Latin America Advisor

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How Successful Was U.S. VP Harris’ Latin America Trip?

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris walking alongside Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris met Tuesday with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. // Photo: Mexican Government.

In her first trip abroad since taking office, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala and Mexico this week as part of the Biden administration’s plan to address the root causes of migration in the Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The visit came days after the White House announced private sector investments in the three countries by 12 U.S. companies, in addition to the $4 billion promised in government aid. What did Harris achieve on her trip? How significant is the announced private investment initiative, and what needs to happen for the investments to actually create economic opportunities in Central America? To what extent is the White House’s current approach effective in addressing the root causes of migration?

Eduardo Stein, former Guatemalan vice president and joint IOM-UNHCR special representative for Venezuelan migration: “The much-anticipated visit of Vice President Kamala Harris to Guatemala generated quite contradictory reactions that swarmed the local media amid the full spectrum of political contradictions that engulf our country. Some rejected and heavily criticized the visit as a new sign of U.S. oversight, intervention and impositions. Others ambiguously regarded it as ineffective, while quite a few sectors warmly welcomed it as a transcendental opportunity to jointly build a revised bilateral and subregional agenda—one that can more precisely target joint efforts to strengthen our democratic systems, to generate the necessary systemic changes toward a truly independent justice system and to have the government take on strong, concrete measures to fight corruption. Also on the agenda is developing better, wider and more inclusive socioeconomic options for the poor and extremely poor, so that they can access decent livelihoods in this country rather than taking the extreme dangers of an irregular migration path ‘p’al norte.’ The way the Guatemalan government seemed to have prepared for the visit was somewhat of a letdown. However, Vice President Harris was able to hear directly from diverse civil society leadership many concrete signs of commitment to take action on the central problems of our shortcomings and insufficiencies as a country and as a society. Her willingness to hear frank expressions of what has worked and what has not, and to help out in the crucial areas of socioeconomic development, political participation and transparency, was very well taken.”

Oscar Chacón, co-founder and executive director of Alianza Americas: “Addressing the root causes of migration is not a one-trip challenge. Vice President Harris’ visit is a first step in a process that, if done well, should put Central American nations on a path toward equitable, more democratic and ever more respectful nations when it comes to adhering to the rule of law—nations so hopeful and prosperous that they invite their citizens to want to stay. The short-term challenge, unresolved by the vice president’s trip, is the likely continuation of Central American citizens needing to flee troubled nations. In this respect, simply telling people ‘do not come’ is far from adequate. We need better ways to honor the principle of humanitarian protection and the laws currently in place to accommodate people seeking safe haven. After all, immigrants and refugees have been a true blessing for the United States. One missing factor in the U.S. response so far, when it comes to addressing root causes, is the role of Central American nationals residing in the United States. The fact that they sent nearly $23 billion in 2020 to millions of households in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador makes them the largest investors, by far, when it comes to the well-being of millions of families in the region. The United States should find creative ways to make them active partners in the efforts of advancing toward better societies.”

Katya Rimkunas, regional deputy director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute: “Vice President Harris’ trip was an important indicator of how the Biden administration will manage strained relationships with Mexico and Guatemala, both strategic partners given their shared borders, security issues and increasing influence from China. The vice president’s trip to Mexico came after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)’s party failed to secure a supermajority in Congress after Sunday’s elections. AMLO has publicly accused the United States of ‘acts of interventionism’ and has increased negative rhetoric against USAID and foreign funding sources for civil society, which have increasingly questioned the president’s commitment to democracy. Vice President Harris’ trip appeared to smooth relations with AMLO and focused on goals of common interest. In Guatemala, Harris emphasized the importance of an independent judiciary and that fighting corruption would continue to be a top priority for the United States. This was a welcomed statement among Guatemalans, almost half of whom believe corruption has been on the rise. Harris’ trip also underscored a crucial component of the administration’s approach: securing buy-in and partnerships with civil society. Recent backsliding in democracy, rule of law and increased corruption in Mexico and the Northern Triangle makes it fundamental for civil society and young leaders to play a key role in addressing the root causes of migration. Private-sector investment is a vital part of fostering economic growth. However, that investment will not go far nor be sustainable if democratic institutions and governance are weak. It is critical to support democratic actors and elected officials in their efforts to address corruption and unaccountable governance.”

Ray Walser, professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International relations’ Washington Program and retired foreign service officer and former Heritage Foundation analyst: “While my crystal ball is a bit hazy, here is what I imagine was the gist of Vice President Kamala Harris’ recent conversations with her Guatemalan and Mexican interlocutors: ‘Together, we have a serious problem: your citizens are making a historic beeline for our southern border. We truly understand the root causes driving them—poverty, violent crime, natural disasters, environmental degradation, poor governance, etc. These migrants are by and large not criminals but decent people looking for safety and a better life. We must avoid a humanitarian crisis. Unlike the previous administration, with its zero tolerance, border wall, anti-immigrant mentality, we genuinely desire to help. We have outlined a broad range of programmatic ideas, and together with the private sector stand ready to commit substantial resources. We also want to deal humanely with asylees and unaccompanied minors. You must realize, however, that we face powerful domestic political forces and a merciless electoral calendar. The previous president, who disputes the very legitimacy of this administration, stokes the fires of xenophobia and latches onto any perceived weakness in border security and immigration policy. Some on the left express guilt for past misdeeds and see virtually every would-be migrant as an entitled victim. We must clearly demonstrate there is no such thing as an open border. The welcome mat is not out. Stay in your country. We are also wise to the games you play. This leads us to question your readiness to truly address the challenges. It can no longer be business as usual: impunity, corruption, self-serving elites and democratic backsliding. We seek serious proof you are ready to engage with us and deliver positive changes. Step up to the plate. You have my telephone number. I will take your call.’”

Andrea Tanco, strategic advisor to the president and associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute: “Vice President Harris’ trip reinforced that addressing migration in the region will continue to be a top priority of the Biden administration. The United States set a common policy agenda with Guatemala and Mexico, as well as cemented technical bases that will allow for institutional cooperation, especially in areas where cooperation was mostly absent recently. Harris also conveyed it will engage with Guatemala and Mexico as co-partners, incorporating shared interests in a joint strategy. To address challenges posed by migration dynamics in the hemisphere, developing a flexible regional migration management strategy that expands from Canada to Panama and includes several pillars will be needed. Targeting the root causes of migration through development assistance and private investment is key but is not enough. Other components are necessary, such as ensuring there is rule-based, transparent border and migration enforcement; establishing legal migration channels, both for employment and family reunification; and expanding access to humanitarian protection. The two last items were largely absent from the recent high-level discussions; it is yet to be seen how governments will approach them. The nexus between development and migration is complex. Research suggests that it takes a prolonged period of sustained, elevated assistance and targeted investments, as well as broader governance and systematic changes, to substantially alter the ground-level conditions that propel many individuals to migrate. There are, however, some past community-oriented aid programs in Central America, mainly addressing violence prevention, food security and youth work force development, that have altered migration dynamics in the short term. A commitment of $4 billion is significant. The biggest challenge is ensuring these funds are disbursed and targeted efficiently. The While House is at the early stages of developing its longer-term strategy to manage migration in the region. Domestically, the strategy requires enhanced coordination in the short term among different U.S. government agencies. Abroad, the United States will need to continue to work with governments in the region to enhance their migration management capabilities. The vice president’s trip to the region is a step in the right direction.”

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