Uncontrolled migration is the single most potent issue for right-wing nationalists around the world. That’s true from Sweden to Hungary to India, but also in the United States. Republicans loudly assert that our southern border is out of control and our immigration policy is a shambles. They’re right. Migrants make vivid props for nativist demagogues.
This is an urgent challenge for President Biden as he faces reelection. Anything he can do to reduce the surge of migrants toward our border will strengthen him politically and weaken his rivals. Yet with strokes of his pen, Biden could take a step that might substantially reduce the migrant flow: Lift sanctions on Venezuela and Cuba.
Human rights advocates have long argued that these sanctions are immoral because they condemn people to poverty for the crime of living under regimes they cannot change. Now they have a new and possibly more persuasive argument. Last month 21 members of Congress urged Biden to recognize that sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela are “a critical contributing factor in the current increase in migration.” One of them, Representative Ro Khanna of California, laid out their case in a television interview.
“Look at what’s causing people to flee Venezuela and Cuba,” he argued. “The Republicans are saying, ‘Let’s sanction them more.’ That’s causing more people to actually leave. Let’s look at rational sanction policy so we’re not causing the influx.”
Venezuela is suffering from a severe economic crisis caused by two main factors: mismanagement by the leftist government and harsh economic sanctions imposed by the United States. Citizens are streaming out of the country. More than 7 million have left since 2015. Many first sought asylum in nearby countries, but after facing difficulties they turned their eyes northward. Venezuelans trek through the rugged Darién jungle in Panama and then stagger toward Texas, more than 3,000 miles from their homeland.
Last year US border police intercepted 190,000 refugees from Venezuela, more than in any previous year. Another 65,000 sought to cross illegally during the first four months of 2023. This intensifies a crisis that became acute a few years ago as a result of migration from Central America.
The other big border news is the rush of Cubans seeking to enter the United States by land. Lured in part by new visa-free flights to Nicaragua, Cubans land there and begin walking northward. They camp along the US border and, with countless others, wait for a chance to cross. A staggering quarter-million Cubans — more than 2 percent of the island’s population — arrived at the US border last year. The flow is continuing; another 32,000 arrived during March.
Both Venezuela and Cuba are ruled by governments the United States detests. Sanctions were intended to force those governments to collapse or at least to change political course. Their only real effect, however, has been to help impoverish people to the point where enormous numbers now seek to flee.
Last year President Biden eased an oil sanction on Venezuela to allow Chevron to begin “limited” drilling and refining there. He recently took another modest step, announcing a new program under which Venezuelans and Cubans may apply for a “parole process” that would allow them to enter the United States legally. It is unlikely to have much effect. Only a limited number of visas are available, and applicants must have valid passports, money for airfare, and a sponsor in the United States. Yet these steps suggest that Biden may be open to a further relaxation of sanctions.
Lifting sanctions on Venezuela and Cuba would signify a kind of surrender — a recognition that our policy failed. American leaders hate to climb down like that. Biden, however, faces an even greater obstacle.
The chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Robert Menendez, is of Cuban descent and militantly opposes any relaxation of sanctions on either Cuba or Venezuela. His position gives him great power over US foreign policy, including a decisive role in confirming or rejecting Biden’s appointees to diplomatic posts. Biden may be privately convinced that lifting sanctions would ease the refugee crisis and therefore help his reelection chances. Before taking that step, however, he would have to calculate the possibly enormous negative effects Menendez could have on other aspects of his foreign policy.
American sanctions on Cuba, which have been in place for more than 60 years, are a vestige of the Cold War. No other country in the hemisphere supports them. As for Venezuela, American leaders sought for a while to help an opposition figure, Juan Guaidó, overthrow the government there. By 2019 they had persuaded more than a dozen Latin American countries to “recognize” Guaidó as Venezuela’s true president. One by one, those countries are giving up. Colombia and Uruguay recently sent ambassadors to Venezuela after years of broken relations. Paraguay will soon follow.
The United States should join them. Sanctions have contributed to unemployment, scarcities, and general misery in Venezuela and Cuba. Unwise policy choices and poor governance have contributed to these two collapses, but sanctions play a big role. Arguing that they should be lifted for humanitarian reasons has proven futile. The new argument is political and therefore more likely to be heard.
Biden’s rivals castigate him whenever there is upheaval on our southern border. They use vivid publicity stunts, like shipping refugees to Martha’s Vineyard, to intensify public anger over migration. Lifting sanctions on Venezuela and Cuba would carry a political cost in Washington. Not lifting them could carry an even greater cost on Election Day.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.