A Trio of Migration Crises in Latin America Won’t Stay Confined to the Region

A Trio of Migration Crises in Latin America Won’t Stay Confined to the Region
A Venezuelan migrant holds her passport while waiting in line for a bus in Tumbes, Peru, Aug. 25, 2018 (AP photo by Martin Mejia).
In the hierarchy of global attention, problems affecting Latin America rank well below the various political dramas and turmoil unfolding in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. But that high threshold cannot obscure the daunting reality in the region. Latin America today is facing three simultaneous, largely unrelated migration crises, placing enormous pressure on already limited resources and testing the stability, durability and effectiveness of its leaders, values and institutions. Large numbers of people are currently fleeing for their lives from three separate conflicts in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle, which includes El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The largest of the three crises, the one that has garnered the greatest international notice, is Venezuela’s. The United Nations estimates 2.3 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2014. Other analysts put the number much higher. Whatever the precise figure, there is no question that conditions in Venezuela have become increasingly untenable due mostly to the economic mismanagement of the autocratic government led by President Nicolas Maduro. Hyperinflation, a malady that many thought had been eradicated from the continent, has now exploded again in Venezuela, with the International Monetary Fund forecasting that inflation will reach a breathtaking 1 million percent by the end of this year. The public health sector has completely collapsed, and scarcity of just about every product has contributed to a spiral of despair. An estimated 90 percent of Venezuelans now live in poverty. One of the consequences of this man-made catastrophe is that Venezuela’s problems are becoming Latin America’s. The shockwaves from the crisis are no longer brought to neighboring countries simply in news reports. Venezuela’s woes are visible to all in city parks, in crowded schools and in border towns where migrants congregate. Regional leaders cannot ignore the problem, and voters won’t allow them to. While many parts of Latin America enjoyed a long stretch of relative stability and prosperity until recently, that stability may prove less grounded than it seems. The region is still beset by high levels of poverty and inequality. The presence of millions of displaced people is now taking resources from other pressing needs, generating social and political pressures and affecting the political landscape. The example of Venezuela’s disastrous experience with Hugo Chavez’s self-declared socialist Bolivarian Revolution has weighed on leftist candidates in the region. It undoubtedly helped Colombia’s new president, Ivan Duque, defeat his leftist challenger in this year’s election. It is giving a boost to the controversial far-right candidate in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who is leading in the polls. And it forced Mexico’s leftist president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, to repeatedly distance himself from Maduro on the campaign trail. “I didn’t know Chavez, I don’t know Maduro, and I don’t know Venezuela,” he said, fending off accusations that he would pursue similar economic policies in office. As the top destination of fleeing Venezuelans, Colombia has taken on regional leadership in dealing with the crisis. In fact, how Duque handles the Venezuela file will go a long way in determining his effectiveness as president. This week, as part of his visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, the new Colombian president hosted a meeting about the migration crisis and held discussions with U.S. officials on how to tackle the political challenge in Caracas. Like other regional leaders, he opposes the military intervention that President Donald Trump has openly contemplated. Duque has also led a push to return the center of regional diplomacy to the Organization of American States and away from the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, a bloc more recently established to counter Washington’s influence. Soon after taking office this summer, Duque withdrew Colombia from UNASUR, calling it an accomplice to Venezuela’s dictatorship.

If there is one lesson from the multiple crises afflicting Latin America, it is that severe social, political and economic problems do not respect national boundaries.

While South American nations contend with the reverberations from Venezuela, a new conflict has burst onto the scene in Central America, triggering another human exodus. Earlier this year, protests against the entrenched rule of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega escalated into bloody clashes that have left hundreds dead. To be sure, the events in Nicaragua are not completely unrelated to those in Caracas, as Venezuela’s financial woes have squeezed Ortega, one of Maduro’s allies. Nicaragua’s turmoil triggered an economic contraction, causing more people to flee. Tiny Costa Rica, just over the border of the San Juan River, has seen a surge of Nicaraguans, with no end in sight. Hundreds are arriving every day, adding to a population that already accounts for one in every 10 residents of Costa Rica. The influx, with its high cost, could not come at a more inopportune time. Costa Rica’s newly elected president, Carlos Alvarado, is attempting a feat that has eluded his predecessors for decades: narrowing the country’s yawning fiscal deficit. His politically perilous austerity package has already resulted in a major strike by public employees. Cutting spending on Costa Ricans makes spending on Nicaraguans riskier. Although Costa Rica has generally received praise from immigration experts for its handling of newly arrived Nicaraguans, some Costa Ricans have violently attacked them—a grim phenomenon that has occurred at some point in almost every country receiving large numbers of refugees, asylum-seekers and economic migrants. Then there’s the crisis in the Northern Triangle. The legacy of Central America’s civil wars of the 1980s and a series of U.S. decisions related to crime and drug policy—including strict anti-gang laws that led to the abrupt deportation of thousands of Central American immigrants who had joined street gangs in Los Angeles and other cities—have resulted in an explosion of gang violence that has forced hundreds of thousands to leave their homes in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The human drama has turned into an international crisis that has been politicized in the United States—the preferred destination of many Central American migrants and their children—especially given the harsh policies of the Trump administration. Mass migration has become the top item on the strained bilateral agenda between each of the three countries and Washington. Trump administration policies—including the rescinding of temporary protected status for some 200,000 Salvadorans, 60,000 Hondurans and 2,500 Nicaraguans already in the U.S.—threaten to make the situation much worse by throttling the flow of remittances from workers in the U.S. to their relatives in Central America. Those remittances account for a large part of the economy of all three Northern Triangle countries. Without a change of policy, poverty and violence are all but sure to worsen, energizing a vicious cycle of poverty, crime and migration. If there is one lesson from the multiple crises afflicting Latin America, it is that severe social, political and economic problems do not respect national boundaries. Instability in one country can quickly spread beyond its borders—reason enough for the rest of the world to not ignore Latin America. Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.

More World Politics Review