette and rules for using a roundabout.

Part of the solution lies in a complete education of Panamanians regarding regard to the driving rules – not driving on the shoulder and creating a third lane when there are only two, not driving down a one-way street the wrong way to avoid the queue in the other street, and respect for fellow drivers.  Everyone is heading the same direction – getting to work.

Transport solutions

Public transport

The options in Panama at the moment are limited:

  1. Buses, including metro buses & “piratas” – referring to the unlicensed buses that run daily (who when they are deemed illegal actually protest and block the roads)
  2. Metro system – line 1 – running North-South – only available at the moment from San Isidro to Albrook Mall
  3. Taxis – which used to be relatively safe and comfortable – are now often not air-conditioned and people are concerned about their safety
  4. Uber & other apps – a better option, as long as you have a credit card for payment, since they are phasing out cash payments (although in today’s headlines – this is being extended again)
  5. Walking
  6. Cycling

I don’t know anyone in Panama that would cycle to work – especially since upon arriving at work they would need somewhere to shower.  The heat & humidity of the tropics does not make this a cool morning ride to work – and the fumes from the traffic are asphyxiating!  Not to mention the complete lack of cycle-friendly cars that would push you off the road in their angst to get to work “on time”.

Uber & taxis are certainly not options for a long commute – such as from Chorrera or Pacora, because they would break a hole in your pocket if you did that daily!

And so commuters are left only with walking (fine for short distances as long as there isn’t a tropical downpour), buses or their private vehicles.

Car-pooling or ride sharing

Car-pooling would seem like one obvious solutions to Panama’s public transport crisis more than one person travels in a car, and prevents the need for others to have to drive  themselves. Ride-sharing reduces each person’s travel costs such as: fuel costs, tolls, and the stress of driving.

While to me it may seem crazy – Panama prohibits carpooling or ride-sharing to work – unless you’ve registered for it!  The taxis and public transport didn’t want people to be able to do this, because they said that the driver would charge others for the ride (i.e. gas money) and that was taking money out of the pocket of public transport.

Really?

Seriously?

Would you LOOK at the transport problem that Panama has?

And you want to legislate carpooling & ride-sharing so that it’s done properly???

While every other country simply has a rule that there are carpooling lanes (i.e. if there are two or more people in a car they get a special fast lane) – Panama is sitting here complaining about the traffic problem without really solving it!

Rant over.

Parking for at Metro Stations

One of my pet peeves is the LACK of parking at the final metro stations – I’m talking Pacora (when they finish line 2), San Isidro (out past Los Andes) and whatever the plans are for the last station in Chorrera.  I understand that there is no parking at the station on Vía España or even San Miguelito’s “La Gran Estación”.

But I don’t understand the lack of planning of not ending the final station with a car park, so people can drive to the station, leave their car and hop on the train! So you don’t want to have security looking after the cars? Put a sign up – “leave cars at your own risk”.

But the reality of Panama’s situation – especially in a country where it rains 8-10 months of the year – people need a way to get from their home to the train station.  How do we expect commuters to get from their homes (often in suburbs and gated communities) to the train station to start the commute? They are not going to pay a taxi and most likely not going to walk 3 km to the train station!

Implementing solutions

While I agree that it would be fabulous if some of the companies and jobs were available in Chorrera, rather than everyone commuting into Panama City – I don’t realistically see that happening within the short term.

Headquarters for multinationals are already “out of town” – in the sense that they are not central business district – either in Panama Pacifico, ciudad del Saber or Costa del Este. Processing zones are constantly being developed in Don Bosco, Tocumen and Transistmica – areas which are highly industrial and strategically located for logistics between Colon and the airport.

But Panama needs to find that perfect mix between investing more heavily in public transport (buses, not just the metro) and offering commuters options of how to get from their homes onto the public transport network.  They need to make sure that walking to a bus stop is actually an option, not an obstacle course.  I am constantly amazed at how sidewalks simply “end”, leaving you in the middle of an overgrown or muddy patch of mire.

There has been a lot of criticism these last two years about how the walking infrastructure (foot paths & walkways) has taken away what little parking there was in the central business district.  Not to mention the horrendous flooding that badly planned and executed works have caused!  The current river flowing down Vía Argentina each time it rains has become a sad parody of  wake-boarding!

That aside – if we really want to improve the quality of life for Panamanians – we need to accept that public transport is what will provide that.  This means more trains & a metro system that allows people to get home within 30-40 minutes, rather than 2 hours, more buses (especially shorter routes that go through neighbourhoods) and taxis or Uber.

If we are going to go with more public transport – Panama needs bus stops that actually keep the water out when it’s raining – not tiny little roofs for a spring shower!  And the public foot paths need to be walkable – rather than dangerous obstacle courses!

Building more roads (corredores or bridges across the Canal) will not solve the problem – this requires a change of culture & expectations.  And this means – the solution will take a generation to re-educate!

So – when do we start?

 

self-employed, unemployed, entrepreneur, shadow economy, labour, labor, unemployment,contracts,business, enterprise

Self-employed or Unemployed?

For the 5th consecutive year, Panama’s unemployment numbers are increasing – up to 7% – even in an economy which is touted as the highest growing in Latin America & the Caribbean.  Almost 50% of the unemployed are under 24 years of age, with more women unemployed than men.  School leavers typically only have a 50% employment rate.

However, these figures cited seem to hide a situation within Panama’s economy – the “self-employed” or casual labour that are not even counted in this 7%.  40% of Panama’s labour force – some 606,000 workers, are not counted as “unemployed” because they have casual labour or are “self-employed”.

So, for example, if someone loses their job and then goes back to subsistence farming – they are no longer counted among the “unemployed” – because “look – they have a job“.   If they are lucky enough to have a family with a little plot of land still in the interior of the country where they can live off the land – at least to somewhat make ends meet. Their alternatives are finding another job – perhaps with a lower salary or becoming “self-employed” or simply taking odd jobs as they arise.

Self-employed versus entrepreneurs

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the self-employed in Panama are all entrepreneurs, either.  Only about 1% of the self-employed move from being self-employed to entrepreneurs – the rest are simply making the best of a bad situation. This is created by necessity, not by design.

For some, they actually manage to create a business and an income that was better than their employment.  But this is not the case for all of the self-employed.  For others, this means going back to work for the company where they were employed part time, as a contractor rather than an employee, and then taking whatever odd jobs they can get in their field to make ends meet the rest of the time.  And for many, this is simply a temporary solution until they are able to get a job again.

In total, only 4% of the self-employed in Panama consider themselves to be entrepreneurs.  Few of the self-employed are hiring others to work for them and creating and innovating.  Panama’s culture is typically risk-adverse – taught to seek job security.  Only 3% of the entrepreneurs make it past 3 years, with little support offered for entrepreneurship and small business.

Typically, AMPYME is supporting small businesses, such as hair-dressers, IT support companies, printers, etc.  These are backbone small businesses, but not entrepreneurs.

Economic Growth

According to published figures, Panama is still seeing economic growth.  The challenge is that this growth is in the ports, Panama Canal, public infrastructure projects (such as the building of the Metro 2 line),, & government spending.  None of these areas are high-employment.  Agriculture, industry, commerce, tourism, real estate, banking & casinos – all of these are showing “modest figures” – i.e. they are not in the red (yet).  Fishing & local services, however, are in the red.  This means that the industries which typically provide the most areas of employment in Panama are actually just getting by – and they are getting  by through “restructuring” – cutting labour costs.

This year, Panama has seen El Rey supermarkets cut back on their 24-hour service – closing at night and getting rid of an entire shift of workers.  The overnight sales represented only 2% of their gross income, and so in restructuring their hours, eliminating the shift, they are able to increase their returns substantially.

Add to this the increases in salaries that have been implemented over the past 8 years – which automatic increases happening every 2-3 years.  With these wage increases, Panamanian firms have restructured their labour forces, down-sizing and reorganising.  So, it’s no wonder that 40% of the work force is now “casual labour” or “self-employed” rather than employed with all the rights and regulations that this entails.

However, it also means that 40% of the workforce + 7% that is unemployed (47%) – are outside of the social security system – minimum health care and no pension plan!

This 47% has no coverage in the case of accidents on the job, no health care plan, no pension plan, and no holiday pay.

This 47% includes the accountant that is selling hotdogs on the street at midday, the lady that is baking empanadas daily to sell to her neighbours and goes out daily at 5am to sell at breakfast time, and the young banking employee that is now driving a taxi.  It’s the hairdresser that comes to your home to do your hair, because she doesn’t actually have a salon that she works in. It’s the lady that comes to your house once a week to clean & iron, because that’s what she does to make ends meet.

But, luckily for Panama – we only have 7% unemployment!

A global issue

Of course, the numbers are just representative of Panama. Colombia has 50% casual labour as do many countries in Central America.  Even in Argentina, the figures are higher than expected.  Within the US, some 25% of those who lose their jobs consider starting their own business, rather than continuing to look for a job. In the 35-44 year range, there is the highest number of start up businesses.  26 million people in the US are unemployed and these levels are expected to stay up at least another 5 years.

Solutions

Unfortunately, solutions need to be considered long-term!  1 in 3 companies in Panama has problems getting skilled labour for well-paying positions.  There is a disconnect between the current needs of companies – especially in technology & customer service – and the education and preparation that school leavers are given.

The typical skills that employers are looking for at any time are:

  • Communication.
  • Teamwork.
  • Problem solving.
  • Initiative and enterprise.
  • Planning and organising.
  • Self-management.
  • Learning.
  • Technology.

This, unfortunately, is not what is taught in Panamanian schools. While they do ask for “group work”, there is no actual teaching done of what team-work is and why doing the homework or assignment as a group will actually enable you to learn essential life skills.  Similarly, while baseball and football are very popular in Panama, there does not seem to be a lot of attention placed on how these sports can improve life-skills and ensuring that students understand the importance of working together.

Communication is not a skill that is taught in school – especially nothing like crucial conversations or difficult conversation, empathy or social skills that will allow a school-leaver to adapt to a work environment.

Self-management, planning and organising, initiative & enterprise are also not taught in schools – leaving school-leavers ill-prepared for joining teams where they are not constantly supervised and having to be self-starters!  Homework is still micro-managed in schools and students are simply expected to “do as I say”, rather than to think outside the box and come up with their own ideas.  Critical thinking and challenging the system is certainly not welcomed.

Panama needs, however, over 150,000 technically qualified staff for commerce, construction, logistics, tourism, industry & agriculture.  It needs a further 25,000 professionals in these areas!  Some of these are as basic a plumbers, electricians, carpenters, metal workers, and painters. But even these skilled labourers are not available.

Immigration

Like it or not – Panama needs more foreign immigrants.  But not just any immigrants!  If we look internationally – 14% of the US population is foreign-born, but 30% of US entrepreneurs are foreigners. For example, Elon Musk. In fact – Silicon Valley would not exist if the US only depended on locally-born talent! In New Zealand or Australia, 25% of the population is actually foreign-born.

For innovation & entrepreneurship to grow – Panama needs immigrants.  People that are willing to come & invest in the country – entrepreneurs with business ideas.  But in order to attract that kind of investment – Panama needs an education system that will provide the thought processes & creativity that are required for entrepreneurs to succeed.  Not employees that need to be micro-managed – but ones that will think independently and creatively -that know how to work in teams and brainstorm new ideas.

There’s still a long road ahead for Panama in moving from unemployment to entrepreneurship!

 

Panama politicians, politics, promises, electoral promises, needs, community, communities, identify, coach, coaching

Promises Panama needs

Last week I published a post regarding my “wish list” for Panamanian politicians – what I wanted them to demonstrate in their character – compassion, creativity & courage.

André Conte responded that while he enjoyed it, more than “what do you want” he wanted the question to address “what do we all need?”

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

So, while I’m not entirely sure that I have managed to truly answer his question, here is my attempt at responding to the issues that I think our 2019 elected politicians need to seriously address.

Many of these issues will not fall upon the legislators to respond – but rather upon the President, Cabinet, individual Ministers and heads of Government Departments.

Some will require incredible courage, such as the head of the Caja de Seguro Social – a crisis which I have been hearing about the past 25 years. And yet, it’s still in crisis! The leadership required here is one of an appointee – not an elected official!

And yet, here’s hoping that they step forward with compassion – the ability to connect to all the interested parties; creativity – to be able to draw upon all the solutions from all interested parties to solve the crisis; and courage – to confront the many interests that arise and actually implement a solution after having heard all interests, identified the needs of the institution and the public, and work to a long-term solution for the institution once and for all.  I maintain my opinion that every single politician and director or Minister needs coaching & mentoring in order to truly be effective in their roles with adequate support!

What I’ve seen of politicians so far

Unfortunately, my opinion of politicians is not very favourable.

It’s my belief that they are driven by their need for “job security” – which means that they are looking solely for reelection (to the same post or a “better” one), rather than driven by the needs of their communities.

Typically, this means that they are always looking for a building or project with their name on it – it’s irrelevant whether the community really needed it or not. They want something that they can point to and say “look what I did for you”.  Most constituents will look at that and think “wow, they built something”, without actually asking whether that was the priority of the community.

Bureaucrats, similarly, are driven by promotion & job security. This means that they will not do anything risky – even if change is needed – because that could get you fired. Likewise, in a situation of cronyism, they are unlikely to oppose elected politicians, because that will get you fired.  This means that they will simply toe the line – even if the line isn’t going anywhere!

Community interests & needs

Unfortunately, this typically means that neither the elected politicians nor the bureaucrats are studying the interests of the communities that they serve. And moreover, it means that no one is thinking or evaluating the long-term needs of the community or society as a whole.

For some areas of Panama’s political plans, I am aware that there have been agreements reached between political parties & bureaucrats regarding long-term plans. But this is the exception, rather than the rule.  Unless politicians are willing to give up their aspirations for reelection – focusing instead on the long-term needs of society, instead of a building with their name on it or hams for Christmas – what will be done?

How will projects actually be completed if there is not complete “buy-in” from all interested parties? Solutions that are reached by the different interest groups – and not simply decided by politicians with a 5-year plan.  This is one of the primary reasons why I will harp on, over and over, about the need for compassion (connection), creativity (the ability to brainstorm with all interested parties solutions – outside the box), and courage (motivation to move forward and overcome obstacles that arise along the way) for the leaders in driving a solution forward!

Because – if for once – someone were able to get all of the interest parties to agree upon the solution, which takes longer than 5 years to implement – it wouldn’t matter that the government changes.  The interest groups themselves would keep the projects and solutions on track through the change of government. But I haven’t seen a government yet capable of pulling off a solution of this magnitude!

So, what do I think we need?

Where do I start?  Which of all of the needs of Panama is clamouring the most for attention?  If we solved one of the problems, would that solve all the rest?  I know that O’Neill in Alcoa found a keystone problem, which when he solved then solved by itself all the rest of the problems within the company, but I am really hesitant to take a guess which one of the areas of government might have the biggest impact on all the rest of the areas!

Presidency

For want of a better place to start, I will start at the top!  And I will admit – this being PanUtopia – the size of the issues to be addressed overwhelms me as to who the right person for this job might be.  Because, in utopia… this person would be capable of handling a Cabinet of Ministers and keeping each one of them, and their respective subordinates, focused on the goals at hand and putting each of the areas I will touch upon in order!

Qualities I want in a President:

  1. compassionate – able to connect with empathy and understanding with communities and their leaders; able to connect with each member of the Cabinet and empower them to effectively do their jobs, because it’s not the President’s job to fix each of the problems that I will identify below; diplomatic – able to command a room and speak from the heart, capturing the attention and connecting with the audience;
  2. creative – able to sit down at a table with 15 people + assistants, and brainstorm solutions – calling in all the talents & abilities of those present – to create solutions that no one person individually could possibly come up with; analytical & logical – able to look through the numbers and lists and come up with priorities and rationally decide the most efficient course of action; well-read & educated – to learn from the experiences and draw from the experience of others that are not even in the room through extrapolation;
  3. courageous – secure enough in their identity to speak their truth and present their ideas and solutions; motivated to see the solution through any obstacles, knowing from the very beginning that obstacles would arise and that they would need to create solutions for those, and being willing to do the hard work consistently to see it through to completion.  Motivated to push through the days when things appear to be going wrong, not simply waiting until “things feel right”.

Looking at that list… it’s kind of what I want in every Minister & Director of Government Agencies as well!  It’s not enough that it only be at the level of the President!

As you will see from the issues below – many of these issues are actually in the hands of bureaucrats – Ministers appointed by the President (not publicly elected officials) and heads of Departments.  While there will be necessary work with publicly elected officials (mayors, representatives and legislators), the majority of “decision making” and implementation will be effectively be within the executive branch of government!

How important is it, over the next 5 years, to legislate in theses matters (other than budget constraints) versus implementation of the decision-making?

Education

Unfortunately, earlier this year I wrote about the challenges facing Panama’s education system, and many of those challenges are still unattended.  Of the 1300+ schools without walls (just the roof held up on posts), there are more than 700 still outstanding. In a recent study of the 3rd grade education level, 1/3 can’t write, 50% can’t read and 60% don’t have requisite basic math skills expected!  That’s without even addressing the issues of modernisation of the system to meet the constantly changing global climate and advances in technology and work environments!

The biggest challenge, however, that I see — what is the vision that guides Panama’s education policies? How will the Minister of Education reach consensus with the educators and other interested parties (including even future employers and entrepreneurship opportunities) to establish the road map that will guide decision making in coming years?  What is the first and primary issue that should be dealt with in the education system that would work towards solving the myriad of issues that need to be faced: preparation of the teachers, infrastructure, participation in growth of the economy, technology?

This one area alone requires someone at its head that truly can get to the bottom of the issues within the Ministry and set a plan of action with the buy-in of the teachers & educators to achieve at least one phase of the plan by 2024!

Health

While I accept that the health issues are actually 2 separate issues, one being the Ministry of Health (and approval of imports of medication, as well as the State health network), there is the more pressing crisis of the CSS (Social Security).  This is a challenge from within as well as from the outside!  The competing interests are tearing it apart, as they have been doing for the past 30+ years!

There are issues regarding their finances & assets, issues with respect to the services (or failure) offered, the infighting and power struggles (national as well as regional and within hospitals), and the competing interests of the doctors, nurses, technicians, suppliers & patients.

This is definitely a scenario where I could see the identification of keystone habit (such as that described by O’Neill in his experience at Alcoa) would actually make a monumental difference to the whole organisation and could be the beginning of a solution!  However, O’Neill was lucky that he counted with the support of his Board – the ones responsible for bringing him on to solve the problem!  In the case of the CSS – this need for support from the Board would need to be addressed!

Housing

Panama currently faces the challenge of needing 200,000+ housing units – but the construction industry is faced with rising labour & material costs.  Construction permits dropped 50% in 2018, and while the country needs 15-16,000 additional homes each year, only some 14-15,000 a year were being built (before the drop in permits!).  Of the 100,000 homes promised by the current government during their term, some 45,000 have been built.

The head of housing will need to balance the interests & needs of the community (for housing) against those of the construction companies, infrastructure needs, and environmental concerns.

Infrastructure

Closely related to the need for housing are other infrastructure needs – even though in 2018-2019 some $2 billion of projects are underway.  This includes finishing line 2 of the Metro and starting line 3 to Arraijan & Chorrera.  But one of the questions being regularly asked is why Chorrera is merely a satellite of Panama City, rather than being designed and built as a separate center that provides employment and not merely sleeping quarters to workers for Panama City!

Two thousand km of roads were promised by the government and claimed to have been built, although it was later clarified that this was really only some 355 km that were completed.

The government also promised to eradicate latrines – but while 200,000 were promised, the results remain unknown.  Likewise, running water has not been installed to all communities in Panama, and many communities still find themselves off the electric grid and mobile phone coverage.

Energy

Closely related to the foregoing issues are the myriad of issues tied up in the energy sector.  I wrote about these issues a number of months ago.  The interest groups here are varied and with conflicting interests.  Needs include:

  • a long-term maintenance plan
  • transmission line #4
  • pricing
  • environmental policies and policing.

The sectors that are affected by energy include: construction, commerce, industry & consumers.

If Panama wants 75% renewable energy by 2050, it needs to change the legal framework and confront the investments recently made into gas-based energy projects, rather than green energy projects such as wind farms or solar power.  In 2016, 60% of the electricity produced in Panama was through hydroelectric plants (which while a renewable source, create significant environmental damage in large areas), 32% thermal, 7% wind and only 1% solar.  What is curious to note is that worldwide, countries with much less sunshine (take for example – Germany) have a much higher rate of solar power than our tropical nation!  Go figure!

Fiscal Policy

Panama’s current fiscal policy requires an overhaul – in order to:

  1. attract investment
  2. be fair on all the players in the market (including small & medium enterprises)
  3. tax monies should not be “lost” through poor management and corruption/theft
  4. in order to “balance the books” – decisions may need to be made to cut government overhead
  5. it may be necessary to down-size government offices, irrespective of how unpopular that may make government members!

Economy

Where to start?

Panama currently faces more unemployment, less investment, less loans being granted and less sales in commerce.  In 2018, the unemployment rate increased for the fifth consecutive year.

There is a serious lack of equality within the country, with many areas still in subsistence farming and well below the poverty line.  Only a few sectors are actually benefited by the current economic growth that is touted internationally.

Financing is barely available for the business sector, particularly small to medium enterprises.  Policies do not support or encourage growth, investment or expansion of companies.

Unemployment

Forty percent of the workforce is currently listed as “self-employed”, “on contract” or “part time” – with no stability.  The results in lower productivity and inability to participate in bank financing and other needs.

Special Zones

While the special zones were thriving, with global changes, they are failing to create a significant difference to the economy and generate employment. Policy changes and focus are necessary.

Tourism

While tourism generates about 10% of GDP and 130,000 jobs in the economy, hotels are currently suffering with a 46% occupancy rate. Once again, a concerted plan and creativity – from public and private sector together – is required to change the situation.

Agriculture

It would appear that the agricultural sector has been abandoned to subsistence farming – with not much technological or educational assistance to the sector.  Exceptions to this are the farms owned and operated by the major supermarkets, who basically produce exclusively for their own consumption.  But many areas of the country are abandoned, with little or no interest in exchanges of technology between countries and participation in projects for learning in the alienated communities that are relegated to subsistence.

Another concern, in the commercial enterprises of farming, is long-term sustainability and environmental accountability for farming methods – particularly long-term effects of runoff from the farms and damage to the surrounding environment.

Justice & Security

I can’t close without mentioning the concerns about the justice system and security issues in Panama.  There are many jokes and memes about “perception” – we “perceive” that there is a problem.  But let’s get real – there is a problem! Not a perception!

Security of citizens and tourists needs to be addressed not only in Panama City or Colon, but in the entire country. Gangs & drug trafficking need to be addressed, as do home invasions and robberies.

In the justice system, attention should be given to the Sistema Penal Accusatorio – which was introduced over the past few years.  It’s not that the system should be reverted to the previous system, which was full of its own flaws – but attention needs to be given to the concerns of the police force and prosecutors regarding their experience within the system. These concerns needs to be addressed across the board.

  • What needs to be fixed?
  • What simply needs to be tweaked?
  • How can members of the police force be educated and prepared better to work within the system?
  • Where are different parties frustrated by the process?

Change is never comfortable, but concerns should also be addressed.

Drawing this to a close

As I look at all of these needs, I recognise that Panama needs well-prepared teams within each area.  This is not an issue for “the President” to fix. I admit, I am sick of people saying “The President needs to come here and solve this problem”.  A country’s problems cannot depend solely on one person to solve them!

This is something that will require not just Ministers that are prepared to sit down at tables, but all interest groups that are well-versed in the myriad of issues and concerns of their specific industry and that are open to brain-storming solutions that take into account all of the interests in the matter, rather than simply being closed to “this is my position”.

Experienced negotiators and mediators – that are able to delve into the needs and interests of all parties will be required at each table – that can identify the need that lies below the stated position.  People that know how to ask questions and are willing to continue asking until truly connecting with the source of the interest, rather than accepting on face value a projected position at the negotiating table.

If any one of these problems is truly to be addressed and a solution found – all parties have to be prepared to see all sides of the issue and begin to accept that the solution may only truly be found by everyone working together to build a better country!

Communities themselves will need to start to believe that they possibly have a role to play in solving the problem, and actually in carrying the solution into effect.

This may require that everyone stops looking at their belly button and “what’s in it for me?” – and actually starts to look at

“how do we all participate in fixing these problems?”

Well, as always, this is PanUtopia!

Panama, politicians, re-election, reelection, promises, campaign promises,, preparation, hopes, dreams, compassion, creativity, courage

Politicians, Re-Election & Promises

The Reelection debate has quieted down a little bit recently in Panama – as political parties finish up their primaries, headed into the 2019 elections. But, what I am noticing is that within the political parties, we are still seeing a lot of “reruns”, rather than new blood.

So this idea “No a la re-elección” – while it’s popular with the average person on the streets, does not seem to truly have taken flight within the main parties.

Looking from the outside in – I recognise a pattern that comes up often when dealing with clients.  You ask the client “what do you want?” and they proceed to provide you with a list of “I don’t want“.

That.
Wasn’t.
The.
Question!

I didn’t ask “what don’t you want” – I asked “what do you want?”

Because, unfortunately, until we can clearly enunciate what it is that we DO want, we are just going to continue getting more of what we don’t want!

So… I am going to attempt to enunciate what I do want to see in our publicly elected officials in Panama.

I will remind the reader – this in PanUtopia – an alternative reality – what could be in a Utopian view of Panama.

PanUtopia-tea

So… come sit down with me… grab your cup of tea or coffee… and let’s dream & idealise for a moment what that perfect Panama might look like!

To start with, I want politicians with coherence & alignment – you might think a better word for this is integrity – where their passions & purpose drive their creation of solutions, and these are followed through with concerted actions.

Is that really too much to ask?

I don’t think so!  Hey, neuroscience says that it can be done!

Of course, that presupposes that we are talking about emotional intelligence – politicians that are actually self-aware and have self-control! They don’t freak out, shut down or stone wall when faced with obstacles to their plans.

But to be realistic, what I really want is heart-lead politicians!

I don’t mean all emotional – wear your heart on your sleeve – politicians.  No.  I mean that they are truly connected with their compassion (self & others) and connected from the heart (not their pocket) with the community.

This means that they listen to the dreams and desires of their communities – the ideals & values.  It means that they are really “chunking down” on what are the values that their community holds dear, and then using those values as a guiding light for their decision-making!

They have to establish trust & connection with their communities – understanding the wants and desires that drive the communities that they serve.

When I say I want a heart-lead politician – I mean I want someone with wise compassion. Not a people-pleaser or a yes-man – someone that has clear boundaries established by values and dreams.  That recognises that priorities may have to be established and not everyone will be in agreement with those priorities.  But whose passion for following the dreams, aspirations, purpose and values of the community drive what they are working on!

This person will need to be able to listen to criticism and handle being in the hot-seat.  And I mean listen to criticism. Not take it personally and get all defensive. Not brush it off and ignore it – but be open to listening to it, because perhaps there is something in there to be gathered and learned!  To respond to criticism, rather than to react!

Did I mention emotional intelligence?

I want a politician that accepts responsibility – that doesn’t play the “blame game” and does not justify & deny.  Who doesn’t use smoke screens & mirrors to confuse the crowds. If they make a mistake, I want them to be humble – to accept their mistake and acknowledge it – and then look at what repairs will need to be made.

I want a creative politicians

And by this, I mean I want them to put all their creative and problem-solving abilities at the service of their purpose & passion.  To allow their compassion & connection to others to indicate where solutions are required, and then to sit down with their teams and brain-storm how to bring these into effect.

I want a strong team leader that can guide others through the mental imagery of the creative process – connecting dreams & visions with reasoning, analysis, synthesis & cognition.

To set up a 5-year plan with vision & goals – and then to connect with their communities and interested parties (including the businesses and the construction industry) to make these plans & goals happen!  To take into account the concerns that the communities have and also the concerns of the business backbone – and then to think outside the box to find creative solutions to the issues and obstacles.

I want politicians with balanced perspectives – that understand that there are always going to be competing interests in a community – but that through their creativity can integrate views and find solutions that generate the greatest good!  Someone who brings to the table effective decision-making & problem-solving.

I want someone that knows that sometimes the right question is “who”, rather than “what”.  A person that recognises that they personally don’t have to have all of the answers – but rather that sometimes they should ask “who” – who is the right person for this project?  Who should I delegate this to?

And, finally, I want courageous politicians.

It’s all fine and well to have heart – and be lead by compassion.  It’s wonderful to allow that compassion to guide your creativity – to be the north-star for how you solve problems — but unless they are courageous, unless they dare to step out and actually put into motion all of these ideas… we will still have nothing!

So, I want these politicians that take action, that are deeply connected to their internal sense of security & safety, and that align their actions with their compassion & creativity!  I want to see full mobilization – willpower and quiet courage – from a relaxed and calm disposition.

Someone who is not worried about self-preservation – in terms of getting re-elected next term – but rather someone that is simply keeping their promises to the community.  Who limits their hunger from becoming greed. Who does not allow their aversions to become fear.

I understand… there are no perfect outcomes.

There will, inevitably, be mistakes and learning opportunities.

But I want someone that is open to learning from the failures – that is willing to communicate these situations.

So… you ask… what do I want from my politicians?

  • compassion – lead from the heart
  • creativity – putting all their intelligence & ideas at the service of their compassion
  • courageous – to actually put it all into action

And then, as a result of these 3 prime characteristics – I want

  • communication
  • caring
  • consistency
  • competency

I warned you… this is PanUtopia

But I also know that these skills and way of being can be learned!  So, knowing that in the primaries half of the politicians that are being elected are “more of the same” – I have a new wish… I wish all of these politicians would get some coach training, so that they could LEARN how to be lead by their hearts!

PanUtopia02

 

Panama, economic growth, Panama Canal, economy, industries, public debt, private investment, employment, laid off, lay offs, agriculture, infrastructure

Where did the economic growth go?

A few days ago Standard & Poor’s improved Panama’s risk rating to BBB – indicating that Panama has shown consistent economic growth and a stable fiscal policy.  This is in line with the rating which Panama has by Fitch. Nevertheless, this rating comes on the heels of news that Panama’s foreign investment dropped by 17% in the first quarter of 2018, compared to the same period in 2017.

A lot of people in Panama are asking themselves – where did the economic growth go?

Shops are closing.
People are getting laid off.
And what about the 30 days of strike by the construction workers and the millions that were lost by construction companies during those days that turned into weeks?

But the cost of living in Panama City is the highest in Latin America.

How do they measure risk?

What many fail to understand regarding this risk rating is that it takes into account global factors such as:  international debt management (with the World Bank), GDP, government fiscal policies, banking and financial transparency, and even private investment in infrastructure projects.

Panama, shipping, transportation, logisticsMany of these aspects are out of the reach of the average consumer on the streets in Panama.  They are not seeing in their pockets (no trickle down here), the efforts from the expansion of the Panama Canal and the ports. No one is talking about all the development that is happening on the Caribbean Coast since opening up the third bridge across the Canal in Colon.  And no one believes that corruption is truly being addressed, as mentioned in the S&P report.

But, the S&P takes into account international aspects, such as exchange of information policies, which have changed substantially over the past 5 years.  They also take into account the new regulations for stopping money laundering and the supervision of previously unregulated business areas (real estate, casinos, and even accountants and lawyers).

All these things that the little man on the street has no real interest in.

Addressing poverty:

In formal circles, there is talk about how this government has addressed poverty, and especially criticism of the report that “150,000 have now moved above the poverty line.” But, as many point out, this is simply because of an increase in welfare subsidies – it is not actually because of increased employment!   The poverty line in Panama is a mere $60.00 a month, and so with the subsidies introduced by this government, they have “effectively” moved people out from below this poverty line.

Panama, poverty, economy, economic growth, trickle downUnfortunately, however, they haven’t actually solved the problem.  They simply moved it to a different place!  While these families are now receiving the welfare subsidy, no new policies, training, education or other measures are being introduced to break the poverty cycle in these communities.  They are simply depending on welfare!

The perception (i.e. the reality of the common man on the street) is that unemployment has increased.

There are more people “camaroneando” – which is basically picking up odd jobs wherever they can!  The Panamanian word “camarón” apparently has it’s origins in “come around” – like “why don’t you come around on Saturday and mow the lawn for me?”

So, while on the one hand you have official government figures saying that they are making headway in addressing poverty, the average worker on the street would disagree.  If unemployment has increased and relying on odd-jobs has become a way of life for many more people, then “how is it that we are better off now than before?”

A more real criticism that I see is that most countries don’t establish an arbitrary figure to calculate their poverty line.  They use their GDP as a measure – anyone that is getting LESS than half of the GDP would be considered to be under the poverty line.  Assuming that Panama’s GDP is still somewhere around $14,000 a year, that means that anyone earning less than $600/month is under the poverty line.  How many people does THIS leave in “poverty”?  In other countries, they will call these the “working poor”.  How are Panama’s “working poor” doing?

And let’s be real: one of the World Bank’s criticisms of Panama in its recent visit was that Government (i.e. size) was growing faster than the economy and the taxable income.  In other words, our government is getting too big for the country – it’s costing more than it receives in taxes!

A $300M injection into the economy

One solution for this situation is a $300 million injection that the Government has requested (taking from Peter to pay Paul), by authorising an increase in the budget deficit.  This is apparently to assist businesses that were hardest hit by the construction strike earlier this year.

The sole purpose of this cash injection (they haven’t actually said what they will spend the money on other than “investment projects”) is to help the struggling economy.  Unfortunately, however, what is true is that the strike did affect two major infrastructure projects – the finishing of the expansion of the Tocumen International Airport and the Metro Line #2.

The government needs to have both of these megaprojects finished by January 2019, because of the World Youth Day celebrations that will take place in Panama!

Looking back over recent years

But, even if we look back at 2015, where Panama was still doing quite well in terms of growth (at least, it hadn’t slowed down as much as we are now seeing in 2018), we are still left with questions.  Where has this economic growth gone? Who is receiving all the money? Where is it going?

If the man on the street is saying we’re in recession – why are official figures still showing national growth?  Car sales have dropped by 9%. Foreign investment drops 17% in the first quarter.  But we’re still fine.  Panama is still growing.

Where?

If we look at 2015, foreign investment was about $5 billion.  For Panama, that means we’re flying! And yet, in 2015 unemployment was already starting to increase and we were already starting to see some shops closing or reducing their sizes.

dollar-1319600_640One reason for this change is the change in ownership of local businesses – Panamanians that owned Café Duran, Cervecería Nacional, the mills, the sugar mills, the milk companies, etc., all sold out for a profit.  They then took those profits and moved to Florida (or wherever).  That’s to say – they cashed out.  Now foreign companies own the production.   Add to that, foreign companies own all the major infrastructure (telephone, electricity, etc.), at least in partnership with the National Government (state owned enterprises).

So, if you took a look at the daily life of Panama – about 95% of the profits of any company in Panama are now headed overseas.  Twenty years ago, although we had none of the infrastructure that we have today (because of all the foreign investment that made this possible), all the profits remained in Panama.

All major infrastructure projects undertaken now in Panama are all foreign investors.  In fact, 45% of all foreign investment into Central America actually comes to Panama – not to the rest of the Central American countries!  But as soon as the project is finished, the company and all its capital leave Panama.  Panama gets the debt and the infrastructure it had built, but all the profits head back overseas.

Let’s blame the Venezuelan crisis

It’s really easy in Panama to fall into the game of just blaming all these woes on those foreigners that come to steal our jobs!  And yes, Panama has received thousands upon thousands of displaced Venezuelans over the past 10 years, and in recent years it has gotten considerably worse.  Yes, there are Venezuelans sending money home every week to their families in Venezuela, trying to keep them alive.  They are working in bars and beauty salons, they are picking up odd jobs anywhere that they can get them. And yes, it is true that violence has increased in Panama, as it has throughout all of Central America!

But really? We’re going to blame it on them?
For me, that fails to address deeper issues!

Panama has so much to offer but at the same time seems to be damned to be just another Latin American country.

So… where is the economic growth in Panama going?  I see it being sent back overseas… the money comes in as foreign investment, bribes are paid, an infrastructure project is built… and the money flows right back out again!

Hopefully I’m wrong!

What now?

I’m no economist and no expert in any of these matters.  I can only speak from where I am seated and what I see.

But I do notice some things that have solution:

  • addressing corruption – let’s stop the bleeding! You can’t save the patient on the operating table if you don’t stop the bleeding. It doesn’t matter how much money you pour into Panama, if we don’t stop the bleeding we have going on, the patient will die on the table!  Is this the biggest problem? Yes, probably!  The corrupt politicians.  The corrupt companies that participate with the bribes and kick backs.
  • addressing the lack of preparation for the new economy.  Panamanians are not ready for the new economy that is taking over world-wide.  Our education system is not up to date. The very mentality in the schools & universities is out-dated.  They are preparing everyone for an economy that existed 30 years ago, and in my personal opinion, not doing a very good job at that, either.
  • agriculture & production – Panama needs a local production and a pride in its own produce. Yes, we want variety & options – but so many countries have established home country brands that its nationals are proud to purchase “made in …”.  That doesn’t seem to exist here in Panama. And we are seeing less and less produced in Panama, and even tradesmen and artisans are shutting down as they cannot compete with the prices of imported goods.
  • science and innovation – related to the last two points – one of the things that I worry about the most in Panama is the lack of innovation and entrepreneurship in Panama.  I don’t see any biotech, a whole lot of clean energy, technology based companies – and especially not owned, operated and run by Panamanians.
  • Why is everyone so scared of entrepreneurship and dependent on someone else being the employer?  Where are all the entrepreneurs?
  • banking and finance – hand in hand with my last question – Panamanians will not change jobs and certainly will not go independent if they haven’t already purchased a home and car, because if they do, they will not qualify for financing from any financial institutions.  The banks will only lend you money if you have a check stub that you can show you receive your fortnightly check from a company and are on payroll.  You are considered “high risk” if you are independent, even if you have your tax returns to show.

 

 

Renewable energy in Panama

Introduction:

Panama is blessed with an abundance of sunshine and rain, allowing it to entertain renewable energy sources as the sole source of it’s electric supply.  Nonetheless, it continues to depend on a couple of carbon-based plants for its electrical demands, and the local energy authorities are under fire for proposed taxes and charges on solar power producers.

In late May, the headlines regarding the ASEP decision were all along these lines:  “While the rest of the world looks to consume and produce clean energy, the Panamanian Government – through ASEP – is trying to PUNISH anyone who installs solar panels or other clean energy generators in their homes or businesses.”  

Mientras el mundo apunta al mayor consumo y producción de ENERGÍAS LIMPIAS, en Panamá el Gobierno Nacional —a través de la ASEP— busca CASTIGAR a las personas que instalen paneles solares u otros generadores de energías limpias en sus hogares o negocios. #COMPARTEpic.twitter.com/JR0sC2bzgd

— ClaraMENTE (@ClaraMENTE507) May 26, 2018

At the beginning of June, ASEP opened the dialogue, indicating that they did not intend to penalise those who had solar panels for personal consumption, but that they were looking to ensure that anyone that was connected to the electrical network and infrastructure was paying appropriately for the infrastructure, and not simply getting a free ride simply because they principally had solar panels or other self-generating systems.  There was also criticism because of the pricing suggested out the outset for those who were generating more than they needed and were feeding this excess into the general network.  This ignores, in part, that since February of 2017, Panama has had its first commercial solar power plant “Central Fotovoltaica Bugaba“.

Image may contain: text

The National Energy Plan – 2015-2050

In April 2015, the Panamanian Government published the 2015-2050 National Energy Plan which sought to place a new focus on solar and wind sources, rather than the traditional sources of hydro and carbon generators.  By 2050 it is hoped that Panama will rely, 70% on renewable energy (primarily wind & solar).  The move away from hydroelectric power comes after serious confrontations with indigenous groups and communities over the devastation and changes to the ecosystem.

For example, if you have a quick look at the following video, you can appreciate the Tabasará river during a normal rainy season (before the hydroelectric plant was built).

The two videos that follow are during the construction of the power plant on the Tabasará river, where you can appreciate the devastation down-river to the entire ecosystem and the change that this has generated for all of the communities that depend on the river.  Obviously, the videos of the construction are during the dry season, rather than rainy season (so it is no longer a raging river in full flood), but as you will see in the second video, the communities downstream from the project were left with almost stagnant water.

The communities also denounced and complained that they were being displaced from their homes and communities. Obviously, this had economic repercussions for these communities, as they lose their farm lands.  Even those who previously used the river for rafting and outdoor adventures during the dry season have said that they have totally closed down the Tabasará option and have had to find other rivers for rafting and adventure.

In a similar manner, Nata & Aguadulce were left without a drinking water supply when the local hydroelectric plant shut off their access to water during the summer of 2016, because the 2015 rains were not enough to fill up all of the reserves.

Support for private solar panels

In 2016, the ASEP took steps to support and promote solar panels in homes and projects.  At this time, ASEP promised users that they could reduce their consumption by 50% or even up to 100% through the installation of solar panels on the roofs of their homes or businesses.  Nevertheless, there were requirements for this, which involved the local electric companies:

  1. approval by the competent authorities (fire brigade, city council)
  2. design of the system and technical details regarding output and capacity, and all of this with
  3. a letter to the electric distribution company, requesting the installation of a bi-directional metre.

The electric company was then to install the bi-directional metre, (not to be charged to the consumer) which would compensate the output and input, measuring the net usage of the client of electricity and that produced by their system.  In these cases, the homes were not installing batteries or storage units, as the excess of their production was pushed back into the system for usage by others in the network, and then they consumed electricity when their solar system was not producing.  These were not stand-alone or self-sufficient units.

Regulation of self-production

Later in 2016, the ASEP informed that it might consider a limit of 500kW for residential production of solar power and then (after consulting the public and users) notified that it would not be doing so, but rather it would be leaving that to each homeowner to decide what production and consumption they required.

Is it really worth it?

Costs in 2016-2017 were still prohibitive – for a home consuming 500kW hours/month, the cost of installation would be approximately $9,800.00, which meant that the investment would be paid off in about 7-8 years. In 2018 we see the costs for a home consuming 400kW hours/month having installation costs of $4-5,000, almost half of the cost for 2016!  However, as many of those living in Panama know, our electric bills are quite high, so as those costs of installation come down (which they have over the past 24 months), solar power becomes more attractive as a residential alternative.  This is especially the case with those companies that are providing a 25-year guarantee on their panels!

Throughout 2017, ASEP continued to promote solar power for residential use, touting the benefits of being able to hook into the distribution system and get paid for any over-production.  And so we now (Feb 2018) find Provivienda (one of Panama’s real estate developers) offering a subdivision in Arraijan in which all homes come with their solar panels installed and connected to the system. This subdivision is expected to be completely self-sufficient to the needs of each home.

The regulations provide that where the consumer is using no more than they are producing (and supplying into the network), then there is no charge to them. Where their solar plant provides more electricity than what they have consumed, then they can expect to receive a payment from the electric company for up to 25% of their consumption (but no more).  So, for example – you produce 500kW/hours, but you only consume 400 – you will get paid on that 20% extra that you produced.  You consume 500kw/hour and you only produced 400 – you will have to pay the electric company for the consumption!

Commercial projects:

Smaller companies have already begun to invest in solar power plants, for commercial purposes, such as “Central Fotovoltaica Bugaba“.  2017 say some 72.4MW come online and 2018 some 78.8MW are expected to receive their commercial licenses and approvals for production.  For 2019-2021, a further 200MW have provisional licenses to build and come online.  There are already mini solar plants in Azuero, Llano Sánchez and Chiriqui.  If with all of these projects, they generate the estimated 383MW (with an investment of $422M over this period 2017-2021), this would be more than the production of Fortuna (which produces 300MW and is the largest in Panama so far).  The issue for Panama is the rainy season, because this brings down production to almost 20-40%, with a higher production during the dry season.  Therefore, most of the solar farms are located in the “arco seco” – the “dry arch” – in the Azuero Peninsula.

Wind Farms

Anyone who has driven out to Penonome from Panama City has appreciated the wind farm on the left-hand side of the highway.  As of March 2018, construction of a second windfarm in Cocle is under way, this one in Taobré.  This wind farm will have 20 Vestas turbines and 2 substations, and is expected to be built in 22 months.

Changes in Public Bids

Roll forward to February 2018 – and the ASEP announces that all bids for energy projects “from now on” will be on an equal footing – with no special exceptions being given for clean energy.  That means that the gas / thermo plants (such as those in Colon) will be competing cheek-to-cheek with solar and wind farms.  It would seem that this gives the thermo/carbon/gas projects an upper-hand as they are less capital intensive.  But the ASEP assures that this is not the case, because they will have to quantify and provide a bond covering the possibilities of contamination. So, while a solar plant will have a low contamination factor, the gas or thermo plants will have to adjust theirs costs to include for accidents and liabilities.

And then…

Roll forward to May 27, 2018, and everyone is in an uproar because it seems that ASEP now wants to start TAXING residences and businesses that have installed solar panels (connected into the system and producing energy for the system). On May 27th, they indicate that they are considering an “additional charge” to anyone that has solar panels on their home or business.  However, they didn’t go into what this “additional charge” was, which caused a massive back-lash as I mentioned at the very beginning of this article.

Given the reaction from the public and from conservation groups, ASEP took a step back, defending itself with “you didn’t understand what I said”.  They never did quite clarify what it was that they had said!  On the 1st of June, this then rolled into “we are not going to make any decisions on this until we have reached a consensus with all of the parties involved”.

Eventually, what came out was the following explanation:  if you have solar panels and are self-sufficient but you are still connected to the network, the distributor must have available at any and all times enough electricity for your home/business.  So, let’s say you need 400kW hours/month – they must produce enough for that.  But, since you have your solar panels, you aren’t actually using it and are not paying for it.  They want to charge for having it available to you, but you not using it!

Putting a tax on the sun

The reaction from some of the players (particularly owners of companies installing solar panels) was that the government was looking to put a tax on the sun!  Others point out that this clearly is a dis-incentive towards clean energy and favors the production of cheap oil/gas-based thermo electricity, rather than making the long-term investment into solar panels and self-production.  If the government wants private persons and companies to make the capital investment into solar power, then they cannot consider putting an additional tax on it.

The ASEP justifies their proposal as being simply a charge on those who are producing energy and pumping it into the network (and getting paid by the electric company for this).  But that’s not what they said they were going to tax. I’m still waiting for the dust to settle (maybe after the world cup fever has subsided next week), to find out what ASEP has really decided or whether the “let’s reach a consensus” is underway.

Reaching Utopia

With a new Metro line being finished in 2019, more electricity will be needed to run that! More buildings = more air-conditioners running. In a country in which 35% of the electricity goes towards air-conditioning, maybe it’s time for Panama to look not only at how it produces electricity, but how it can reduce wastage or improve geothermal covering of buildings to harness the energy!

Maybe it’s time to explore alternative options like turbines that create electricity simply from moving traffic (of course, that would mean that Panama’s traffic would need to move!).
https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FInTheKnowWanderlustByAOL%2Fvideos%2F463043554144777%2F&show_text=0&width=476

There are few voices (and even less articles) discussing the alternatives for the central business district, hotels and banks to contribute to the solution to the needs over the coming years.

  • There are many options for windows on buildings to generate electricity through special coverings.
  • There are green buildings, which are growing more plants to battle CO2 emissions.
  • There are options for paint and finishing on buildings which will assist in making them cooler and not using as much electricity and air-conditioning.

But there is so much to learn and there are no tax incentives for businesses to make these capital expenditures on long-term returns.

If there are less than 250 residences in all of Panama (in 2018) with solar panels, can I really expect that people will be forward thinking about what we need to do in order to work towards a solution?

Jesus, Panama, children, religious community, abortion, gay marriage, family values, Utopia, churches, healing, communities, love Thy neighbour, love thy neighbor, organised religion, Catholicism, politics, political parties, followers, evangelists, televangelists

Panama – Utopia – a religious community where Jesus might actually be welcome

“What if Panama had 0% corruption, no inflated government contracts and politicians were actually elected for their capacity and ability to get the job done? What if public sector officials actually did their work with heart and soul? What if private citizens and companies practiced social responsibility? What if neighbours worked together to build better neighbourhoods and participated actively in local government?

What if churches fed the poor and provided social and emotional healing to their communities?”

Panama doesn’t have Jesse Duplantis, wanting his $54M jet, but it has its fair share of “rockstar” evangelists.   Like the one that rides in a helicopter over Panama City to “bless it”.  His critics suggest that Jesus would have walked around the city to impart his blessing on everyone, not flown over in a helicopter.

These same evangelists would create a new political party, calling on all of their members to only vote for those who are sanctioned by the church.  They call on their members to protest “for family values” against gay marriage.  And then, they are strangely silent on issues like rape of minors and the 9,000+ adolescent pregnancies from last year. They are vociferous in their rejection of sex ed in schools, because it would compromise a family’s right to teach this in the home, but are silent with respect to real social solutions.

They are likewise nonvocal on corruption, the investigation of Obredecht bribes, and the slow justice system in Panama which never seems actually convict anyone other than the poor.  They say that with a new political party they want to drive change, but there are some things that they just don’t seem to want to change! If they can amass 10,000+ for a family values march, why not bring all of those members to a march against corruption?

While claiming to draw the community closer together and working together  to protest against same-sex marriage, they are separatist on so many other matters.  In 2019 Panama will be host to World Youth Day, a week long convention of youth in Panama organised by the Catholic Church.  It is expected that the Pope will attend. This event is thought to cost some $50M to organise here, and while the Baha’i, Methodist, Anglican & even Muslim communities have expressed their support, including housing the youth in their places of worship or homes, support from the evangelical community has once again been soundless, other than Salvation Army and other groups that are very youth-focused.

Would these be religious communities where Jesus might actually feel welcome?

Am I being tongue in cheek? Hell, yes!

I am so sick of watching churches say that they support “family values” and yet do nothing when there is a case of a minor having been abused for 8 years by a family member.  There were no protests when he received a sentence of community service, which isn’t allowed under the criminal code.  “That’s a problem for the justice system”. It obviously has nothing to do with “family values”.

There are likewise no “family value” issues in teen pregnancies, and God forbid that we have sex ed in schools.  Abstinence, taught in homes, is certainly the only way to stave off the rising cases of HIV, STDs and unwanted pregnancies.  What about all those youth whose families are not teaching anything at home?  Should they simply receive whatever education their families see fit?

Adolescent mothers, most of a certain social strata, aren’t provided with a staunch support network to help them through their pregnancies, stay in school, and other basic skills to help them break the poverty cycle.  Now, there are fabulous programs like “Las Claras”, run by the women’s group “Voces Vitales”.  But this is run by a group of professional women concerned to improve the opportunities for young women as single mothers.  This is not something that churches in Panama have seen as an “outreach program” or a social need to address.

There are also programs, like Asociación Luz y Vida, which runs a home for the elderly in Paraíso (and another in Metetí, Darien), most of whom were homeless.  This was started by Monseñor Rómulo Emiliani and then set up as a Nonprofit, with a group of donors.  Even so, it only has space for 50 elderly patrons.

Another program was established by the Catholic church in cooperation with the City Council: “Centro de Orientación y Atención Integral San Juan Pablo II“, in which the Catholic church undertakes to take on at least 30 people a month referred to it by the City Council social workers.  This is an attempt to work together at solving a problem of homelessness and drug addiction, but requires that the participants want to be rehabilitated.  The City Council, will, however, subsidize the program with $36,000 a year towards expenses ($3,000/month).

There is also a program under way in San Miguelito (probably the most dangerous part of Panama City, that is actually outside of the city limits), which addresses the gang wars.  In this program, some 200 evangelical groups and 60 Catholic churches joined task forces to reach 1,500 youth in a program aimed at getting them out of gangs and into “the Life University”, in which they would be taught life skills, sports & hand-crafts of various types.

But, with the exception of Las Claras (not associated with any church) and Asociación Luz y Vida (a nonprofit that I know was originally the brainchild of Monseñor Emiliani), which I already knew about, I had to search long and hard to discover the social programs that the churches in Panama were participating in! For example, when I looked up Hosanna Social Programs, the results that I got from the search engines were all about their television programs and shows!  They do, however, have a prison outreach program.

What happened to Jesus’ call to love your neighbour as yourself:

35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25)

This makes me truly wonder if Jesus would feel at home with the churches in Panama today?

Or would he be walking through their houses of worship, overturning tables and throwing out the money changers and all of those seeking to make a business of the church?

It’s not that I don’t want to see churches in Panama, but in a Utopia, churches would be so much more than inward looking social clubs only concerned about their ratings and attendance numbers!