Harris will make her first international trip in office in early June to meet with the presidents of Guatemala and Mexico and discuss issues that previous governments – Democrats and Republicans – have tried to resolve for decades.
Right now, the government is most optimistic about Guatemala as the place where progress can be made, not because there is no corruption, but simply because it is ready to talk about the tough issues. And it’s not Honduras or El Salvador.
However, former officials and experts warn that if Harris focuses solely on reducing migration, efforts to improve conditions in Guatemala and the rest of the region will fail.
The government’s focus in Guatemala is “more on standards than design,” said Eric Olsen, director of policy at the Seattle International Foundation and an expert on Central America.
“There are serious problems in Guatemala too, but they can at least work with the President of Guatemala,” added Olsen. Still, he warned: “I’m not sure this will work.”
For its part, the government of Biden admits that the conditions on the ground in Honduras and El Salvador are currently not right for the vice president to focus on. A senior administrator said the high-level focus is on engagement in Guatemala and Mexico, where they are building “a very positive agenda for cooperation” with the two countries.
Harris has held a call and virtually met with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and Guatemalan community and justice sector leaders in the nine weeks since President Joe Biden tapped her to oversee these diplomatic efforts. She also spoke and met with the Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador virtually. But she has not spoken to the leaders of Honduras and El Salvador or the leaders of civil society there.
“We think it’s not the right moment [a] very high level engagement in El Salvador and Honduras, ”said a senior administration official. “Lower level engagements are ongoing,” added the official, which is the level that “we currently believe is appropriate.”
These lower-level talks with senior executives in El Salvador and Honduras were largely led by Ricardo Zúñiga, who was appointed Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle at the State Department in March, and Juan Gonzalez, senior director of the National Security Council for the Western Hemisphere. Both have traveled to the region to meet with officials.
There is a long list of reasons why the White House is especially careful with the leaders of Honduras and El Salvador as part of its initial efforts to address the root causes of migration.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, an ally of former President Donald Trump, was repeatedly linked to organized crime. His brother, a former Honduran congressman, was sentenced to life imprisonment in Manhattan federal court in March for drug trafficking. And US prosecutors Hernández was reportedly a co-conspirator. He was not charged, but experts say that given all the evidence, it remains very possible.
In El Salvador it is popular 39 year old President Nayib Bukele has cemented power throughout the government while attacking civil society and the press, and while getting used to China. In March, Bukele’s allies won an absolute majority in the country’s legislature. And earlier this month, on her first day in office, lawmakers allied with Bukele voted to remove the country’s attorney general and several judges from the Supreme Court.
US officials were quick to be alerted about the recent actions in El Salvador but have not taken any action. Harris responded to the vote, which critics viewed as a power takeover, by expressing “deep concern about democracy in El Salvador”.
“An independent judiciary is crucial for a healthy democracy – and for a strong economy.” Harris wrote on Twitter earlier this month.
Last week, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Funds, said Bukele and his allies’ actions are providing US aid, trade relations, access to visas and US support for funding El Salvador endanger the International Monetary Fund, Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank.
“[T]The decisions that he and his allies are making in the Salvadoran Congress that exclude the democratic civil institutions of El Salvador and strengthen the armed forces have ramifications for US-Salvador relations, “Leahy said in one long statement On Monday.
Last week, legislators received a list from the State Department of Central American politicians found corrupt. These included 16 current and former politicians from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, including Bukele’s head of cabinet.
For his part, Harris has made it clear in public statements that fighting corruption is their top priority in the region.
“No matter how much effort we go into – curbing violence, delivering disaster relief, tackling food insecurity – we will make little progress if corruption continues in the region,” said Harris said earlier this month at the conference of the Americas Council of the Americas in Washington.
Given the widespread corruption in the region, the Biden government is trying to create a roadmap based not only on working with country governments but also involving civil society leaders. In his major immigration reform bill, Biden earmarked $ 4 billion as part of his strategy to address the root causes of migration from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Officials and lawmakers say money doesn’t just go to governments and has strict conditions to ensure it isn’t misused.
Administrative officials, lawmakers, and experts point to these efforts to build partnerships beyond governments as an important lesson from the Obama years, when Biden was urged to lead the same diplomatic efforts Harris is now doing.
As the US seeks to partner with Guatemalan civil society, the country’s government seeks to undercut civil society – a reminder that Guatemala also faces systemic corruption and governance and rule of law challenges. Last week, Guatemala’s Supreme Court overturned a ruling that prevented laws against NGOs from becoming law.
And last month, the Guatemalan Congress refused to summon a judge in the Constitutional Court who is a leader in the fight against corruption. It was an upward movement State Department official said undermined “Guatemala’s commitment to an independent judiciary and the fight against systemic corruption”.
“The central issue in all three countries is the same: none of them have a strong and independent judiciary. None of them have strong and independent attorneys general. And they all have very, very weak monitoring mechanisms, ”said Olsen.
Still, Guatemala is an important opportunity for the Biden government to have an impact on migration, as the main driver pushing people to leave the country is economic, including the economic impact of climate change, NSC’s Gonzalez said . “So much can be done to address this.”
This economic migration is relatively easy to fight than corruption, rule of law and violence.
Harris’ contact with Guatemala is also due to the fact that the majority of unaccompanied children who come to the border are from a combination of Guatemala and Honduras, Gonzalez said. In April, more than 17,100 unaccompanied migrant children who had crossed the border were taken into US custody, according to Customs and Border Protection. Almost 40 percent of them came from Guatemala.
And experts recognize that Guatemala’s openness to addressing the more difficult rule of law issues also helps.
“Guatemala’s willingness to talk about the broader governance and rule of law agenda has made them an easier partner,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, who advised the administration on these issues. “Now I don’t know that this means they are better at the rule of law, but they are very publicly ready to get involved.”
So far, the Biden government has only made small announcements about concrete measures or funds for Central America. After her virtual meeting with Giammattei in late April, Harris announced that the US would provide an additional $ 310 million for humanitarian aid and food insecurity in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Guatemala also agreed to step up enforcement on its northern and southern borders, according to a statement from Harris’ senior adviser and keynote spokesman, Symone Sanders.
The two countries also agreed to open “Resource Centers for Migrants” in Guatemala to provide information to those looking for legal avenues for migration or other programs and protections, as well as support for migrants returning from the US and other countries. Currently, the Biden administration is ejecting a majority of migrants arriving at the border with a public health ordinance called Title 42, which Trump enforced at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
A senior administrative official said the two countries had agreed that the first such center would be set up in Guatemala City and they hope it will be operational by Harris’ visits in June. The center is run by the government and staffed by Guatemalan immigration officers, supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration. The aim, the official said, is to build multiple resource centers in Guatemala and the rest of the region.
In early April, the US Agency for International Development announced that it would set up a disaster relief team for the three countries to help with urgent humanitarian needs.
And earlier this month, after Harris’ virtual meeting with Mexican López Obrador, Sanders said the U.S. had developed a package of measures that included trade and business development missions to the region backed by the Department of Commerce and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency’s investments by the US International Development Finance Corporation. However, the administration has yet to provide further details.
The government has not signaled how comprehensive an announcement after Harris’ trip will be. A senior administrator said that they are considering a combination of short, medium and long term efforts as they formulate their broader strategy for the region.
“If we really get involved, it will take sustained long-term commitment,” said Adriana Beltrán, director of citizen security at the Washington office for Latin America.
“We cannot continue to focus on the region when there is a crisis and then just look elsewhere because this only enables short-term association-type solutions,” she said. “And that won’t bring the change that we want to see in the region.”
Eugene Daniels contributed to this report.