After two years of Joe Biden’s presidency, four times as many undocumented migrants are trying to cross the border into the United States, and he’s getting desperate to explain away the increase. In September, the administration discovered a new narrative: that migrants are fleeing “communism.”
The White House ignores that fact that in the fiscal year just ended, migrants coming from the three countries he labels “communist” formed less than a third of the total: of the 2.7 million people “encountered” at the border, only a fifth came from Cuba, Nicaragua or Venezuela. Half of all migrants still come from the four countries closest to Texas: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
If Biden blames migration on “repression” he has an excuse for renewed attacks on governments his administration demonises.
But the real reasons for the growth in numbers are closer to home. Take the case of Nicaraguans heading north: their numbers have grown from a handful in 2020 to 165,000 in the last 12 months. What’s driving them? In one word, it’s jobs. The US has an acute labour shortage: “There aren’t enough people to fill the jobs being advertised,” said one economist this month.
With a shortage of people to do low-paid work, getting them from countries with much lower wages is the obvious solution.
Stories of people moving north and sending $500 each month to their families back home are plentiful in Nicaragua, where I live. Remittances make up a big proportion of Nicaragua’s national income and the share of them coming from the United States grew by nearly two-thirds in the first nine months of this year. Of course, people won’t head north unless they think they have a good chance of getting there.
Nicaragua is on the transit route for migrants heading to the US from all over the world, so in the past two years “coyotes” have appeared to arrange passage and loan sharks to arrange the finance. Buses take people as far north as the Mexican border. It is still highly dangerous, as a friend of mine imprisoned in Mexico has discovered. But once Nicaraguans reach Texas, they can expect better treatment than migrants from neighbouring countries like Honduras. In many cases, they are allowed in and even given bus or plane tickets to cities where they have family or friends. Unlike Hondurans, very few are deported.
But as well as undocumented migrants there are also formal routes attracting educated Nicaraguans. Young people from wealthier families, who often speak good English, also find an open door. Those on student visas are now allowed to stay once their studies end and migrants who can afford to fly to the US, perhaps on tourist visas, seem able to regularise their stays more easily. Nicaraguans with now ubiquitous smartphones see adverts offering guaranteed jobs or “kits” for those who want to take their chance. The message “everyone is heading north” is all about the supposed opportunities, not about fleeing from “repression.”
Nicaragua is the third-poorest country in Latin America and its economy was hit not only by the pandemic but by the US-supported coup attempt in 2018. For three months the country was paralysed and was just recovering when Covid-19 struck. It handled the pandemic well, but unlike its neighbours had virtually no help from Washington. Nicaragua is subject to US sanctions, which are less severe than those on Cuba and Venezuela but have disrupted flows of development finance and even of vital imports like medical supplies. Washington recently began to tighten the screw, targeting the gold mining industry which is Nicaragua’s biggest export earner.
Biden’s nominee for ambassador to Nicaragua, Hugo Rodriguez, promised the US Congress that he would “support using all economic and diplomatic tools to bring about a change in direction in Nicaragua.” A prominent think tank has called for a complete embargo on Nicaraguan imports.
It’s clear that in 2023, Nicaragua will continue to be treated as a pariah while Biden is forced into limited negotiations with Venezuela and may even shift his position on Cuba. In November, he repeated Donald Trump’s ridiculous assertion that Nicaragua is an “extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” and in December put it on a list of countries guilty of religious suppression, bizarrely choosing a period in which streets in every Nicaraguan city are filled with religious processions.
Nicaragua’s real threat to the United States is a very different one. Despite the double blow of the US-inspired coup attempt in 2018 and the pandemic in 2020, the country is recovering. It was more successful than adjoining countries in tackling Covid-19, and now has one of Latin America’s highest vaccination rates. The list of government achievements in the 15 years that the Sandinistas have been in power is impressive: 24 new public hospitals completed, maternal mortality cut by two-thirds, electricity coverage up from 50 per cent to 99 per cent of households, with three-quarters generated from renewables, and public investment creating the best roads in Central America. Perhaps its singular achievement is in women’s rights, with Nicaragua ranked seventh in the world for gender equality.
At the moment, people’s biggest concern is the state of the economy and the cost-of-living crisis. Nicaragua has advantages here, too: it has a dynamic small business sector with limited dependence on multinational companies; it’s agriculture is dominated by small farmers and offers 80 per cent self-sufficiency in basic foods. Prices have been controlled because the government is capping the cost of fuel (both for vehicles and for cooking). Nicaragua’s economy grew by more than 10 per cent in 2021, returning to 2019, pre-pandemic economic levels, and by almost 4 per cent in 2022. Government debt (46 per cent of GDP) is lower than its neighbours, especially that of Costa Rica (70 per cent), where poverty now extends to 30 per cent of the population. However, Nicaragua and Costa Rica are economically interdependent, and the latter’s economic problems mean fewer jobs, feeding the growth in migration by Nicaraguans to the United States.
If Washington were serious about curbing migration, it would treat Nicaraguans crossing the border in the same way as it treats other Central Americans. But although the Biden administration can’t say so, let’s suppose it sees a win-win situation here: Nicaraguans help boost the US economy while depleting their home country of talent, and their favourable treatment at the border can be disguised as help for those freeing repression. Demonising Nicaragua’s government, sanctioning dozens of key officials, blocking loans from the World Bank and elsewhere, providing much less medical and other aid than that which goes to neighbouring countries and, finally, threatening to cut Nicaragua’s access to its biggest market, the United States — are all weapons in a hybrid war.
In the 1980s, after the Sandinista revolution, when the US imposed a blockade on Nicaragua and even mined its ports, Oxfam said this was because the small Central American country offered “the threat of a good example.” It’s difficult to reach any conclusion about Washington’s approach other than that it still feels the same threat: it’s determined to punish a country which defies it politically yet is surviving — and prospering — with an economic model that is completely contrary to the one followed by successive US administrations.
While at the moment this only benefits six million Nicaraguans, if others see it, they may like it, and Washington can’t take that chance.
Published in the Morning Star.