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Are pro-Chávez Venezuelans setting up a 'Plan B' in Panama?

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The steady stream of wealthy Venezuelans moving to Panama to escape political and social unrest in their home country has not shown any signs of slowing since Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez revealed he is being treated for cancer.

But their political affiliation has changed.

Mr. Chávez’s ongoing battle with cancer, for which he is receiving treatment this week in Venezuela, has some of his top military officials apparently considering a contingency plan in Panama, according to one of Panama’s top real estate developers.

“Now we have Chavistas who are fleeing Venezuela because Chávez is sick and they don’t know how long he is going to last. We had something like six generals come here over the weekend. They figure: This guy is mortal; we need a plan B,” says José Manuel Bern of real estate developer Empresas Bern.

Mr. Bern, whose family firm has delivered 25 buildings in the past five years, adds in perfect English, “[the Chavistas] are thinking: Man, if this guy croaks, you never know… we may have to go.”

Bern says that even anti-Chávez Venezuelans who have flocked to Panama over the past decade, helping to fill the apartment glut from 75 new skyscrapers built in past 10 years in city of fewer than 1.5 million people, are not about to get on the first plane back home.

The Venezuelans in Panama are too concerned with rampant citizen insecurity and political instability to return home anytime soon, he says. And any potential power vacuum caused by Chávez’s untimely or unexpected removal from office would only make the situation more precarious.

So as long as long as Venezuela’s situation remains bad, Panama will continue to make lemonade, says Bern. “The situation in Venezuela is not going to go back to 1995,” he notes.

It’s not just unhappy Venezuelans who are fleeing to Panama.

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