PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Wealthy Venezuelans are emigrating to Panama in increasing numbers, snapping up luxury homes as they fear their leftist President Hugo Chavez will hold onto power for life and rebuild the country in the image of Communist Cuba.
With a shining new skyline, Panama is starting to rival Miami as a center for Venezuelan expatriates, who are attracted by the Central American country’s booming economy and a lively Caribbean culture like their own.
The exodus is compounded by U.S. foe Chavez pushing constitutional changes that would scrap presidential term limits and limit press freedom during political crises.
Some worry that Chavez, who is a tight ally of Cuban President Fidel Castro and promises a socialist revolution, will one day copy Cuba’s one-party system that sharply restricts personal freedoms.
“I love Venezuela. I feel happy to have been born in a country that has everything, but there is one important thing called liberty,” said Maria Alejandra Chacon, who used to work as a journalist in Venezuela.
Panamanian government statistics show a surge in Venezuelans entering the country, and one Venezuelan expatriate group estimated about 15,000 of them have settled in Panama over the last year.
After arriving in Panama City, Chacon and her husband, an architect, headed to the Cafe Le Brioche, a Venezuelan bakery in the trendy Cangrejo district that has become a meeting spot for the Venezuelan diaspora.
There, newbies hit up seasoned expatriates for tips on where to live and shop as they munch on cachitos, the meat-filled pastries that are Venezuela’s national snack.
Restaurateur Freddy Marquez, 32, had thought about opening a new eatery in Miami, but he said Panama City had a more familiar vibe.
“It is just like a Venezuelan city. In Miami the people are a little colder,” he said.
Soon, Marquez will open a modish French bistro that will serve dishes like duck breast on sauteed couscous in one of Panama City’s ritziest shopping districts.
He said he was also attracted by Panama’s business environment, with little red tape for setting up a company.
Chavez, who calls U.S. President George W. Bush the devil, is overwhelming popular in Venezuela for spending the country’s huge oil wealth on the poor majority.
But well-heeled Venezuelans are put off by his socialist vision, and want out of a country battered by rising crime rates, periodic food shortages and a persistently depreciating currency.
One of Chacon’s friends was recently shot dead.
According to Panama’s migration authorities, some 10,000 more Venezuelans came to Panama in the first eight months of this year than during the whole of last year. Many come on tourist cards but end up putting down roots.
Roberto Arias, one of Cafe Le Brioche’s owners and a former Venezuelan government official, said a new arrival from Venezuela used to come into the cafe every month.
“Now it is a stampede,” he said.
Separated by a two-hour flight across the southern Caribbean, Panama and Venezuela have close cultural and historical ties.
Both were part of Greater Colombia -- the republic founded in the 19th century by Simon Bolivar, who led the South American fight for independence from Spain.
For Panama, the influx of wealthy Venezuelans has helped fuel a real estate boom that has been a big factor in the economy’s growth rate this year of more than 9 percent.
Real estate salesman Jorge Blaisdell is selling 500 houses on the outskirts of Panama City that will go for between $300,000 and $800,000, and have been advertised extensively in Venezuela.
“Some 80 percent of our clients are foreigners, and 75 percent are Venezuelan,” Blaisdell said. “They are looking for a plan B.”