There are two roped-off lines in any Banco Nacional de Panama.
One says “Jubilados” (retirees). The other - and the lobby can be packed four deep on paydays at the area coffee plantations - simply orders: “Wait Your Turn.”
Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico and Ecuador are among Latin American countries with “pensionado” programs where foreigners with provable monthly retirement incomes of $1,000 or more are lured with a variety of tax credits for homes and investments, cheap access to universal health care and huge discounts for all manner of services.
Even without the discounts, services such as cell phones, the internet, or satellite TV are a fraction of the U.S. costs, although in Costa Rica’s case they are operated by the government.
While these perks for foreigners might seem like reverse discrimination against the native-born, these governments seem to consider it on par with a common U.S. practice of states and municipalities offering tax giveaways to international conglomerates if they will set up shop within their borders.
A study by the University of Costa Rica published this spring concluded that each foreign pensioner creates four jobs in the country: Direct jobs for housekeepers, gardeners and guards and indirect ripples for those working in hospitality, stores, healthcare or driving buses or taxis.
The successful applicant for a pensionado card (and they do not come easily, quickly, or cheaply) acquires access to single-payer (the government) health systems and cut rates on everything from transportation and other services to elective cosmetic, dental or even cardiac surgery at private hospitals.
Costa Rica and Panama are considered world-class destinations for medical tourism as professionals trained in the United States and Europe do the work at a fraction of the cost in the United States. Lounging on idyllic beaches shared with iguanas or monkeys or strolling through rain forests cannot but aid in the recovery.
The Tico Times, a 60-year-old English-language weekly for expatriates, includes advertisements from doctors offering facelifts and rejuvenations, hair transplants, breast surgery and re-sculpting eyelids and noses.
Prescriptions are not required for drugs to treat high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and most other ailments. If a prescription is required, medical appointments may cost $10 to $15 out of pocket.
Following Panama´s lead, the Costa Rican government is even promoting gated – but affordable – retirement communities with all the amenities of home and no snow-shoveling required.
Tourism has been Costa Rica´s top industry for decades (replacing such staples as coffee and bananas and overshadowing newcomers such as Intel microchips). So English-speaking assistance is the norm. Beginning in kindergarten, children do their science and history lessons in English and Spanish. In swank restaurants in downtown San Jose or remote mountain villages, the wait staff may even ask if you wish to be attended to in Spanish or English and menus in even the smallest country eateries are bilingual.
So are the ATM machines. A direct deposit retirement into a credit union account in Montana can be accessed anytime after midnight thousands of miles away.
U.S. ties – and presence - have been strong in Panama since before the Canal. For decades, the Colombian government had been calling on U.S. Marines to suppress Panamanian independence movements. In negotiations over the Canal, Colombia apparently got greedy, U.S. gunboats appeared outside the port and thanks to Teddy Roosevelt and Walter Reed the canal got dug.
Former presidential candidate John McCain was born in a U.S. naval hospital in Panama. Montana Sen. Paul Hatfield cast the deciding vote to turn the canal over to Panama in 1999, and Max Baucus beat him in the following election. Both the senators and the Canal (said to move up to 15 percent of global exports) are going strong.
There’s no worry about exchange rates as Panama uses U.S. money as its currency. The Balboa coin is worth a dollar and Panama’s quarters, dimes and nickels have different symbols but exactly the same size, weight and texture as their U.S. counterparts.
The magazine International Living, which has been rating potential retirement destinations since the 1970s, this year pushed Ecuador over Panama as No. 1. Ecuador´s cheap cost of living pushed it over the top.
Mexico ranked third, despite the State Department statistic that 120 Americans were murdered in that country in 2011, triple what it was six years earlier.
Long the darling of the IL rankings, Costa Rica came in 17th this year, largely because of the cost of living. It apparently has gone the way of Western Montana, Bozeman, West Yellowstone and Monteverde´s sister city of Estes Park, Colo. To paraphrase Charlie Russell, “It was a good land once, but it got ruint.”
Expatriate pockets such as Panama´s Boquette, Granada on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and Ecuador´s Cuenca have significant expat populations and thus plenty of English speakers.
Boquette, Panama´s alleged “Little Switzerland,” boasts that 15 percent of its residents were born in foreign lands. In addition to Americans and Canadians, European retirees universally are conversant in English.
Following Panama´s lead, the Costa Rica government is promoting gated (but affordable) retirement “ciudades de salud” (health cities) and one of Vice President Joe Biden´s brothers is among promoters of a project in Costa Rica that includes beaches, nature – and golf - as part of the rejuvenation process.
In addition to all the perks, Central American countries offer the obvious enticements of no winter as we know it, cheap and plentiful food and services, abundant and dirt-cheap public transportation through breath-taking scenery in safe, stable democracies.
Last year´s Costa Rican census said about 16,000 U.S. citizens live in that country – nearly double the number 10 years earlier. Journalist and expat Don Winner has been trying to grasp figures for years and concludes that about 40,000 U.S. citizens live in Panama. Mexican immigration states that 125,000 U.S. gringos live in Mexico, most of them in the capital city.
Organizations of expats are found in most countries. The annual Fourth of July celebration in San Jose became to big for the U.S. Embassy more than 50 years ago and since then has been organized and funded by a private group, American Colony.
Both Republicans Abroad and Democrats Abroad have set up booths at the affair at a brewery out of town with a U.S. Marine Color Guard and the usual martial music, hot dogs, beer, cotton candy and other goodies. All for only 5,000 colones (about $10).
But it ain’t always easy. The so-called “pura vida” of Costa Rica presents the challenge of finding variations of a thrice-daily theme of rice, beans, and something else. Then there are the daily rains and bad roads crowded with what one writer described as “wildly enthusiastic drivers” and very few traffic cops.
As part of their full-employment plans, governments offering pensionado deals for retirees require the employment of in-country lawyers and doctors in the process, as well as background checks through the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Interpol - and personal appearances with a native lawyer in the capitals of San Jose, Panama City, Managua, Mexico City or Quito.
Veterans of the process say it´s best to get a passport and use a tourist visa for a few months, and put hiking boots or sandals on the ground to do your own research, then follow up with consulates of your would-be host countries.
The time limit on tourist visas seems easy enough to get around. I have run into expats in Monteverde, Costa Rica, who had been returning for years without even knowing there is a three-month limit. And a colleague teaching English with me at a private school has for five years merely returned (via Nicaragua) to her native Israel every few months to re-start her tourist visa.
Obviously, she doesn´t really need those “jubilado” discounts.