The T(Predictable) ragedy of the Darien Gap

By Shlomo Maital

Darien Gap

    My Ph.D. thesis, written 55 years ago, showed how the hordes of baby boomers, born 1947-65, moved through the age cohorts like a deer through a python, totally predictable – yet at each stage, public officials were surprised.  Result: Crowded kindergartens, schools, universities, and now —  pressure on social security as they retire.  Surprise!  Yet predictable with 100% certainty.

    Same goes for the hordes of migrants now pushing across the Rio Grande.  In 1944 at Bretton Woods, NH, the US and allies created a marvelous global trading system that generated massive wealth – for some.  For countries able to capitalize, like China, Korea, Singapore.  And for the already wealthy.  For countries with corrupt governments, their citizens were left out, left behind.  Massive misery.  In South and Central America and Africa.  Result:  Huge waves of migrants, seeking a better life, or even life itself.

     Predictable?  You bet.  Just as negatively charged particles are drawn to positively charged ones,  so are the poor drawn toward the wealthy.  Sure as shooting.  It is not rocket science.

    Yet the world chose to ignore the problem.  And the result:  For example, the many thousands who cross the Darien Gap on foot,  66 miles of hostile steamy jungle between Colombia and Panama.  Including small children.  And many die doing it.

       On the New York Times’ podcast The Daily, journalist Julie Turkewitz recounts how she made the trek herself, to research it, and recounts her journey.  She notes, “Almost three years after a deadly pandemic began ravaging the world, a devastating combination of pandemic fallout, climate change, growing conflict and rising inflation exacerbated by the war in Ukraine is creating a seismic shift in global migration, sending millions of people from their homes.  The United Nations says there are now at least 103 million forcibly displaced people around the world, a record number that is only expected to grow.”

    It is hard to grasp big numbers like 103 million. But easy to grasp the story of Sarah, six years old, who crossed the Darien Gap with her mom.  “At least 33,000 of the people who’ve made the journey this year are children,” Turkewitz notes. “Some migrants come from desperately poor families. But many, like Sarah and her mother, Dayry Alexandra Cuauro, were once middle class, and now, thrust into desperation by their homeland’s (Venezuela) financial ruin, have decided to risk their lives in the jungle.”

     The Pan American Highway stretches from Alaska down through South America. But there is a 66 mile stretch, the Darien Gap, so impassable that engineers tried and failed to build a road to cross it. So it has to be crossed on foot.  Dayry, a lawyer, could not make a living in Venezuela, tried in Chile, failed, and in desperation, took her little girl and set out for the US border.   In the trek through Darien, which takes between  6 and 10 days, her feet swelled and she was unable to walk.  She handed her little daughter to a stranger, named Angel, and asked him to care for her on the trek.  She tried to follow later.  The desperation of a mother, entrusting her little daughter to a stranger, is unimaginable. 

     Julie Turkewitz helped reunite mother and daughter.  But only for them to learn that the Biden Administration had revoked the special terms Venezuelan migrants were offered at the border.  They wait in Mexico, as thousands are turned away. 

       Centuries ago, China built a huge wall to keep out the nomads.  It did not always work.  Today, the wealthy nations of the West are essentially trying to do the same.  It is immoral and futile.  Desperate people, like Dayry and her little girl, will keep coming. 

       It is sad, infuriating, unacceptable, that the wealth machine built in 1944, creating huge intolerable gaps between rich and poor, did not have a repairman working to mitigate the terrible inequality.  If you let large countries sink into abysmal poverty, their people will come to your border. 

        My fellow economists, me among them, should have done more to warn what lay ahead.  And what about the Christian evangelical Republicans in the US?  How do they support the xenophobic wall-builders like Trump?  With $65,000 GDP per capita, can Americans not afford to help those who live on less than a tenth of that?  Where are the Christian values?  Simple humanity?!

     Well done, Julie!  If you can, read her account or listen to the Daily podcast.