The trip this weekend of Vice President Kamala Harris to Guatemala and Mexico comes at a time of mounting calls in Congress and from civil society groups for a comprehensive approach to the root causes driving migration from Central America at the U.S. southern border.
The fact that it is her first trip abroad after accepting President Joe Biden's assignment to lead his efforts in Central America is a sure sign of how urgent a priority the humanitarian crisis there has become for the White House.
It’s also a delicate and politically dangerous assignment for Harris due to domestic tensions over immigration and the seemingly intractable problem of poverty, corruption and natural disasters in Central America, that has seen record numbers of unaccompanied minors cross the US-Mexico border after Biden rolled back some Trump-era immigration restrictions.
Her challenge is made all the more difficult by sharp differences with the leaders of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, that has placed those countries off her travel list, at least for the time being.
“A better life”
Her trip is being described by her senior staff as an effort to try to deepen the "strategic partnership and bilateral relationship" with two key countries in the region. That’s a polite way of describing what some experts say is a bridge-building exercise in a region where the United States has lost influence in the so-called Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and is looking for new ways to achieve its objectives.
"We will also engage community leaders, workers, young innovators and entrepreneurs, and others about ways to provide economic security, address the core factors of migration, and to give people the hope for a better life at home," said Symone Sanders, Harris' chief spokesperson and senior adviser, in a call with reporters.
The vice president will land in Guatemala on Sunday and has a day full of events in the country the next day, including an in-person bilateral meeting with President Alejandro Giammattei.
Giammattei has already agreed to increase the number of border security personnel, while the U.S. will also increase the number of its own security forces on the ground to provide training, U.S. officials said.
There are few concrete details about the new strategy and strengthening the border police in Guatemala is not a new idea. Former Vice President Mike Pence announced a similar effort in 2018, albeit in a harsher tone.
On Tuesday, she will meet with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in addition to a roundtable with female entrepreneurs and labor workers, before returning to the US.
New line in the sand
The United States is paying the price for abandoning Central America after the civil wars of the 1980s and deporting young gang members back to the region.
Biden has promised $4 billion for the region to address the humanitarian factors that drive migration, including poverty, insecurity, climate change and domestic violence. But he has also drawn a line in the sand over human rights, law and order and corruption, that has created a diplomatic rift with the presidents of El Salvador and Honduras.
White House officials have suggested that Harris is "picking up" from where Biden left off, after he was tasked by then-President Barack Obama in 2014 to lead diplomatic efforts in Central America in his last term after a surge of unaccompanied minors from those countries began arriving in the US.
But that may be underestimating a job that some consider a 'mission impossible'. “Her assignment is a lot tougher than Biden’s was in 2014,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington which seeks to help shape policy in the region.
“The conditions have deteriorated drastically since 2014. The set of leaders and issues that gotten worse, aggravated by the pandemic,” he told reporters during a media briefing on Friday.
El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, who was elected in 2019, has butted heads with Washington over his autocratic leadership style.
President Juan Orlando Hernandez in Honduras was controversially re-elected in 2017, has been accused in U.S. federal court of colluding with drug traffickers.
Meanwhile, in Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega has been a thorn in the side of U.S. policy since he led a leftwing revolution in 1979 against the U.S.-backed dictator, Anastasio Somoza. He is seeking re-election in November for his fourth consecutive term.
On Thursday, Biden issued a memorandum establishing “countering corruption as a core United States national security interest.” The White House memorandum noted that the costs of corruption sap between two and five percent from global gross domestic product a year. In Central America, U.S. officials say that loss production is one of the main forces driving migrants to leave their countries due to lack of jobs and loss of trust in governments.
Corruption costs Central America $13 billion a year, according to Ricardo Zúñiga, the State Department’s Honduran-born Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle. That’s the equivalent of half the value of all the good and services produced (GDP) in Honduras annually, or more than twice the annual remittances received in El Salvador last year.
The cost of migration
At least 400,000 people left Central America every year since 2006, the equivalent of 1.5% of the population, of whom 15% made it irregularly through the border, according to a recent study by Manuel Orozco, director of the Center for Migration and Economic Stabilization.
That involves a huge cost because almost one billion dollars is spent in failed attempts, he calculated, using an estimate of $3,000 per 300,000 migrants.
On the side of the victims
On a call with journalists on Friday, Zúñiga reiterated that it as essential to deal with corruption in Central America as it ended up affecting the United States. “Corruption is a major driver of mass migration from Central America because it undermines the conditions to promote broad based growth,” he said.
He also stressed that U.S. policy was on the side of the victims of corruption and was designed to support “very strong popular demand” for greater accountability and transparency. “The public understands that good governance is intimately linked to their own well-being and their own well-being is precisely what we seek to support,” he added.
Daughter of immigrants
Harris, who is the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, is possibly well-equipped to take on the mission, said Eric Olson, a veteran Director of Policy and Strategic Initiatives with the Central America-focused Seattle International Foundation (SIF).
“Kamala Harris is potentially a really good messenger and well-intentioned. They are making a concerted effort and her staff is very knowledgeable. Let’s see what she does on this trip,” he told Univision.
“Call to action”
Last month, Harris announced she had also secured commitments from 12 private companies and organizations in a “Call to Action” to invest in the Northern Triangle.
The Biden administration has also announced that it plans to snub local governments financially, by channeling future foreign assistance to the region largely through non-governmental agencies.
Other aid will be delivered in kind, such as six million covid-19 vaccine doses for Central and South America announced on Thursday, with another six million for Mexico.
The U.S. is also backing efforts to bringing together for the first time a coalition of civil society groups in the Northern Triangle countries to pressure governments to tackle corruption and show greater respect for the rule of law.
The launch of the Center against Corruption and Impunity in the North of Central America (CCINOC) on Thursday was attended by Zúñiga and Heide Fulton, the former acting ambassador in Honduras who now heads the Latin America section at the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.
Harris has already met virtually with some of those groups to signal her intention of paying a close ear to their complaints. “My message to her was, as an Asian-Black woman who broke through the glass ceiling and has been involved in civil rights, she brings enormous credibility role,” he said.
Unlike President Donald Trump who cut foreign aid to Central America and expressed disdain for “shithole” countries, many Democrat-leaning foreign policy groups in the United States say it’s time for a serious effort to address the region’s problems, or face more waves of migration.
A group of 19 Democratic Senators led by Bob Menendez of New Jersey, wrote a letter to Harris on Friday voicing their support for diplomatic efforts to mitigate the underlying factors driving Central American migration to the United States.
A new high-level group calling itself the North and Central American Task Force on Migration, also launched Friday, brings together business leaders, academics and former policymakers to push for regional responses to the longer-term economic, security and governance issues that propel the exodus from Central America.
“It is time for a comprehensive, unified regional effort to address the major issue of refugees and migrants in the Americas,” the task force declared in an inaugural statement.