“Go West, young man”, is thought to have been first proclaimed by American author and newspaper editor Horace Greely, directed at those seeking new opportunities, as a young United States of America expanded westward. Today, you will increasingly hear “Go South, young man.” This advice is certainly attracting that group of people (whether they are young, male or female) commonly described as digital nomads.
I tend to think of deserts and not digitalisation when I hear the word nomad: images of Lawrence of Arabia dressed in his Bedouin garb, riding his camel in the Middle Eastern deserts, come to mind. Both the Bedouin and Lawrence have important lessons for the digital nomad in that when the Bedouin folded their tents, and wherever their journey led them to next, they were intimately familiar with the terrain they travelled, whereas in Lawrence’s case he understood the Arab culture.
In increasing numbers, this new breed of nomad is finding South America attractive as a consequence of this century’s global pandemic and the uncomfortable parallels between the beginning of the last century’s political turbulence in Europe, ending in two world wars, and today’s not dissimilar international unrest, fuelled by power struggles. Many countries, in fact, some of them islands, have recognised a silver lining in this dark cloud of uncertainty that has spread across the globe and have reacted by introducing friendly laws and visas that are tailored with the adventurous in mind and who can easily pack a suitcase and travel to friendlier climes, just as long as a plug point socket will be available. But before you pack, be sure that you have considered carefully both the culture and the terrain. Preconceived ideas can be the modern-day nomad’s downfall if the only lure has been promotional material and flashy websites. Don't suffer the fate described in the novel by the late Graham Greene, recounting his 1935 trip to Liberia, an African republic founded for emancipated slaves. The book records his many trials and travails and the title says it all: Journey without Maps.
South America ranks fourth in area after Asia, Africa and North America and its history has been one of authoritarian rulers, both domestic and foreign. Over some 30 years I have seen the political pendulum swing left and right brought on by an incendiary mix of economics, poverty, nationalism and populism. I should add that you could be forgiven for thinking that I am also writing about some developed countries in the west, many of which have often been derisory about a continent they saw as full of Banana Republics.
For the uninitiated who seek business opportunities in South America, let me say that it is a continent full of surprises. In centuries past it was the draw of possible wealth (especially in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela) that attracted foreign immigration on a large scale and today the continent has a plethora of foreign nationalities. Two former great powers, Spain and Portugal, were predominant cultural influences, and yet Argentina has had a president of Syrian origin, one Peruvian president was an ethnic Japanese and past presidents of Paraguay and Chile have had, respectively, Hungarian ancestors and British blood. Another historic influence has been the United States of America, having also had an impact on South America’s development.
Beginning in 1819, independence under Simon Bolívar (whose revolution was helped by Britain to thwart the Spanish) meant that the previous dictatorial control enjoyed by Spanish and Portuguese colonial administrations came to an end. With the crumbling of the old order a vacuum was created which was exploited by President James Monroe of the US who, in 1823, boldly declared that henceforth his country (which had suffered itself under the yoke of colonialism) would protect all territories south of its border from threats against their sovereignty from nations outside the hemisphere. It was a time when the US was emerging as a growing power as Europe’s great powers headed for self-destruction. This proved to be a bonanza for the US and led to the Monroe Doctrine which said that the American Continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintained, were not to be considered as subjects for future colonisation by any European powers. As it was then, so it is today: all about power struggles.
The US influence was particularly felt in Central America and in 1903 it encouraged Panama to break away from Colombia which it had become a part of when Spanish rule ended in 1821. The US motives - not unlike Britain's regarding the Suez Canal - centred on self-interest and one of the overriding reasons was Washington’s realisation that completion of a failed French canal project in Panama linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would have immense military and commercial benefits. The need for a quick passage between those two oceans had exacerbated the US navy operations during its, albeit successful, 1898 war with Spain. The background to Panama’s independence, with its chicanery and intrigue, has been written about extensively, as have Washington’s motives vis á vis the canal, and perhaps the words of Jean de La Bruyère, the French satiric moralist, are most apt: “Even the best intentioned of great men need a few scoundrels around them; there are some things you cannot ask an honest man to do”. An observation that holds true to this day and applies not just to the US.
For Panama it must be said that the US involvement and influence enabled the country to develop rapidly and because English became widely spoken, it became a centre for American business in the previous century.
In the main, however, US regional involvement elsewhere in South America would not be significant in any measure for several decades after Monroe’s presidency, and in the intervening period that role was left mainly to resilient and talented British businessmen, particularly in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Uruguay. It was the British who would build much of the infrastructure in South America, including railways and public utilities, and it wasn’t until the Second World War that British influence really began its steady decline as its former empire (especially India) was dismantled. Meanwhile, between the 1898 Spanish War and its entry into the First and Second World Wars, the US was becoming a great power, only to eventually become a superpower. It was in the period between the two world wars that the US would begin to make its presence felt in both Central and South America. The outcome was not always positive.
The former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, once said that the US was unlike any other country because it was founded upon an idea rather than upon a culture. Some argue that in today's political climate the US needs a few new ideas. In recent years the US has become more preoccupied with global, rather than South American, issues. China’s regional and global influence, on the other hand, with what became known as its “peaceful rising” policy, is moving forward, especially in South America. As tensions rise alarmingly at present between the US and China, the world’s only two heavyweights in the ring, one wonders if the rising can remain peaceful. China’s economic power, not unlike the US in the last century, has changed the global political balance with Russia as the wild card.
In the scheme of things, South America is still a low-key player in global affairs and with such a low profile, is it any surprise that some digital nomads will find solace there? But a word of caution: one should not make the journey without maps.
Derek Sambrook is a member of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners in the United Kingdom and obtained the Trustee Diploma of the Institute of Bankers in South Africa in 1973, becoming a Fellow of the institute in 1996. He emigrated in 1977 from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where he was branch manager of a trust company and continued his profession in North America (Miami), Europe (including London and the Channel Islands), and the Caribbean (including the Cayman Islands). He has lived in Panama since 1996 where he is the Managing Director of Topaz Services, S.A. (www.trustservices.net), a Panamanian financial services company. He was Treasurer of the British Chamber of Commerce Panama for several years. Mr Sambrook‘s regulatory experience began in the corporate division of the Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) Ministry of Justice (1965-1970) and subsequently he was appointed by the British government (1989-1992) as the first Bank, Trust Company and Insurance Regulator in the Turks & Caicos Islands, British West Indies; he established a regulatory body and drafted trust and insurance laws, banking and other regulations including licensing guidelines. As a direct result of his innovative captive insurance law, the Turks & Caicos Islands at the end of his contract had more than 5,000 producer-owned reinsurance companies and was the leading domicile in the world for this service. During his tenure he was also an affiliated member of the Latin American and Caribbean Banking Commission and Chairman of the government’s Offshore Financial Services Committee. He was a columnist for a leading United Kingdom offshore financial journal for over 15 years. His newsletter, Offshore Pilot Quarterly, has been published since 1997. In 2021 he celebrated 50 years in the trustee profession.