There’s a certain contrast in viewing Latin America that you can sometimes notice between gringos and Latin Americans.
And, if I’m being honest, I’m completely guilty of it also.
For a solid example, let’s take this article here about Panama titled “Panama’s Success is Defying Political Science” by James Loxton.
Now, before we begin, let me clarify that the article is actually pretty good and, to summarize it, the article basically looks at various reasons for why Panama is relatively successful compared to its Latin American neighbors.
Emphasis being on those exact words though: “relatively successful compared to its Latin American neighbors.”
Let’s pull out some quotes from the article that are relevant to the point that I am trying to convey.
“Yet Panama is one of Latin America’s most striking political and economic success stories of the past three decades. Not only has it remained a stable democracy, but it has also been the region’s fastest-growing economy and today ranks among its most developed countries.”
“Panama has been classified as “free” by Freedom House since 1995. The country has also avoided many of the pitfalls of other Latin American democracies, such as military coups, elected strongmen, and the breakdown of party systems.”
“Why the success in Panama? Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, Panama was a middle-income country without deep religious or linguistic divides when the United States invaded.”
“Second, the most successful party since democratization is none other than Noriega’s Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Far from carrying out the equivalent of de-Baathification in Iraq, the United States allowed the PRD to continue to operate…”
“Between 1990 and 2019, Panama’s economy grew at an average rate of 5.9 percent annually—the fastest in Latin America. Today, it has the region’s highest GDP per capita in purchasing power parity and is considered by the United Nations to be a case of “very high” human development. Yet Panama is a grossly corrupt country: Of the 53 countries classified by the World Bank as “high-income” in 2019…”
Before we go on, let me clarify that the emphasis on certain words in those paragraphs is mine.
Anyway, before I clarify even more why those specific words are important, let’s step back and look at a personal example I remember down here in Mexico not too long ago and then we’ll get to the point.
“Why Do You Like Mexico?”
Almost a year ago, I remember living in Roma Norte and there was another American at the building named Alex.
He was from Florida and just a few years younger than me.
From what I remember, he worked for the Department of Transportation and basically had periods where he could relax not having to work while waiting to be assigned to some new assignment when the government needed him.
And he had success with crypto that helped make it a little bit easier to afford living in Mexico.
But what was he doing in Mexico?
Nothing except just living life and traveling.
At any rate, we were on the balcony of the building with a few other Mexicans late at night who lived in the same building.
And there was one guy named Vicente who asked Alex “what does he like about Mexico” and “why did he decide to come to Mexico?”
Alex had just arrived so they were just getting to know him.
My answer was probably something like “because I like to travel” but, being honest, Alex’s answer, in part, resembled how I feel about things also as a gringo myself.
Having known Puerto Rico well, he thought Mexico City would be nice because of how more “developed” or “nicer” it is.
“Just seems like a nicer city to live in” he said.
And, when compared to the rest of Latin America, he’s right to a degree.
It really is more developed here and you get a better bang for your buck if you prefer large urban cities.
But, while his answer didn’t offend Vicente, he simply found it strange.
Though, if I had to guess looking back on it, I think Vicente preferred a smaller city to live in for reasons like not being as chaotic and such.
He was there because of work reasons but that was it.
And so he found his idea of “why Mexico City” to be strange because Alex was comparing it to other parts of Latin America that he had known.
But Vicente wasn’t thinking about it like that.
I remember Vicente asking “why not Miami or NYC? Plenty of great cities in the US. Or in Europe.”
And Alex didn’t really have an answer.
Just shrugged his shoulders and the conversation carried onto other topics.
Similarly, I remember having a moment just like that a few years prior to that moment with Alex.
I was sitting down at a Starbucks that is located right in front of the Angel of Independence statue and the barista, a Mexican named Yirardo, was leaving his shift.
I had gotten to know Yirardo a little bit as I had visited that Starbucks most days of the week to get some black tea and we became friends for a few months hanging outside of work.
On that night when he was leaving work, he stopped to make some small talk.
And one thing I said to him generated a similar reaction that you could have seen in Vicente’s face.
He asked me similarly “why Mexico City?”
And I said “it’s very well developed.”
Of course, I was thinking about it in comparison to places like Xela in Guatemala, Barranquilla in Colombia, Cochabamba in Bolivia and all of the other cities I have been to.
While some cities, like Buenos Aires, seemed relatively more developed, you had many others that were nice to live in but not as developed as Mexico City.
When I said that “it’s well developed,” Yirardo looked down the Reforma Avenue with a confused expression and replied “really?”
At that point, I could see his confusion and responded “well, compared to the rest of Latin America” and he nodded away.
Not a nod that seem overly convinced but at least understanding of where I was coming from as he knew that I had travelled around Latin America before.
And this is where we see a fundamental difference in understanding between the gringo and the Latin American when we both talk about Latin America.
In the same way that, if we’re being honest, it wouldn’t surprise me if some Panamanians held a less positive view of their country than the perspective expressed in that article cited way above.
Why is that?
Bringing it All Together: “Wow, At Least We Aren't Guatemala!"
To some folks born in Latin America, it might be odd to find writers online comparing your country to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Now while I get why the political scientist did that as he simply compares countries across the world to each other and those within the same region, I imagine not every Latin American wants to be compared to any of those two countries.
Especially when so many get tired of foreigners thinking of their countries as basically being shitholes with nothing going for them.
And so while I don’t find it problematic that specific comparison, I think many in Panama or in Mexico at least wouldn’t mind being compared or put in the same league as countries like Ireland, Norway, Germany, etc.
Now, to be fair, Panama isn’t Norway.
We all get that.
Comparing the two countries together is a little bit silly as they aren’t in the same league in terms of quality of life for the average person.
Everyone in Panama knows that if they aren’t lying to themselves and, to be fair, I’ve heard plenty of Latin Americans compare their respective country to other Latin countries.
like the Guatemalan who looks fondly at his country because “at least we aren’t poor like Nicaragua” and the Nicaraguan who looks fondly at his country because “at least we aren’t violent like Guatemala.”
Not to mention all the other comparisons that Latin Americans make amongst themselves.
The Argentines who consider themselves “from the boats” while looking at Brazilians “to be from the jungle.”
The Mexican who looks down on all of South America as some poor place compared to his country.
The snobby Costa Rican who considers his country to be “the Switzerland of Latin America.”
Of course, these are all comparisons in terms of development and don’t even touch the numerous comparisons they make when it comes to “who makes better arepas, who has better salsa or reggaeton music, who really invented pisco, etc.”
So Latin Americans do make comparisons amongst themselves and it’s not bad for a foreigner to compare Latin countries against each other either.
Especially when we talk about development and many of these countries do share a common history (with their own distinct differences to be fair) and so economic comparisons are not out of line.
It’s similar when Alex or I compare Mexico City to the rest of Latin America and say “it’s so developed.”
But some of the locals, when they see these comparisons, don’t find them to be very flattering.
And that is because they’d rather be compared to Ireland, Norway, Germany, Canada, etc.
Many want to their country to be on the same league as “more developed countries.”
For that reason, when we say that Panama is a shining star in Latin America, that doesn’t sound as nice as saying “Panama is a shining star in the whole world.”
When you actually live down here day to day living a normal life that doesn’t resemble us expats living on the beach working from our computers, you might not have as much of an optimistic view about Latin America.
It’s similar to this other article I wrote here in which you’ll notice an irony in which plenty of Latin Americans cry “sáquenme de Latinoamérica” while gringo expats cry “the West is dead.”
Both sides want to escape to the other’s region and are seemingly in disagreement about how bad their respective region is.
Like the gringo who sees Latin America as the place to be with his eyes only seeing sunshine, easy women and low cost of living while the Latin American sees lack of opportunity, crime and national progress that is squandered by so much corruption.
Of course, not every Latin American thinks that way and many love their respective countries.
But many also have hope that their country can be more than just “better than Guatemala” and can one day be in the same league as Norway.
And so, simply put, comparing Panama or Mexico to Guatemala simply isn’t as flattering in the ears of a Latin American as it might be to a gringo academic or a gringo expat like myself or Alex.
Similarly, I also feel there’s a little bit of a “playground” mentality we gringos carry that Latin Americans don’t that also contributes to this difference.
We come down here, can enjoy a relatively easy life and, if things go to shit, we can always leave back home.
So, to us, it’s perhaps easier to compare a place like Mexico to Guatemala when making a decision on where to live.
For that reason, you could perhaps understand the difference in opinion about “how developed Mexico City is” that Yirardo and I had.
He isn’t traveling around Latin America making those comparisons.
And, to be fair, I don’t live anywhere within the gringo bubble of Mexico City and am very used to living in “questionable” neighborhoods that come with problems that a local would encounter.
I don't want to paint all gringos as being super wealthy. There are plenty of us who don't live lives as nice as some Latin Americans imagine and they have their own disconnect on that.
But, having said that, I still recognize that there is something inherent in our life experiences that might make him more jaded about Mexico City than myself.
The fact that I can always go home, that I earn USD, that I work online, that I am able to make these comparisons on real experiences from the benefit of having traveled, etc.
Of course, you got Latin Americans who do some of the above also as I don’t want you to think that they are all poor down here.
Many live normal and healthy lives obviously.
But, as a gringo expat or a gringo academic who makes comfortable observations from his office in the US or wherever, we have our differences in viewing Latin America from a typical local.
And so, going back to the main point, the comparison from Panama to Guatemala is perhaps more flattering in the ears of a gringo than the ears of a local who aspires to see his country be seen as more than “just better than Guatemala.”
And certainly better than Iraq or Afghanistan.
At any rate, as I said, I don’t fault the gringo academic for his comparisons nor do I think the comparisons we gringo expats make are inappropriate either.
There is no judgement made against each perspective but, similar to some Latin Americans crying “sáquenme de Latinoamérica,” the point is only to bring light to this obvious contrast in perspective between the gringo and the Latin American.
At any rate, if you got anything to add, drop a comment below.
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Thanks for reading.
Mario Vargas Llosa made an interesting comment in his autobiography (around the time he was running for office…) and he claimed that Peru (and I am sure this should go for a lot of Latin American countries…) should be looking at the likes of Taiwan and Singapore instead of looking to Europe and North America – he stated that it was pretty bad that despite Peru having all this natural wealth and the likes of Taiwan having next to nothing in that regard that Peru was way down in terms of development and GDP despite the fact that Peru has been an independent state for around 100 years more than Taiwan.
The reasons why a lot of Latin America is the way it is is about work culture and organisation – I love Malaysia and Malaysia is a lot more developed than Peru is but despite that – you can see the similarities of the countries and wonder why Malaysia has come a lot further than Peru in a shorter space of time (Malaysia became an independent country in I think… 1957) I think the wheels are starting to turn for Peru and they are starting to wake up out of the slumber but even if they match Malaysia and Taiwan in the future – it has took them four to five times as long to do it.
The Philippines is next door to Malaysia and they’re not as prosperous as them – maybe it has to do with the inherited Spanish colonial practices of government, the church, corruption, the moronic racial caste systems…