Using Migrants as a Political Weapon

What Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis are doing right now to Venezuelan migrants in the U.S. resembles tactics from infamous dictators like Fidel Castro and Aleksander Lukashenko

Photo: AP

For a Venezuelan who had to leave his beloved country, this gesture resembles that of a stalker leaving a dead animal on your doorstep, or the mafia sending a message. Yesterday, two buses full of Venezuelan migrants who were detained after crossing the U.S. border with Mexico arrived at the residence of Vice President Kamala Harris, at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D. C. They were sent by the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott. These human beings, who most likely endured an excruciatingly dangerous journey across Mexico, Central America and the Darien Gap from Colombia, weren’t sent to an institution in charge of helping them, or an emergency center, but the house assigned to the person elected by the American people as a their vice president, who happens to belong to a political party different to the one that counts Abbott among its members. 

Florida governor Ron DeSantis, currently seen as Donald Trump’s most likely successor in the Republican party, bragged about having paid for the shipment of another “load” of Venezuelan migrants to the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, that place the public associates with the movie Jaws and Bill and Hillary Clinton’s vacations. 

These “shipments” to Washington, D.C. and New York City have been happening for weeks, but the symbolic character of Harris’s residence and Martha’s Vineyard increase both the media coverage and the problem that “unloading” this human cargo creates in those places. While volunteers and officials must run to provide shelter for the migrant families, Abbott and DeSantis bask under the attention, and add to their respective political capital in a psychotic political climate where anything is allowed in the power struggle, from storming the Capitol to use living people in need as passive tokens on a strategy board game that is played among screens announcing breaking news and social media burning with comments. 

These two Republican governors are putting Venezuelan migrants, desperate people who have taken life-threatening risks as individuals or families, in planes and buses as a political message to tell their constituencies that they are tough on illegal immigration while the Democrats, on the contrary, create “sanctuaries” (the humanitarian term applied to cities admitting refugees that DeSantis uses in a pejorative sense). 

By doing this, these two prominent Republican leaders feed the vicious circle of echo chambers where increasingly radical messages sever the connection between reality and their constituencies. Which includes large groups of Venezuelans and other Latinos. If they provoke infuriated reactions from the other political side, they will use them to rally their forces and accentuate the discourse of fear and rage that polarization needs. 

This reminds me of the many times several politicians from the left and the right in South America have magnified the presence of criminals of Venezuelan origins to demonize the entire Venezuelan communities in Colombia, Peru, Chile, or Ecuador. Some folks are also recalling the way the Maduro regime defined and treated returning migrants as “a biological hazard” in the first months of the pandemic. 

But the weaponization of the physical bodies of Venezuelan migrants, through their use as an unexpected, trouble-making cargo, that these Republican governors have embraced in the context of the midterm elections campaign and the possible prosecution of Trump after the FBI  raided Mar-a-Lago, has no equivalent in South America, where the common patterns are general xenophobia and some arbitrary deportations. On the contrary, this is more similar to things done by people one may suppose that Abbott and DeSantis wouldn’t want to be compared with Aleksander Lukashenko and Fidel Castro.

In November 2021, the Belarusian dictator, the authoritarian leader most loyal and similar to Vladimir Putin we can find in the whole world, opened the borders to allow thousands of migrants to cross onto the Polish border.

This was a reprisal against the European Union, which refused to acknowledge as legitimate the obviously fraudulent election Lukashenko had just organized to renew his power after a wave of pro-democracy protests. Lukashenko engineered a migrant crisis on the EU Eastern border, using people that his regime and Putin’s had previously attracted to the region from war-ravaged countries like Syria. This way, he forced Poland and EU institutions to react to an emergency, while some migrants died, and many other were harassed and mistreated under the cold by Belarusian and Russian guards.

This is not new. The boogeyman of a big part of Ron DeSantis’s constituency was an expert on the matter. In 1980, after a decade of massive human rights abuse in the context of a systematic radicalization of the Cuban revolutionary regime, Fidel Castro ordered that anyone who wanted to leave could do it by boat, from the port of Mariel. Thousands of people took the chance, and the Cuban community in the US organized an impressive boatlift, but Castro also released common criminals and mental health patients and shipped them to the U.S., hoping that they would serve as a human weapon against the government of Democrat president Jimmy Carter. Castro released the pressure in Cuba, got rid of opponents, and created a problem for his historical enemy. It worked so well that he did it again, in 1994, when the hardships of the Special Period presented another moment of increased internal pressure that Castro read as an opportunity to retaliate the US for the embargo. He lifted the restrictions to leave the island, and another mass migration took place, by boat, heading North.

The question is not whether this kind of things will happen again, with Venezuelan, Syrian or Ukrainian migrants; this will happen again, with our people or many others, in the US and elsewhere. The question is how the American democracy, the Venezuelans in the US, and democracies in general will react to this practice that is testing, as many other current events in the dark times we are living, the common perception of humanity as an essential value, as a condition we share with others.