June 22, 2024 | The National Interest

Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba Exploit the U.S. Border Crisis

Latin America’s authoritarians are cooperating to increase illegal immigration to the United States.
June 22, 2024 | The National Interest

Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba Exploit the U.S. Border Crisis

Latin America’s authoritarians are cooperating to increase illegal immigration to the United States.

Even as President Biden issues a new executive order so he can appear to be addressing the crisis on our southern border, foreign adversaries continue to exploit that same crisis for their benefit. If Biden wants to get serious about securing the border, he must step up his game against the Western Hemisphere’s axis of anti-Americanism: CubaNicaragua, and Venezuela.

The dictatorial regimes in Havana, Managua, and Caracas are manipulating the flood of illegal immigration to sow discord among American voters. Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega and his fellow dictators are turning a profit while worsening the U.S. border crisis by flying in thousands of migrants on their way to cross the U.S. border illegally.

The joint venture to support this surge begins at Managua’s international airport in western Nicaragua. Since 2022, Ortega and his cronies relaxed visa restrictions while simultaneously engineering a dramatic increase in international flights to Managua. Immigrants who previously would have started their dangerous trek northward into Ecuador, Colombia, or even Brazil can now skip the hundreds of miles of dangerous terrain and pay a coyote’s fee by flying north into Managua and starting from there.

Not only has Nicaragua relaxed its visa requirements, but it also allows chartered flights to reach Managua, carrying immigrants from all over the world, including faraway places like Mauritania and India. Many immigrants, including Cubans, make their way to Managua from Havana’s international airport. The regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela all facilitate these clandestine immigration routes and handsomely benefit from them. Transit revenues bring hard currency to the regime; the increased flow of illegal immigrants puts pressure on the U.S. 

U.S. authorities are scrambling to contain this surge and, in recent months, have taken multiple steps to stop the flow of migrants by targeting charter flights and the aviation carriers operating them. Earlier this week, the Department of State announced sanctions against the CEO of a charter airline for facilitating migration to the United States via Nicaragua. This follows the release, on May 15, of a Department of Homeland Security travel advisory to the aviation industry, alerting travel operators about “the ways in which migrant smuggling and human trafficking networks are exploiting legitimate transportation services to facilitate irregular migration to the United States.” 

Travel advisories are significant since they encourage the aviation industry to be more vigilant or risk serious consequences. Yet, in this case, a key air conduit for illegal migrants—operated by Conviasa, Venezuela’s national carrier, with the connivance of Cuba and Nicaragua—is not even mentioned. How can the industry conduct due diligence if the main carriers involved in this mischief are omitted from the advisory?

To be sure, the advisory names Ortega’s regime in Nicaragua as the main culprit. On the same day the advisory was released, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced new sanctions against Nicaraguan entities tied to the Ortega regime and a Nicaragua-based Russian military school that trains regime goons in repression tactics. The Treasury also mentioned the issuance of visa restrictions against over 250 Nicaraguan officials by the U.S. Department of State.

However, neither the DHS advisory nor the Treasury press release clarifies who keeps flying immigrants into Managua, though since the U.S. began to take action to disrupt charter flights, Managua, Caracas, and Havana have switched to Venezuela’s official carrier, the U.S.-sanctioned Conviasa, to continue their scheme.

It’s an open secret that Conviasa is a key vector for the immigrant surge. Flight tracker data shows a recent increase of Conviasa flights running the Caracas-Havana-Managua route, using long-haul A340s that Conviasa illegally obtained from Iran in 2022 (and which Iran illegally procured in May 2015 through an Iraqi cutout, which the U.S. has since sanctioned). Conviasa recently advertised its increased flights from Havana to Managua as a convenient way for Cubans wanting to make their way to the United States.

One would not know that the Venezuelan regime’s airline is helping the immigrant surge if they only read the recent DHS travel advisory. There is no mention of Conviasa or Venezuela. Yet, there is plenty of evidence that these commercial flights are really a one-way ticket to the United States. Last month, a Korean TikToker traveling across Latin America happened to purchase a ticket on the Conviasa flight from Managua and was the only passenger on the plane. Additionally, a study recently published by a Nicaraguan English language publication confirms that many foreign visitors entering Nicaragua are neither flying back home nor staying in Nicaragua—a clear sign that they are leaving the country by land to a different destination.

The scheme that the three authoritarians have concocted to help immigrants reach the United States—and cause chaos in American politics—is clever. Conviasa is already under sanctions, so new U.S. sanctions threats would not deter it from engaging in further mischief. Yet the United States still has an ace up its sleeve. Conviasa aircraft fly to Mexico, too, not just to Havana and Managua, making them vulnerable to various forms of pressure. Using existing sanctions against both Conviasa and Mahan Air, the United States could exert pressure on jet fuel suppliers and airport service providers to deny the Venezuelan aircraft from landing there. The United States could also issue a warrant for the seizure of the aircraft. This strategy worked in the case of another Iranian-supplied and Venezuelan-operated cargo plane, the Emtrasur Boeing 747, that was seized in Argentina in June 2022 and eventually transferred to the United States earlier this year.

For public relations purposes, the Biden administration could loudly and publicly demonstrate its resolve to stem the flow of illegal immigrants while doing nothing truly effective to address the challenge. Sanctioning Nicaraguan officials is better than nothing, but it has so far failed to make Ortega change course. Depriving him and his authoritarian allies of the tools needed to carry on, on the other hand, would be something else.

Acting against adversarial dictators pushing the migrant surge at our borders is not just sound policy. It would help de-escalate what promises to be a very polarizing electoral issue come November. Consequently, it’s a two-fer for Biden—good foreign policy to defend U.S. interests and a political win on the home front. Will Biden take the necessary action? Only time will tell.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan research institution based in Washington, DC. Follow him on X: @eottolenghi.

Issues:

Issues:

Iran in Latin America Sanctions and Illicit Finance U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy

Topics:

Topics:

Airbus A340 Argentina Brazil Caracas Colombia Conviasa Cuba Cubans Daniel Ortega Ecuador English Havana India Iran Iraq Joe Biden Korean Latin America Mahan Air Managua Mexico Nicaragua Treasury U.S. Department of Homeland Security U.S. Department of State United States Department of the Treasury Venezuela Western Hemisphere