My Experience in Expatriating to Panama, by Chuck Holton

Our family moved out of the United States in January of 2013, and so JWR’s novel “Expatriates” has been a particularly interesting read for us.  The kids are enjoying it, too. I want to share some of our experiences as expats which I believe will be helpful for your readers.

The water got too hot for us on November 6, 2012.  I’m a reporter for the Christian Broadcasting Network, and was in Detroit covering the election.  What I saw there was the last straw in a long series of insults and injuries.  
Detroit is the poster child for all that is wrong with this country.  Progressive policies have taxed and spent the city into oblivion.  Over a hundred thousand homes and businesses stand empty and crumbling.  Industry has been driven away by confiscatory tax rates, to be replaced by criminal gangs who pay no taxes on the drugs they sell to whomever is unfortunate enough to still be stuck there.  Almost 50% of the population is functionally illiterate, and the number of folks on public assistance is eclipsed only by the number of fatherless homes.

I travel to nearly twenty countries each year in my work as a war correspondent.  The only place I’ve been in the past twelve months that was worse than Detroit was Mogadishu.  To paraphrase the ineffable Mark Steyn–Detroit has become Dependistan.  I believe Detroit is simply a premonition of the future of America.

On election night, I watched the uneducated masses lining up to vote for more.  More welfare.  More government.  More dysfunction.  And I realized something.  I’ve been paying for all this.  That giant check I have to write every year to Uncle Sam is being spent on programs  which are actively destroying the country I love.  This is more than unacceptable.  It is profane.  

Mark 9:43 says “And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:”

Verses like that tell me I must be willing to take drastic action to put things right that have gone wrong.  This applies to many areas of my life, including where I live.  My wife and I had a long conversation after I got back to the hotel on election night, and we decided voting at the ballot box wasn’t enough.  It was time to vote with our feet.  For us, then, moving was less of a prepping/survival decision than a moral one.

The pacific northwest was one option.  But two problems arose with that scenario.  One was Obamacare.  There are few ways to avoid paying for this monstrosity inside the United States (Medi-share being a notable exception).  [JWR Adds: It is notable that the Affordable Care Act contains a special exemption provision for members of healthcare sharing ministries.]  I refuse to pay for abortions and Bradley Manning’s sex change.  The other thing keeping us from heading to the American Redoubt was this annual phenomenon known as “winter”.  Let’s just say when Momma isn’t happy, nobody is happy.

Fortunately, there was another option for us:  Panama.  I’d first visited during my stint in the Army, and have returned many times with my wife and family since then.  We know the country, the language, and the people well.  So from November 6 to January 1, we packed, rented our home in the US and bought plane tickets.

Panama is a first-world country of only three million people.  It is most known for the Panama canal, which is the largest contributor to the country’s GDP.  Most people have an idea that the rest of the country is mostly deep, dark jungle and home to drug lords and bugs the size of your hat.  While there are parts of Panama where this may be true (like the Darien), there are plenty of less-steamy and less-buggy places to be found.  Crime is typically only a problem if you are somehow connected to the drug trade or fail to take commonsense precautions in heavily populated areas.  Pretty much like the U.S. in that regard.

As much as my wife hates winter, I hate oppressive heat.  Fortunately, we were able to find a happy medium in the mountains of Panama.  The town we moved to is one of many oft-overlooked mountain villages found across the country.  Ours has about 5,000 people in a small valley 2700 feet above sea level.  The climate is like West Virginia in late spring–temps between 70 and 85 degrees year round.

Captain Rawles has done a great job pointing out the perils of expatriation:

• Maintaining contact with family in the U.S.  
• The challenges of being the “expendable new guy gringo.”
• The potential for restrictive gun laws.
• Difficulty maintaining a deep larder.
• Language and cultural differences.

These are all very valid issues and moving to a foreign country certainly isn’t for everyone.  I would add a few more items to that list:

• Where culture and paperwork intersect–like getting your car registered–can make you want to drive your car off the Bridge of the Americas.  Fortunately some of these hassles can be avoided by paying someone twenty bucks to take care of them for you.
• “American” foods and products are sometimes hard to find and can be more expensive, and changing one’s tastes to local fare takes effort.
• Different concepts of time can be frustrating–you’ll come to hate the word “Mañana.”
• Getting a job in Panama is problematic for a foreigner.  So you must either start your own business, work remotely, or develop passive income in order to pay your bills.
• The justice system works differently here, so on the off chance you are suspected of a crime, you might find yourself “guilty until proven innocent.”  Fortunately corruption is not as much of an issue here as it is in other Latin American countries. (like Los Angeles).
• Schooling options are somewhat limited in the countryside if you aren’t prepared to homeschool.

For us, the choice was less about what would be easiest for our family and more about what we felt called to do.  We felt it our duty to take drastic action to “starve the beast” of a corrupt government, though we don’t yet feel compelled to fully renounce our U.S. citizenship.

Drawbacks notwithstanding, Panama has many advantages as a get-out-of-dodge location.  Let me enumerate a few of them here:

• A year-round growing season–Panama is the land where your houseplants come from.  Only here, they are the size of houses.  I’ve sometimes said one could probably grow cars in Panama if they could be buried deep enough.  Rain in Panama is measured in feet, not inches, and the tap water is sweet and gravity-fed.  Our four-acre property has a constant supply of fruit and vegetables.  We have oranges, lemons, mangoes, bananas, plantain, avocados, beans, pineapple, and even sugar cane.  Canning is almost unheard of here because it only takes a few weeks to grow just about any vegetable you like.  Think about how much easier your preps would be if you never had to worry about winter or air conditioning!

• A socially homogenous populace–One of the biggest challenges America faces today is what some call “the great divorce.”  That is, there exist in the States two deeply-divided groups of people with mutually exclusive world views.  Panama does not have this problem.  Political correctness is a completely foreign concept.  Boys bringing their machetes to show-and-tell in third grade are not a reason to call out the SWAT team.

• High quality, low cost medical care–Expats are exempt from Obamacare for the time being, and we are easily able to self-insure here, seeing as how a full triple heart bypass costs around $13,000 as opposed to $150,000 or more in the U.S.  It’s easy to find well-trained, English speaking doctors and dentists here and you won’t have to pay off the lawyers to get in the door.

• A small, stable, democratic and business-friendly government–Panama’s economy is growing at a rate north of 10% per year, and its government is the most capitalistic of any in Latin America.  They have lowered business tax rates and the government is constitutionally limited to borrowing no more than 47% of GDP.  Contrast the US, with liabilities exceeding 500% of GDP.  Income earned outside of Panama (for those who can work remotely) is not taxable in Panama, and may qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit in the U.S., which allows some U.S. citizens to pay no tax on the first 95,000 of earned income.

• Low cost of living–The average day-labor wage here is $15 per day.  Many things contribute to this.  One is a culture that does not indulge frivolous lawsuits, which run up the prices of everything.  Another is more realistic expectations–people are content without a 72-inch-high-definition television and a car that cost more than my first house.  Most people do just fine without TV or a car.   This society is not built on a mountain of debt, and people typically pay cash for everything, including their homes, which usually get built a little bit at a time as money allows.  Imagine what your neighborhood would look like if nobody took on debt!

• Adequate gun rights–Panama’s gun laws are better than some states in the US and worse than others.  To own a gun one must take a blood test, drug test, eye exam, criminal history check and mental health exam.  Passing those, one is issued a gun permit which allows  you to purchase and own most kinds of firearms (no fully automatic weapons or suppressors) and to carry them concealed.  The “castle doctrine” here is very strong.  Actual gun ownership is low (due to the cost relative to average income) and that means if you get a gun you’ll likely be the only person in the neighborhood who owns one.

• A deeply religious and moral culture–This one was huge for us.  In Panama, prayer is still required in schools.  Abortion is illegal.  Gay “marriage” is all but unheard of.  Actually, our little pueblo feels, to me, like America did when I was a kid.  My children ride their bikes all over town.  Crime is extremely low outside the city.  Pornography is rare as few have internet access at home and it isn’t sold in stores.  By and large, Panamanians are a humble, peaceable people.  They like Americans.  While they are primarily Catholic and our family is Protestant, this has never caused problems.

• Self sufficiency as a way of life–The people in our little valley mostly live on what they grow or raise in their front yards.  Everyone has chickens or rabbits.  They grow loads of beans, yucca, plantains, and rice.  While Panama uses the U.S. dollar as it’s official currency, which in my opinion is a bad thing, these people already function in a barter economy and if the whole world fell apart tomorrow, they’d hardly notice.  Our remoteness in the mountains means we are outside of the “golden horde” lines of drift that may one day come from the cities and our neighbors will likely go on as they always have, raising their food and trading for what they need.  Electricity here is reliable, but less so than in the states.  It probably goes out every other week for a couple of hours.  In a way this is good, as most are quite accustomed to functioning without power.  Because of the mild climate here, you never need to cool or heat your home, which dramatically cuts down on power usage.  The average electric bill is around $10 a month.
• God lives here, too–We’ve worked hard to overcome the “expendable Gringo” syndrome by plunging into the culture with both feet.  Because we are Christians and are fluent in Spanish, we found family from day one at our local Christian church.  Getting to know its membership has been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of living here.  We found there are lots of mutually beneficial ways for us to interact with these locals, from ferrying a bereaved wife to the cemetery in our car to learning from them how to grow fruits and raise rabbits.

These benefits are just a few of the reasons we chose to come here.  Many other Americans are following suit–our real estate agent tells us he is getting dozens of calls each month from Americans looking to relocate.  There are estimated to be four to six million U.S. Expatriates worldwide, and with the “death of distance” allowing people to work remotely over the Internet, thousands more are leaving every month.  Here in Panama there are about 50,000.  That number looks likely to double within a decade or less.

Much of what we’ve learned moving to Panama could be very helpful to anyone looking to move to a new location.  In a follow-up article to this one, I’ll lay out some of the strategies we employed to integrate into our new surroundings and quickly gain “ground intelligence” that will make us safer in the event of a “failure of civility.”

Though we felt compelled to “go Galt” for moral reasons, it’s sad to feel like I’m more free in Panama than the country of my birth, which I once fought and bled for.  But if by leaving for a time we can hasten the day when our government is forced to confront its immoral choices, then perhaps moving away was the most patriotic thing we could do.  If by sharing our experiences with you we can make it easier for some to make similar decisions, so much the better.  

A few people have criticized our decision as “cutting and running” on America.  For us, it isn’t about seeking comfort or safety.  It’s about doing everything in our power to stand for what’s right and withdraw our support from what’s wrong.  
May whatever hardships are to come be a catalyst for our nation to return to the God of our forefathers.