Coming home from my office yesterday, I drove headlong into this…
It was a protest blocking traffic on both sides of the Panamericana Highway — the main traffic artery for the entire country.
Burning tires, smoke, covered faces. Looks pretty intimidating doesn’t it? Exactly the type of image that media and government propagandists often use to convince us that the world beyond the safety and protection of our first world borders is full of anarchy, disorder and roving mobs of violent thugs that seek to do us grave harm.
I actually shared the photos with some friends in the U.S. last night and one of them replied “What in the hell is going on down there?!!?”
Despite the scary photo, the reality was “not much.”
The truth is that this had to have been one of the mellowest protests of all time.
Yes, the roads were blocked… For all of 20 minutes. The protesters themselves were teenagers and children mostly. Some mothers and fathers. Folks from the local community. Smiling and laughing. Snapping photos of their high jinks.
Panamanians, as always, took the whole thing in stride. Getting out of their cars, chatting up fellow drivers, joking with and ribbing each other. Not one honking horn… No one pounding the dashboard. As laid back an atmosphere as you could possibly imagine.
Yes, police were quickly on the scene… All three of them. They stood to the side disinterested, almost bored, until the 20 minute mark when they huddled with the protesters in polite conversation. I imagine the conversation went down something like this: “Alright folks, top-notch caper you pulled off here… You made your point. How about we open the roads now and let these drivers get to where they need to go?”
Yes, burning tires, rocks and trash were thrown in the road… But, get this. The police and protesters actually pitched in together to carry the trash to the side and clear the roads.
And 20 minutes later it was over. No tear gas, pepper spray, rock-throwing, handcuffs, paddy wagons, SWAT teams, rubber bullets or swinging truncheons. Not even an arrest as far as I could tell.
Now, ask yourself this: What might the reaction have been to a peaceful citizen protest such as this in a “sophisticated” first world country.
Would it look like this?
The protesters yesterday blocked the main traffic artery of the entire country without incident. The infamous pepper spraying UC Davis cop above was reacting to UC-Davis protesters blocking a sidewalk.
Here’s the point: The questions we get asked most often from those in developed countries considering a move abroad to places like Panama inevitably focus on violence, police corruption, and crime. They are often a reaction to things they read or see on TV back home that blow incidents like yesterday’s protest completely out of proportion. We had the same concerns before moving here 7 years ago, so we get it.
But when you can step back and put things in perspective, you’ll find that the safety and security you think you enjoy back home is often an illusion, while the dangers you’ve been lead to believe lurk beyond your borders are irrational.
Panama has its problems and some of them are big. Protests are a legitimate reaction to a country that is developing very quickly. Lives are being changed and not always for the better. Citizens, like the protesters yesterday, have legitimate grievances. Crime is on the increase, but still a fraction (even on a per capita basis) of many developed countries. Police and government corruption are big issues, but no more than in many developed countries — including the U.S..
But yesterday’s experience was instructive: Being inconvenienced for 20 minutes while a few peaceful protestors blow off steam, without even the hint of police violence or overreaction seems like a pretty reasonable price to pay to keep the peace.
Ask yourself what the reaction to such a protest may have looked like in your own country. You may be surprised by the answer.