Random writing prompts:
She was sitting in the café, looking aimlessly out the window. Watching the passersby, without watching anyone or anything in particular. The latte was already cold, just like her heart.Read More »
Random writing prompts:
She was sitting in the café, looking aimlessly out the window. Watching the passersby, without watching anyone or anything in particular. The latte was already cold, just like her heart.Read More »
She could feel the sweat welling up behind her knees, forming a drop and dripping down her calf, into her shoes.
Ugh! “Why did I think this was a good idea? What am I doing on a diablo rojo in the late afternoon when humidity is at its height?”
Instead of hiring a car at the airport, she’d opted to catch a taxi to her friend’s house. That part of arriving had been fine – coordinating the taxi through the tourism desk at the airport.Read More »
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.
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.
That’s all it took to bring back the memories.
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.
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.
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 – 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.
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!
In my ideal world of PanUtopia, all driver’s ed courses would include the following education:
So, let’s really talk solutions to this December madness.
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:
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!
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.
I would love to see the transport authorities / police spend money on educational videos!
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?
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:
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.
Construir 20 puentes sobre el canal no va a solucionar el problema del tráfico. La solución que deberían pensar es desarrollar el resto del país y crear trabajos, empezando por las ciudades dormitorias en Panamá Este y Oeste.
— Ursula Kiener (@UrsulaKiener) July 11, 2018
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!
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.
The options in Panama at the moment are limited:
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 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.
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!
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!
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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!
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?”
Hola Beth, leí tu post y me encantó, pero hay muchas cosas que quisiera agregar, is not “What do you want” the real question, is “What we all need?”.
Las personas que no son consideradas del average, en los barrios humildes, TODOS tienen claro algo: NO A LA REELECCIÓN!
— André Conte♻️ (@AndreBConte) October 19, 2018
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!
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!
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!
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!
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:
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?
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!
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!
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.
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.
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:
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!
Panama’s current fiscal policy requires an overhaul – in order to:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Change is never comfortable, but concerns should also be addressed.
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!
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“.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
And then, as a result of these 3 prime characteristics – I want
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!
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.
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.
Many 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.
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.
Unfortunately, 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!
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!
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.
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.
One 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.
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!
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: