Tyrants and expendable migrants: Dictators play with people’s lives to gain leverage

Illegal immigration through the U.S.-Mexican border is at an all-time high, straining public resources and fueling political tension in the United States.

Much of what moves migrants to undertake the perilous journey is known: economic hardship, conflict, organized crime and political repression. But what is missing from our debate is that America’s authoritarian adversaries, such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela — themselves aligned with China, Iran and Russia — are seeking to turn immigrants against the United States.

Human suffering on the scale posed by mass migration shakes the conscience of free societies. Tyrants cynically exploit this opportunity: Fan the flames, then offer to help put them down in exchange for concessions. Play arsonist, then offer yourself as the indispensable fire department. For a fee, naturally.

Weaponizing migrants has a rich history of precedents. The late Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi used African migration to Europe as a tool to stay in power and extort political concessions from Europe.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, negotiated a deal with the European Union in 2016 when refugees escaping mayhem in Syria flooded Turkey on their way to Europe. In exchange for curbing the flow of illegal migrants into Greece from Turkey, Mr. Erdogan obtained 6 billion euros to pay the cost of keeping the refugees in Turkey, plus a visa-free regime to Europe for Turkish citizens.

In 2021, Belarus bused migrants to its borders with the European Union. More recently, Russia has been sending migrants to the Finnish border to create a humanitarian crisis.

This is not to say that were it not for tyrants’ cynical manipulations, there would be no crisis at the U.S.-Mexican border. But the enemies of the United States see it as a chance to inflame our politics by making things worse by design. Washington should push back.

Exhibit A is Venezuela’s response to the U.S. announcement on Jan. 29 that it would reimpose sanctions against the dictatorial regime of Nicolas Maduro if Venezuela did not reverse its Supreme Court’s decision to disqualify opposition presidential candidate Maria Corina Machado from running for office. For Mr. Maduro and the narco-kleptocracy he runs, Ms. Machado’s candidacy and free elections are a threat to their grip on power.

So are U.S. sanctions. Last October, the Maduro regime negotiated a deal with Venezuela’s opposition that would ensure free and fair elections in exchange for the U.S. reducing sanctions. The agreement presented Mr. Maduro with a dilemma: Letting the opposition compete in a fair election could mean the regime’s demise. Getting sanctions relief would benefit the regime and its domestic standing.

That’s where migrants come in. As part of the deal, Caracas also agreed to let direct flights repatriate thousands of Venezuelans, who had left their country’s economic misery and made their way to the U.S. Those flights offered Mr. Maduro new leverage: Caracas is now threatening to suspend repatriation flights if the U.S. reimposes sanctions.

Playing with people’s lives is what tyrants do, after all, and Mr. Maduro is not the only one playing this game. Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega is also exploiting immigration to pressure the U.S. By relaxing visa restrictions into his country, Mr. Ortega is letting migrants in search of an entry point to the U.S. go through Nicaragua.

Not only did Nicaragua its relax visa requirements, but it also authorized hundreds of chartered flights, many run by human smugglers’ networks, to land in Managua. These exorbitantly priced charter flights carrying Africans, Cubans, Haitians and Indians are part of a clandestine migration package offered by rackets and facilitated by Mr. Ortega, whose regime, like Venezuela’s, is under sanctions pressure from Washington. It’s a good deal for Mr. Ortega. Pressure on the U.S. and money in his coffers, given that Managua exacts a transit fee on each of them to cross into Honduras on their way to the U.S.

To Mr. Maduro and Mr. Ortega, migrants are expendable. The pressure their plight creates on U.S. domestic politics is a net benefit — a divided America is weaker in their eyes and therefore more likely to grant them concessions. Besides, by letting smuggling networks use their countries, airports, travel agencies and other businesses, they bring in revenue from human trafficking that must surely pay dues to conniving authorities. Organized crime benefits, too.

This, then, should guide the U.S. response. Our authoritarian adversaries are exploiting a crisis to our detriment and their benefit — their preservation of power and the advancement of their global anti-democratic agenda.

Washington should double down against those who are making the border crisis worse, not grant them sanctions relief or legitimacy. They are what many of the migrants are fleeing from. We should not lose sight of that.

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