Freedom in Panama
by Kent McNaughton, March 8, 2004 (posted)
What we found in terms of freedom here I'm still digesting. It does seem the people here really do live free. On the other hand, they seem pretty acquiescent to those in power when they have to come in contact with them -- which they avoid, much as we try to avoid courts. A man -- one of three -- running for mayor of the town I live in, speaking to a group of about twenty expats, said last Sunday, "You foreigners seem to think you have a duty to pay taxes. We Panamanians believe we have a duty to avoid them."
Income generated outside Panama is not taxed. Property valued at under $20,000 is not taxed. (The sales contract is not connected to the tax form for valuation or any other reason). A home is not subject to property tax for 20 years if it was permitted before Dec. 31, 2003, and occupied before Jan 1, 2005 (home value of $100,000 or less -- bear in mind building cost is $25 to $50 per square foot). This exemption decreases as the home value increases or if the permitting occurs after Dec. 31, 2003. Sales tax is 5%. Alcohol tax is 10%.
Indeed, it seems to a large extent folks maintain their freedom by keeping the government poor. (The fact that a gummint office is seen as a way to line your own pockets, enjoy a satisfying sex life, and employ your whole family, in the best Spanish tradition, also helps by keeping officeholders focussed on those things rather than restricting the people's liberties.)
Though I have to admit, in the hands of a Noriega-type some of the laws on the books and the process of enforcing them give me the willies: reporters were recently threatened with being thrown in jail for calumny against officials. A bill was pushed through the unicameral legislature to license reporters. Fortunately, the President vetoed that.
Every five years an election is held for every political office. The balance of government is weighted heavily to strong executive. But there is no longer an army to support a dictator or to spawn one.
Guns are expensive and extremely limited in the gun stores. (An owner told me there are only three stores in the country -- about the size of South Carolina with 2.5 million inhabitants). Ammo is also expensive. $22.50 for 50 rounds of Winchester 9mm. Gun permits take a long time coming through -- especially for a foreigner. Mine took six months. You can't buy ammunition at the gun store without a permit. (Walk into Long's Drugs and come out with 500 rounds of .38 cal. plinking ammo for $100? -- fogetaboutit). The store had one rifle (.22 cal. column-fed with a fixed scope) for $307, license included. I asked about larger calibers. He said, "Maybe in June." Right. (I've learned some practical Spanish, ahora means next week; manana means never)!
On the other hand, I sell farm produce and whatever other legal substances I want without a permit. I drive without a seatbelt if I want. The ATV I drive on the roads is unlicensed -- a license isn't needed. Coasting slowly through stop signs (there aren't any stoplights within 475 KM of here) is expected. Non-use of directional signals is no doubt considered a conservation measure. I haven't seen a single traffic camera on the streets, not even in Panama City. In sixteen months I've seen precisely two traffic radar units in operation. I was served two beers today by a sixteen year old waitress -- perfectly legal. I drove home after those two beers without a thought of a cop looking for a DUI or DWI collar. I live here without a street address -- my mailing address is in Miami. (Panama had no Ben Franklin). My telephone is unregistered in my name. (It's runs on pre-paid cards available almost anywhere).
Sure, dogs are in the street and someone might be smoking near me in a restaurant. And yeah, the privately-owned bus or taxi (all transportation is private) might not have air-conditioning or be running on nearly bald tires.
But as of now, I wouldn't trade my freedom for yours -- not even in Wyoming.
Update: I introduced three new potential customers to the gun store owner today and got some questions answered. Going through a lawyer for an import permit, you can import up to three weapons in any five year period. So can your spouse. A woman is not "dinged" for being a woman in Panama. She can get a permit as easily as a man (contrary to a rumor that's been widedly circulated). Full-auto military weapons are verboten. Semiauto military weapons are not. (Goddamnit I sold my FAL on BS info)! Reloading and importing reloading equipment here is against the law. The Ministry (of something or other) called the owner the other day to "ask" that no weapons be sold until after the election in May. A new Glock .40 retails for $920. A used 2" barrel Colt .38 revolver in good shape retails for $200.
Kent McNaughton McNaughton served on the board of directors of the Libertarian Party of Colorado from 2001-2002. He is Chief Correspondent for the Colorado Freedom Report's Panamanian bureau.