MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Twice a week at a gas station on the western edge of the Nicaraguan capital, local residents gather, carrying the telltale signs of people on the go: loaded backpacks, clothes and gear Toiletries tucked in plastic bags and thick coats in preparation for a trip. cold journey away from the sweltering heat.
Nurses, doctors, students, children, farmers and many other Nicaraguans said goodbye in tears as they waited for a private charter bus for the first leg of their 1,800-mile journey. Final destination: United States.
For generations, Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, has seen only a small number of people migrate north. But inflation skyrocketed, wage cut and the erosion of democracy under an increasingly authoritarian government has drastically changed the way it is calculated.
Now, for the first time in Nicaragua’s history, the small country of 6.5 million is a major contributor to the volume of migrants arriving at the southern border of the United States, displaced by violence. , oppression and poverty.
While attention has been focused this year on record number of Venezuelans and Cubans pour into the United States, this little-noticed but remarkable increase in Nicaraguans is also exacerbating the migration crisis, sending money home to their families and unwittingly providing an economic lifeline for a political government is being sanctioned by the United States.
As of the end of November, more than 180,000 Nicaraguans had entered the United States this year — about 60 times more than those who entered the same period two years earlier, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. data.
Tatiana González Chacón, 23, a baker, left the Bluefields region of eastern Nicaragua for Phoenix last month, because her father, leader of an opposition party whose charter had its charter revoked, was charged with terrorism and had to flee to Costa Rica.
Nicaragua used to be “a wonderful country, a place where people wanted to go,” she said. “Now it is a place where its own people want to get out. When you cross that river to the United States, you breathe in a different atmosphere.”
Earlier this month, at a bus stop in the capital Managua, a mother of three, who asked to remain anonymous, was making the journey. The trip cost her $2,000, and she is still in debt to a smuggler for her previous failed attempt to get to the United States. Four brothers who have just inherited a farm whose seed and fertilizer costs have quadrupled also board a bus going north.
This year, for the first time, the amount arrest of undocumented migrants along the southern border of the United States exceeds two million in a year.
The The Biden Administration Expects Those Who Come will spike further if the US Supreme Court decides to lift a public health measure known as topic 42 allow migrants who reach the border to return. (Nicaraguans are largely exempt from Title 42, as the country will not allow deportation flights, and Mexico has refused to accept them.)
Last month alone, more than 34,000 Nicaraguans turned themselves in to US immigration authorities – five years ago, that number for the whole year was just over 1,000.
During the country’s civil war in the 1980s, about 200,000 Nicaraguans left — over the course of the decade.
Another significant influx of Nicaraguans has also arrived in Costa Rica and, combined with those heading north, has driven around 10% of Nicaragua’s population to leave over the past four years, revealing a widespread lack of trust in the government. by President Daniel Ortega.
For decades, migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have been the dominant groups when it comes to the US border. Nicaragua’s government leaders often boast that without powerful gangs terrorizing surrounding countries, Nicaraguans feel relatively safe and do not need to flee.
The dynamics began to change in 2018. Mr. Ortega, a former left-wing revolutionary who led the country during the civil war in the 1980s, was elected president in 2006 following changes. The Constitution allows candidates to win without an absolute majority. .
Since then, he has been re-elected three times, including last year, in a vote that much of the international community and many human rights groups see as a sham. for anti-democratic moves Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, his vice president.
The ruling couple made institutional changes and reached agreements with rivals that gave them control of the Supreme Court, the electoral commission and the National Assembly. They bought TV stations and made them more sympathetic to the government, while removing their criticism.
In 2018, demonstration broke out about changes to social security rules requiring workers to pay more and retirees to receive less. But the protests expanded into mass uprisings against the government across the country that lasted months and left hundreds dead.
The government’s response was brutal. Angry at the barricades protesters had erected across Nicaragua, the government jailed opposition leaders and shut down political parties and civil society groups. Many political activists and journalists have fled.
The exodus slowed during the pandemic but resumed last year after Mr Ortega stepped up repression, shutting down research institutes, shutting down human rights organizations and arresting more than just his political opponents. but their families on charges of forgery, including conspiracy to commit a coup. .
Before last year’s election, Ortega jailed seven presidential candidates and barred several opposition parties from participating. President Biden criticized the election as “neither free nor fair, and certainly not democratic.”
A Nicaraguan government spokesman did not respond to several messages seeking comment.
“You get rid of the media, you get rid of political parties, you get rid of universities. Why do you think people are leaving? Manuel Orozco, a Nicaraguan analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.
Elvira Cuadra, a Nicaraguan sociologist, fled to Costa Rica four years ago after the government raided her political science institute and revoked its legal status.
“These are really not ordinary economic migrants,” she said. “This is a forced displacement.”
Since 2018, 154,000 Nicaraguans have applied for asylum in Costa Rica, where the government recently announced changes to its asylum policy to limit arrivals. Refugees who must now apply for asylum within a month of arriving in the country, will no longer receive an expedited work permit and cannot leave Costa Rica while their application is pending.
Marlen Luna, director general of Costa Rica’s immigration agency, said that at the current rate, it would take Costa Rica 10 years to process all asylum claims.
“This Nicaraguan immigration is historic,” she said. “This problem has no short-term solution. It is not a wave. It is not out of fashion. This is permanent.”
Many Nicaraguans also left because of the economic hardship that increased under Mr. Ortega’s rule.
In spite of Data from the International Monetary Fund shows that about 25 percent of Nicaraguans live in poverty, analysts say the actual rate could be much higher because about two-thirds of the nation’s population lives on an income of about $120 a year. month.
“The only way you can find a job where you can earn a little bit more money, but a little bit more comfortably, is to get involved,” said Víctor Hernández, 29, who left the city of León in October. alliance with the government. lives in Nashville doing odd jobs. “I bought a small piece of land five years ago to build a house and I couldn’t afford a single brick.”
Mr. Hernández worked as a restaurant manager in Nicaragua before being unemployed for a year. Eventually, he found a new job at a restaurant with a salary of $250 a month, but that wasn’t enough to support his two children, even though his wife also worked. He decided to leave his family behind, hoping to return in a few years.
“The situation in Nicaragua is terrible,” said Mr. Hernández.
The money that people like Hernández are sending home is helping to sustain Ortega’s government, which is under US sanctions aimed at people and businesses connected with the government. Orozco said Nicaraguans sent $3 billion home by 2022, making remittances 17 percent of the country’s tax revenue.
“It’s a paradox,” says Alberto Cortés, a professor at the University of Costa Rica. “They have differences with the regime, and so by leaving, they help maintain the regime. The government is fine with all these people leaving.”
in one stated In October, Mr. Ortega blamed the US government for the spike in migration.
“It’s the country that has applied the most sanctions and therefore suffered the most damage and more crisis, and then there they are complaining” about immigrants, Ortega said.
Across Nicaragua, however, Ortega’s criticisms of the United States made little sense as people lost faith that the grim economic and political picture would soon improve.
Hazel Martínez Hernández, 21, and her brother Julmer, 19, saw their father starting to look much older than his 51 years when he rented a plot of land to grow crops and work as a security guard. They want something better for themselves. It took the family months to borrow $8,000 to pay a smuggler for the siblings’ trip from Santa Rosa, a border town near Honduras.
Family had to pay an extra $10,000 in ransom when siblings kidnapped In Mexico.
Hernández, a college graduate, and her brother, a former farmer, currently rent an apartment in California and do not work.
“We have seen people who have left send money to build houses, and some come back and open businesses, buy land and improve their lives,” said their sister, Jahoska, mate. left last year and sent her money, said.
“So they want to do the same,” she added.
Alfonso Flores Bermudez reports from Managua, Nicaragua, and Frances Robles from Miami, Fla.