Posted on November 14, 2023

The Country That Is Helping Tens of Thousands of Migrants Head to the U.S.

Juan Montes, Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2023

President Daniel Ortega has opened Nicaragua to flights carrying tens of thousands of migrants from Haiti, Cuba and Africa in recent months, swelling the ranks of people using the Central American country as a landing point on their journey north to the U.S.

Ortega’s authoritarian government has allowed several little-known charter airlines and travel agencies to operate flights from Haiti and other Caribbean airports to Nicaragua, according to Haitian and Nicaraguan civil aviation data.

Many of the asylum seekers are from Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, and have arrived in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. Migrants from African nations, such as Senegal and Cameroon, and from former Soviet republics are also making multiple airport stopovers in what are coming to be known as “donkey flights” to reach Managua.


The latest arrivals join more than 400,000 Cubans who have flown to Managua from Havana in the past two years since Nicaragua dropped visa requirements in 2021.

The surge through Nicaragua comes as the Biden administration faces record numbers of migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border, with around two million border apprehensions in fiscal year 2023, U.S. Border Patrol data show. Immigration is poised to be one of the key issues in next year’s presidential election.

The Central American nation has strained ties with the U.S. government. The Biden administration has imposed economic sanctions and visa restrictions on more than 500 Nicaraguan government officials due to what it described as Ortega’s escalating human-rights violations and the continued dismantling of democratic institutions. Several U.S. officials and political analysts, as well as a former senior Nicaraguan official, say that ushering migrants through Nicaragua is deliberate retaliation by the Ortega regime for the sanctions.

Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo, who is Ortega’s wife and acts as the government spokeswoman, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Ortega’s open-border measures highlight the geopolitical risks for the U.S. when trying to punish authoritarian governments in the region, while for Nicaragua’s government, the migrant wave represents a steady revenue stream, said Eduardo Enríquez, the managing editor of leading Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa, which was forced to close its print edition by the Ortega regime. Enríquez is in exile in Miami.

“It’s a great business for Ortega and Murillo. You cause problems for the U.S. and at the same time you cash in on those troubles,” he said. Migrants say they are charged between $150 and $200 for a tourist visa that allows them to travel to Honduras, Nicaragua’s northern neighbor.


About 100,000 migrants from Cuba and Haiti have landed in Nicaragua since June, estimates Manuel Orozco, the head of the migration and development program at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C., think tank. Opening a large-scale passage for tens of thousands of impoverished migrants has a destabilizing effect throughout the region, Orozco said, as they strain limited government resources and cause growing unrest among local communities.

But the Nicaragua air bridge is popular in part because it allows U.S.-bound migrants to bypass the deadly jungle paths of the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama. A record of more than 450,000 migrants have crossed the jungle strip so far this year, almost doubling the number reported a year earlier, according to Panama’s government.

The United Nations has reported a sharp drop in African, Haitian and Cuban migrants crossing through Panama and a significant increase in arrivals from those countries through Nicaragua.


The Nicaraguan route has also become increasingly appealing to migrants from as far as Asia. Some 6,500 migrants from Uzbekistan and other former Soviet republics crossed to Honduras from Nicaragua this year, a 10-fold increase from 2022, according to the Honduran government. Many of them landed in Managua on charter flights from Bulgaria.

Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla leader, has ruled Nicaragua since 2007. {snip}