Biden’s Sanctions Problem

February 29, 2024

Folha de S.Paulo

See article in Portuguese on original site here.

Much to the chagrin of President Joe Biden, the so-called migrant crisis at the border with Mexico has turned into a hot campaign issue. Undocumented migrants have been crossing the US border in record numbers — 2.5 million in 2023 alone, according to US Border Patrol. Due to lacking infrastructure and administrative capacity, alarming scenes of chaos, overcrowding, and human desperation have ensued. Recent polls show that many voters blame Biden and feel that he’s doing a bad job managing the migrant influx.

Former president Donald Trump has capitalized on the situation by playing on widespread but unsubstantiated fears of undocumented immigrants’ impacts on the economy and public safety. Echoing the rhetoric of Adolf Hitler, he has referred to the migration wave as an “invasion” that’s “poisoning the blood of our country.” He has renewed his pledge to “build the wall” along the border, and vows to “institute the largest deportation operation in American history.”

In response, Biden has shifted to a tougher, Trump-like approach, limiting asylum seekers’ ability to enter the US and sharply increasing deportations of undocumented immigrants. Biden’s earlier pledge to address the economic and social “root causes” of migration has fallen by the wayside. Vice President Kamala Harris, tasked with implementing this policy in Central America, has done little more than achieve regional notoriety by bluntly telling migrants: “Do not come.”

In fact, Biden’s own policies are a “root cause” driving migration to the US. Over the past few years, Venezuelans and Cubans, who previously constituted a small fraction of migrants at the border, now make up a significant proportion of the migrant population. Both groups are fleeing dire economic and humanitarian conditions in their home countries, caused, in large part, by unilateral sanctions introduced under Trump and continued under Biden.

Trump, advised by hard-line Cuban-American senator Marco Rubio and neoconservative hawk John Bolton, adopted “maximum pressure” strategies targeting both countries, identified as part of a “Troika of Tyranny” by Bolton. President Obama’s normalization plans with Cuba were scrapped and the US blockade vastly expanded. Venezuela was subjected to far-reaching financial sanctions in 2017 and oil sanctions in 2019, precipitating a collapse of the country’s oil-dependent economy. Biden, fearful of alienating Cuban-American voters in Florida, has largely kept the far-reaching sanctions in place.

These sanctions failed to achieve their objective of regime change and have caused immense human suffering, including tens of thousands of avoidable deaths, as studies have shown. It’s now increasingly clear that they have become politically costly to Biden. Democrats in Congress have sounded the alarm: last year, Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, a co-chair of Biden’s election campaign who represents a Texas district bordering Mexico, led a letter urging Biden to “act swiftly to lift the failed and indiscriminate economic sanctions that … serve as additional push-factors for migration.”

Other Democratic leaders, from Tennessee and Massachusetts, have sent Biden similar pleas, while regional leaders — including López Obrador of Mexico, Petro of Colombia, and other Latin American heads of state — have also criticized US sanctions as a driver of migration. With migration now a central, unavoidable issue in the presidential election campaign, will Biden finally listen to his Democratic allies, and the region, and reverse Trump’s sanctions?

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