Maduro Adds the Mass Migration He Caused to Anti-Sanction Rhetoric

Following the Mexican and Cuban traditions of blaming drug trafficking on the US and describing economic sanctions as blockades, the Chavista ruler joins a regional leftist effort to use the migratory crisis as a political opportunity

On October 22nd, Nicolas Maduro and Cilia Flores were warmly welcomed by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the “Por una Vecindad Fraternal y con Bienestar” Summit. This gathering, set against the backdrop of majestic Mayan ruins, brought together heads of government and representatives from 11 American countries to address the ongoing migratory crisis, primarily stemming from Venezuela, which is impacting the entire region.

Ironically, the United States and Canada were not invited to this event, even though they are typically the final destinations for many of these migrants. Nicaragua, a valuable partner and a transit country on the road to the north, did not participate either.

In addition to Maduro, prominent figures of the Latin American left made their presence felt. Colombian’s Gustavo Petro, Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel, and Honduras’ Xiomara Castro used the occasion to amplify their stances. López Obrador boldly mentioned “blockades and decisions made abroad” as one of the primary causes of migration. Petro, in an extension of his recent impulsive remarks on X (the platform formerly known as Twitter), devoted most of his speech to addressing the Hamas-Israel conflict and even drew comparisons with recent developments and the Holocaust. Castro denounced the “bloqueos” and pleaded with the attendees for a humanitarian approach to border and domestic policies regarding migration. Díaz-Canel, after referring to López Obrador as “mi hermano,” repeatedly echoed the allusions to sanctions and blockades. Ariel Henry, Haiti’s Prime Minister, was the only divergent voice, in proposing solutions to address the waves of migration and emphasized the need to develop American countries to prevent the brain drain.

Maduro, dancing with the indigenist tone of AMLO’s party, pulled a connection between the Mayan past and the history of the Venezuelan-Caribbean region, initiating his speech by recalling “our” glorious past before Spanish colonization. Then he blatantly distorted the causes and statistics of Venezuelan migration. He argued that the migration in the continent is primarily caused by discriminatory economic models and neoliberal economic programs, omitting of course the socialist policies, dramatic insecurity, scarcity, and the lack of pluralism and rule of law that characterize his rule. He claimed that Venezuela had been subjected to an interventionist campaign from abroad since 2010 that targeted the economy, excluded the country from international markets, and surreptitiously encouraged mass migration through propaganda. Furthermore, he went on to cite “trustful” sources, asserting that 2.35 million Venezuelans left the country between 2015 and 2023. However, he also claimed that 900,000 have returned in recent years; he categorized them as migrants rather than refugees, thereby denying the existence of the humanitarian crisis that has plagued the country for years. This narrative can be easily debunked, as it is evident that more than 3 million Venezuelans now reside only in Peru and Colombia, with the majority having migrated in the last seven years. In fact, according to the 2022 Encovi poll by Andrés Bello Catholic University, only around 6% of the around 7 million people who left have returned in recent years. 

Given these circumstances, the purpose of this summit becomes a question. What do the illiberal left, including Maduro and López Obrador, aim to achieve? Why is this group of presidents attempting to divert attention from the genuine causes of migration? Why has Maduro changed his stance on this issue, years after mocking Venezuelans going abroad, even ridiculing them for “immigrating to Miami to clean toilets”?

The answer appears to be that López Obrador seeks to collaborate in addressing the migratory crisis affecting his country while proposing solutions independently of U.S. influence. He also aims to mediate relationships between the U.S. and countries like Venezuela and Cuba. On the other hand, Maduro is trying to exert pressure against U.S. sanctions by using the issue that is affecting Central and North America so much: mass migration. 

What do the illiberal left, including Maduro and López Obrador, aim to achieve? Why is this group of presidents attempting to divert attention from the genuine causes of migration? Why has Maduro changed his stance on this issue, years after mocking Venezuelans going abroad, even ridiculing them for “immigrating to Miami to clean toilets”?

Based on a preliminary report from the Department of Homeland Security, approximately 50,000 Venezuelans crossed the U.S.-Mexico border last September, setting a new record since the beginning of the migration flow. This surge, along with the harsh criticism voiced by a group of Republican senators during a press briefing last September, compelled the Biden administration to reach an agreement with the Maduro regime to initiate deportation flights to Venezuela to manage the unprecedented number of migrants. The first of these flights took off on October 18th, carrying roughly 130 passengers.

Maduro seems to think he can drag Washington to a more pragmatic stance: “Once the lifting of sanctions is executed and remains permanent, complete, and total, I assure you that within a year, we will reverse the migratory currents. I have absolute faith in that.” This narrative even resonates within U.S. political institutions or among certain political actors, as evidenced by the positions of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Democratic Socialists of America. Maduro’s discourse has found substantial traction in academic and political milieus in the North.

His change in strategy regarding the Venezuelan migration crisis is plausible. He is no longer attempting to ignore its effects or passively observe the dire situation in the Darien Gap and on the route to North America, especially since it is impacting his allies in Central America and Mexico. 

It remains to be seen how President Biden will react, especially as the presidential election approaches. It is in his interest to address this crucial political issue, which has been exploited by Republican politicians such as Trump and DeSantis, and could potentially inflame anti-migrant sentiments. Ultimately, this may assist would-be populists within the Republican Party –like Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy– in gaining support from undecided voters or it may lead to a more stringent stance on immigration by the Democrats, potentially betraying the values they are supposed to defend.