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The year in Latin America: Crises, exodus, elections and immigration legislation

People wade across a river.
Arnulfo Franco
FILE - Haitian migrants wade across the Tuquesa river after trekking through the Darien Gap in Bajo Chiquito, Panama, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. Dozens of charter flights believed to be carrying migrants fleeing crisis-stricken Haiti have touched down in recent days in Nicaragua, the latest in a historic crush of migration to the U.S.

Few parts of the country were untouched by the immigration crisis in 2023, and South Florida was hardly an exception. The year started with a flood of desperate Haitian and Cuban migrants arriving in the Florida Keys in often dangerous sea vessels.

The year ended with an unprecedented number of Venezuelans crossing the U.S. southern border and making their way here, often after trekking through the deadly Darién jungle between Colombia and Panama.

The wave from Venezuela resulted from the humanitarian crisis choking that country — caused by an authoritarian regime. The wave from Haiti pointed to the virtual gang rule that the country is under now. And the wave from Cuba was driven by the communist island’s ever-worsening economic and human rights repression.

That link between diluvial immigration and dictatorial government isn’t new. But this year it felt heavy even for South Florida – especially when, on top of all that, the state of Florida enacted a law targeting undocumented migrants.

READ MORE: Waiting for America: One year later, relief and frustration for migrants in Biden parole program

On the South Florida Roundup, WLRN’s Tim Padgett spoke to the director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, Anthony Perreira, about the biggest stories that came out of Latin America this year — and how those issues might go next year.

Perreira says he didn’t see the collapse or implosion of government like the one that has opened the door to the violent and powerful gangs that have taken over Haiti today.

“It's sort of shocking to find out… that there are 3,000 gang members that really have a lot more power right now than members of the state apparatus,” said Perreira.

“What's interesting maybe about this situation, which maybe differs from crises in the past, is that you see members of the Haitian diaspora here in South Florida really trying to have a voice. They're looking on with despair and they're thinking, I think correctly, ‘This can't go on.’”

Now, the U.S., the U.N. and the international community say they’re going to get a handle on the situation in Haiti by sending in a police assistance force led by Kenya. As a Brazillian, Perreira has watched his country lead efforts to stabilize Haiti. He says there are mixed feeling about Brazil’s involvement there, but there’s certainly an appetite to get involved again.

“I think people are being sort of skeptical and maybe reserving judgment a little bit about this Kenyan force. It seems like quite a small force, a thousand police personnel…And I think a lot of people would like it to succeed, but it looks like a fairly small commitment,” he said, adding that the U.S.’s $200 million devotion to the effort may have to be reinforced with another initiative along the way.

Hopes for the future of Venezuela

As far as holding out any hope for Venezuela, Perreira says the Venezuelan diaspora in South Florida seems hopeful for the possibility of Maduro being beaten by opposition candidate Maria Corina Machado in the next presidential election.

“I went to the primary election in Doral to see people voting…[they’re] really hoping for the best with the result. Which was that Machado was… the most popular primary candidate,” he said. “I do think that people have been impressed by Machado's campaign and it's very unlikely that she could come to power. But there is a strong, I think, symbolic resonance in the fact that so many people voted for her in that primary.”

The Maduro regime’s brutality is the key reason the U.S. is seeing so many Venezuelans crossing the U.S. southern border these days. In fact, Venezuela now sends more migrants over the border than any other nationality.

Perreira says seeing more desperate Venezuelans crossing the Rio Grande than other migrant groups upends all the usual preconceptions.

“[Venezuelans] are, on average, much more highly educated than many immigrant groups. They're much more likely to have gotten a college degree, for example. That's encouraging because that means they'll be able to contribute economically in ways that maybe other immigrants can't. But it's really shocking how long the process has gone on without some kind of stabilization,” he said.

New immigration program and laws

At the beginning of 2023, the Biden Administration released a humanitarian migrant parole program for Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Cubans and Haitians. It’s proven very popular but Perreira says he doesn’t believe it’s a long-term solution — rather an understandable response to repression and human rights violations in those countries.

He also criticized Florida's new SB1718 law, which goes after undocumented migrants here in various ways, including fines for employers who hire undocumented individuals and a requirement that hospitals ask for patient immigration status. Perreira says the legislation seems to be more about politics, and Gov. Ron DeSantis' bid for the presidency, than grappling with the realities of Florida’s economy.

“If you create a law like that and, and create fear amongst employers and employees, you may end up shooting yourself in the foot by damaging your economy,” he said.

“I take as plausible some of the criticisms of this is that it's more about symbolism signaling to a political base than it is about really addressing the issues in the economy locally.”

You can listen to the full conversation above.

READ MORE: Undocumented: Living, working under Florida's strict immigration law in Palm Beach

Helen Acevedo, a freelance producer, is a grad student at Florida International University studying Spanish-language journalism, a bilingual program focused on telling the stories of diverse communities.
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