PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Across the street from the departure terminal at Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Haiti’s gang-plagued capital, hundreds of anxious travelers spill out onto the road from an overflowing parking lot, listening for their Nicaragua-bound flight to be called.
As ticket agents in white shirts walk through the chaotic crowd, there is chatter about how many days some have been camping out and the desperation driving them to Managua, the new migration springboard for migrants seeking asylum in the United States.
“There is nowhere that is simple,” one young man says as he explains to another traveler the winding itinerary to the U.S.-Mexico border after arriving at Augusto Cesar Sandino International Airport in the Nicaraguan capital, where guides and traffickers offer passage north. “There are some small cars like taxis. If you want you can take them or get on one of the big buses to Honduras, and after Honduras you take another one … to the Guatemalan border.”
Until recently, Haitians and other U.S.-bound migrants making their way through Central America were stranded in Costa Rica, sometimes for months, because Nicaragua, the next stop on the route, banned them from entering the country.
But Nicaragua is now welcoming the travelers in massive numbers, removing the requirement for visas. Leader Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, are using their country as a bridge for charter-airline operators and travel agents, who charge Haitians as much as $4,000 for a one-way ticket from Port-au-Prince to Managua, about 1,000 miles.
“I hate to use the term, but Ortega is weaponizing migration as a foreign-policy tool,” said Manuel Orozco, the director of the migration, remittances and development program at the Inter-American Dialogue, a U.S.-based think tank.
Arturo McFields Yescas, Ortega’s former ambassador to the Organization of American States, said that by offering Haitians and other migrants visa-free access to Nicaragua and then helping them on their journey to the U.S., Ortega is using “migrants as a bargaining chip” in his bid to get the U.S. to lift its sanctions against his Sandinista Front regime.
Yescas, who was exiled by Ortega last year, said the regime offers migrants “a complete package,” including transportation and lodging, to get them to Honduras, the next stop on the way to the U.S. The scheme, he added, “is not accidental, it is intentional, premeditated, calibrated and organized” by Ortega.
Haitian government figures obtained by the Miami Herald show that more than 20,000 people made the journey in a two-month period after the flights from Port-au-Prince began in August. A database compiled by Orozco has recorded more than 31,400 Haitians aboard 268 flights as of October.
The charter flights have grown from seven a day to double that number. During a recent span of four days, 53 flights left Haiti, an average of 15 flights a day. Among the 15 flights from Haiti that landed last Wednesday in Managua, one was a Boeing 767-300 with a capacity for 269 passengers. There are also two to three flights a day from the Turks and Caicos Islands, along with the Dominican Republic, presumably ferrying Haitians, as well as charters from Cuba, El Salvador and other Latin American countries.
“We are very concerned about this issue,” said a Haitian government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to address what was described as a sensitive matter. “This floodgate has to be shut off.”
For years Cubans who want to make their way to the U.S.-Mexico border have been boarding flights in Havana operated by Venezuelan state-owned airline Conviasa to reach Managua. Now, spiraling gang violence, kidnappings and a crumbling economy in Haiti — and the long waits for a new travel program launched in January by the Biden administration — have driven Haitians to take the same route, the passengers waiting in line in Port-au-Prince said.
The visa-free Haiti charters into Nicaragua coincide with a similar surge in African migrants using Central American airports, according to the U.N. Along with Cubans, the U.N International Office for Migration said, Africans are flying into Nicaragua to bypass routes that once took them through South America and the Darién Gap, the treacherous jungle connecting Panama and Colombia.
Advertised on social media and through word-of-mouth in Haiti, the Nicaragua route has opened amid rising concerns over surging migration through the hemisphere and friction between the United States and Mexico over how to respond. Since 2020, the number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has more than doubled, to 8 million people annually, according to the Inter-American Dialogue.
The record numbers led Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to host a migration summit this month with 11 Latin America and Caribbean leaders. While Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry attended, neither Nicaragua nor the U.S. was invited to participate. On Friday, President Joe Biden will host his own immigration summit in Washington, D.C. Neither Haiti nor Nicaragua has been invited, a White House official confirmed to the Herald.
Until recently, the massive flow of Haitians had gone unnoticed by the Biden administration, which in January launched a humanitarian program for nationals of Haiti, Cuban, Nicaragua and Venezuela in an attempt to discourage undocumented migration from the four countries.
“The United States is aware of the increase in charter flights between Nicaragua and several countries, including Haiti and Cuba. No one should profit off the desperation of vulnerable migrants — not smugglers, and certainly not public officials or governments,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We are concerned for the well-being of these migrants who then undertake dangerous journeys through Central America and Mexico, where they are subject to exploitation, abuse and trafficking by organized criminal enterprises.”
‘Objective is to reach the United States’
Haitian journalist Roderson Elias made the journey from Port-au-Prince to Managua in September after forking over $6,000 for himself and his wife. He made the decision, he said, after 50 heavily armed men with assault rifles attacked his Radio Antarctique station in July in the rural town of Liancourt in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley and set it on fire.
“My house, my radio station, my car, all went up in flames,” said Elias, whose plight was highlighted by the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The bandits burned everything.”
After a two-and-a-half hour flight, the couple and a radio station employee arrived in Managua, where they were greeted by a guide at the airport who explained how to continue the journey to Mexico. After spending an additional $800 and a grueling days-long journey on buses and motorcycles, they finally made it to Tapachula, the Mexican town bordering Guatemala. After three weeks, they made it to Mexico City, where Elias, who is currently ill, said he was able to access a U.S. Customs and Border Protection smartphone application, CBP One, to request an appointment to apply for U.S. asylum.
“My objective is to reach the United States,” he said, expressing concerns about the fate of his two young children, who remain in Haiti.
Elias believes he was targeted by a gang for his radio reports denouncing the assassination of police officers, forced closure of schools and massacres by armed groups in the region. At the time of the attack, he had spent three months waiting to hear whether he could come to the U.S. under the humanitarian parole program, but the application approval was taking too long, he said.
Immigration advocate Guerline Jozef, who heads the Haitian Bridge Alliance, said Haitians are choosing Nicaragua out of necessity and desperation. Many have applied for the U.S. humanitarian parole, she said, but “have lost faith and hope in the system” amid a backlog of about 1.7 million applicants.
“They are trying to find other ways to survive and make it through, because they are being killed,” said Jozef, who has been urging the Biden administration to prioritize people who have been waiting on the humanitarian parole program since the beginning of the year.
Orozco said that the 31,000 Haitians he has tracked transiting through Nicaragua so far this year account for nearly 60% of all Haitian arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border. Many have been paroled into the U.S.
“Many of these countries, even Mexico, don’t realize the magnitude of the transshipment that is taking place through Nicaragua,” he said.
Profits over people
Miami Herald/el Nuevo Herald partner La Prensa, an independent Nicaraguan media outlet, which was the first to report on the increasing migrant flows through the Managua airport, reported that an analysis of the passenger statistics kept by Nicaragua’s Central Bank show at least 50,800 passengers who flew to the country in the first half of this year did not fly back out.
They presumably made their way north to the border with Honduras, a journey two Central American sources told the Herald is sometimes assisted by the Nicaraguan military, which has partial control over Augusto Cesar Sandino International Airport.
Orozco said he could not verify the involvement of the military in the migration scheme, but there is no doubt that the Ortega regime is profiting from the massive numbers. For one, the airport authority, he said, helps businesses make flight arrangements with charter companies.
“It’s like a travel agency facilitated by the state,” he said.
The migrants also put money into Nicaragua’s economy because they spend money on food, transportation and shelter as they transit through.
Though Haitians do not have to get a visa before traveling to Managua, passengers are required to pay for a tourist card upon arrival. The government also assesses airplane landing fees, which can cost $10,000 an aircraft.
A coalition of eight social and political groups that oppose Ortega accused the leader of turning illegal migration into a business.
“We denounce the businesses and human trafficking carried out by the regime with foreign migrants and the expulsion policies with nationals,” opposition leaders said in a joint statement.
Several charter companies from countries including Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, the United States and Mexico now fly into Nicaragua. Nicaragua’s aviation agency website lists EuroAtlantic Airways, Air Century, Sunrise Airways, Sky High Aviation Services, Magnicharters, Eurus Private Air and IBC Air as some of the charter airlines that fly into the country.
Haitian-owned Sunrise Airways, which recently launched direct flights between Miami and Haiti’s two international airports, doesn’t fly to Managua, but the company’s founder, Philippe Bayard, and executive director, Sébastien Bayard, told the Herald they rent out their leased aircraft for the route.
“We don’t sell tickets. We don’t even know the ticket prices,” Sébastien Bayard said. “Many agencies are just contracting aircraft.”
One administrator at Fort Lauderdale-based IBC Air told the Herald that brokers who book the charter flights deal directly with the passengers. Meanwhile, IBC gets the permits needed to bring the aircraft into and out of Nicaragua. The administrator said she had noticed an uptick in demand for flights to Nicaragua from Haiti in the last two months.
Emilio Gonzalez, a former U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director who has long followed the Managua-bound charter flights out of Cuba, said “Nicaragua’s role is key” in the ongoing migration crisis.
“None of those hundreds of thousands of Cubans would have reached the U.S. without Nicaragua,” he said.
Gonzalez described Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua as “state-sponsored human traffickers,” where the governments benefit financially from the traveling migrants.
“Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are receiving tremendous amounts of money for simply doing nothing,” said Gonzalez, adding that several transit countries in the region are “enriching themselves from the misery of others.”
“It’s the worst-kept secret,” he added. “There are even travel agencies in the U.S. that book those flights and make a lot of money.”