Vice President Harris seeks an ally in Honduras as she revisits Central America

WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Honduras on Thursday to attend the presidential inauguration of Xiomara Castro, the country’s first female head of state, whom the White House hopes will become a crucial ally in the fight against corruption and emigration that have challenged Central America.

Ms. Harris’s trip to Central America, her second as vice president, was more than a show of support, but also a sign of the Biden administration‘s eagerness to make a fresh start in the fight against corruption. poverty and corruption that have pushed thousands of vulnerable families to the US southern border in recent years.

Senior officials in other countries, including Guatemala, where Ms. Harris pushed for an independent judiciary during her first foreign trip last year, have continued to undermine democratic institutions and challenge influence. from Washington.

“We must uproot the corruption of the last 12 years of dictatorships,” Ms. Castro said after acknowledging Ms. Harris’ presence among the dignitaries in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. “We have the right to re-establish ourselves on civic values ​​and not on usury.”

After the meeting two hours later, Ms. Harris told reporters she was optimistic the partnership would help the administration improve conditions in the region and deter migration north.

“I was impressed with the passion with which she spoke about her priority on fighting corruption,” Ms Harris said.

But the Biden administration’s aggressive pursuit of a new partnership with Honduras has also highlighted the complexity of Ms. Harris’s task. Days before Ms. Castro’s inauguration, her own left-wing Free Party rebelled against her efforts to install a centrist as president of Congress. The rebellion threatens his agenda, aimed at tackling the rampant crime and corruption that has generated mass migration from Honduras in recent years.

“It complicates everything considerably no doubt because what you assumed to be the case with this new leadership is now completely thrown out the window,” said Cris Ramón, an immigration analyst who consulted with members of Congress in Washington. . “If the administration is now dealing with a country facing a major political crisis, a central country in the management of migration, this is a major obstacle for the administration in pursuing its objectives.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded more than 300,000 crossings by Hondurans in the past fiscal year, making the country the second-largest source of migrants after Mexico.

Ms. Harris’ team is monitoring the situation in Honduras but believes it is inappropriate to intervene, according to senior administration officials. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the goals of the vice president’s trip, cited Ms Castro’s invitation to the United Nations to establish an anti-corruption panel in Honduras as evidence that her election would lead to an effective partnership.

Harris’ office said in a statement Thursday that the United States would provide “several hundred thousand additional doses” of coronavirus vaccine to Honduras over the next two months, as well as 500,000 pediatric syringes and 1.35 million dollars for the renovation of educational and health institutions to combat the pandemic.

During their meeting, the two leaders also discussed expanding educational and economic opportunities and combating gender-based violence and corruption, according to the statement. Ms Castro’s predecessor, Juan Orlando Hernández, was charged in a US court with having close ties to drug traffickers and facilitating cocaine shipments.

When Ms. Harris’s arrival was announced, the inauguration crowd chanted in Spanish “carry JOH”, in reference to Mr. Hernández.

The Biden administration has maintained enthusiasm for Ms Castro’s election even after alarming some in Washington during her campaign when she suggested switching ties to China from Taiwan, the island democracy China considers its territory. . President Biden has sought to make competing with China’s economic rise one of the pillars of his foreign policy strategy. On Ms Harris’ second overseas trip to Southeast Asia, she accused China of threatening “the sovereignty of nations”.

China has deepened its economic and political ties in Latin America over the past decade, becoming one of the major trading partners and lenders to many countries in the region, according to a report released in November by the China Review Commission. US-Chinese security and economy. These investments have given China geopolitical influence on the doorstep of the United States.

In private discussions with Ms. Castro’s team, Ms. Harris’ aides stressed that Taiwan can bring economic gains to Honduras, both through its civil society organizations and its development projects, according to an American official. William Tai, Taiwan’s vice president, also attended Castro’s inauguration on Thursday. US officials said Wednesday that Ms Harris had no plans to meet with Mr Tai, although she did end up exchanging brief pleasantries with the vice president.

Ariel G. Ruiz Soto, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based research group, said Ms. Harris’ trip was not just an opportunity to forge a new partnership, but to send a message to leaders of the whole region.

Nicaragua has been sliding headlong into authoritarianism in recent years. President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador has publicly criticized US officials and been accused of weakening democratic institutions. In Guatemala, where Ms. Harris met President Alejandro Giammattei last year, the attorney general has continued to undermine prosecutors and judges who have sought to expose corruption.

“This is an opportunity for the United States and Vice President Harris to provide and more effectively contextualize what the United States tends to do in the region in its second year,” Mr. Ruiz Soto.

Before returning to Washington, Ms Harris told reporters she appreciated that countries in the region did not want to be seen as “a monolith”.

“There are commonalities in terms of the concern we have about corruption, certainly commonalities on irregular migration, including the issue of human smuggling and human trafficking,” said Mrs Harris. “But there are varying degrees in each.”

The trip was also an opportunity for Ms Harris, whose allies increasingly fear she has been saddled with politically dodgy assignments and battled criticism that she is failing, to reassert herself. On her first trip to Central America, Ms Harris was criticized by progressives for warning US-bound migrants ‘don’t come’. Republicans have sought to make her the face of the administration’s fight to crack down on US border crossings.

Aides to Ms Harris said the vice president was successful in rallying nations and private companies to commit to investing $1.2 billion in Central America. Previous U.S. investments in the region, including those managed by then-Vice President Biden, failed to adequately improve conditions and stem northward migration.

Anderson Warlick, the managing director of Parkdale Mills, which makes yarn used by companies including Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, Levi’s and Abercrombie, met with Ms Harris on December 13 to discuss her efforts to invest in the area. He said his company is considering land near Choloma, Honduras, for a yarn factory that will directly employ about 500 people.

“You have to create something that people want to stay there,” Warlick said, adding praise to the administration’s efforts to expand the supply chain for textiles and apparel in the Western Hemisphere. “And not wanting to immigrate to the United States.”

Zolan Kanno-Youngs reported from Washington and Natalie Kitroeff from Mexico City. Reporting was provided by Oscar Lopez and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Mexico City, Joan Suazo from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Ana Swanson from Washington.

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