Harris Visits Latin America to Tackle Migration, Corruption

WASHINGTON (AP) -
Rafts carry passengers and supplies across the Suchiate River between Tecun Uman, Guatemala, and Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, Saturday, June 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

Kamala Harris, on her first foreign trip as vice president, is looking to deepen diplomatic ties with Guatemala and Mexico, two Latin American nations key to the Biden administration’s efforts to stem the spike in migration at the U.S. border.

Harris, who is set to depart Washington later Sunday, is seeking to secure commitments for greater cooperation on border security and economic investment, but corruption in the region — a far more intractable challenge — will complicate her efforts.

It’s already had a significant impact on her work in the region. Harris has yet to engage substantively with the leaders of Honduras and El Salvador, who are both embroiled in corruption scandals. And it’s an issue that experts in the region say will need to be addressed to make any lasting changes.

“Corruption is a cancer in the region,” said Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. “Addressing corruption is fundamental to creating hope and creating the potential for opportunity.”

Marczak noted that corruption in the region affects human rights protections, employment opportunities, the cost of goods and much more. Jobs, he said, will come “with investment, and investment comes where there is certainty in the rule of law.” Without that, efforts to improve living conditions can only go so far.

In the months since she was tasked by President Joe Biden with addressing the root causes of migration to the U.S.-Mexico border, Harris has laid out an approach centered on creating better opportunities and living conditions in the region through humanitarian and economic aid.

Harris announced plans to send $310 million to provide support for refugees and address food shortages, and recently secured commitments from a dozen companies and organizations to invest in the Northern Triangle countries to promote economic opportunity and job training.

Washington won some goodwill through its vaccine diplomacy this past week. Guatemala’s president, Alejandro Giammattei, and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador both received calls from Harris on Thursday telling them the U.S. would be sending 500,000 doses and 1 million doses, respectively, of COVID-19 vaccine.

While in Guatemala, Harris plans to meet community leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs. In Mexico, Harris will participate in a conversation with female entrepreneurs and hold a roundtable with labor workers. That’s in addition to bilateral meetings with the leaders of both countries.

Harris said during a May meeting with Guatemalan justice leaders that corruption is a “significant deterrent” to economic investment there.

She’s underscored the need to address corruption in public remarks and events. In her meeting with a number of leading voices on Guatemala’s justice system, she noted her work as a prosecutor and said that “injustice is a root cause of migration.”

“Part of giving people hope is having a very specific commitment to rooting out corruption in the region,” she said.

Harris has also raised the issue during virtual meetings with the leaders of both countries and aides say she will do it again during meetings on her trip.

“There are acute factors — natural disasters, food insecurity, the climate crisis, and then there are root causes — poverty, violence, corruption,” said Harris’ chief spokesperson, Symone Sanders. “From the vice president’s perspective, this is about helping build hope in the region, and that a better life is in fact possible at home.”

While in Latin America, Harris will also have to navigate the politics of immigration. Congressional Republicans have criticized both Biden and Harris for deciding not to visit the border, and contend the administration is ignoring what they say is a crisis there. April was the second-busiest month on record for unaccompanied children encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border, following March’s all-time high. The Border Patrol’s total encounters in April were up 3% from March, marking the highest level since April 2000.

In her efforts to win commitments on corruption from the region’s leaders, Harris can point to a number of moves by the Biden administration this past week.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized the problem during his own recent trip to Central America. The White House issued a memo elevating foreign corruption to a major national security issue, and directed all federal agencies to prioritize it and modernize their foreign corruption-fighting tools.

Eric Olson, director of policy at the Seattle International Foundation, which works to promote good governance in Central America, said that addressing corruption will take particular diplomatic skill. Harris will need to hold the leaders of Guatemala and Mexico accountable while also deepening trust and cooperation with the two nations.

“The challenge that she faces is how to, on the one hand, have a conversation, keep the door open — while not seeming to ignore the obvious elephant in the room, which is this incredible penetration of the state by corrupt actors,” he said.