How the US Economic War on Venezuela Fueled the Migrant Crisis

The U.S. economic war on Venezuela is one of the main reasons for the record number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, where there has been a surge in migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

Years of U.S. efforts to destroy the Venezuelan oil industry and overthrow the Venezuelan government has fueled the humanitarian catastrophe. As U.S. sanctions have pushed Venezuela into one of the worst crises in the hemisphere’s history, more than 7 million people have fled the country. Hundreds of thousands more have fled Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua, poor countries that have lost access to low-cost Venezuelan energy.

The migrant crisis was largely anticipated by U.S. officials. Once they began working to subvert the Venezuelan oil industry and the Venezuelan-led regional agreement Petrocaribe, which provided low-cost petroleum to poor countries in the Caribbean and Central America, U.S. officials acknowledged that an economic crisis in Venezuela could result in a regional humanitarian crisis.

“If Petrocaribe were to fall because of events in Venezuela,” John Kerry said in 2015, when he was secretary of state in the Obama administration, “we could wind up with a serious humanitarian challenge in our near neighborhood.”

The New Migrant Crisis

Over the last two years, the United States has seen record numbers of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. According to data compiled by the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. Border Patrol encountered nearly 1.7 million migrants in 2021 and more than 2.2 million migrants in 2022, the highest numbers since the U.S. government began keeping records in 1960.

Many migrants have been arriving from Mexico and Central America, but a growing number of migrants have been coming from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, particularly over the last two years.

“These four countries account for most of the people now traveling into Mexico to try to start a new life,” President Biden explained in a speech earlier this month.

Officials in Washington have presented many theories for the unprecedented increase in migrants. Republicans falsely claim that the Biden administration has made it easier for migrants to cross the border, while Democrats counter that migrants are fleeing repressive governments that are unable to meet their needs.

“If you’re trying to leave Cuba, Nicaragua, or Haiti… do not just show up at the border,” President Biden implored people thinking of leaving.

What officials in both parties have refused to acknowledge is their own responsibility, which stems from their years-long effort to destroy the Venezuelan oil industry and overthrow the Venezuelan government. By waging an economic war on Venezuela, officials in both parties have fueled the migrant crisis, one that several analysts foresaw as a likely consequence of the collapse of the Venezuelan oil industry.

The U.S. Economic War on Venezuela

The Obama administration set the stage for the economic war on Venezuela. During its second term in office from 2013 to 2017, the administration began working to undermine Petrocaribe, despite the benefits it was providing many poor countries in the Caribbean and Central America.

Countries “have benefited substantially from Petrocaribe,” Ben Rhodes acknowledged in 2015, when he was deputy national security advisor in the Obama administration. “We’re not going to be able to simply substitute American oil for Venezuelan oil.”

Instead, the Obama administration sought to reduce Venezuela’s influence in the region. It imposed sanctions on Venezuelan officials and pressured Caribbean countries to shift their imports away from Venezuelan petroleum products. Under the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative, the Obama administration encouraged countries in the region to transition to renewable energy and liquefied natural gas provided by U.S. suppliers.

“We have to engage with this region in order to be able to bring about that kind of transformational change to renewable energy and natural gas,” Amos Hochstein, the administration’s special envoy for energy, said in 2016.

Many U.S. analysts supported the Obama administration’s efforts, even while acknowledging the possible implications for countries that relied on Venezuelan oil.

A 2014 report by the International Security Advisory Board, a federal advisory committee, warned the State Department that “countries highly dependent on Petrocaribe could be economically and politically destabilized if supports disappear.”

Analysts at the Atlantic Council foresaw similar ramifications. In two major reports that assessed the prospects of weakening Petrocaribe and pushing more U.S. liquefied natural gas into the region, analysts David L. Goldwyn and Cory R. Gill noted that countries could suffer economic shocks if they lost access to Venezuelan energy assistance.

“In the Caribbean, the sudden decline of Petrocaribe and other Venezuelan credit programs could trigger humanitarian crises and unauthorized migration flows to the U.S. mainland,” Goldwyn and Gill wrote.

Trump’s Escalation

It was not until the Trump administration entered office, however, that U.S. officials began ignoring the warnings in order to wage an all-out economic war against Venezuela. During its four years in office, the Trump administration directed a major economic attack against Venezuela, first with economic sanctions against the country’s finances in 2017 and then with crippling economic sanctions against its state oil company in 2019.

Administration officials openly acknowledged that they were trying to overthrow the Venezuelan government. In 2020, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proudly proclaimed that “we’re leading a 59-nation coalition to oust Maduro,” the Venezuelan president. Years later, John Bolton, who had spent little over a year as Trump’s national security advisor, acknowledged that the administration had backed a coup attempt in Venezuela.

As the Venezuelan economy collapsed in the face of the Trump administration’s economic war, many critics warned about the humanitarian consequences. For years, Mark Weisbrot reported that U.S. economic sanctions were accelerating the country’s economic collapse. In 2019, Weisbrot collaborated with Jeffrey Sachs on a study that estimated that U.S. sanctions had resulted in the deaths of more than 40,000 Venezuelans from 2017 to 2018.

U.S. sanctions “are a death sentence for tens of thousands of Venezuelans,” Weisbrot and Sachs wrote.

Officials in the Trump administration responded to these criticisms by blaming the Venezuelan government for the country’s collapse, but they faced strong pushback, sometimes from U.S. analysts.

Shortly after the Trump administration left office, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report in which it found that U.S. sanctions had probably played a role in Venezuela’s economic collapse. “The sanctions, particularly on the state oil company in 2019, likely contributed to the steeper decline of the Venezuelan economy, primarily by limiting revenue from oil production,” the G.A.O. reported.

More recently, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) has condemned the Trump administration for its actions. At a hearing in September, Murphy said that “it’s really hard to overhype what a disaster President Trump’s Venezuela policy was,” particularly its failed efforts to “try to facilitate a coup.”

“We are stuck inheriting a policy that did not work, that has in part contributed to a humanitarian disaster that now brings thousands and thousands of Venezuelans to our border,” Murphy said.

The Effects on Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua

What these criticisms have missed is that the U.S. economic war on Venezuela has also harmed other countries in the Caribbean and Central America. Several countries that had been relying on low-cost Venezuelan energy have been facing their own economic crises, just as U.S. officials and analysts had initially foreseen.

For years, Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua benefited from low-cost Venezuelan energy. All three countries forged deals with the Venezuelan government that enabled them to save money on energy and redirect government spending toward social programs.

As U.S. sanctions worsened Venezuela’s economic collapse, however, the Venezuelan government began suspendingassistance. Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua faced growing economic challenges, spurred by losses of low-cost Venezuelan energy.

From 2018 to 2019, protests erupted across Nicaragua and Haiti as their governments began rolling back social spending to address their predicament. In 2020, additional protests swept across Cuba, which began experiencing its own economic crisis, largely caused by U.S. sanctions and a decline in Venezuelan aid.

In recent years, Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua have come under additional pressure due to the coronavirus pandemic, climate-related disasters, and the increase in the price of oil. No longer able to rely on the cushion that low-cost Venezuelan energy had once provided them, their governments have faced dire economic circumstances, leading people to leave their homes in record numbers.

In one of the most troubling signs of the regional implications of Venezuela’s collapse, Haiti has undergone its own dramatic collapse, devolving into social chaos and gang warfare. Former President Jovenel Moïse, who was assassinated in July 2021, had once supported Petrocaribe, even being in a strong enough position to push back against U.S. efforts to overthrow the Venezuelan government.

Last year, the Venezuelan economy began to show some signs of recovery, but progress has been limited. The Biden administration’s recent move to allow Chevron to grow some of its energy operations in Venezuela comes with many restrictions.

“We will continue to enforce our sanctions program,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said earlier this month.

As officials in Washington continue their partisan bickering over the migrant crisis, they seem hardly interested in acknowledging their responsibility for it. Until they come to terms with the fact that their years-long economic war on Venezuela has been one of the main causes of the crisis, they will continue to put the people of Venezuela and the broader region at risk.

This essay first appeared on Foreign Policy in Focus.

Edward Hunt writes about war and empire. He has a PhD in American Studies from the College of William & Mary.