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Harris takes her first steps onto world stage, into migration policy spotlight

The vice president begins her trip to Guatemala and Mexico without yet having defined concrete goals or strategies for her approach to addressing the root causes of migration.
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GUATEMALA CITY — Vice President Kamala Harris will meet with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on Monday in her first foreign trip since she took office, her highest-profile move yet leading the administration's efforts to address the root causes of migration.

The visit will offer Harris, who has little foreign policy experience, her clearest opportunity to establish herself on the world stage — and the most public test of her ability to navigate a thorny issue that has vexed administrations of both parties for decades.

The trip is also an opportunity for Harris to recast her first big policy assignment after a shaky rollout that sent aides scrambling for weeks to clarify the scope of her role, leaving a question mark over the early days of her vice presidency.

Her first overseas journey for the issue ran into its own set of launch difficulties, as technical issues forced her flight to return to Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, so she could switch planes Sunday.

Harris will be in the region for just 48 hours. After their meeting, Harris and Giammattei are expected to host a news conference before Harris meets with Guatemalan entrepreneurs and community and civil society leaders. She will fly to Mexico City to meet Tuesday with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and attend roundtable discussions with entrepreneurs and labor leaders.

White House officials looked to lower expectations, stressing that such a complex issue would not be resolved in just one trip. Mazin Alfaqih, a special adviser to Harris for the Northern Triangle region of Central America, acknowledged in a call with reporters that "the U.S. government and foreign assistance alone cannot tackle this problem."

"There needs to be political will on the part of the government, but we're also looking to partner with multilateral organizations, private-sector and other entities to really build a comprehensive approach," Alfaqih said.

The Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — has long suffered from violence and poverty, stemming from U.S. intervention in Central America during the Cold War. More recently, the region has been severely affected by climate change and natural disasters. Many of the challenges were worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, especially as vaccines remain scarce in the area.

The Biden administration has made a number of commitments to the Northern Triangle, including pledging to deliver thousands of coronavirus vaccine doses, $4 billion in development aid and $310 million for humanitarian relief, and it has secured commitments from a dozen companies and organizations to invest in the region to boost economic development.

But experts in the region have stressed that financial aid is not sufficient to meaningfully address the causes of migration and that a focus on government corruption, which affects human rights to stable jobs and economic conditions, must take a more prominent role.

"The United States, Democratic and Republican presidents, have generally viewed Central America as a series of problems and crises," said Eric Olson, director of policy for the Seattle International Foundation, which works to promote good governance in Central America. "People throw money at it, say they are going to do something, but people eventually give up once the 'crisis' has passed.

"We need somebody to say: 'This is the direction, this is the framework, this is what we want to do, and we are committed to it long-term,'" Olson said.

Harris has said she believes "injustice is a root cause of migration," and Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced concerns about corruption and the health of democracy during a trip to the region this month.

Harris has also brought up the issue in virtual meetings with Giammattei and López Obrador, but having in-person conversations will require a different set of diplomatic skills, experts said, particularly given Giammattei's reputation for being easily offended.

"She's got to both convey concern over corruption, lack of transparency, weak governance and at the same time extend a hand to the Guatemalan people and the Guatemalan government," said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute.

"But she also can't come in and scold or patronize the Guatemalan government. You can't fly into someone else's country and berate them," he said.

Guatemala has been criticized for preventing an international anti-corruption commission from operating in the country in 2019, and it has come under more recent scrutiny for harassing those tied to the commission. López Obrador has been criticized for his frequent attacks on the media and government watchdogs, and he has been accused of consolidating power in Mexico.

Harris has yet to engage meaningfully with Honduras and El Salvador, the two other Northern Triangle countries. The leaders of both countries are entangled in extensive corruption scandals.

Steve McFarland, who was the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala from 2008 to 2011, said the fight against corruption in the region improved during the Obama administration but deteriorated after President Donald Trump took office.

"Americans, sadly, as we begin to make progress, we take our eye off the ball," McFarland said. "We want to wrap it up and go out and do something else. All of these places require long-term efforts and long-term attention at a high level of office in Washington."