How does one become legal to live, work and get health services in Panama?

Blog by Manzar Lari

Panama is a country full of natural beauty, laid-back people ready to embrace individuals from other countries and a government that welcomes expats to make Panama their home. We did our research several years ago and realized that there were many different visa options available for us. We picked the one that most suited our needs and hired a lawyer highly recommended by International Living to help with obtaining our permanent residency as well as making sure we could open a business. It took only 4 months to accomplish this! Sure, it cost us thousands of dollars but we felt that it was justified. The system is designed for people with the financial means to go through the residency process relatively painlessly.

There are many health care options available as well. We chose an option that gave us health coverage not only in Panama, but internationally as well. All this for a reasonable price! Unfortunately, not everyone has the same level of accessibility here. Yes, even the ones who were born here in Panama – there are bureaucracies one has to navigate.

Here is another story from our friends Joyce & Scott who moved here five months ago:

This afternoon a hummingbird got in the house. It panicked, naturally, and started flying crazily through the rooms and into the walls trying to get out. Scott spent about 15 minutes directing the bird out of different rooms. Eventually, the bird, exhausted, just froze in place on top of the hall dresser. In a concerted effort that came from years of trying to work together to tie down a cat to give it medicine or cut its claws, we were able to get the bird surrounded, so that Scott could carefully grab and hold its tail feathers to carry it across the house and outside.

The crazy actions of the frightened bird and the quiet skill needed to get that bird safely out of the house reminded me somewhat of how you have to work through bureaucracies—not just government ones either. We have been spending some time figuring out how to get packages mailed to us through a mail service in Miami. They are good and said to be the absolute easiest to work with, yet it has required a couple of weeks and several trips down to the office to make sure things are working. We are told that the packages are now in Miami and should arrive here in a couple of days. We’ll see.

This, however, has been a complete breeze compared to some government bureaucracies. As an example, Panama requires all citizens to have a cedula (identification cards with numbers). In order to have a cedula, a person must have a birth certificate. A cedula is required to access any government agency—public hospitals/clinics, education, or anything.This system is not unlike what has often been advocated for in the US as a way to reduce illegal immigration. However, the largest effect that we have seen is that it keeps a large number of indigenous people, who should have the most right to access government services of anyone in Panama, from getting those services.

The problem is that, as mentioned previously, a large number of indigenous people, especially women, are illiterate and uncomfortable with modern society. Their children are often born at home, delivered by other indigenous women, and do not get issued birth certificates. Because their mothers or both parents are illiterate and uncomfortable with modern society (and perhaps not even able to speak Spanish very well, just knowing their own language), the children never get birth certificates or cedulas. Thus, they are never able to go to school, get medical care at a reasonable cost, or access any government service. Lest you feel too much righteous anger at the parents for not getting the children these documents, consider how difficult this process is for literate people who are comfortable with bureaucracy.

A North American couple we have met here in Panama have been living among some indigenous people and trying to help their neighbors. They have spent over 18 months trying to get two children birth certificates and cedulas. One finally has hers, but the boy is still waiting on his cedula. Two college educated people, fluent in English and somewhat competent in Spanish, with the help of lawyers that they were paying, have spent 18 months trying to get these children the documents to prove that they are legal residents of a country that their ancestors have lived in for thousands of years. It’s quite a depressing tale of bureaucracy, but also with a ray of hope. The two children are, at least, in school, after the couple were able to talk the local school and the district administration in David to allow the children to attend during the birth certificate and cedula process. These two children can now read, write and do basic math. Their children will, in turn, be that much higher on the path to a comfortable life.

We feel fortunate to be able to live in paradise called “Boquete”! We try to live with gratitude for what life has given us and the wonderful people who either live in our little town or visit us from all over the world. Please come and visit us any time of the year and if you decide to make Boquete your home, we can assist you with information and connect you to people who can help as well. See you soon!

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