Tourists start boycotting Panama

Print More

Who wants to fly Air Panama, which is not just way overpriced but also flew police to Bocas to kill protesters?

We like tourism here at the Bananama Republic. It's one of the cleanest ways of development for a country - if done right. Much cleaner than open pit mines or oil refineries, and if it's kept away from big multinationals but instead developed locally, the population benefits much more than when they're just providers of untrained cheap labor.

But tourism is also volatile. Under Noriega, tourism was almost non-existent. Your author is from a family that refused to vacation in Spain when he was a kid, because we didn't feel we should support General Franco's bloodthirsty regime.

The same applies in Martinelli's Panama of today. Imposing fascist rule, killing activists and killing the environment is a detriment to the development of a healthy tourism sector. Nobody wants to sit on a Bocas beach with teargas grenades flying around and funeral processions in the background, no matter how hard Martinelli tries to buy his way out of the trouble he caused.

So, we weren't that surprised to find a letter in the Bananama Republic inbox from a group of regulars in Panama who announced that they would avoid the country from now on, and encourage others to do the same:


Dear Editor,

We are North Americans who visited Panama as tourists in June. We loved the amazing beauty of your country and the warm hospitality of its people. We would so much want to return for another visit in the future. But we are disturbed by the direction of the current government, and what it means for the future of tourism.

The new "Chorizo Law" makes Panama much less inviting for tourism. Tourists will not want to visit a country that has weakened regulations to protect its rivers from mining wastes and hydro dams. We will not want to stay at a hotel where construction workers have died in an avoidable accident, because their labor unions and safety protections have been diminished. And we do not wish to visit a country where we may see the police arrest pro-democracy activists--or shoot down striking workers and indigenous people--with little fear of punishment.

We were drawn to Panama because it seemed cleaner, more developed, and less repressive than much of the rest of Latin America. Now, we are beginning to see Panama as once again a place of fear and uncertainty. Until the recent trend is reversed, we will be advising our friends to visit other nations. We hope this trend will not last, and we will be able to return soon to your beautiful country.


Christopher Babiarz
(Madison, Wisconsin)

Zoltan Grossman
(Olympia, Washington)

Lisa Koenig
(Madison, Wisconsin)

Robert Koenig
(Madison, Wisconsin)

Debra McNutt
(Olympia, Washington)

John A. Smith
(Madison, Wisconsin)

Matthew Stewart
(Oakland, California)

David Strother
(San Francisco, California)

Monica Vivanco
(San Francisco, California)

Marcy Weiland
(Madison, Wisconsin)


Well, Mr. tourism minister, over to you!

25 thoughts on “Tourists start boycotting Panama

  1. Bad idea, punish the people who had nothing to do with the government’s behavior. Punish the people who are providing financial support to some of the victims of that behavior.
    In Bocas del Toro, the tourism zone is the Bocas islands. Most of the tourism businesses are small, and owned either by foreign people who actually live here and spend all their money here, or by locals. Now that the building boom has gone bust, virtually all the money comes from tourism related businesses. The water taxi drivers, the tour guides, the people who own small retail businesses, the people who work in tourism related businesses often have relatives in Changuinola. Some of those workers actually LIVE in Changuinola or Almirante. Why do you want to put them out of work? Why does ANYBODY who cares about the people of this region want to put them out of work?
    The ecotourism providers and other tourism related businesses here in the islands don’t get any help from the government, but do a lot for the communiy and are among the most vocal advocates of protecting the environment .
    So putting us out of business helps Panama and the banana workers and the people in the “target zone” HOW? It brings justice to Panama HOW?

  2. Are these so called tourist friendly Businesses paying more than the minimum wage for their workers?

    Are they paying Social Security for the employees of the tourist friendly Businesses?

    Are they, the tourist friendly Businesses providing education and medical for the families of these workers!

    It seems all these tourist friendly Businesses charge uptown high rise prices for their services while supplying poverty level support for their labour!

    As usual they the tourist friendly Businesses expect the government to support their personal businesses by keeping their labour cost low and their Taxes even lower!

    It seems that Labour and worker exploitation is a major business in Bocas del Toro!

  3. A tourist doesn’t just support a hotel or B&B; they pay taxes, entry tax, support national airlines, etc. etc. which supports the government. If you don’t want that, you stop being a tourist, i.e. go somewhere else. Free world, and plenty of destinations.

    The tourism sector should complain with Martinelli and minister Shamah, because those are the ones that are killing tourism, not just in Bocas but all over Panama. But the tourism industry – like most businesses – usually prefers to paint rosy pictures and transparently bad advertising over sticking its neck out to change things for the better. Most foreigners running small hotels here applauded Martinelli when he started governing. People like Sam Taliaferro couldn’t find words to describe their joy with repressive laws like the “ley carcelazo”. In other words, the tourism industry has only itself to blame: Their attitude towards human rights and good governance is part of their product, and people may just not like what they see.

  4. Dr. Dias, you are full of crap. You’ve probably never even been to the Bocas islands and don’t know anybody in business here; you don’t have a clue if anybody is engaging in “false advertising,” underpaying their workers, not giving them seguro social and all the other benefits required by law. Your just another ignorant fool running off at the mouth on any forum that will allow you to post your mindless blabber.
    The days when businesses could get away with not following the labor laws are long gone in Panama. Anybody operating a business in violation of labor laws will be quickly caught and fined, not to mention you’ll be sued by your workers. I don’t know any tourism businesses who do that kind of shit, and if you do, please identify them by name right here(and turn their asses in to Seguro Social and the Ministerio de Trabajo while you’re at it…).
    Put up or shut up, moron.

  5. Ummmm, Susan, you know as well as I do that more than one bar/restaurant in Bocas has foreigners working there without any paperwork. It’s actually a public secret.

  6. I run a business in Panama City with a branch in Ciudad Nelly, Costa Rica. I pay Seguro Social and all of the benefits in both countries. The deductions from salaries and my contributions in Costa Rica are much higher, however I feel much better paying them there.

    In Panama the workers receive next to nothing in return for their deductions. While in Costa Rica there is good health care and the government seems to care to some degree for its citizens. After 8 years operating in Panama I can honestly say that the government does not give a proverbial flying f*ck for it’s citizens.

    It is shameless how much money flows into Panama and how little is received by the average citizen. Panamanian working mothers who have seguro social in Panama arrive in San Vito, Costa Rica everyday to receive free medical care of a quality much higher than they would wait months for in Panama.

    This is simply wrong. I am not a person that considers myself left wing. However, there is a level of care that a society needs to provide for its citizens to be considered a civilized humane society. Panama falls far short. And after a boom, the size of which Panama has seen recently, the man in the streets should have a palpable increase in standard of living. This has not happened.

    Labour codes are necessary to counteract the power imbalance that results in capitalist societies as the result of market failures. Market failures are profound in 3rd world countries so anyone who talks about a free market system operating in Panama is hopelessly out of touch with economic reality.
    Ironic as it may seem to the rabid so called free market gurus here in Panama better labour codes would actually benefit a true capitalist society. It would create a middle class, without which, no country can advance.

    However on that note the labour laws here need a radical overhaul. They need to remove the element of paternalism that permeates the structure. They need to remove the clauses that allow a worker to receive more compensation if he is fired than if he quits. However, they need to have serious sanctions for unsafe working conditions.

    Incredible as it seemed to me when I arrived here, the government doesn’t obey it’s own labour codes. They fire people without cause, they refuse to pay compensation. This must stop. Who can take any law seriously that the government flaunts every day! Minimum wages must be adjusted to inflation and workers must receive the benefits from increasing economic conditions. If not through wages then through better services.

    Having had the experience of working and living in Costa Rica and Panama for 8 years I can honestly say that the Costa Ricans are on a much better track than Panama. And this is coming from a right winged small business owner.

  7. @Susan – you can’t have it both ways. If you call for a boycott of BP for example, you know some innocent independent distributors are going to be hurt by it. If you call for a boycott of any product (i.e. the fruit juice producers who were wrongly accused of wrongdoing) you are going to hurt the workers who have nothing to do with policy making or the decisions of the higher ups. So sure, a boycott would hurt a lot of people here, but it might send a necessary message because RM cannot have it both ways either. It is a bad situation either way – or he continues as he does, unchallenged, or people start challenging him and it is not a pretty picture. Most changes start like that and there is a high price for it.

  8. Hi Susan,
    If Martinelli doesn’t give a damn about the welfare of his own countrymen then more conscientious people will including tourists. Simple as that. Just as people have boycotted multinationals with dubious practices, it is practical to boycott a country with a dubious government. Applying pressure to the hip pocket is the quickest way to send a message to the top.

  9. Not only tourism but those of us who made the move and became LEGAL residents more than a decade ago. With each year even though the constitution says we are to have all right as native born with the exception to vote and public office. The last six years it has been a downhill slide into being treated as a 4th class citizen.

    Now every government entity treats us like we just got here all of a sudden barley agree to recognize our residency card etc. They want Passports more copies of more than ever before etc. One soon learns why the majority of Panamanians ignore the laws as to comply is to loose days of work, hundreds in phone calls and travel to some other distant part especially if in the interior.

    In a nutshell DO NOT come as a tourist thinking of settling here. My prediction we are the next decades version of Medallien of the 80’s and the Juarez collapse of today. The cops now are the criminals not just a few bad eggs as before and the money protects upper and lower ranks of all offices one has contact with in daily life.

    Corruption here is king and has no logic other to just add more and more honest people slipping the twenty so they can get back to work with whatever transmittal they took the time off to do.

  10. @PJ – I disagree with you. I have been here 15 years, and things are not worse now in terms of how foreigners are perceived or treated. In fact they had a similar immigration fair in Bocas either late last year or early this year, to help people who had been here without the legal visas, to obtain a valid residency cards. In most country these people would be deported. What you are experiencing is bureaucracy at its worst, and ineptitude from civil servants, but this is something EVERYONE in Panama will experience at some point, regardless of their immigration status, whether they are foreigners or nationals. There has also been a major streamlining of how you can get a business license etc etc . Not all Martinelli has done is bad, but there is a slide toward authoritarian government that is worrisome. Although people are not taking it lying down, and the events that will unfold during the rest of this year will be telling.. Whether or not he will learn his lesson is yet to be seen, but he certainly has been shown that people are paying more attention than he thought they were, Nationals AND foreigners.

  11. Susan what ever your name is:

    When an educated individual who was an attorney in their past life to use such language!

    I truly wonder as to their real values and moral convictions!

    Just like other Expats and Gringo’s here you came to make your petty fortunes off thew back of the poor here!

    Just like Don the Whanker you stoop to using profane language to argue some obscure petty thing that you make a direct profit from and use a moral stance only an ill educated changeling Expat or Gringo would use in their moral defense!

    There is a definite group of Expats and Gringo’s here in Panama that exploit the the Panamanian people and Panama Natural resources!

    No matter the consequences to the Panamanian people and Panama Natural resources.

    You seem to fit in that group perfectly!

    You use the laws here only when they benefit your own selfish interests!

    What have you truly done to help the Panamanian people in your area of expertise?

  12. Pingback: "Wild Bill" and "Wild Ricardo", dead bodies pile up in Panama's Bocas del Toro | Bananama Republic

  13. From Bocas,

    Very rarely does the government act in ways to benefit anyone but the oligarchies. Let me offer my opinion on the sudden efficiency of Martinelli’s immigration fairs.

    I have some Colombian friends that have just gained their two year visa via the immigration “fair”. One of them arrived here 3 months ago. The other was rejected for his admittedly bogus asylum application 6 months ago.

    At the fair both paid their $700 fees and $300 extra and received their carnets. Admittedly after a insane three day wait outside of ATLAPA (reminded me of the line for the Grateful Dead concerts in the 70’s).

    Looks good so far. The problem is that the amnesty law states that the applicant must have been in the country for 2 years illegally and must never have applied for any immigration status. Therefore my two friends were not eligible. But they received their carnets. The $300 extra took care of the “problemitas”. So what has changed under Martinelli? Same old wink wink nudge nudge….

    I have been waiting three years for a one year visa, the last of 5 annual visas that I need to receive my permanent status. My Colombian garage manager has been waiting legally here in Panama for over two years for his one year “Diez Porciento” Visa also. Que huevos somos nosotros no? (What idiots are we no?) He commented to me for applying in good faith when the illegals are now forgiven. He asked me if he should go to the fair and pay the fee and the “extra”( to solve his legality problem!!!) and receive his 2 year visa now.

    It was a tough question and one that is very emblematic of the dilemma one faces in dealing with an entirely corrupt government.

    On the one hand doing the legally correct thing and applying for his original visa had already put him at a disadvantage when compared to his friends who simply avoided huge expense and time and who were now, for their juega vivo, rewarded with carnets; as easily as buying a fridge.

    But on the other hand those that had obtained the amnesty visa with more juega vivo, (ie by being in the country only two months) would easily be the victim of the police when they checked there two month old entry stamp and found he had a carnet that should only be issued to those with two year old entry stamps. This would make him a carrier of a falsified public document which is a felony in Panama.

    So it doesn’t pay to take the illegal route. But then again it doesn’t pay to take the legal route either.

    The problem with slipping a public servant a few bucks to “mistakingly” issue a document (that one is not entitled to have) is that it is no defense in Panama against criminal prosecution for carrying the same false document. Once you step into the bribery game you will be continually bribing to avoid the problems resulting from the earlier bribes. This is the twisted genius of the Panamanian corruption game.

    The other wonderful option is to not bribe and get very little done. Welcome to Panama!

    So what is the amnesty bill all about? Why does a government that cannot even process legitimate visa applications that are years overdue suddenly set up a fair that processes 5000 illegal immigrants in 5 days?

    Why does a government that last month rejected a legitimate visa application because it arrived with a water bill that wasn’t notarized and therefore failed to prove the applicants address( a true example) yet all of a sudden processes 5000 applications of known illegals, with insufficient time in Panama, even those with criminal records in there countries?

    I think the reasons are two fold. One minor, one major. The minor is that it is a quick money grab.

    The major is that Martinelli is bent on destroying the unions. What better way than flooding the labour market with hungry Colombian, Haitian, and Dominican workers.

    Workers grateful to Martinelli for handing them a new life overnight while others fight for years for their visas. The word will spread quickly to the homeland of these recipients that Panama is open for business to anyone who can get here. The last thing that these arriving workers will do is join unions to hassle ol’ Santa 99. They will work hard and cheaply.

  14. Another signer of the letter is Joseph Mingle (Madison, Wisconsin). In our country, Panama’s main competition is Costa Rica. We think that Panama is more beautiful, historical and diverse than Costa Rica. But it’s difficult to convince friends of this when the police have massacred people in the same province as your favorite diving spots. I hope the tourist industry is writing or talking to Martinelli about the problem of this inevitable perception.

  15. Faustino, I am as worried about the current trends as the next person, but I think it is unfair and unjustified to say things are getting worse for foreigners. I am, obviously, from Bocas, and perhaps things here are different, well, I KNOW they are different, but for example, the police has always been courteous over time. The mayor, as misguided as he has been on some issues, is trying hard to reign in some things that NEEDED to be reigned in (but then people resist change) etc etc So maybe the immigration fair was not the greatest example, I was amazed they did at all, and here in Bocas it was mostly “permanent tourists – ok financially” who applied, so I have a different, rose colored vision. But remember this carnet is for two years, which gives you two years to get your proverbial shit together, and those who have gone through the proper channels are still ahead. Getting your 2 year carnet is no end all fix all. It buys you time so to speak. So I dont see how the people who do things the right way are penalized.
    So yes, RM is a dangerous megalomaniac, but I am not ready to throw away the baby with the bathwater. I think protests, perhaps organized pacific strikes and even boycotts (Air Panama, 99, etc etc) can and IF sustained, should make a difference. But only the Panamanian people can sustain this effort over time. Will they do it?
    By the way, was this boycott letter sent to the government, i.e. the president and cc’d to the tourism minister?

  16. @ Dr. Diaz
    I am sure that the expats and foreigners who are struggling to keep afloat and are provided many jobs far outweigh the ones who came here to make their “petty fortune”. Many are simple retirees who came here because they genuinely love it here, the country and its people. Not everything is colonialism redux. I will also tell you, that when sand was illegally extracted on Bluff Beach, one of the turtle nesting place in Bocas, and when extremely stupid TV shows were being filmed (on top, yes ON TOP) of turtle nests, the only people protesting, for no financial gains whatsoever, were the foreigners, as if we cared more about the natural resources of this country than the Bocatorenos. The press that mostly exposes corruption and environmental damages have been foreigners (yes I know, one of them, Eric, is also a Panamanian citizen, but you know what I mean) So a simple vista it is easy to blame foreigners, but please consider being a little bit more discriminate about your statements.

  17. To frombocas,

    I am here and retirement on a fixed income!

    I have not taken advantage or stolen from any one in Panama or any where else for that matter!

    Not all Expats or Gringo’s come here to exploit Panama or it’s people!

    After living here for a while now.

    I have found that there are a lot of Expats and/or Gringo’s here to get Rich off of the rest of us here in Panama!

    They exploit the people and the natural resources for much more than just personal gain, it is just plain greed on their part!

    So, you are right not all of us here are here to rape and pillage!

    But there are sure enough of them here to give the rest of us a very bad name!

  18. Dr. Diaz, certainly you will not say that these gringos outnumber the rabbiblancos who have been raping and pillaging Panama since its inception?

  19. To From Bocas;

    I wish I had your optimism.

    But tell me, why does Martinelli set up this program to suddenly legalize so many people so quickly? The majority of these people will not fit into any visa category. It is not a matter of giving them time to get their paperwork done, they had no chance anyway.

    Why not process those who have years waiting ? I am convinced he is either trying to flood the labour markets and/or frighten the unions by showing them the availability of foreign workers.

    At the Fair they were telling these people that after 2 years they could apply for their cedulas. Most probably a lie. The resolution doesn’t allow for this but neither did it allow for people for who have less than two years in the country.

    So the Fair was totally corrupt and disorganized and as usual anything is possible. I am supposed to feel things are getting better in Panama?

    The same quagmire of complete corruption but now overhead a lightening storm of extremely impulsive misguided policy and a rapidly deployed repression.

    No one even knows yet how many people were killed or blinded in Changuinola. I believe the police have hidden many bodies. Consequently there will be two paths for Martinelli to choose.

    The first is to come clean and present the bodies. This will be extremely damaging to him and the country in the short run. But with a full coming clean and a complete change of direction things could improve. But where are the bodies? Where are the resignations of the Noriega era goons in charge of the security system that were gleefully shooting their own citizens in the joyous atmosphere they enjoyed with Noriega? Foaming at the mouth to do it again!

    The second and probable route is to disappear the bodies. Old style banana republic repression followed by years of war crime trials…The decision has been made. We don’t have to worry about a trend toward repression. Now we worry how bad it will become.

  20. @Faustino: What supports your theory is that the government was bringing 5,000 Honduran workers over to work on the Canal expansion. Unskilled labor, most of it, as I understood it. We have PLENTY of unskilled laborers in Panama, so I think that indeed they’re trying to undercut the unions.

    The problem is that Martinelli & Co continue to blame the PRD and the unions for all the unrest, but the real trouble will come from loosely networked relatively small groups as rage is building among people about the government policies.

    Like those disappeared you mention: Look on our front page, we have the first case. Guy gets arrested, taken away, not to be heard of again. With stuff like that going on, you don’t need unions or perredistas to get shit going in the streets.

  21. Are you sure this 2-year carnet give them the right to work?
    Of course, if the intent is to weaken unions, the theory makes sense.Then I cant help but to feel sorry for all these povre diablos, those poorest of the poor, coming here under the promise of work, and then having them take the chance to get beat up next time there are riots in the street. Let’s face it, those estranjeros will be amongst the first blamed. They always are.
    But incidentally, here in the eye of the storm, Bocas, I dont feel things are getting worse for foreigners, which is what I was replying to PJ. What he talks about is mere usual incompetence not some anti foreigners complot.. But if the market is flooded with cheap foreign labor, THEN it might be a different story all together.

  22. And you all think the USA is a safe country with fair treatment of it’s workers?

    Witness the undocumented immigrants working in the US..low wages, no social security, no health care insurance…..some end up as sex slaves…compare the crime in Panama to the USA…compare the political corruption in the USA to Panama….walk around in any US city late at night and see if you feel safe.

    I suggest that with all the new technology we now have that these stories should have videos and photos included to show the abuses that are reported.
    To be a real journalist involves being at the site of the story and documenting it in detail.

    We readers want the full and true stories.

    • “I suggest that with all the new technology we now have that these stories should have videos and photos included to show the abuses that are reported. To be a real journalist involves being at the site of the story and documenting it in detail.”

      We stay as far away from the debate about who is a “real journalist” as possible, but I share your wish to report from on the ground. That’s why we are asking for donations, to make that possible. We look forward to see yours one of these days.

  23. @Miguel: Actually this story is about a few people voicing their concerns over what is going in Panama and stating they will boycott the country. It is hard to photodocument this. The underlying story is Ley 1 in 9, also hard to photodocument – you can just read it and get a sense of what it means. As far as the stories of the strike, part of which was related to ley 1 in 9, these have been well documented, photos and videos. You can find several links to youtube and photos on this website. The “new” technologies are indeed serving us well. 10 years ago, we would have never known what was going on, even in our own backyard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.