US Sanctions Are Driving Displacement and Migration From Cuba and Venezuela

If the Biden administration wants to stop the mass displacement that is leading enormous numbers of Cuban and Venezuelan migrants to the US-Mexico border, it should end the sanctions that have made life in those countries all but impossible for average people.

Migrants wait to be processed by US Border Patrol after crossing the US-Mexico border in Yuma, Arizona, July 2022. (Allison Dinner / AFP via Getty Images)

The May 11 expiration of Title 42 raised the specter of yet another US-induced humanitarian crisis at the Mexico border. Without the pandemic mechanism that allowed the United States to quickly deport 2.5 million asylum seekers since 2020, Joe Biden’s administration has sought new ways to expel and exclude desperate migrants fleeing dire economic conditions across the hemisphere.

The pandemic recession had a devastating impact on Latin American economies. But certain countries have seen their recovery stymied by unilateral US financial and trade restrictions. In 2022, 42 percent of US asylum requests came from Cuba and Venezuela alone — countries that are the target of brutal US sanctions.

If the Biden administration were serious about tackling the roots of today’s mass displacement, it would start by ending the sanctions that have made life in those countries all but impossible for working people.

Biden’s Betrayal

Despite campaign promises to the contrary, the Biden administration has continued Donald Trump’s war against migrants and refugees. The current White House’s repressive turn includes deploying 1,500 troops to the southern border and implementing a sweeping asylum ban that promises to put hundreds of thousands of people in harm’s way. In April, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also launched a two-month joint “surge campaign” with Panama and Colombia to block the movement of migrants from South America and beyond through the perilous Darién Gap between the two countries.

Biden extracted commitments from Mexico to accept thirty thousand Venezuelan, Cuban, Haitian, and Nicaraguan deportees from the United States each month while allowing the same number to enter the United States via a new humanitarian parole program for qualifying migrants with financial sponsors. Absent Title 42, undocumented migrants entering the United States are now “presumed ineligible” for asylum and likely to be expelled under Title 8, which leaves them subject to a five-year reentry ban and potential criminal prosecution.

“We are conducting dozens of removal flights each week, and we continue to increase them,” DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told the press on May 11. “Just yesterday, we worked with the Mexican government to expel nearly one thousand Venezuelans who did not take advantage of our available lawful pathways to enter the United States.”

These measures point to the changing face of irregular migration at the US-Mexico border. So far in the current fiscal year, South American and Caribbean nationals have surpassed both Central Americans and Mexicans combined in Customs and Border Protection’s euphemistically termed “enforcement encounters.” Chief among them are migrants from Cuba and Venezuela escaping unprecedented economic crises that are the deliberate creation of US policy.

Cuba’s Burden

In addition to sustaining Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda, Biden has preserved most of his predecessor’s “maximum pressure” strategy of economic warfare against perceived US enemies. These sanctions have not succeeded in toppling targeted regimes, but they have forced millions of people from their homes.

US sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela are part of a failed bipartisan project of regime change. In the Cuban case, this project dates all the way back to the country’s 1959 revolution. The US record of interventions in Cuba is notorious, including the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 and innumerable assassination attempts against the late Fidel Castro over the decades.

The centerpiece of US policy, however, is the enduring blockade that has hamstrung Cuba’s economic development for more than sixty years. According to UN calculations, the blockade had cost the country over $130 billion by 2018.

After a short-lived easing under Barack Obama, Trump redoubled the restrictions. Starting in 2017, the new strategy included 243 new measures that eliminated Cubans’ access to legal forms of US travel and immigration as well as to critical sources of foreign income for Cuban families and the state.

The Trump sanctions included the withdrawal of US consular services in Cuba, which removed visa and family reunification programs. The measures also prohibited US remittances from Cuban immigrants to their family members on the island. Those transfers fell by nearly $1.8 billion between 2019 and 2021, cutting off a critical income supplement as tourism and other industries ground to a halt during the pandemic. The redesignation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” furthermore, blocked the country from international financial relief.

Today those stifling sanctions, combined with the impacts of the pandemic, have created a crisis not seen on the island since the fall of the Soviet Union. As a result, Cubans have been displaced in record numbers. Border Patrol registered over 220,000 “encounters” with Cubans at the US Southern Border in 2022. That year, nearly 46,000 Cubans applied for US asylum, up from 2,800 in 2021.

Biden loosened some of the consular and remittance restrictions last year, but international financial restrictions remain. “Until the United States alleviates the punishing blockade that is suffocating the Cuban people,” writes Helen Yaffe in CounterPunch, “economic hardship will continue to drive Cuban emigration.”

Venezuela’s Crisis

US sanctions against Venezuela date to the years following the 1998 election of leftist president Hugo Chávez, beginning with a 2006 arms embargo after an unsuccessful 2002 US-backed coup d’état under the George W. Bush administration.

Under Trump, sanctions were broadened to restrict oil exports and freeze Venezuelan state assets abroad, some of which were transferred to the Venezuelan opposition. Oil production plunged as a result, depriving the country of billions in foreign exchange needed for essential imports. According to a May 2023 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), export reductions have cost the country between $13 and $21 billion in revenue per year.

“The resulting decline in oil exports severely circumscribed the ability of a traditionally import-dependent economy to buy imports of food as well as intermediate and capital goods for its agricultural sector, driving the economy into a major humanitarian crisis,” the CEPR paper found. “By contributing to lowering the country’s oil production, sanctions also contributed to lowering per capita income and living standards, and are a key driver of the country’s health crisis, including its increase in child and adult mortality.”

A 2019 study by Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs linked US sanctions to forty thousand excess deaths in Venezuela in 2017–18. “These sanctions would fit the definition of collective punishment of the civilian population as described in both the Geneva and Hague international conventions,” the authors concluded.

The crisis has fomented a staggering exodus from the country. Since 2015, over seven million Venezuelans have abandoned their homes. Since the onset of the pandemic, more and more have traveled toward the United States. Venezuelan applications for US asylum increased from 9,200 to 35,000 between 2021 and 2022, with Border Patrol documenting over 187,000 “encounters” with Venezuelans at the US-Mexico border last year.

The US Treasury Department modified some of the oil restrictions late last year to allow Chevron to resume operations in Venezuela as a gesture toward reopening negotiations between the government of Nicolás Maduro and the opposition. But Trump’s punishing “maximum pressure” strategy remains otherwise intact. In April, even the opposition’s new US envoy, Fernando Blasi, called on Biden to lift the sanctions or be responsible for “an extremely sad destiny” for his country.

Enough Is Enough

On May 10, twenty-one Democrats in Congress published a letter to Biden calling for the lifting of sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela: “We urge you to act swiftly to lift the failed and indiscriminate economic sanctions that were imposed by the prior administration, and engage in a broader review of preexisting sanctions policies that your administration inherited, which exacerbate hardship for innocent civilians and serve as additional push-factors for migration.”

“Rather than re-imposing Trump-era deterrence policies, we must demonstrate a sharp contrast with these approaches by showing compassion towards migrants and upholding our asylum obligations, while simultaneously seeking to curb the broad-based sanctions that contribute to widespread suffering and spur increased migration,” the representatives wrote.

The factors driving mass migration are complex, and they vary across intersecting individual, social, and national contexts. Decisions to flee economic hardship are often compounded by motives that might include family reunification, ecological crisis, gender violence, or political persecution.

In the case of Cuba and Venezuela, however, there is a clear US policy path to alleviating the suffering of millions. By lifting US sanctions, Biden could begin to repair the historic US debt to these nations and help create the conditions for their citizens to make their lives where they wish. After all, migration is a right. It should not be an obligation.