*Thanks to Wilfredo Allen for his contributions to this paper.
In Fiscal Year (FY) 2022, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) registered more than 2.4 million border encounters with migrants at the Southwest border– a 37% jump from the 1.7 million recorded in FY 2021. This increase was largely propelled by a growing number of people fleeing authoritarian regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, making up almost a quarter of the total number of border encounters (571,159). This represents a shift in hemispheric migration patterns, with these nationalities surpassing the number of “Northern Triangle” (Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran) migrants encountered at the border for the first time in recent years.
This paper will explain the root causes of irregular migration that have driven thousands of people to leave Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. While irregular migration from these three countries ruled by autocratic governments is not new, the situation in these countries has worsened in recent years. Commonalities include domestic political crises, weakening economies, Covid-19, natural disasters, and strict U.S.-led economic sanctions. Facing precarious conditions and the threat of political persecution, a growing number of people from these nations have opted to seek safety in the United States.
Since 2015, more than 7 million Venezuelans have emigrated due to ongoing economic and political turmoil. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Venezuelan exodus – representing a quarter of Venezuela’s population – is the world’s second-largest refugee crisis. Moreover, the exodus shows little sign of slowing, with an estimated 5,000 Venezuelans still leaving their country every day.
During the first years of this exodus, most Venezuelans initially settled in neighboring countries. However, in the last year, an increasing number of Venezuelans have traveled to the United States to seek asylum. As a result, in FY 2022, U.S. authorities encountered almost 188,000 Venezuelans at the border, an increase of 73% from FY 2021. Several economic and political factors have combined to cause millions of Venezuelans to flee since 2015.
Economic and Political Turmoil
Sudden declines in the price of oil in 2014 (from $100 dollars per barrel to $50 dollars) and early 2016 (down to $30 dollars per barrel) destabilized the Venezuelan economy and undermined the government of President Nicolás Maduro.
Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves (more than 300 billion barrels – 17.5% of the world’s total), and the country’s economy depends on oil prices. Oil represents 95% of export earnings and roughly one-quarter of Venezuela’s gross domestic product (GDP). Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy was among the most prosperous in Latin America in 2014, when it reached an all-time high GDP per capita of $16,056.
The mid-decade drop in prices generated an economic catastrophe in the country, throwing Venezuela into political turmoil. As unrest brewed, President Maduro, who lacked the charisma and popular support of his predecessor President Hugo Chavez, consolidated power through further political repression, censorship, and electoral manipulation. In 2018, he secured his reelection in a race widely condemned as unfair and undemocratic. Nearly sixty countries, including the United States, subsequently recognized opposition figure Juan Guaidó, head of the National Assembly, as Venezuela’s interim leader.
After President Maduro refused to yield power, the United States imposed an economic embargo against Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state-owned oil company, and all its global subsidiaries, including Citgo in 2019. In addition, the Trump White House blocked Venezuelan government assets in the United States and prohibited Venezuela’s access to U.S. financial markets.
The sanctions – combined with poor management from Maduro’s government – led to a collapse in Venezuela’s oil production, which fell from nearly three million barrels per day in 2014 to 350,000 in 2020. As a consequence, Venezuela’s GDP shrank by roughly two-thirds between 2014 and 2020, inflation spiraled out of control, reaching an annual 1,946% increase in 2022, and the country’s sovereign debt reached a record high of approximately $150 billion. The sanctions also impacted pandemic-related response beginning in 2020, putting a financial squeeze on the government and even limiting the country’s ability to acquire vaccines.
At the same time, Maduro instituted new restrictions on the press, undermined the independence of the judiciary, and carried out a crackdown on dissidents that led extrajudicial killings to surge. The situation in Venezuela was so dire that it led the United Nations Human Rights Council to express “grave concern at the alarming situation of human rights in Venezuela” in 2020. These problems intensified the Venezuelan exodus during the early stages of the pandemic.
In addition, the lack of access to international financial markets and the hyperinflation of the Venezuelan currency led many Venezuelans to venture into cryptocurrency markets. As a result, Venezuela is one of the most rapid adopters of cryptocurrency in the world. Increasingly popular, Bitcoin is now accepted as a payment method in many businesses in Caracas. However, the value of Bitcoin has fallen in value by approximately 50% in the last twelve months, causing thousands of Venezuelan families to see their already modest savings reduced by almost half.
The economic catastrophe in Venezuela, along with the brutal repression of the Maduro government, has led more than 7 million people to migrate in search of a better life. And many of them started coming in larger numbers to the United States in 2021 due to the affected economic conditions of the Latin American countries where they had initially settled after leaving Venezuela. Initially, many migrants were able to easily enter Mexico (often by air) and make their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. However, after Mexico enacted visa restrictions on Venezuelans in January 2022, the number of Venezuelans arriving at the border briefly plummeted — declining from 22,779 to 3,072 in just one month.
Soon after, a growing number began the journey by land to the U.S. border. Consequently, the monthly number of Venezuelan encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border reached an all-time high of 33,804 in September 2022.
Over the last six decades, Cubans have consistently fled the island to seek refuge in the United States. Since Fidel Castro took power in 1959, waves of Cuban dissidents and those seeking economic opportunities have sought protection in the U.S., fleeing Communism in response to governmental oppression and repeated economic crises. The latter has been further exacerbated by decades of U.S. economic sanctions on Cuban goods, hindering economic development.
Since the 2018 inauguration of the current Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, which largely has represented a continuation of left-wing Castroite rule, the political and economic problems in Cuba have worsened. Government crackdowns, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and Hurricane Ian in 2022 have caused Cuban migration to spike, with growing numbers seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.
While the U.S. issues approximately 20,000 visas for Cubans every year under the terms of a 1994 U.S.-Cuba accord, the number of Cubans seeking protection in the United States has far exceeded this total in recent years. Moreover, the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program (CFRP) — which used to allocate the highest number of visas — was suspended between 2017 and 2023 due to the closure of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. In addition, U.S. policy changes that limited prior avenues for protection — namely the end of the wet-foot, dry-foot policy — have accentuated the problems for Cuban asylum seekers. As a consequence, the number of Cubans attempting to cross the border between ports of entry surpassed 39,000 in FY 2021. In FY 2022 that number skyrocketed to above 220,000, a nearly six-fold increase.
Economic, Political, and Diplomatic Turmoil
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a particularly devastating impact on the Cuban economy, even aside from the toll it’s taken on the nation’s health, and was the leading factor driving migration from Cuba. Cuba’s economy heavily relies on tourism, accounting for 30% of the island’s GDP. Unfortunately, as a consequence of Covid-19, the tourism sector shrank by 67% in 2021 compared to the previous year, and the country has not been able to recover economically. The Cuban economy contracted by 10.9% in 2020, and it has grown slowly since then, with GDP increasing by 1.3% in 2021 and 4% in 2022, not enough to make up for the 2020 shortfall.
Moreover, the pandemic and other domestic factors threw the country into an inflationary spiral that reached 300% in 2021. These economic challenges have been further aggravated by a reduction in support from Cuba’s close ally Venezuela. In recent years, Cuba has heavily relied on the support of the Venezuelan government, which subsidized fuel for Cuba. However, the economic and political crisis in Venezuela, discussed above, along with the collapse of the Venezuelan energy sector, has led the Maduro government to reduce aid to Cuba significantly in recent years.
Faced with these challenges, the Díaz-Canel government has struggled to provide food and medications to its people during the pandemic. Moreover, the shortage of fuel after the reduction of Venezuelan aid led to regular blackouts that sparked unrest among Cubans. The disaffection of a significant portion of the Cuban people led to a series of protests against the Cuban government and the Communist Party of Cuba in 2021. The Díaz-Canel government responded by violently suppressing the demonstrations, in which thousands of Cubans protested against the lack of political freedoms and other human rights. The Cuban government’s crackdown led many dissidents to seek refuge in the United States.
The state of the Cuban economy is also a function of longstanding U.S. economic sanctions against the island nation since Castro. Since 1962, the United States has adopted policies to isolate the Cuban government. Although relations briefly thawed during the Obama administration, which initiated a policy shift away from sanctions and toward normalizing relations, the Trump administration largely reversed those efforts. Obama-era changes that included restoring diplomatic relations and easing restrictions on travel, remittances, trade, telecommunications, and financial services were largely undercut by new sanctions introduced by the Trump administration in 2017 and 2021. This new round of sanctions affected two of the island’s most important sources of income: travel and remittances. With remittances representing the third largest source of income in Cuba, the 2017 sanctions were a severe blow to the Cuban economy. The economic fallout of these sanctions further drove migration to the United States, a trend that only worsened due to Covid-19.
After years of Covid-19, sanctions, and political turmoil, on September 26, 2022, Hurricane Ian – a category 4 hurricane – made landfall in Cuba with sustained winds of more than 125 miles per hour and left a trail of destruction across the island. According to the United Nations, the hurricane directly affected over 3.2 million people, impacting their access to housing, drinking water, electricity, health services, educational institutions, and facilities that store or distribute food. Severe flooding from the hurricane, with sea waters reaching two kilometers inland in several coastal areas, devastated agricultural and livestock production, undermining a principal means of livelihood for many Cubans. These Hurricane Ian-related impacts worsened the situation in Cuba, driving even more Cubans to flee and seek protection at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In FY 2022, U.S. authorities registered the largest number of Nicaraguan migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border: 163,876. This represented a sharp increase from FY 2021 (50,722) and an exponential increase from FY 2020 (only 3,164). Several economic and political factors have contributed to the influx of Nicaraguans seeking refuge in the United States.
Economic and Political Turmoil
Nicaragua is ruled by President Daniel Ortega, a revolutionary member of the left-wing Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSNL), which toppled the U.S.-aligned Somoza dictatorship that governed the country between 1936 and 1979. Ortega has been president in two periods: from 1984 to 1990 and from 2006 to the present.
Ortega returned to power in 2006 under free and fair elections and adopted social welfare programs that created a solid support base for the FSLN and helped improve Nicaraguans’ standard of living, which Ortega has used to consolidate power. Ortega’s subsequent elections were seen as widely flawed and undemocratic, with the 2021 campaign excluding all viable opposition.
Ortega has increasingly suppressed political dissent, violently cracking down on 2018 mass protests that followed government reductions to social security benefits (killing more than 300 and injuring thousands), shutting down hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, and holding more than 200 political prisoners, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
These human rights violations have drawn global condemnation and led to U.S. sanctions. Among the sanctions, the U.S. imposed an embargo on Nicaragua’s state-run gold mining sector in June 2022. Gold is Nicaragua’s top export, so the embargo is expected to have significant negative impacts on the national economy, which already was the second-smallest in the Western Hemisphere in terms of per capita income (after Haiti).
In addition to the Ortega government’s growing authoritarianism and economic reversals, Nicaragua faced a series of calamities in 2020: the Covid-19 pandemic followed by two back-to-back hurricanes – Eta and Iota. Hurricane Eta hit Nicaragua on November 3, 2020, as a category 4 hurricane with winds of 149 miles per hour. Two weeks later, on November 16, Hurricane Iota hit Nicaragua as a category 5 hurricane with winds of 161 miles per hour. According to the United Nations, the hurricanes directly affected over 3 million people, impacting their access to housing, drinking water, electricity, health services, and educational institutions.
As a consequence of the increasingly authoritarian government and the accompanying political and economic turmoil, more than 200,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country since 2018, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Most of them have sought asylum in Costa Rica, but increasingly Nicaraguan migrants escaping poverty and repression have traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek refuge – making up more than 163,000 border encounters in FY 2022.
Biden Administration Created Private Sponsorship Parole Program for Venezuelans, Cubans, and Nicaraguans, as well as Haitians
In October 2022, to alleviate the increasing number of Venezuelan arrivals at the border, the Biden administration first launched a private sponsorship-based humanitarian parole program that would allow up to 24,000 Venezuelans to access temporary protections in the United States. To be eligible for the parole program, both Venezuelans seeking parole and the U.S. resident volunteers who signed up to sponsor them had to undergo screening, including extensive background checks. Once approved and admitted, Venezuelan parolees received an initial two years of temporary parole status, including being eligible for work authorization. Parolees do not qualify for other benefits and have no clear path to permanent status in the U.S.
With this program in place, Venezuelan encounters at the border decreased from 33,804 in September 2022 to 8,130 in December 2022. Citing its apparent success in stemming the flow of irregular Venezuelan migration at the border, the Biden administration expanded these efforts in January 2023. Under a new and expanded parole program, Nicaraguans, Cubans, and Haitians – in addition to Venezuelans – can be privately sponsored and obtain humanitarian parole. The January program now allows up to 30,000 individuals per month from these four countries to apply to come to the United States and receive humanitarian parole. In conjunction with the launch of the parole program, pursuant to an agreement with Mexico, the Biden administration also expanded Title 42 expulsions to Venezuelan, Nicaraguan, Haitian, and Cuban nationals who arrive at the border.
According to preliminary data, in the first month of the program’s implementation U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported a 41% drop from 221,181 encounters in December to 130,000 in January, with larger declines for migrants from those four countries.
In recent years, the U.S.-Mexico border has faced increased irregular migration from Venezuelan, Cuban, and Nicaraguan nationals. These three countries, all under autocratic left-wing rule, have seen outbursts of violent repression against dissidents, as well as economic downturns. These factors have accentuated the social unrest resulting from Covid-19, economic sanctions, and natural disasters.
The recently announced private sponsorship and parole program is an innovative addition to the nation’s immigration policy that will contribute to a more orderly process at the border. It expands legal alternatives for those seeking humanitarian protection and represents an opportunity for Americans across the country to come forward as sponsors and demonstrate an ethic of welcome to their communities. However, the program, as currently constructed, is not a viable alternative for many of the most vulnerable migrants fleeing the Maduro, Díaz-Canel, and Ortega regimes. The administration should take steps to extend protections to the Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, and Cubans who may not have the resources or connections to secure a sponsor in the U.S., obtain travel documents, or pay for airline tickets to travel to the U.S., all of which are necessary to access the new parole program. In addition, the expansion of Title 42, which has been widely criticized, will return vulnerable migrants to dangerous contexts where many are likely to be persecuted and victimized.
The challenges we face at the border and in the hemisphere demand sustainable, humane solutions. Our government must rise to the occasion and provide a safe haven to Venezuelans, Cubans, and Nicaraguans fleeing autocracy and persecution who see the United States as the place where they can find safety and fulfill their dreams.
Author: Arturo Castellanos-Canales