Why would Americans retire anywhere but in U.S?

Outside Looking In
By Gordon Barlow

Foreigners living outside the US are continually amazed that so many of its citizens hanker to end their days somewhere else. We expect it of the British, but not the Americans. If you type “retiring overseas” into Google, you’ll get six million links. Many of them will be targeted at English-speaking Europeans, but most will be for Americans. Why is that, when there are so many excellent places to retire within the US?

Some years ago, just for fun, an American friend and I looked over a very comfortable retirement village outside Tucson. It was a dream of a place. I was tempted to put my name down then and there. The brochure listed sixty-four different activities and clubs, physical and mental. I’m not sure the average retiree would live long enough to take advantage of them all.

The attractions of domestic retirement are obvious – a familiar lifestyle, language and culture (more or less!), and closeness to children and grandchildren. As a general statement, Americans are not emigrants; children and grandchildren may move to different states, but not to different countries – except for a few years at a time as career moves. Retirees are the exception. The percentage of them who emigrate may be small, but from outside, looking in, it appears that the numbers are increasing. Four million is the latest figure I’ve read.

Another friend of mine, in Phoenix, built retirement homes in a licensed “gringo colony” just over the border at the top of the Gulf of California. Hot and dry and sandy: nothing to do and all day to do it in. The houses weren’t all that cheap, or the general cost of living either, so unless there are substantial tax savings, why would anybody move there? Beats me.

There are colonies of US retirees all over Central America – gated communities, mainly, or at least well guarded ones. Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama seem to be the most popular. The beauty about colonies is that you don’t have to speak the language of the country. It’s always useful, and courteous, but not essential.

Native resentment of past US political and military interference might rule out Nicaragua and Honduras for all but a few – and of course El Salvador. It’s sad that past US governments’ behavior is held against individual citizens – but that’s the way of the world. My mother went to her grave hating the entire Japanese nation for how a government of theirs had once treated Australian Prisoners-of-War.

A few mainly-American hippy colonies are tolerated in certain parts of Guatemala – even in places where the CIA was involved in atrocities against the native Indians. But I guess everybody knows hippies aren’t usually supporters of the CIA. “CIA torture” produces twelve million hits on Google; “hippies torture” – not so many. And anyway, the American hippies all say they’re Canadian; it saves argument.

From out here, it seems that financial considerations loom large among pensionados (foreign retirees) in most parts of Latin America. Paraguay and Chile may be exceptions; I hear that costs are not all that low down there. If you want to hang around the George Bushes of the world, Paraguay has since the 1940s been the best place to be. It’s no place for other types, I think.

My favourite financial reading on the Internet is The Daily Reckoning, which touts Argentina as having the best of everything a retiree could want. As long as one doesn’t convert all one’s savings into the local currency, it may be the perfect place to retire. It and Uruguay have histories of mis-management by their respective governments. A couple I know were visiting Buenos Aires during one currency crisis. In a cafeteria, they watched horrified as the prices on the chalkboard menu changed twice while they were waiting in line.

We are swamped with uncertainties, aren’t we? Declining oil reserves or buoyant new discoveries? Global warming or global cooling? Do we face chronic food shortages or will new genetic modifications save the world? Or, will famines in the Third World save those of us who live in the First World?
Property is a good investment, they say. When all the world’s fiat currencies collapse, there will still be value in homes or apartments on a bus route. Gasoline at fifty dollars a gallon will be factored into the cost of food. Electricity will be horrendously expensive, so air-conditioning and central heating will have to be rationed in each household. Medical expenses – don’t ask.

Forget Europe as a place for the average American to retire. It’s too expensive. The other week my wife and I bid at auction for a large broom-cupboard in Oslo, Norway, on the third floor of an apartment block built in 1898. Four hundred square feet, with some storage space downstairs; we pulled out early, and it closed at US$250,000. We could have bought half of Detroit for that price; and the weather’s probably better.