New Orleans When discussing migration and sanctions the order of the day is really the old expression, “What goes around, comes around.” There’s a bit of schoolyard bickering between the United States and some of our Latin American neighbors, doing some heavy finger pointing about who and what is responsible for the flooding numbers of migrants. Though many Americans probably continue to think everyone pushing at the border is likely Mexican, in truth the majority are coming from places like Cuba and Venezuela, as well as Columbia, Honduras, and other Central American countries.
Conservatives want Mexico to do more to stop the tide. The Biden administration wants the same, just not a wall. They want the processing to be done away from the border. They have continued many of the Trump policies around restricting entry as well. The president of Mexico says that’s not it. The problem is US sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela have led to such economic deprivation that it forces families to flee. The same might be said about the drug war and its militarization, which coupled with coffee rust has forced tens of thousands of economic refugees to flee Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The president of Columbia has joined the refrain with Mexico about sanctions, while at the same time the president of Panama has leveled accusations against Columbia not doing enough to stop migration through the Darien Gap into his country.
The US defenders counter these arguments, saying that the problem is triggered by “economic mismanagement” and autocratic governance. Let’s face it, there will be no support here for autocratic governments. On the other hand, when we come to the question of economic mismanagement, I have to wonder exactly how a country is supposed to manage economic sanctions well? Most observers are clear that economic sanctions imposed are only one-step down from being an instrument of war. In many ways they are the modern example of the classic blockades that populate the history of the wars of the Middle Ages or the ancient Greeks and Romans. Even the theory of economic sanctions is the premise that by hurting the country’s population at large, then there will be pressure on the government and its leaders to behave as we would direct. Admittedly, as we have seen for years in the application of US sanctions, they first start targeting the supporters, often very wealthy, of the ruling regime. Once that doesn’t work, it pretty quickly ends up impacting the people, pushing those with resources to immigrate elsewhere, and those without resources into deeper poverty and desperation which leads to migration elsewhere, including the United States.
We may not like migration, although the recent move to give temporary work visas and status to Venezuelans by the Biden administration is a good example of an admission that the sanctions triggered the migration, just like a natural disaster might have done. Furthermore, in all frankness, the United States is glad to have the additional workers, especially with our continuing service sector labor shortage.
Eventually, looking at Cuba and Venezuela as good examples, the US is going to have to assess whether such long-term sanctions work under any calculation. In the meantime, we need to be honest about the fact that our sanctions are designed to hurt these populations and that we are a key factor in escalating migration from countries that we have sanctioned, and stop pretending that these countries don’t know how to run the economies that we have deliberately set out to ruin.