Leaving Venezuela for Panama is becoming routine for many individuals looking to escape the region’s tensions and political insecurities. Violent protests have sparked through Venezuela for the last several months, and many people have been looking for better opportunities in other nearby countries. Last year, over 233,000 Venezuelans moved to Panama — up almost 100,000 from 2010.
The exodus that began under Venezuela’s last president, Hugo Chavez, has continued with the current president, Nicolas Maduro. The majority of immigrants to Panama are middle-class, young people looking for jobs and trying to get away from their country’s current issues which include inflation, deadly anti-government demonstrations, and a constant shortage of basic goods. Under Maduro, inflation has soared to 59% — higher than anywhere in the world. Leonardo Zambranok, who moved to Panama in 2011, often receives reminders of how different things can be at home, remembering how a friend sent him a picture of mayonnaise jars. “This is big news when you can get mayonnaise. It’s absurd,” he says.
Panama is currently a prime destination for both tourists and immigrants alike thanks to its economic boom — 9% economic growth for the past five years — and the jobs that has been creating. Unemployment is a low 4.1%, and an expected expansion of the Panama Canal has led to investments in mining, real estate, and banks, all which are investments that create new jobs.
It’s possible that Panama will soon be the leading Latin American country when it comes to economic growth, thanks to the canal’s activity. “We’ve had to open up our immigration policy to attract more skilled labor,” says Frank De Lima, Panama’s Finance Minister.
The country has been easing its residency requirements for over 40 nations that Panama views as “friendly.” The U.S. is one country on that list. While Venezuela is not on the list, it’s still the fourth-highest source of foreign workers for Panama.