All you need to know about Iberian America

“At Least We’re Not Guatemala”

Published January 31, 2022 in Mexico , Panama , Personal Stories & Opinions - 3 Comments

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.

And follow my Twitter here.

Thanks for reading.

Best regards,



Dazza - February 1, 2022 Reply

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…

    Matt - February 1, 2022 Reply

    Appreciate the comments.

    Yeah, I guess it depends on which part of Asia though the point would be the same — aspire to be more developed than just “Guatemala.”

    A thing you mentioned though that is interesting is in regards to natural resources. A lot of Latin America obviously has an abundance of natural resources and one would naturally wonder why it isn’t more developed in part because of that. Well, natural resources has had a hand in helping Latin America at times like what you saw with the recent Pink Wave where leftist leaders of the region used the extra money from the higher prices on commodities to fund social programs.

    A problem with that approach — something tried before in Latin America several times now — is that it isn’t forever. Those prices go down eventually and go back up and go down and up and down. You need something more sustainable and definitely not an economy overly dependent on commodity prices. Venezuela used to have some car manufacturing go on in Maracaibo if I remember right. Plenty of other industry. What happened? Well, a lot happened but, over time, Venezuela became even more dependent on petroleum. A leftist leader is put in charge, promises to help the poor (who did need help) but increased government spending by a lot from my understanding and did other things to worsen investment and industry in the country. Now, when the price of petroleum went down, do you think someone like Chavez or later Maduro can cut government spending? No. That hurts social programs which hurts the voters that put them in office initially. Having a ton of natural resources isn’t always a good thing (especially if you mix them in with an over reliance on them for cash and/or corrupt politicians that steal some of the money).

    Resource curse:

    In contrast, you had other countries like Mexico or Brazil that used to have more a IsI (import substitution industrialization):

    While there were obvious issues with that model that included restricting foreign competition under the idea of allowing local industry to grow, I would say that the investment those countries made to develop their industries during a time of higher commodity prices (like in the case of oil for Mexico) made it easier for a country like Mexico or Brazil to be more competitive today with more industrial output where their economies are not AS dependent on commodity production. Of course, both countries have had other advantages that have helped make them more competitive (like Mexico having a border with the US that allowed for more trade with all the positives and negatives of that).

    Still, while having social programs to help the poor isn’t a terrible idea, it has to be aligned with economic reality and the point is that, just in my opinion alone, certain countries of Latin America like Mexico or Brazil were smarter in promoting more local industry development so as to not be AS dependent on oil later on (though, ironically speaking, Mexico did suffer from a huge economic crisis from oil prices going down after the Mexican Miracle but I believe my point still stands that they were better off trying to build their local industry at least. After all, helping the poor isn’t bad but if the poor don’t have any way to get off government welfare after some time because of lack of local opportunity, then they won’t ever be as productive in helping the economy and living a productive life for their families).

    Sorry, that was me rambling about economics. I’m not actually that knowledgeable about Latin American economics but there are some things that have stuck to mind and I got my opinions. They’re just my opinions anyhow but let’s move on. Speaking of economics anyhow, what about Peru? I actually am not as familiar with Peruvian history but I heard they’ve had strong progress over the last few decades economically.

    Anyway, what you said about culture is true also. Though, when you say countries like Peru can be more like Asia in some regards, I do ask what you mean by that specifically. I was talking more just in terms of general quality of life and so I’d agree with you on that one if we mean a place like Taiwan over Burma. I’m not at all knowledgeable about Asia though as a region beyond the basics so I’ll leave it just one observation: when speaking about culture, do you mean collectivism? I was talking with my sister for example a few weeks or a month ago and, while we have some differences in how we see governments handling the Covid situation, she remarked from her perspective something along the lines about (and I’m paraphrasing) how nicer it would be for the US to take on a little more of a collectivist stance when dealing with Covid. You know, in the news, you hear about supposedly people respecting mask rules and social distancing and so forth more over there than over here.

    While I’m not entirely in agreement about the benefits of any collectivist society, I can kinda see where she is coming from. In general, I guess it’s easier to think that, if everyone did what “the leader” or the government said with a more authoritarian system, then it would be easier to implement broad societal change at a quicker pace than what you typically see in the Americas. That, within some Asian countries like China or Japan, maybe you generally see more of a “collectivist” mindset among the locals over there regarding how to behave in society and rules to follow given to them from institutions.

    Would you agree with that or is that me talking out of my ass? Maybe a little bit of the latter because I have never lived in Asia nor has my sister and it’s all just speculation on what it’s like based on what we see on the TV. While I don’t agree with the collectivist way of handling things on anything like Covid or whatever else, I can see its benefits with other topics. Like how you see a lot of people litter over here but hear about people never littering in Japan.

    And so, when we talk about Latin America perhaps aspiring more to be like Asia, is that one way to look at it? And, if so, is it realistic? Or is that like asking the US to be more like Asia also? If so, I would have my doubts it would ever happen anytime soon. As you hinted at, every region has its own history like Latin America having the history of Spanish (and Portuguese) colonialism. That history has a great impact on the institutions and the culture in question. How easy is it to truly change the culture of a place? Take the US for example. When speaking of trash, we had a campaign decades ago against littering. It had success but its effect is waning these days as you can find plenty of places with trash in the US (though, compared to Latin America, I’d say less so but still). Either way, it takes a lot obviously to change the culture of a place and I have doubts Latin America would see such dramatic changes in its culture anywhere anytime soon. In part, I think comparing Latin America to North America (US and Canada) or some parts of Europe is better than comparing it to Asia because there’s more shared culture there (even though you do have Asian migration to parts of the Americas like anywhere else).

    Perhaps that is part of the explanation for why the Philippines is the way it is? I don’t know. I’ve never been there. But, when you begin talking about Spanish colonial history, I will add in one point I remember hearing in college. Not giving validity to the claim but it was one argument I heard by a professor who studied Latin American politics: The argument being that one fundamental difference supposedly between the US and Latin America is that the US was colonized by the British and, within US history, the British settlers prioritized building a society that worked for those who would make the country be what is known as the US while the Spanish focused on extracting only and never building real societies.

    True statement? Eh, I’m not entirely sure. Granted, you do have examples of the Spanish colonialists fucking with their colonies and their inhabitants (even the Spanish descended ones). Like how, in the history of Mexico, I remember hearing something about how the Spanish royalty in Spain gave preference to other Spanish people than those born in Latin America of Spanish heritage. Or how, as you can see in the Pisco article I wrote, the Spanish trying to fuck with the Vicroyality of Peru and its wine commerce because it fucked with the commerce of Spain. Was England as bad to the British settlers of North America before the War started? Well, it started for a reason and I’m sure they didn’t treat the colonies perfectly either. I’ll leave it at that.

    Finally, you bring up a good point about how “people are starting to turn for Peru and they are starting to wake up.” Personally, I feel the same about Mexico. Even though you have internet culture and people who say things like “saquenme de Latinoamerica,” I do think there is more optimism and higher expectations among the locals. Though I do think that maybe that optimism is not as high in certain countries with more locals migrating elsewhere (Guatemala, Honduras, etc). I don’t believe every Latin country has a bright future ahead of it (especially when you consider how some will be heavily more fucked over by climate change than others) but a country like Mexico I could see more optimism for.

    And, when you compare Latin America to how it supposedly was decades ago, there are clear signs of progress.

    Anyway, that’s a lot of rambling on my end. Sorry for the ramble. You got me thinking a bit on different subjects. Appreciate it as always.

    PS: You might enjoy this video on Latin America as it relates to the topic:

Dazza - February 1, 2022 Reply

I think in regards the comparisons to Peru to Taiwan (made by Vargas Llosa) – I think they would be a better model of economic development than looking towards Europe – I can’t say economics is my strong suit but it makes sense – post colonial societies except one has been a post colonial society longer than the other but it shows what can be done with the right mindset – like you said about Panama and Norway – that won’t be anything like but Panama and Singapore would be a better and more realistic comparison – Panama has come on leaps and bounds in a very short time which is how it seems for Latin America – it always bounces back quickly, I don’t know what you thought of Colombia when you went there but I was massively impressed with the infrastructure and the state of things. Peru was in a civil war twenty years ago but if you see Lima now – it’s in pretty good shape and has massively improved over those twenty years which is why I have no real worries about Venezuela – everything is in place for a quick recovery once Maduro goes – the only problem is when that will happen.

With China and collectivism – this pandemic has brought out the best in them – collectivism comes naturally to them and they have no need to keep be told to act in a way for the greater good which is conductive to a successful COVID-19 campaign – the local government tells the people to go and get their tests and they all do it, tell them to wear a mask and they only need to be told once – none of this crap that happens in the UK where bus drivers have been assaulted because (they have to..) tell passengers to wear a mask and then the old ‘who are you to tell me what to do blahblah etc…’

Collectivism comes natural to Chinese/Koreans/Japanese which is why you always here the same kind of comments whoever you speak to – there is a general belief of amassing and sacrificing for the greater good – it might be down to the teachings of Confucianism but I think it is natually inbuilt in them to do it – the education systems in the East Asian countries are very similar in that regard – when the South Korean economy crashed in 1997 – the government went on TV with a telethon and told the people ‘we need your money and valuables, please give them to us’ what would happen if you government told you to give them your jewellery and valuables to get out of the IMF hole – I am sure you would tell them to fuck off just like I would because they get something called tax but South Koreans didn’t see it like that, people were giving their gold fillings because they got together to get themselves out of a national crisis and that is how the people think. So, when it comes to something like COVID-19 – they were far better able to respond to it collectively which is why how they acted was far different to how it went in our countries.

South Korea, Japan (which of course are similar) and China have differing political systems but they’re all collectivist in that regard – more cultural than political.

I think with Peru and Asia – they share nautical trade links – the Pacific countries are going to benefit with this in the same way Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil did facing Europe in the last century. The news the other day was Singapore signing a trade deal with the Pacific Alliance (Peru, Chile, Colombia and Mexico) and of course, Peru and Chile (and Costa Rica) are some of the few countries to have an FTA with China – I think it is more sensible to compare their countries to the ones in Asia regards development than comparing themselves with European countries – helps with Peru that it has a big historical Chinese community but if Asia is the future of the planet and the ‘sleeping giant’ of China has woken up then Peru is in an excellent position to benefit which you can see when you go there with the development going on. Hopefully they get those metro lines built soon!

With China and Peru having a bright future, maybe I’ll find a nice Chinese wife someday if I’m lucky and bring her to Peru. I always wanted a wife but never could get one. Someday! Hahaha!

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