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San Diego State University Paraiso for Sale Discussion Questions


Paraiso for Sale

What price would you pay for paradise? And who would you be willing to take it from? The pristine archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Panama attracts retirees and developers from the U.S. with its crystal-clear waters and its island culture. This documentary explores the effects this fast-growing migration of Americans is having on the local community and tells the stories of people who call this area home and would like to keep it that way. From an American couple, who’ve invested not just in their home but in their Panamanian community, to a local businessman turned political hopeful and an indigenous leader fighting for his land, the characters and stories speak to the larger global issue of communities, new and old, under siege from modern day colonialism, residential tourism, global gentrification and reverse migration, by revealing that immigration between Latin America and the US is not just a one-way street.


Feliciano – Indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé leader organizing and defending his community against land grabbing for development. He is also fighting his own personal land dispute with the owner of a small resort.

Dario – Afro- Panamanian boatsman turned political hopeful. Dario decides to run for Mayor of Bocas del Toro after an unresolved land dispute with an American developer over an island that he alleges has been in his family for decades.

Karan & Willy – American retiree couple who moved to Bocas in 2003. In 2008, an American developer claimed ownership of their land. Karan & Willy are in an on-going land dispute with the developer.

Bocas del Toro, Panama

The area now known as Bocas del Toro was traditionally inhabited by the Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous peoples. In the early 1800s, American and British settlers arrived with African slaves from other parts of the Caribbean. Free blacks from the British Caribbean also settled in this area during the 1800s. English and Pidgin English were as commonly spoken as Spanish and the native guaymí language.

Throughout most of the late 19th and 20th centuries, banana plantations drove growth in the region. With the arrival of bananas came American companies and the building of roads, hospitals and communication technology. Immigrants settled in Bocas del Toro to work on the plantations. They came mainly from the Caribbean and also from places including the United States, Europe Canada, China and other parts of Central America. Fluctuations in the world economy as well as banana fungi and pests resulted in mixed fortunes for banana exports.

Beginning in the 1990s, Bocas underwent a massive reorientation from an export-driven to a tourism-based economy. As democracy was restored to Panama after the fall of General Manuel Antonio Noriega, foreign developers and retirees purchased some of the most valuable land in Bocas. The creation of new hotels, bars, restaurants and tour companies meant short- term employment for locals. However, the rapid development threatened the region’s traditional land distribution system, resulting in the loss of land and homes from the local population. As the tourism economy grew, so did other problems. Bocas’ infrastructure—i.e. electricity, water, sewer, communication, hospitals—was not equipped to handle the large influx of newcomers. The cost of living also increased, making it difficult for locals to afford living in the area.

US-Panama Relations

The United States has always maintained an involved relationship with Panama. Following independence from Colombia in 1903, the Panamanian government gave the United States the right to build a canal (1904-1914) and to govern the surrounding areas known as the “Canal Zone.” The “Canal Zone” was used

mostly as a military base, but also housed around 3,000 US civilians. US sovereignty over the canal and the “Canal Zone” led to increasing resentment among Panamanians beginning in the 1960s. The US government conceded control of the canal, beginning with joint governance in 1970 and leading to a complete turnover of the Canal to the Panamanian government in 1999.

The United States flexed its military muscle in Panama with “Operation Just Cause” in 1989. After unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with Panamanian

General Manuel Antonio Noriega, the US launched a military invasion purported to protect US interests and citizens in the Canal Zone, prevent human rights and democratic abuses, and end the large-scale drug trafficking that flourished under Noriega’s rule. Noriega eventually surrendered to the United States and served a 17-year jail sentence for drug trafficking and money laundering. Noriega was extradited back to Panama in December of 2011, where he currently sits in prison.

Retirement Tourism

Retirement tourism, also known as residential tourism or lifestyle migration, is a growing worldwide phenomenon where people from developed countries relocate to the underdeveloped areas. Affordability, a higher standard of living, and tropical climate are some of the more common reasons people chose to permanently relocate. Panama, in particular, has seen a large influx of lifestyle migrants due to the above stated factors as well as cheap health care, a dollar based economy, proximity to the United States, a large percentage of native English speakers, and special tax incentives. As seen in the film, the media has played an important role in promoting Panama as an ideal place to retire.

In Bocas del Toro the development that followed the wave of retirees has shown little concern for preserving the area. The ecology and flora and fauna have been trampled. The people of Bocas have been displaced from their own lands. The constant

construction in the area has meant short-term employment for some Bocatorians, but has not brought long- term gains for locals. While Bocas provides an affordable place to live for Americans, the recent development projects resulted in rising costs of living for locals.

Discussion Questions:

1. How does retirement tourism fit into the long-standing United States presence in Panama? In the film local historian Clyde Stephens likens the new trend to modern-day colonialism while others have called it reverse migration. Do you agree with this assessment?

2. Would you ever consider moving to another country? What factors would persuade/dissuade you? Would you try to integrate into local culture or be part of an Americanized community?

Indigenous in Panama

The majority of indigenous Panamanians belong to the Ngöbe-Buglé group. Traditionally members of the Ngöbe-Buglé group relied on subsistence agriculture and kinship structures to determine land ownership and use in the community. Although they generally live in small community groups, Ngöbe-Buglé formed part of Panama export economy as laborers on plantations in Panama. As globalization takes hold in many areas of Panama, Ngöbe-Buglé have sought employment in the tourism industry.

The government of Panama was slow to recognize the rights of indigenous communities within its borders. Beginning in the 1970s the Panamanian government set aside lands for indigenous use known as comarcas. The Ngöbe-Buglé won the rights to a comarca in 1997. However, with increasing economic pressures from outside developers, the Ngöbe-Buglé lands are under threat. As recent as 2012, the Ngöbe-Buglé protested against foreign mining interests by blockading the Pan-American Highway. The uprisings ended in the death of a few indigenous leaders.

Discussion Questions:

3. Why do you think the indigenous are at a high risk for having their lands taken? Do you see any links between indigenous land struggles in Panama and the history of Native Americans in the US?

4. What do you think the future of indigenous Panamanians will be if foreigners continue to make claims on land in the Bocas region? Can you imagine alternative forms of development that did not involve displacing people?


Up to 50% of the current population of Panama is said to have African ancestry. Panama has been home to people of African descent since the Spanish arrived to the area with slaves in the early 1500s. During most of Panama’s colonial history, Afro-Panamanians made up the largest segment of society. In addition to slaves, free blacks from the British West Indies began arriving in Panama during the mid-1800s to work on banana plantations and construction projects. The building of the Panama Canal, 1903-1914, brought 50,000 new afro-Caribbean migrants to the area. Many of these English-speaking migrants remained in Panama after the completion of the canal. Bocas del Toro and the city of Colon are home to the largest concentration of Afro-Panamanians in Panama today.

Like in the United States, racism against Afro-Panamanians is a fact of life. Black workers were paid less than white workers while building the canal and US-style segregation existed in the Canal Zone itself. Even today, afro-Panamanians are politically and economically underrepresented, with much of the country’s black population concentrated in urban slums. Furthermore, those migrants from English speaking areas face further discrimination as they are not only black, but have different social and cultural traditions.

Discussion questions:

5. How is someone like Darío affected by tourism in the area? Do you think the benefits outweigh the negatives for him as a tour operator and entertainer?

6. During a confrontation over land ownership, Feliciano accuses an Afro-Panamanian of putting down the indigenous people like all blacks in the country do. What does this tell us about black- indigenous relations in Panama?


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