The Darien and the American Dream

At a time when Americans are increasingly concerned about the future of our country for profoundly different reasons – some fear that diversity will grow and others that there will never be an equal distribution of power – earlier this month I found two strangely interrelated strong beliefs in America that I want to mention as Hispanic Heritage Month draws to a close.

The first was in an extraordinary place that I visited last week: Canaán Membrillo, in Panama, a ramshackle indigenous town of more than 300 inhabitants on the edge of the Darién Gap, one of the most impenetrable stretches of jungle in the world along the river Panama and border with Colombia. It is the epicenter of an accelerating humanitarian crisis unfolding in Latin America.

Migration is on the rise without precedent in a hemisphere battered by regime-driven state failures in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Haiti, the economic, social, and political fallout from COVID, and the ravages of the climate crisis. No place in the world suffers more from all these circumstances than Canaán Membrillo. Last decade, almost 95,000 migrants transited through the Darién. Last year, it was 134,000. And in September alone, 50,000 migrants traveled this dangerous path. Between 1,500 and 2,000 cross it daily.

People migrate for countless reasons: survival, fleeing political persecution, seeking refuge from criminal violence, wanting to reunite with family, or seeking a better life. Despite the variety of motivations, according to the men, women, and children with whom my colleagues and I spoke, most share at least one thing in common: the belief that a better life awaits them in America, if they can get here. It is a belief as strong as that of those who came generations ago to shape this country. That’s why they dared to risk everything.

Even among those who survive the Darién, most will not achieve their American dream, as the journey north is perilous and prospects for entering the country are more limited than ever. But America’s allure remains powerful.

And for good reason when you consider the other reflection of the United States that caught my attention recently: a study published in the annual celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, which highlights the economic dynamism of American Latinos. The Latino Donor Collaborative report shows that if this population constituted an independent economy, it would be the fifth largest economy in the world.

Latinos living in the United States generated $2.8 billion in 2020 and ranked fifth after the gross domestic product of the United States, China, Japan, and Germany. This economy is roughly equivalent to the combination of the two largest in Latin America: Brazil, with a GDP of 1.61 billion, and Mexico with a GDP of 1.29 billion, despite the fact that the 62.1 million US Latinos make up less than a fifth of the combined population of Brazil and Mexico (341.5 million).

These figures are due to a combination of factors (population growth, higher educational attainment, and record levels of entrepreneurship, among others). Despite obvious challenges, including persistent discrimination, America remains a land of opportunity for them. More than 60% explicitly believe they can “live the American dream” and, according to the Pew Research Center, more than two-thirds are somewhat or very optimistic about the country’s future compared to 56% overall.

The success of this community brings with it an important lesson. Like anyone else, Latinos can thrive when given opportunity in an environment that provides basic guarantees and the rule of law. It is the absence of these factors in many countries of the region that forces more and more people to seek a survival present and a better future elsewhere.

Authoritarian regimes such as those in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are the most obvious examples of how opportunities and the rule of law are being destroyed, but unfortunately they are not alone. The illicit business behind irregular immigration and the capture of remittances sent home, such as from northern Central America and southern Mexico, is also holding back the potential of millions of people to prosper in their communities of origin.

Thanks to the drive and determination of Latino Americans, the promise of the American dream lives on. As Hispanic Heritage Month concludes, we should hope that America’s example, imperfect as it may be, will inspire not only those who look north, but also a new generation of civic, political, and economic leaders across the continent to foster the conditions necessary for populations to live and prosper where they are.

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