Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.



Humanitarian Parole Recipients By Nationality

Data table

While not 100 percent exact—the Department of Homeland Security isn’t sharing exact numbers—this chart gives a pretty accurate sense of which nationalities’ citizens have benefited from the two-year Humanitarian Parole program that the Biden administration has set up for citizens of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. To qualify for the paroled status in the United States, citizens of those countries must apply online from outside U.S. territory, have a passport, have a U.S.-based sponsor, and undergo a background check.

Haitians have taken fullest advantage of the program since the Biden administration created it for Venezuelan citizens in October 2022, and expanded it to the other three countries in January 2023. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported on September 22:

Through the end of August 2023, over 211,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans had arrived lawfully under the parole processes. This number includes more than 45,000 Cubans, more than 71,000 Haitians, more than 32,000 Nicaraguans, and more than 61,000 Venezuelans who have arrived in the U.S. More than 47,000 Cubans, more than 84,000 Haitians, more than 39,000 Nicaraguans, and more than 68,000 Venezuelans have been vetted and authorized for travel.

Lowlife Dictator Lowers Himself Still Further

Nicaraguan author Gioconda Belli earned her money by writing novels that changed how people feel and see the world.

Tweet from Gioconda Belli @GiocondaBelliP:

Ayer la dictadura Ortega Murillo consumó la confiscación de mi casa de habitación en Managua, enviando policías a ocuparla. Es una casa que para siempre contendrá el recuerdo de mi energía creativa, la huella de mis libros y el paisaje que más amaba. Lo que era queda en mí.

Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega—who made his money by stealing from, terrorizing, and traumatizing people—just seized Belli’s home this week.

Good on Colombian President Gustavo Petro for showing solidarity and observing, “Ortega hace lo mismo que Pinochet.”

Less migration? Or stranded migrants?

This talking point about a “95% drop in border migrant encounters from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela” is problematic.

Why? Let’s examine encounters along the migration route, from north to south.

Here’s where the 95% comes from.

Chart: Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela Migrants Encountered Between U.S. Ports of Entry

	Jan-22	Feb-22	Mar-22	Apr-22	May-22	Jun-22	Jul-22	Aug-22	Sep-22	Oct-22	Nov-22	Dec-22	Jan-23	Feb-23	Mar-23
Between Ports of Entry (Border Patrol)	47270	34596	54042	55910	57280	40470	50069	56209	78256	71656	75658	84192	11909	2052	3811

US Border Patrol’s apprehensions of these 4 countries’ migrants really did drop steeply from December—after Mexico agreed to accept Title 42 expulsions of these nationalities, and once a “humanitarian parole” option opened up for some of them.

But there’s no 95% drop anywhere else along the migration route, where people fleeing those countries have become stranded.

Since December, Mexico’s encounters with these 4 countries’ migrants are only down 42%.

Chart: Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela Migrants Encountered in Mexico

	Jan-22	Feb-22	Mar-22	Apr-22	May-22	Jun-22	Jul-22	Aug-22	Sep-22	Oct-22	Nov-22	Dec-22	Jan-23	Feb-23	Mar-23
Total	7549	6601	10448	11221	8551	8071	11308	21545	22910	31047	23450	21124	12480	9859	12327

Since December, Honduras’s encounters with Cuban, Haitian, and Venezuelan migrants are up 10%.

(Nicaraguan citizens don’t need passports to be in Honduras, and thus don’t end up in Honduras’s count of “irregular” or “undocumented” migrants.)

Chart: Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela Migrants Encountered in Honduras

	Jan-22	Feb-22	Mar-22	Apr-22	May-22	Jun-22	Jul-22	Aug-22	Sep-22	Oct-22	Nov-22	Dec-22	Jan-23	Feb-23	Mar-23
Total	1589	2253	7571	10703	10757	12726	10297	18504	17332	21173	15833	11666	9310	9183	12879

Since December, in Panama’s Darién Gap, migration from Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela is up 250% (though down 57% from a high in October, before Mexico started accepting expulsions of Venezuelan migrants).

Chart: Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela Migrants Encountered in Panama’s Darién Gap

	Jan-22	Feb-22	Mar-22	Apr-22	May-22	Jun-22	Jul-22	Aug-22	Sep-22	Oct-22	Nov-22	Dec-22	Jan-23	Feb-23	Mar-23
Total	2595	2534	2723	4113	11408	12800	18885	26142	41531	45781	6723	8340	14542	14946	29186

The upshot: migration from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela may be down sharply at the US-Mexico border, due to aggressive Title 42 expulsions.

But the expulsions have absolutely not deterred these nations’ citizens from migrating. They’re still fleeing—but they’re stranded.

32,000 Cubans at the border in March

From Christine Armario and Nick Miroff at the Washington Post:

Last month, more than 32,000 Cubans were taken into U.S. custody along the Mexico border, double the number who arrived in February, according to unpublished U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) figures obtained by The Washington Post.

That number will almost certainly make Cuba the number-two country of origin, after Mexico, of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in March. That’s a position that Cuba has never occupied before.

The increase owes heavily to Nicaragua’s elimination of visa requirements for Cuban visitors last November, which opened up a new route up through Central America and across Mexico.

But it also puts in a difficult spot conservative Republicans currently ginning up “Biden Border Crisis” rhetoric as the November midterm elections draw near. What do they propose be done with these 32,000 people? Do people like Rubio, DeSantis and Scott propose that they be sent back to the regime in Havana?

Can the United States “do much about” Nicaragua?

Stephen Kinzer, the former New York Times Nicaragua bureau chief and author of now-classic books on U.S. policy toward Guatemala and Nicaragua, published a column today about Daniel Ortega’s latest despotic crackdown in Nicaragua. It’s at the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft site, and it’s a must-read from someone whom I’ve never met but whose writing prodded me, as a high-school student in the 1980s, toward a career advocating human rights in U.S. policy toward Latin America.

This paragraph in Kinzer’s piece has stuck with me all day. I don’t know what to think about it.

Appalling as Nicaragua’s situation has become, the United States cannot do much about it. Our long history of intervention there leaves us with little moral authority. In any case, Washington’s interest is so dim that Vice President Kamala Harris did not even utter the word “Nicaragua” during her recent speech outlining the new administration’s Central America policy. Nicaraguans, with carefully designed outside support—not directed from Washington—will have to shape the next chapters in their history.

Is that true? Is the United States, together with other states, powerless to confront a brutal kleptocracy in a nearby country? One with as many people as metropolitan Houston and a GDP similar to that of greater Charleston, West Virginia? (Or Akron, Ohio, if you use purchasing-power parity?)

I find “the United States cannot do much about it” hard to swallow, though “the United States alone, without any partnerships, cannot do much about it” is true.

Sure, Washington lacks moral authority in Nicaragua. But are there really no tools to promote democracy and to protect reformers and dissidents? Only the John Bolton/Elliott Abrams-style military interventions that drained U.S. moral authority, as Stephen Kinzer has chronicled so well? There have to be other options.

Kinzer is right: it is absolutely up to Nicaraguans “to shape the next chapters in their history.” But I still think the U.S. government and civil society, along with those of like-minded states, can give Nicaragua’s democrats a boost.

Not the kind of boost that we’ve provided in the past, like lethal aid to murderous Contra fighters. Many peaceful options are on the menu. Build coalitions for diplomatic pressure. Freeze assets, including of the regime’s key private-sector backers. Deny visas. Use the Magnitsky Act sanctions. Downgrade trade relations (suspending CAFTA but not going the full, feckless “Cuba embargo” route). Have the ambassador visit and take selfies with all human rights defenders, social leaders, and opposition figures. Help them keep their websites and social media accounts unblocked and accessible, while guaranteeing that those who produce credible content and have big audiences can make a living. Make sure those defenders and reformers aren’t just elite English-speakers from powerful families who don’t look like most Nicaraguans: include historically marginalized opposition movements, indigenous, women, labor, youth, LGBT, and others. Demand access to those in prison. Use the OAS Democratic Charter for once. Use whatever tools are available in the UN system. Engage frequently with allies on new ways to pressure Ortega and support reformers. I’m sure I’m missing many more.

All of this requires that the Biden administration devote bandwidth to the calamity in Nicaragua. And Kinzer is right: it has devoted almost none. (Nobody has. Can you imagine the New York Times having a Nicaragua bureau chief today?) To succeed, a U.S.-and-allies campaign to promote freedom in Nicaragua would have to be relentless, with daily messages and shows of support for dissidents. You’d need a high-profile official—perhaps a special envoy?—with resources and a crack (social) media operation, focused on this every single day.

U.S. policy toward Nicaragua is pretty far from that right now, just as it was during the prior administration. But I wouldn’t rush to say that the United States “can’t do much about it.” That demotivates people in this city who could be convinced to do more, and it cedes too much space to the Ortega/Murillo regime and its thugs.

WOLA Podcast: Resisting Repression in Nicaragua

I recorded this Tuesday morning with Julio Martínez of Nicaragua’s Articulación de Movimientos Sociales. Julio was an active participant in the 2018 protest movement against the Ortega regime; he got out and is now doing graduate work in New York. Here, we talk about civil society’s fight to stop human rights abuses and restore democracy in Nicaragua, the importance of international pressure, and the alarming spread of authoritarianism throughout Central America. (Download the mp3)

“Concrete actions”

Nicaraguan journalist Dánae Vílchez in the Washington Post on Friday:

The United States has taken some important steps, including the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act that was approved this week by Congress, a bill that would place conditions on the “approval of loans to the Ortega regime by international financial institutions,” and expand the Magnistky sanctions on people close to the regime (including Rosario Murillo, the vice president and first lady). The United Nations, however, seems to believe that democracy and the lives of thousands can be defended with press releases.

But only concrete actions can stop a dictator such as Ortega, a man who possesses an unquenchable thirst for power and is capable of anything to keep it.

…and the piece ends there, leaving the suggestion of “concrete actions” in the air.

The barbaric raids last week on CENIDH, IEEPP, Confidencial, and others have all of us casting about for new ways to help Nicaraguans end their dictatorship. So what did Vilchez mean here? Is the United States doing enough, but not the UN? If so, is she calling for worldwide NICA and Magnitsky sanctions? Or should the United States and the UN both be going even harder than they are against Ortega and Murillo?

And if so, what are the best options?

Nicaragua and Latin America’s “rancid” left

Some unnamed Nicaraguan student protest leaders, interviewed by Plaza Pública while on a visit to Guatemala, have run out of patience with the moldy 20th-century Latin American leftists who—out of misplaced “solidarity”—won’t speak out against Daniel Ortega’s abuses.

Plaza Pública: You define yourselves as leftists, but the Ortega government holds up the flag of the left and the Sandinista revolution.

Student protesters: They are left-leaning in their discourse. In the 1980s that discourse agreed with their actions. Nowadays, or since 2007, when Ortega took power, the discourse does not agree with the actions he has undertaken. He’s the biggest capitalist in the country. That “left” that they proclaim is not representative. This is not a problem only in Nicaragua, it’s in all of Central America and Latin America. Mel Zelaya defending Ortega, Sánchez Cerén defending Ortega … We feel abandoned.

We prefer to believe in other non-institutionalized processes, and not in this rancid left whose sole aim to which it aspires is to reach power, control everything and enrich itself. It’s another form of neoliberalism.

The left has always been afraid to criticize the left.

I think it’s regrettable to see comments like those of the Sao Paulo Forum, it’s a total shame, with Maduro at the helm. As if being a friend of human rights violators were the left’s new fashion. Or the FMLN or, right here the URNG, defending Ortega, while what we’re living through are counterinsurgency operations.

Links From the Last Month About: Civil-Military Relations in Latin America


  • A decree has placed a representative of Colombia’s Defense Ministry on the governing board of the Center for Historical Memory, a body of academics that has produced 92 reports since 2008 about what happened in the country’s conflict. Though a governmental body, the Center has had autonomy in how it chooses and carries out its investigations. This has brought strong support from conflict victims, but also strong criticism from the military. Critics, including victims’ groups, are concerned that the addition of a Defense official—who represents the military, one of the main parties to the conflict and the generator of many victims—may undermine this crucial autonomy. The Center’s longtime director, Gonzalo Sánchez, quietly protested the Defense Ministry’s addition, but later told the press that all government ministries have the right to participate in its governing board, the military has a lot of knowledge about the conflict that it should be encouraged to share, and that the Center’s autonomy won’t be affected.
  • The McClatchy news service, using information publicized by Human Rights Watch, reported that Gen. Jaime Lasprilla, a former head of Colombia’s army, has been in Washington as Colombia’s defense attache for nearly two years despite strong human rights concerns about his military record. A decade ago, when Gen. Lasprilla headed the Army’s 9th Brigade in the southern department of Huila, the unit committed a very large number of so-called “false positive” killings: murders of civilians that were falsified as combat kills to boost body counts.


  • The U.S. Southern Command’s Diálogo publication discusses, and praises, the Honduran military’s “Guardians of the Homeland” program, which sends soldiers to schools throughout the country “reinforcing a sense of right and wrong and instilling morals and leadership principles among minors.”
  • Soldiers are now protecting seven bus companies’ stations and lines in Tegucigalpa. Bus companies are frequent targets of gangs’ extortion and attacks.


  • Late last year, legislators from Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), working with heavy input from the armed forces, drafted an Internal Security Law that would make permanent the Mexican military’s “emergency” role in policing. Now, even the bill’s chief sponsor recognizes that the controversial legislation now appears unlikely to pass in the current legislative session, which ends April 30. The bill had encountered criticism from opposition parties in Congress, and especially from civil-society groups. A coalition of mostly Mexican groups (which included WOLA) put out a highly critical report (PDF) in late March citing the human rights cost that Mexico has paid since the military’s involvement in internal security intensified a decade ago. (There have been at least 3,921 confrontations between military personnel and civilians in Mexico since January 2007, when President Felipe Calderón increased the armed forces’ involvement in security.) More than 120 groups collaborated on an internet effort with a multimedia website, #SeguridadSinGuerra, to pressure the Congress to reject the law and place more emphasis on training better civilian police. Mexico’s usually docile human rights ombudsman’s office (National Human Rights Commission, or CNDH) also came out against the law.
  • The chief of Mexico’s Navy, Adm. Vidal Soberón, said that the military were only playing internal security roles, “it must be said, because in many cases police forces have been surpassed” by criminals.
  • The military responded angrily after a leading opposition politician, leftist former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel López Obrador, opposed the armed forces’ involvement in policing and tied them to the 2014 Ayotzinapa massacre. The Army’s human rights director, Gen. José Carlos Beltrán, called a press conference to criticize “social actors” who present “slander and offenses,” and actually denied that the military commits human rights abuses. “Those who denigrate the labor of our armed forces denigrate Mexico,” said President Enrique Peña Nieto. López Obrador responded that he views the military as “the people in uniform,” and his critics should “calm down.”
  • During the past month, Mexican military personnel were deployed to help keep order in the states of Quintana Roo, Sonora, and Veracruz.
  • Marines allegedly killed a minor, a passenger in a civilian car that went through a roadblock, in Nuevo León not far from the U.S. border.
  • In the border city of Reynosa, a woman who had denounced that her husband died last year in Marine custody said she received death threats from a group of assailants “of military aspect” who rammed her car.


  • The opposition-leaning daily La Prensa reported on the sudden and unusual retirement of two senior generals in Nicaragua’s army, who normally serve five-year terms in top command positions. A retired general told the paper that the firings owe to the armed forces’ politicization, “ever since the moment when there stoped being a high command able to say to [President Daniel] Ortega, ‘this is illegal, this can’t be done, this goes against the Constitution.’” Security expert Elvira Cuadra said, “Due to the way and the moment [the sudden retirements] occurred, what it shows is that things aren’t going well within the military institution.”


  • During the unsuccessful late-March attempt to change Paraguay’s constitution to allow President Horacio Cartes to run for re-election, local media questioned some irregular military deployments around the capital. These included the appearance of armored personnel carriers at Asunción installations, and the posting of guards and snipers around the Congress, where the amendment was being debated. Paraguay has been very vigilant about signs of military involvement in politics since the end of the dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989).


  • Faced with mounting protests, the government of President Nicolás Maduro launched “Plan Zamora Green Phase,” a “special civil-military strategic plan” to involve the military in preventing a “coup d’etat.” Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino promised the armed forces’ “unconditional loyalty” to the regime against “violent marches.” The government’s disproportionately forceful response to protests, however, has mostly been carried out by police, not soldiers.
  • Maduro also announced that the number of “Bolivarian Militias”—civilians armed with rifles to defend the regime—would expand to 500,000 (out of Venezuela’s total population of about 30 million).
  • Two investigative reports in the past month from InsightCrime (March 22 and April 28) look at drug-trafficking and other corruption in the armed forces.
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