Ties that Bind


Panama’s Experienced Hostess Manages Life with Empty Nest

For 23 years, Daphne Humbert has been married to Federico Humbert, a highly successful and visible Panamanian business executive. But when Martín Torrijos won Panama’s presidential election in May 2004, he appointed Daphne’s husband to be the new ambassador to Washington and she instantly became the wife of a diplomat.

“There are certain things you have to learn,” Daphne told The Washington Diplomat. “But mainly it is common sense” — though the transition was daunting at first.

“I was scared at the beginning because I had never been in such an important position,” Daphne said. “As soon as I arrived in Washington, the other Latin ambassadors’ wives were very warm, very open. I remember my first meeting with them, everybody talked about their problems and situations here and back home, and I saw that they were just like me. We were all regular people trying to do our best. So, very quickly I would say, in a month or two, I was rolling.”

And she’s been on a roll ever since, although some diplomatic duties weren’t entirely new to Daphne. In fact, entertaining had become second nature to her long before she became an ambassador’s wife. Her husband Federico had been a high-profile corporate president and chief executive officer in the seafood and trucking industries before becoming president of La Prensa, the highest-circulation newspaper in Panama.

“My husband and I work very well together even though sometimes I have to slow him down, or else we can end up hosting some sort of event at the residence on consecutive days,” Daphne said. “My part of the job is to be the best hostess possible. I organize the receptions, dinners, luncheons or breakfasts we have scheduled, with enough time for my own peace of mind. Planning, buying groceries, cooking, flower arrangements and putting together a beautiful table just does not happen on its own. It takes time. Even though we have a wonderful staff, the personal touch is always important, and I know how Freddy likes it.”

Indeed, “Freddy” has nothing but praise for his wife. “I always saw this diplomatic posting as an opportunity and an adventure. Daphne saw it as an opportunity and a challenge — challenges of fulfilling a busy agenda, while at the same time maintaining the responsibility of keeping up to par will all the family affairs,” Ambassador Humbert said.

“A great part of the agenda is consumed by events that Daphne carries out on her own: fundraisers, social concerns, galas, etc., and following up with causes such as Operation Smile … issues that I would never be able to take care of as well as Daphne does.

“Without a doubt, the assistance we ambassadors receive from our wives is a key element in the success of our diplomatic jobs,” he continued. “After almost four years at this post, a 4 p.m. comment such as, ‘By the way, I am bringing 10 people for dinner tonight’ does not come as a surprise.”

The ambassador recalled how his wife handled one such big “surprise” with ease. “A couple of years ago, I asked Daphne to organize a formal sit-down dinner for the U.S. and Panama negotiation teams of our free trade agreement. I will never forget getting home that night and finding waiters, flowers, the kitchen staff cooking at full blast, a beautifully set dinner table for 16, Daphne at the helm … and I had forgotten to tell her that two days before we had decided to cancel the dinner. If I survived that one, I can survive anything!”

But Daphne clearly takes her diplomatic duties in stride, also frequently supporting nonprofit organizations such as the Latino Student Fund and the Fundación de Panamá, a Washington-area group that brings together Panamanian residents with auctions, fashion shows and other events to help charities back home. “We try to make difference,” Daphne said. “Every year, we plan events here to raise funds so we can send some money home to this foundation or the children’s hospitals. We want to keep in touch and to help Panama.”

Indeed, the Humberts’ connection to their homeland runs deep. The ambassador is the oldest of eight children and Daphne also comes from a very close-knit family. Her father was born in Greece but moved to Panama after World War II at the age of 14. Daphne’s mother was born in Panama but is also of Greek heritage.

“Because of our location and the Panama Canal, we have lots of ships coming in and out which have resulted in a large community of immigrants — Greek and Italians, a very large Jewish and Chinese community as well,” Daphne noted.The Greek connection also brought Daphne and Federico together in the first place. “I went to the wedding of one of his sisters, and I met Freddy,” Daphne recalled. “The following weekend my sister was getting married. Since our family is Greek, and [she] was marrying a non-Greek, I was going to teach some Greek dances to my brother-in-law’s sisters, who happen to be cousins with Freddy, so we invited him too.

“Sixteen months later we got married. I had our first child, Angelique, my senior year in college, and 10 days after having the baby — I will never forget it — I went to take a marketing final exam. I graduated in December,” said Daphne, a graduate of Florida State University in Panama City.

Since then, the couple has had three more children, all boys, in addition to Angelique, 22, who this year graduated with a degree in psychology from Georgetown University and will be attending New York University to earn a master’s degree in human resources management. Meanwhile, Federico Antonio, or Freddy, is a rising junior majoring in finance at the University of Notre Dame, his father’s alma mater. Eighteen-year-old Andrés and 15-year old Iván, both of whom attended St. Albans School in Washington, now attend the Academia Interamericana de Panamá.

“Last year, Andrés went to Panama to finish 11th and 12th grade. Our youngest will now study in Panama too,” Daphne explained. “The Panamanian school system is different than the States and runs from March to December, so now we’ll have no children with us and, for the first time in 22 years, we’ll have an ‘empty nest.’

“While in Panama, our children are living in our family home and my sister and sister-in-law and my mother are always looking in. We have a large family and always support each other. My sister and mother live next door, so it’s a totally different family concept than here,” Daphne said. “It is a great help having family around.”

It’s no surprise then that this strong sense of family is one of the things she misses most about her homeland, which is why she stays in close contact with her sister, whether by e-mail or frequent visits.

“Since we’ve been here my sister has come up about three times a year with other family members. It was wonderful because our kids missed their cousins so much. On my husband’s side of the family alone there are 33 cousins and 10 on my side,” Daphne said.

“There is a large community of kids in university here so once a year we host an embassy barbeque for all Panamanian students,” she added. “We have several dinners for 20 at a time because there are so many students at Catholic, American, Georgetown and George Washington [universities]. We always try to have them over and be available to help if they have health emergencies. I try at the beginning of school year to contact all of them so that they have someone to call, just in case.”In addition to family, another thing Daphne misses about Panama is the more relaxed lifestyle. “[H]ere people don’t go away on weekends to the beach or their grandparents’ house like we do at home,” she said. “In Washington, they stay in the city more. And I understand why now. Here during the week, we have so many diplomatic activities that you don’t want to go anywhere when it comes to Friday. Sometimes you just want to stay in and relax at home.”

But overall Daphne has enjoyed life in Washington. “Washington is a beautiful city, and has a lot of historical and interesting places to visit. With my husband as ambassador here, we’ve had a wonderful opportunity to meet new people from diverse parts of the world, with different backgrounds and cultures.”

In fact, Daphne and her husband — who often traveled across the United States before Federico became ambassador — have been to Iowa, Utah and California to see the soybean and corn industries. “We’ve had many interesting trips and learned a lot,” Daphne said.

So what does she wish Americans would learn about Panama? “Some Americans are familiar with our country, but others know us only because of the canal and don’t realize how de–veloped Panama is. Our country has progressed in the last 10, 20 years. We have so much construction, we have a banking system, we have the dollar, we have a lot of tourism,” she said.

“I would like to invite all Americans to browse a little more about Panama through the Internet,” she added. “Panama is a country that has so much to offer. Beautiful beaches for relaxing and surfing, picturesque mountains, great bird watching, high-end boutiques, wonderful restaurants, golf courses and deep-sea fishing. We also have tours to see an indigenous community and their beautiful artwork…. We have so much to offer. When you decide how you would like to spend your time, plan accordingly, because I am sure you will need more days or another trip.”

Panama could also be the destination for a much longer trip for some Americans. “My husband wants to encourage Americans to consider retiring to Panama,” Daphne said. “Many retirees come to our country because they feel comfortable, knowing that Panama has American standards in everyday living, American products in the supermarkets and good shopping. We also have good health care and hospitals which are affiliated with American health care systems.”

Speaking of retirement, Daphne and her husband know they won’t be here forever. “Since my husband is not a career diplomat but a federal appointee, we will probably be heading home next July when the presidency changes in Panama,” Daphne said.

When they return, Daphne hopes to return full time to the insurance brokerage she’s worked at since 1992. “It gave me the flexibility of working as many hours as I could in order to be home when my children came back from school. While living in Washington, I continued handling my office via daily e-mails or phone calls,” she noted.

She also plans on helping a nongovernmental organization she’s been involved with. “When we return to Panama, I am planning on joining permanently an NGO for which I have volunteered on and off. This NGO takes care of 4,000 children in 75 schools in the mountains of Panama. Feeding them once a day and taking care of their health is some of the goals,” Daphne explained.

But above all, Daphne will relish returning to the people she loves. “My family is my number one priority. I enjoy having my children around and spending as much time with them as possible.”

About the Author

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.