Trouble in Paradise

As Bill and I revel in the paradise called the San Blas Islands, the locals are in turmoil and could potentially cause distress with the cruisers after we depart next week. We have met many locals and have found them to be extremely peaceful, nature-loving, and culturally rich people. But they are poor and the Panamanian government keeps increasing fees that impact them greatly. The San Blas are officially part of Panama, but Panama agreed, back in 1925, to allow the Gunas to govern themselves.

Tranquility everywhere.  Who could imagine that there is unrest here?
Tranquility everywhere. Who could imagine that there is unrest here?

Alembic at peace in a perfectly serene bay
Alembic at peace in a perfectly serene bay

One man we met has a great business idea, but cannot act on it unless he gets the okay from the Guna Chief of his village, and is prepared to swallow the fees from the Panamanian tax structure. He has been told maybe next year… Women struggle to make ends meet with selling Molas to Panama and cruisers. Again, Panama is applying more taxes… And the taxes on water and other living expenses are going up.

Gunas know that they have a gem of a cruising ground and want to capitalize on this to earn more money. They have proposed to increase cruising fees to $20 per foot per month, starting Feb 15, of this year. Panama has not approved of this fee structure, but the Gunas may try to impose it anyway. They have a mini office at Porvenir where they charged us, and all boats, $20 per boat, and $20 per person. We gladly paid the $60 fee, knowing that some refer to this as a “Happy Tax,” to make us, and the Gunas happy. But this new fee would be $840 per month for Alembic, making the San Blas a non-option for us and most other cruisers.

We were planning to leave the San Blas by Feb 19, but now the rally departure is likely Feb 15, to avoid any confrontations. Already, the San Blas officials have been traveling around by small boat, asking people to show their receipt
Our receipt of paying the Guna tax in Porvenir
Our receipt of paying the Guna tax in Porvenir
of payment at Porvenir or to pay the fee if they skipped that step. There is a lot of chatter on VHF, SSB, and other mediums, where people are escalating this and bringing in other panic messages. Some say they are trying to confiscate any scuba gear, as this is illegal in these waters. Others have talked about boardings, where Guna men get on a sailboat uninvited, and demand payments for visitors, scuba gear, or other taxes. Most of these messages are from larger boats, and people trying to conduct charter businesses aboard their vessels.

Sadly, we will be happy to depart. We also would like to return in future years, so we will be monitoring these fees and actions after we have left. My heart goes out to the local Gunas, as they are trying their best to live peacefully in their magical homeland of the San Blas Islands.

We recognize that this is one more example of learning a bit more about a community than first impressions. If I only considered first impressions, I would believe that the Guna Indians lived a carefree life, eating and growing with nature. I now know that they struggle as we all do, with financial and political problems that interfere with progress. My wish for all of humankind is that everyone reach out and help when they can, and be considerate and neighborly with everyone you meet. And be patient; wait for the story to unfold and be a part of the peace that can happen.

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