I’m sitting in the back of an old but trusty camionetica, under a scorching sun, my swim day-pack over my legs. It had arrived some 20 minutes late, as usual. Gone are my Berliner days were I would see the bus arrive on the minute. I’m supposed to care little about the exact time, to re-learn to be patient and enjoy the small serendipities. Yeah. What’s the hurry, anyway?
The machine takes a full hour to take me from the small town where I work in the morning to the beach where I play on afternoons. I’m surrounded by familiar, yet still fascinating sounds. There is roaring: the van transporting us is way past its prime. There is chirping: a doña on the front seat is holding a paper bag with seven cute little chicks. There is Spanish chatter in a familiar dialect that gracefully replaces the eses with soft jotas. And then there are a couple of gringos giggling, unable to hide their excitement to go surfing in one of the nation’s best spots.
My fellow travelers are all happy. Older locals are living their quiet, rural lives in peace. Fear of crime must be a thing of the past… or, wait, maybe this place has never been dangerous. Young ones are putting in days of hard work, making the most of the construction boom that’s building dozens of vacation homes for big-city dwellers and units for hippy expats. Residents who are most skilled in English work as receptionists, waiters and surf instructors. And the tourists – there are so many of them now!– can’t wait to get to the hostels and retreats, to spend days just lying on hammocks, reading good books and pondering life while they eat fried pargos with tostones.
This, of course, is not the Venezuela I know and remember. But that doesn’t mean the story is fiction: every bit of it is true. Only it took place in a small town in Panama, in 2017.
If you came here and see for yourself how similar we are deep down, in our culture and our history, you would be hopeful. Panama, like us, has had its share of strongmen and violent coups. It could have been tempted by the easy way of leaning on a single source of income.
But quite unlike us, they decided (okay, maybe they were forced) to embrace a more decided liberalism. And relative prosperity ensued, with a healthy sustained economic growth, an increasingly diverse economic base, and one of the region’s lowest homicide rates.
This story can belong in the Venezuela of the future. It can take place in the Venezuela that prioritizes safety, infrastructure and basic education, the one that seeks to get foreign investment and to repatriate its former knowledge class. The country that finally puts good incentives in place to get rid of (okay, diminish) cronyism and rent-seeking. The country I just won’t stop aspiring to come home to.