Headlines - The Capital Times - Retirees feeding "Panama fever"

Retirees feeding "Panama fever"

By Rob Zaleski
Published: May 3, 2006

PANAMA CITY, Panama - Some call it the most seductive place on the planet, and Luis Nieves isn't about to argue.

A Panamanian native, the suave and articulate 58-year-old engineer spent three decades living in various spots in the United States. But as he explained to me last week in his air-conditioned office at the Amador Country Inn & Suites - just a stone's throw from the western mouth of the Panama Canal - he returned here for good some 15 years ago, realizing there's no other place that quite compares with this small tropical paradise of 3.1 million people wedged between Costa Rica and Colombia.

And that's especially true today, Nieves muses, what with despised dictator Manuel Noriega just a distant memory - thanks to the U.S. invasion of 1989 - and the country in the midst of an economic boom that locals refer to as "Panama fever" and which has transformed it into a favorite retirement spot for U.S. and European seniors.

Those retirees, Nieves notes, are lured not just by the balmy climate and the fact that, because of its location, Panama has few hurricanes, but by a low cost of living - housing, food and health care costs are among the cheapest in the world - and a long list of tax breaks and other economic incentives.

(A fascinating side note: Panama, of all places, has ratified the World Health Organization's anti-smoking treaty, which, among other things, restricts smoking in all indoor workplaces - including bars and restaurants.)

And, of course, they're lured by the spectacular ecology - miles of unspoiled beaches and a vast array of islands, mountain ranges and exotic rain forests.

All of which explains, locals say, why Mick Jagger occasionally docks his mega-yacht here and why Donald Trump has invested in a 65-story waterfront casino-condo project that will border Panama City's fast-growing banking district.

But then, my brother Rich - who, along with Nieves and several others, is planning a multimillion-dollar marina project - has been telling me this for years, ever since he closed his south side Milwaukee tavern and moved here in the late 1980s.

To be sure, he's hardly the only ex-Wisconsinite who has discovered Panama.

During my visit, I chatted with Russ Bennett, a 66-year-old Wausau native and former decorated U.S. fighter pilot I'd met during my first visit here nine years ago. There are dozens of others, I was told, including Tony Rajer, a highly acclaimed art conservator from Madison who recently completed a three-year restoration of the National Theatre of Panama in downtown Panama City.

Unfortunately, I was unable to hook up with Rajer, whom I wrote about in this space 17 years ago, after he'd restored some long-neglected artworks in the State Capitol. But in an e-mail this week he cited many of the same reasons as Nieves as to why tens of thousands of U.S. and European retirees are relocating here.

"Great golf, two oceans, good seafood, cheap domestic help," wrote Rajer, who still maintains a home in Madison, but escapes to Panama City whenever possible. "Why live in the states when you can have a maid and a cook? You've got it made down here."

Plus, he added, Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro "has really cleaned up the city and garbage pickup is now good. The electricity is always on and you can drink the water, as we (Americans) built the system."

In fact, most Panamanians seem to welcome the explosive growth, conveniently ignoring the fact that similar booms have ruined countless other nirvanas over the last few decades.

Nieves, however, did acknowledge one potential downside: the very real possibility that, because it's happening so fast, Panama may not be equipped to handle it.

He noted that President Martin Torrijos - the most progressive leader in the country's history, in Nieves' opinion - is urging Panamanians to support a $6 billion expansion of the Panama Canal, the biggest expansion of the waterway since it opened in 1914. (It was Torrijos' father, dictator Omar Torrijos, who negotiated the 1977 treaty with Jimmy Carter that allowed Panama to gain control of the canal in 1999.)

But while Nieves fully supports the idea, he worries about two things: whether Panama has enough workers to support a project of such magnitude, and whether it would create a labor shortage for other businesses.

"Are we really prepared for this? That is the question," he says.

Interestingly, when I was here nine years ago, several U.S. military people I talked to predicted gloom and doom for Panama once the United States relinquished control of the canal - largely because, they insisted, Panamanians as a whole are lazy and inept.

But Bennett, the ex-U.S. fighter pilot, scoffed at the notion.

"There are a lot of smart folks down here," he told me. "There are guys who are M.I.T. graduates, and they're out trying to develop a big tourist trade and, I'll tell you, the potential is incredible. If they make it work, this could be the new tourist mecca of the world."

Well, maybe not the world. But nine years later, Panama is fast becoming the tourist mecca of Latin America - the new Costa Rica, if you will. Donald Trump, I'm sure, would say that's a wonderful thing.

My own view? "Ten cuidado con lo que deseas."

Be careful what you wish for.