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The Expat Life: a Latin American Perspective


Jürgen Pretsch


February 23, 2022


07:17 PM

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Global human mobility has never been easier. Today people constantly move around through secure, fast and affordable transportation methods. The internationalization of an increasing number of businesses and services and the standardization of many cultural practices combined with how easy it is now to reach new places, have facilitated a mass movement of people across the world.

Some Cultural Issues to Consider for Expats Living in Latin America

Even the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t been able to permanently damage international mobility. In 2020, the effects of the measures to contain the pandemic reduced global passenger traffic by 65.9% compared to 2019. By the end of 2021 global air traffic was showing strong signs of recovery, though this recovery hasn’t been consistent everywhere in the world.

As soon as it was possible, people started traveling again. Latin America was precisely the region with the best recovery in 2021, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). As people continue to move, assisted by remote working conditions and broader needs of businesses to operate in different jurisdictions; how is the life for expats changing in their countries of residence? Particularly, what are the main challenges in the post-pandemic period for expats living in Latin America?

Language barriers

The first thing that comes to mind is the obvious barriers with languages. Expats that come from the US or Europe to live in Latin America might encounter large communities of English speakers, but won’t be able to fully navigate its new residence without more than basic local language skills. In Latin America knowing Spanish, or Portuguese if you’re based in Brazil, makes a big difference.

Many expats often report a steep learning curve when first moving. Lack of knowledge of local languages usually adds to an already challenging scenario. Speaking the local language allows to develop a more fulfilling life, from accessing public services, speaking to your neighbors or having business meetings and demonstrating the ability to fully integrate in the culture.

New business standards and practices

Immersing in a new culture requires professionals to understand how to be flexible to face new business settings. The US, the UK and Europe have robust specific business traditions. These countries have very clear and even historical expectations for issues such as punctuality, productivity and personal relationships in the workplace.

Latin Americans usually takes another approach to these matters. In general, Latin American productivity patterns and protocols towards personal relationships in professional settings diverge from the Anglo-Saxon standards.

Many expats also describe how they feel like they have to move slower to match everyone’s else rhythm. The fast-paced lifestyle in Europe and the US may now encounter a wall of slowing moving individuals and bureaucracy’. This is not necesarly a bad thing, but it is definitely something to plan and prepare for.

Crazy inflation and local currency devaluation

This is slowly becoming less of a cultural difference. The US and Europe currently face their own share of inflation. However, the inflationary processes in the US or Europe is nothing like what has been seen in Latin America. Every major economy in the region is experiencing this problem. What does that mean for your life as an expat? Well... for the first time you’ll see how prices for basic services and products rise by the day. Most expats receive income in foreign currency, which offers some protection against this inflationary nightmare, but this can still be culturally and financially shocking for expats.

The ugly: citizen security and corruption

This is particularly challenging, not only for expats but especially for locals. Latin American countries experience higher levels of crime, especially more violent crimes than Americans or Europeans are used to. This doesn’t mean that the region is a "lawless land of murder" but personal security precautions should always be taken.

Of course this situation varies depending on the country, city or the neighborhood you’re in. Still, the general cultural difference is one of a region that struggles to reach more acceptable levels of citizen security.

Political instability like you’ve never seen before

Another cultural difference that is slowly fading as European and American politics become more dysfunctional and in some cases vicious, but again, Latin America takes to another level. The region is in a constant battle between the left and the right. While this might be witnessed everywhere, the important and particular cultural insight into Latin American politics, is how much institutions suffer from such ideological antagonism.

A main component of the Latin American political culture is “caudillismo” which comes from the wars of independence against European colonial ruling. The emphasis and reliance on strong men to lead. Individuals almost always trump the institutions.

This problem goes beyond the political landscape and affects everyone as institutions are weak and cannot fully administer normal public services.

Moving away from home doesn’t mean you can forget about it

An essential part of an expat’s life, whether living in Latin America or any other location, is remaining in contact with family, friends and life in their country of origin. Constant zoom calls, visits to the local embassy for consular services and frequent (costly) travel back and forth. The pandemic added a layer of complexity with border closures and COVID-19 tests and vaccination mandates becoming the norm.

Basic travel now requires additional preparation to comply with health requirements. Even when Latin America has recovered most of its air connectivity, there are now many extra challenges to the previous relationship norms of an expat with their country of origin.

Jürgen Pretsch is a professional researcher and consultant, but first and foremost, he is a "serial expat" and contemporary "digital nomad". Having lived in nearly a dozen countries, Jürgen has produced extensive research for major private institutions and governments. At the moment, Jürgen is pioneering work relating to expatpreneurship, and will continue to provide resourceful articles in the global mobility space.

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