Panama hasn't always been in the news for the best reasons lately, but the country is doing many things right for business, and in general, for those living there -- both Panamanians and expats.
Consider that its GDP growth has ranked among the world's most prolific for much of the last decade. Even during the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, Panama's GDP rose 9% and 4%, respectively.
To be sure, Panama's history over the past couple of decades has been tarnished by its alleged role in money laundering schemes. The Panama Papers, a trove of some 11 million records that documented the use of tax shelters by global, public figures and politicians, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, cast fresh doubts about Panama's involvement in questionable, international transactions. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other news organizations obtained the documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. The groups are set to release a second batch of documents in early May as part of an ongoing investigation into the use of offshore accounts to hide assets and skirt rules.
Still, Panama City has a compelling story to tell. It has offered fertile ground for entrepreneurship and business development. It is strategically located near major commerce hubs in the U.S., Central and South America, and of course, has the Panama Canal. The Panama City skyline is no less impressive than leading cities in the U.S., Europe and the Far East. Moreover, there is an exceptional energy about the country.
But economic numbers only tell part of Panama's story. Robert Adams, who has worked on economic development programs in over 40 countries on behalf of the UN, the U.S. and others, said that speaking to the people of a country provides a more powerful sense of how well a particular country will do in the future. Adams was so impressed by the people of Panama that he is now living in Panama City. "Ask average, everyday people to tell you about their country," Adams said. "If they talk about the glories of their country's past, their future will not be bright. If they talk about the future, however, look for great things, because it is these people who will make it happen. The people of Panama talk about the future."
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One of the things that is most striking about Panama is how, in some ways, it has become the beneficiary of the failures of other countries.
Productive capital tends to move where it is most efficient. For example, Venezuela's political and economic troubles, Colombia's safety issues and Spain's high youth unemployment have prompted people and investment capital to leave these countries. In some cases, they've wound up in Panama; there are many Venezuelans, Colombians and young Spaniards in Panama, and they are often the most productive and eager to create enterprises. Panama has been welcoming to foreign newcomers and investment via easy immigration policies and economic incentives. But the country's dynamic economy, one that encourages entrepreneurship and participation, has also been an enticement.
The official currency of Panama is the U.S. dollar, and Panama has a tradition of free trade and successful businesses built by immigrants. Needless to say, the Panama Canal has been a key component of international trade. Less well known is that the country has large, active Chinese (many of whose ancestors helped build the Canal) and Jewish communities, including an increasing number of entrepreneurial Israelis.
But it is perhaps best to allow some of the people who have moved to Panama (or in one case, whose family moved there) and achieved career success to speak for themselves. Here are profiles of five businesspeople who exemplify Panama's dynamism.
In the 1930s, David Btesh's family emigrated from the Middle East through England and then to Panama, where David was born and raised. Like the children of many successful Panamanian families, Btesh went to the American school in the Canal Zone and to college in the U.S. As Panama emerged from dictatorship to a stable government, investment and opportunities for rapid advancement grew. The Btesh family founded Pacific Builders, which has constructed a good percentage of the Panama City skyline, especially in the upscale Punta Pacifica area. Today, the family also owns a bank, a huge shopping mall and an insurance company. "Panama is like an elevator," Btesh said. "In 2000, we were on the ground floor. Today, we're on the third floor. Soon, we will push the button and go even higher."
Chris Frochaux started his professional life as an attorney in Switzerland and has lived in France, Argentina, Ivory Coast, Senegal and the U.S. Frochaux married a Panamanian woman and has led an interesting, successful life in Panama, including running a liquor manufacturer that invented and bottled the first seco ever produced in Panama. Several years ago, after what Frochaux believed was a lack of professionalism from the real estate agents he was working with, he decided to become one, seeking out, in Frochaux's words "the best company in town." That company, Siuma Realty, hired Frochaux, who is now their top agent, out of more than 20. "I love Panama," said Frochaux, "and you will, too, if you choose to embrace it on its own terms."
Jeff Barton looks too young to have experienced his level of success. Barton grew up in Michigan, started his real estate career in Miami and then moved to Panama to help launch the Trump Ocean Club Resort. (Only later did he take six months of Spanish classes.) Barton's timing was perfect, as he has completed hundreds of transactions in Panama, many with high-end investors who are seeking to diversify their investments out of their countries (for example, Venezuela or Russia) and to earn a high ROI. Today, Barton is the managing director at Punta Pacifica Realty, transacting business with the international elite and enjoying the glitzy Panama City lifestyle.
Jonathan Stolarz is an Argentinian in his mid-30s who moved to the U.S. in 2000 and then to Panama in 2010 with his wife and two daughters to work with Regency Real Estate Developers. The company has over 3 million square feet of commercial space, owns a bank, and is developing a residential project that Stolarz is managing, Costa Linda Residence Club, which is 10 minutes from downtown Panama City. Although near the city center, the development has a park-like feel. It is one of the latest examples of entrepreneurs catering to a niche that a few years ago, didn't exist: affluent Panamanians and foreigners who want or need to be close to the main commercial hub, but who also want an upscale, suburban feel.
Patrizia Pinzon lives in the historic Panama City district of Casco Viejo among 400-year-old buildings. Pinzon and her American-born husband are part of Conservatorio, which is renovating a large part of Casco Viejo and successfully converting some of its abandoned buildings to high-end real estate -- multi-million dollar residences and high end hotels. "It's a very European type of lifestyle here," she said. "Most foreigners who live in Casco Viejo have the same characteristics. If they're from the States, they will be people from places like Brooklyn or maybe Soho, who have seen how these neighborhoods have been revitalized, and they like the feel of it."