Volume 35, Number 5, May 2000



A Man, a Plan, a Canal, Panama

reaction to the y2k bug in Panama illustrates there may be merit to the “wait and see” approach

by Rene Bergero

Perhaps you are wondering, as am I, whatever became of that infamous Y2K bug? You know, the one that was supposed to wipe out civilization as we know it. There has been much talk by such luminaries as Bill Gates that, had we not spent fortunes on fixing the “problem,” things would have turned out quite differently. How can you disagree with such implacable logic? Here’s where the famous palindrome (spell the title in reverse and it will give you the same sentence) comes into play.

I spent New Year’s in Panama, despite my friends dire warnings that my plane would fall from the sky, or that the Canal would drain into the Pacific Ocean, or that some other calamity would befall me. A trip to Panama seemed less adventurous than some other possible New Millennium activities being promoted, and it was certainly not intended as a test of the hypotheses that the Y2K bug was some sort of elaborate techno hoax. The real purpose (aside from escaping Chicago’s winter weather) was to witness what would be, in my humble opinion, the most significant event taking place anywhere on December 31, 1999: the hand-over of the Canal in its totality to the Panamanian people. Surprisingly, this event seemed to get very little news coverage, at least from what I could tell by watching CNN. They seemed more interested in reporting whether there was going to be running water in Vanuatu at midnight.

Everything worked just fine at the crucial stroke of midnight, and beyond, from the toilet to the telephone to the hotel elevator. Maybe you’re thinking that there was no problem because there was nothing that could cause a problem. Panama, officially categorized as a developing nation, is not a backwards country by any means, and there were probably as many “at risk” computers (on a per capita basis) as in the United States. Yes, the government and business people of Panama were very aware of the potential threat, and undoubtedly lots of computer consultants reaped a handsome profit. Friends and business associates told me that although efforts were made to inoculate against the Y2K bug, apparently not much money was spent addressing the issue, and certainly a lot less than was spent stateside. Indeed, they adopted a “wait and see” (a.k.a. mañana) approach that is a very common modus operandi for Latin Americans.

What can we learn from the Panamanian experience? Perhaps a cultural insight. We Americans seem to always operate on the basis that you should not leave for tomorrow what you could do today, and do not understand or appreciate why anyone would behave otherwise. Maybe there is some merit to the “wait and see” approach. It certainly seems to have worked in Panama’s favor, at least as far as the potential computer problem was concerned. There is, of course, equally compelling evidence that this approach has its limitations: remember the developing nation classification? The key to dealing with people that have a differing cultural perspective on what constitutes a sense of urgency is to first of all understand that no amount of wishful thinking will change their basic attitudes. Do not assume that your timeline will be their timeline just because you’re the one in the position of power, i.e., as the buyer, for example. Neither should you expect a prospect to rigorously follow the sales cycles of your American customers.

So, arm yourself with patience, and let matters proceed at their natural pace. Who knows, you might even grow to appreciate a mañana now and then.

wpe3.jpg (2131 bytes) Rene Bergero serves as export sales manager for Sommer & Maca Industries in Cicero, IL. His column appears bimonthly.



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