Strategic Use Of Migration: The View From Cuba, Nicaragua, And Venezuela – Analysis


By Giacomo Mattei and Luis Campos

Countries can strategically employ emigration as a means to economic development, political stability, and geopolitical leverage. However, such strategies can carry risks and prove unsustainable. The United States should tailor its regional policies to the considerations of sending countries to maximize regional cooperation on migration management.

Emigration as Economic Alleviation

Some countries actively encourage emigration as a strategy for development. Migrant laborers send back a portion of their earnings – remittances – which can have multiplier effects on the home economy.

For many countries, remittances make up a larger portion of gross domestic product (GDP) than foreign direct investment (FDI). The World Bank’s data shows that Nicaragua’s 2022 GDP was over 20% remittances and just over 8% FDI. In 2023, remittances to Nicaragua were nearly 50% higher than the year before, standing at $4.24 billion, an estimated 28% of GDP.

Venezuela, on the other hand, has consistently received fewer remittances and very little FDI between 2000-2022 (both remaining largely below 2% of GDP according to World Bank data), though the Inter-American Dialogue estimates that remittances reached 5% of GDP in 2023. Interesting hypotheses can be considered to explain this behavior, such as the migration of entire family households, and/or a lack of confidence in the country’s future as a destination for personal and family investment.

While there is not sufficient data about the amount of remittances and their weight in Cuba’s economy, indirect evidence suggests that the chronic economic crisis was aggravated further after an estimated decrease of 3.31% in remittances since 2022, despite an amendment to the limit approved by the US government. Thus, in Cuba, migration appears to be an asset for political stability rather than a path for economic alleviation, given other structural factors that exert a more significant effect on the national economy.

However, the inherent risk is that overreliance on remittances does not constitute a sustainable economic development model. Remittances present an “easy” lifeline for governments, which may disincentivize diversification and state-sponsored investment in the economy. As Manuel Orozco observes in Nicaragua, remittances are unsustainably shouldering the responsibility of supporting private investment, providing access to credit, and reducing debt. Nicaragua taxes the added income from remittances, which supports the regime. Nicaragua is not reinvesting such taxes in the country.

Overreliance on remittances can also increase the vulnerability of governments antagonistic to the United States. For example, as Nicaragua increasingly relies on remittances, future policy pressure from Washington may significantly tamper growth and increase the prospect for new civil unrest crises. This is also echoed in previous debates in the U.S. about using the Patriot Act antiterrorism law to cut off remittances to hostile governments.

Emigration as a Political Stabilizer

Allowing or encouraging emigration can politically stabilize countries with high labor surplus or political dissatisfaction. Emigration reduces unemployment, which can reduce economic grievances, known as the “safety valve” effect. Relatedly, the emigration of political dissidents or economically dissatisfied citizens leaves only the more satisfied, passively dissatisfied, and regime-supporting citizens in the country, which translates to reduced risks of political violence and protest.

This safety valve effect was well understood by Fidel Castro. Over his decades-long rule, he repeatedly allowed political dissidents or economically disaffected Cubans to emigrate to the United States, with the most salient example being the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. Cuba continued to use the emigration safety valve while the US’ “wet foot, dry foot” policy was in place.

In Cuba, after the mass protests of July 11, 2021 the regime developed major legal disincentives for future protests. The penal code approved in September 2022 included more severe penalties for individuals who commit acts against the socialist constitutional order. Similarly, Nicaragua and Venezuela have approved legislation such as Nicaragua’s 977, 1042, and 1055 laws, and Venezuela’s laws against organized crime and financing of terrorism, and against hate, for peaceful coexistence and tolerance. These new pieces of legislation along with high discretionary application deter many from further engaging in domestic political life and incentivize greater emigration.

Emigration, however, also creates chances for the potential formation of external diaspora opposition or internal opposition groups supported by diasporas. For example, diasporas can “remit” democratic values and opposition back home. In Venezuela, the diaspora has represented opportunities for increased engagement from the opposition with international organizations, foreign governments, and even the formation of a contending parallel government (as in the appointment of Juan Guaidó as interim president and a series of congress members in exile). For this reason, some diasporas have faced measures to restrict the entry of funding into the home country. For example, Nicaragua has approved a foreign agent law, increased monitoring and restriction of remittances, awardsfrom abroad, and cryptocurrency transactions.

Emigration for Geopolitical Leverage

Internationally, countries can leverage emigration crises to destabilize or extract concessions from neighboring countries. This is a form of “reputational blackmail” often directed at more liberal destination countries, which highlights liberal countries’ inconsistent commitments to championing life and liberty while simultaneously attempting to keep asylum seekers out.

The central historical example of this strategy is Cuba’s 1980 Mariel Boatlift, when Castro sent thousands of “socially undesirable” migrants to the U.S., turning up the political heat on President Jimmy Carter in the hope of reducing criticism of the Castro regime.

Migration, not only from but also through Nicaragua, has allegedly been used as an attempt by the Ortega-Murillo regime to exert geopolitical leverage by increasing the weight of migration on the U.S., presumably in exchange for sanction relief. Charter and scheduled flights from several migration origins have been reported to arrive in Managua as part of global migrant trafficking networks, as Nicaragua represents an attractive “shortcut” to alternatives like the Darien Gap. Flights with Cuban, Haitian, Indian, Moroccan, and Senegalese migrants among several others, have been reported to arrive regularly in Managua, from where migrants travel by land to the U.S.

Similarly, in 2024, facing the prospect of US sanctions on Venezuelan oil, Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodríguez told the United States: “If they carry out the false step of intensifying economic aggression against Venezuela, at the request of extremist lackeys in the country, from Feb. 13 the repatriation flights of Venezuelan migrants will be immediately revoked.” The logic behind these strategies is to threaten Washington with more migrants (or to be stuck with migrants presently on US territory) to deter the US government from levying sanctions.

However, this strategy can invite retaliation. For example, Washington imposed sanctions on “flight operators facilitating irregular migration” from Nicaragua in November 2023February 2024, and March 2024, which have been also addressed by the governments of Haiti and Belize.

Policy Recommendations for the United States

The diversity of strategic interests related to migration in the surveyed Latin American countries highlights the necessity of tailor-made policies rather than one-size approaches to migration from Latin America. The US government should reward more cooperation with more economic support.

In terms of carrots, along with developmental aid, the United States should implement incentives for governments in the region to cooperate with the enforcement of regular migration, thus creating a buffer zone that distributes the weight of temporary migrant assistance across several countries. This assistance is something Washington should be directly involved in.

The U.S. should also consider the implementation of incentives for local companies to nearshore business processes to disincentivize economic emigration. This is the underlying motivation for the 2021 “Root Causes Strategy,” which the U.S. should continue and also expand to include the countries discussed above.

To address political emigration, the United States has often promoted democracy and good governance. While the long-term impact of such policies may reduce emigration by political dissidents, democratizing pressures may antagonize autocratic governments, which may then weaponize migration against the U.S. An alternative is to build countries’ migration management capacity, but this effectively strengthens autocratic governments’ repressive apparatus. Short-term emigration may decline at the cost of greater future political emigration.

In addressing both root causes, the United States could expand its avenues for “regular” migration, while investing in its processing capacity to ensure its own security. Increased opportunities for safe and regular migration would disincentivize irregular crossings, while simultaneously allowing the U.S. to vet incoming migrants. Allowing vetted migrants would help the U.S. address its own labor shortages and help Latin American countries reduce unemployment and increase remittances.

In terms of sticks, Washington can use economic and selective sanctions against countries being actively uncooperative on (i.e. weaponizing) migration. This has been the response to Nicaragua. The U.S. should mitigate any expected backlash by increasing regional multilateral efforts at migration management.

Overall, the United States must match its policies to the emigration countries’ motivations, crafting a holistic approach that acknowledges the interrelated impacts of diplomatic, security, economic, and migration management policies.

About the authors:

  • Giacomo Mattei is a PhD student at The George Washington University studying migration geopolitics and security.
  • Luis Campos is chief analyst and editor for the Americas at Horizon Intelligence and author of Puentes y Cercos: La Geopolítica de la Integración Centroamericana published by Glasstree Academic Publishing.

Source: This article was published by Geopolitical

Geopolitical Monitor is an open-source intelligence collection and forecasting service, providing research, analysis and up to date coverage on situations and events that have a substantive impact on political, military and economic affairs.

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