Vice President Kamala Harris is facing the first major diplomatic test of her vice presidency as she looks to tackle the root causes of migration toward the US in her full day of meetings in Guatemala.
Harris has been eager to burnish her foreign policy credentials after entering office with little experience in that realm. Harris and her team see this first foreign trip as an opportunity to advance that effort after weeks spent laying the groundwork for meetings in the region.
Speaking in Guatemala City, Harris said her trip and President Joe Biden’s first trip abroad later this week are reflections of their administration’s intention to rebuild relationships with allies. Biden will head on Wednesday to Europe for the Group of 7 meeting, a NATO summit and his first face-to-face meeting as President with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I’m in Guatemala today to discuss and advance our shared priorities. Foremost among those, as you have mentioned, is addressing migration, from this region in particular,” Harris said. “I know, as you do, that Guatemala is a country with incredible resources — historically and currently — but there is work that we can do together to grow the capacity of those resources and to reach the people.”
Harris’s national security adviser, Ambassador Nancy McEldowny, told CNN that Harris chose Guatemala as the destination for her first foreign trip as a sign that Central America is among her top agenda items.
“It shows the priority that she places on the strategy that she’s building out on the cooperation between our two countries,” McEldowney said. “We value this place, and we want to be helpful.”
A senior official also said that Harris had built up a “real rapport” with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, which she hopes to build on with clear policy agreements.
The Biden administration is facing ongoing political pressure to stem the tide of migrants at the US’s southern border, which hit a two-decade high for a single month in April, according to US Customs and Border Protection’s latest figures.
Nearly half of the 178,622 migrants encountered at the US-Mexico border came from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that month.
Harris and her team have also been combating the perception advance by Republicans that she is the Biden administration’s border czar. The vice president’s portfolio is focused on stemming the root causes of migration, not the situation at the southern border, though the two are closely intertwined.
“There’s obviously a lot of work to do, but there really is a lot of reason to know that there is hope in this region,” Harris told reporters of her visit to Guatemala Monday.
The root causes of migration, she said, “are my highest priority in terms of addressing the issue and we need to deal with it, both in terms of the poverty we are seeing, the hunger that we are seeing, the effects of the hurricanes and extreme climate condition.”
“So I’m very clear about what our role and responsibility is. We need to address the root causes, also the acute causes, those that are more recent, but also the long-standing issues like corruption,” Harris added.
Beyond the confluence of migration factors that Harris is aiming to tackle — from poverty and hunger to climate change and crime — Harris will need to engage in deft diplomacy as she looks to confront the issue of corruption in Guatemala and the Northern Triangle at large.
Harris’s arrival follows a slew of efforts by the Guatemalan government to weaken anti-corruption efforts in the country. Questioned as to why Harris would visit Guatemala amid those efforts, which have included the arrest of several anti-corruption figures, senior officials argued dialogue is the most productive way forward.
“The best way to deal with these cases, where you have a very complex relationship … is to talk clearly and plainly as partners. Right? As countries that have to get along,” Ricardo Zuniga, the US special envoy for the Northern Triangle said. “We talk about easy things, but we talk mostly about hard things.”
Amid those disagreements and the persistence of corruption in Guatemala, vice presidential officials are emphasizing the dual nature of Harris’ visit: meeting not just with the Guatemalan President, but separately also sitting down with civil society leaders and entrepreneurs.
This story has been updated with additional details Monday.