Though with some side travel, my main destination was Panama. Nice little country, very interesting and more so now with the very historical canal. If I may be forgiven from using cheap clichés, I think that together with Tikal and Machu Pichu it is the most significant human achievement in the Americas. Not the biggest, or nicest, or anything of the sort, the stress is on significance, before anyone gets upset.
But I digress. I had a good time there and I enjoyed the little bit I saw of the city. The contrast with Venezuela was rather startling. Very few potholes in the streets. Very few beggars, or street children for that matter (and I went to a seedy part of town to look for guayaberas in a specialty manufacture, a flop by the way). Food was great and cheaper than in Caracas, and with much better service. Tips could be left without afterthoughts. Good beer but lousy rum. People also seemed more optimistic about their future even though Torrijos seems to be sinking in the polls as they are tackling a difficult social security reform. All in all, Panama looked strangely like a Venezuela where things would sort of work out and where general improvement was on its way. Still very Latin, very messy Caribbean but nice, gentle with a method in their madness.
Now the part that scared me the most was describing the Venezuelan situation to the Panama folks I met. They all understood quickly self censorship of the press, police and military privileges, Bolivarian Circles (dignity battalions under Noriega), organized corruption, etc, etc… Their words: Oh! It is just like it was under Noriega! And this went on from business acquaintances to an usher who refused my offer to trade Chavez for Torrijos. Even one of the cab drivers who used to be a Noriega guard that was even sent to Israel for training. He did miss the good old days (amazing that he would feel free to confess such a thing) but he was semi aware at least that it could not have lasted and he moved on with his life, not looking forward for an eventual release of Noriega in a couple of years. We would be so lucky if the chavistas in charge would go as "gracefully" when their turn come.
But the best was the gossip gathered by one of my friends shopping at some mall. There in Joyeria Apollo, if memory serves me well, she was looking at some expensive watches while she was waiting for some friends to purchase something. Aimlessly she asked for the price of one and was told it was 8 000 USD. Of course she gagged and cursed herself for her expensive tastes. But the store clerk noticed her accent and started talking with her about Venezuela. He said that he had a regular customer, a National Assembly representative that did actually bought the same watch a few weeks ago. Apparently the guy is very nice with him, very pleasant and has no problem with his credit card (while me, or my friend, or any "normal" Venezuelan, we are allotted only 4 000 USD a year on our card, the maximum allowed by the strict currency exchange control).
The name? I cannot give it directly as I could get sued for it. After all I was not a direct witness of the scene (nor do I have the means to start an in depth investigation) and there is no reason why I should be blamed for a "slander" that I would have no way to defend against. Let's say that it is the leader of a pro Chavez "willful and able" party, and he wears glasses. His brother has been accused of pocketing road building contracts. He was mentioned in the press as buying and building quite a little farm/countryside home in a state before Zulia; and when he was the mayor of a central municipality he was suspected of a few not very kosher dealings…. Thus him buying an 8 000 USD watches in Panama is really not hard to believe. Like many chavistas cashing in, well, Panama is a good place to wash ill acquired gains: we should look at the airport entries and the frequent visitors. Unfortunately when I go to Panama it is not to hide money I do not have, nor to spend the little bit I manage to scrounge, except for an IPod like gadget and some great sea food. Well, maybe someday when Chavez decides to buy my conscience.