GUATEMALA CITY — Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Central America this week on a delicate diplomatic mission: Offer a message of hope to the people of Guatemala and other countries in the region. But discourage them from trying to cross the U.S.’ southern border because they won’t be welcomed on the other side.
Her approach, on her first foreign trip as vice president, was clear: Be blunt.
That won plaudits from local activists and civil society leaders as a solid start, but also highlighted the gulf that remains between the U.S. and Guatemalan governments, particularly when it comes to cracking down on corruption. Harris’ ability to close that gulf will, ultimately, be the most important test of her fledgling diplomatic skills, not to mention her political agility as she positions herself for a possible future presidential run.
“The goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home,” Harris said in a press conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei.
“At the same time, I want to be clear to folks in the region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come,” she added. “I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back.”
Both Harris and Giammattei said their dialogue, including Monday’s two-hour meeting at the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, has been frank and candid, with both sides directly addressing what they want and where their concerns lie.
“We don’t have time for glossing over concerns that we have, and so we did have a very frank conversation about the importance of an independent judiciary. We had a conversation about the importance of a strong civil society,” Harris said, nodding to areas where Giammattei and his allies have faced criticism.
Later, at a roundtable with human rights activists and other civil society leaders, Harris spoke of the “impact that the lack of judicial independence can have on civil society, especially with regard to the highest courts in the land,” a not-so-subtle dig at Guatemala’s president, who recently defended the move by Congress here to block a judge, a leading anti-corruption figure in the region, from the country’s Constitutional Court earlier this year.
Giammattei, for his part, angrily denied criticism that he has contributed to the country’s corruption and weakened Democratic institutions, saying at the leaders’ joint press conference that, in fact, he is working hard to fight corruption. But critics, including civil society leaders here and in the U.S., say the Central American leader is part of a long-standing system of corruption led by political and economic elites.
Still, Ricardo Zúñiga, Biden’s special envoy to the Northern Triangle, said in an interview that “Guatemala and Mexico seem to be the places where we can do the most good in the shortest amount of time right now.”
“That’s not to say we don’t have challenges in the relationship or we don’t have different perspectives,” Zúñiga continued. “We do.”
In Guatemala on Monday, Harris laid out a plan to deter migration to the U.S. by working to improve both physical and economic security and combat corruption. The Biden administration will create an anti-corruption task force that will conduct investigations and will enlist U.S. prosecutors and law enforcement officers to train their Central American counterparts to build corruption cases. The U.S. will also launch a task force to combat human smuggling and trafficking.
The vice president also announced the U.S. will make various investments, including an initiative to create opportunities for young, primarily indigenous women entrepreneurs.
On Tuesday, Harris will meet with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and participate in roundtables with labor leaders and women entrepreneurs. Her meeting with López Obrador comes after his coalition just lost its congressional supermajority in the midterm elections, which were also one of the country’s most violent campaign seasons in history.
Administration officials and Harris aides for weeks have sought to temper expectations of what would come of her debut trip abroad, given that addressing the root causes of migration to the U.S. from Central America has been a decades-long challenge. Harris only started tackling the issues three months ago.
Guatemalan civil society leaders were heartened by Harris’s remarks in both the joint press conference and a roundtable she held with them at a local university in Guatemala City. Several attendees in the meeting told POLITICO that it was clear she had learned a lot about the destabilizing conditions driving migration — including corruption and violence — since she last met with them in a virtual roundtable in April.
“The messages we received from her were positive,” said Alvaro Montenegro, who is part of the JusticiaYa and Alianza por las Reformas, which represents 40 organizations pushing for a stronger justice system and against impunity. “The idea of giving importance to the fight against corruption sends the message that she’s on the people’s side opposite economic and political elites, where what they least want is to talk about corruption because they’re involved.”
Civil society leaders here have been vocal in their disagreement with how the Biden administration has handled policy at the U.S.-Mexico border so far. The number of migrants arriving at the border has been steadily increasing since April 2020, but they’ve sharply increased in recent months. However, the majority are still being kicked out almost immediately as Biden continues to use Title 42, a public health order invoked by former President Donald Trump early in the pandemic. There is mounting criticism that Biden’s continued use of Title 42 is not based on legitimate public health concerns but rather its effectiveness as an immigration enforcement tool.
In spite of those disagreements, civil society leaders understood that Harris’s “do not come” comments stem from political pressures in the United States. Republicans back in the U.S. have repeatedly slammed the Biden administration for what they call the “Biden border crisis” and have criticized Harris for not visiting the border.
Asked at Monday’s press conference about GOP criticism that neither she nor the president have gone to the U.S. southern border, Harris said she was focused on addressing irregular migration in a “way that is significant and has real results.”
“I will continue to focus on that kind of work as opposed to grand gestures,” she added.
The vice president had a similar response to criticism from the left, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), for telling migrants not to come to the U.S. “I’m really clear: we have to deal with the root causes and that is my hope. Period,” she told reporters as she prepared to depart for Mexico City Monday night.
Manfredo Marroquin, founder of Acción Ciudadana, an organization pushing for transparency and fighting corruption, effectively shrugged at those remarks.
“Every government has said the same thing. It’s an obligatory message, but it’s hardly effective,” Marroquin said. Harris “knows why people leave and they’re certainly not leaving because they don’t already know the risks of heading to the border. But those risks are minimal compared to the risks of living here your whole life.”
But while the Biden administration has emphasized its desire to work closely with civil society groups and the private sector, questions remain about how to ensure any money it allocates to the region will be used appropriately and get results.
In April, Harris committed to send $310 million for humanitarian relief and to tackle food insecurity in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. And Biden has talked about a four-year, $4 billion plan to help uplift the region.
Still, few details have been shared about how the U.S. would roll out that $4 billion plan. But officials have noted that they do intend to put together a strategy that includes lessons learned from the Obama administration, when Biden as vice president was tasked with the same job as Harris.
One key lesson from the Obama years is prioritizing the private sector and not just expecting aid to solve the problems, said Zúñiga, who worked in the Obama administration. Last month, Harris welcomed commitments from a dozen companies and organizations, including Chobani and Mastercard, to invest in the region.
“Aid doesn’t generate jobs. Aid doesn’t put food on the table. Aid helps create the conditions where you can have investment,” said Zúñiga, who has been in talks with leaders across the region.
While White House aides and civil society leaders in touch say Harris understands the issues, that’s only a start: tackling the persistent poverty, malnutrition, violence and corruption driving people to leave Guatemala and bringing about tangible change is the work of years, if not decades.
And as the U.S. looks to work closely with civil society, the government here is seeking to undercut civil society with a law that would target NGOs. And Giammattei has been public in criticizing a high-profile prosecutor, who earlier this year won the State Department’s anti-corruption champions award. He also has expressed support for the Guatemalan Congress’ move last month to block the swearing in of a judge to its Constitutional Court who is a leading figure in efforts to fight corruption.
Giammattei was dismissive when asked by U.S. journalists about criticism that he is part of Guatemala’s corruption problem. In a lengthy retort, the Central American leader said the criticism was baseless, the product of social media chatter. He added that the Guatemalan government isn’t interested in receiving U.S. funds.
“What we’re interested in is that we work on public policy that can transfer those resources effectively, in a significant way and without intermediary costs, so that it reaches the communities” that need it, Giammattei said.
Nick Niedzwiadek contributed to this report.