For Central America, the world economic meltdown is just another day at the office.
While the world economic and financial meltdown has prompted U.S. pundits and talking heads to flap around the barnyard like Chicken Little, in Central America many people are taking the Alfred E. Newman approach: “What, Me Worry?”
In a region where half the population already lives in poverty, political turmoil is commonplace, and Mother Nature can behave like a wicked old hag, crisis is a relative term. So when speculative financial markets start to tumble and risky capital ventures bear bitter fruit, it’s not the end of the world for most Central Americans.
“It’s like telling someone who normally eats only once a day that they are going to miss another meal. Big deal. It’s the people who eat three times a day who are in trouble,” said Tirso Vilchez, who owns a small transportation company in Managua.
Economists have put the situation in similar terms. “It doesn’t hurt much when you fall out of the first floor of a building,” said Bayardo Arce, top economic advisor to Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega.
On Nicaragua’s rural and impoverished Caribbean coast, where the situation of exploitation and neglect recently prompted an indigenous council of elders to declare the independent Communitarian Nation of the Mosquitia, economists have a different perspective on what it means to be in crisis.
“In the United States when unemployment hits 8 or 9 percent, they call it a crisis. But here, we have only 8 or 9 percent employment, and it’s not a crisis,” said Anthony Medoxa-Krussas, the separatist’s minister of economy and finance.
Even in Costa Rica, which economists say is being more negatively affected by the world financial and economic crisis than any other country in Central America, people are happier than a fat kid in a buffet line. In fact, Costa Rica now has the jolly distinction of being “the happiest country in the world,” according to a recent survey by a British think tank that measured more than 130 countries around the world.
Others in Central America even choose to look at recession through rosetinted glasses. They are posing the curious question: If Central America goes backwards slower than the rest of the world, isn’t that the same as a relative gain?
“The world is getting set back by five years, but Panama is getting set back two years. And two steps backwards is still three steps ahead of the other guy. So I’ll take it,” said José Manuel Bern, of Empresas Bern, a leader in Panama’s realestate development industry.
Bern said he went to a recent industry trade show in Barcelona, Spain, and “people there acted like it was a funeral –everyone had long faces and was smoking cigarettes.”
He said, “The Spaniards and the Europeans in general don’t know what crisis is. They’ve been living in prosperity for 15 years and don’t remember what hard times are like.” The gringos, too, Bern added, “Have had such a life of prosperity that they don’t remember you have to make do with a little bit less.”
But in Central America, Bern said, “We are used to operating in crisis mode … The yellow light is always on, indicating some sort of danger.”
Now economists from the World Bank to the Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL) are predicting Latin America will recover faster than other regions of the world. That’s most likely due to factors more complicated than optimism, but a cheerful disposition never hurts.
Tim Rogers is editor of The Nica Times