(Trends Wide) — US Vice President Kamala Harris will lead a delegation to Honduras this week to attend the historic inauguration of President-elect Xiomara Castro. Harris will seek additional support to accomplish her difficult task of addressing the root causes of migration to the US southern border.
With Thursday’s high-profile trip, experts told Trends Wide that the Vice President and the Biden administration are clearly showing their interest in partnering with Honduras to achieve that goal. But Xiomara Castro’s leadership is already facing an important test, as the country finds itself in the midst of a political crisis. Which spells hurdles for Harris and the Biden administration in general.
“I think it’s an opportunity that we haven’t seen in Honduras in quite some time,” Jason Marczak, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Center for Latin America, told Trends Wide. “And it’s an opportunity where the United States has to use every tool at its disposal to try to move forward, given the importance of addressing these issues for its own interests.”
Castro ran as an agent of change for his country. She was elected on a platform to eradicate corruption, restore democracy and reduce organized crime, which has plagued the country for decades. The Biden administration has identified all of these issues as playing an outsized role in driving migration.
But over the past week, Honduran lawmakers have come to blows after members of Castro’s Free Party revolted and elected Jorge Calix as president of Congress instead of Luis Redondo, denying Castro a chamber controlled by his allies. This has left her politically weakened, leading some to question whether she will have the support to restore the country as she promised.
Kamala Harris bets on having an ally in Honduras
Still, the US administration seems willing to make progress with the new leader despite any political turmoil that may exist. Harris’s visit will mark a change from the way the vice president approached the previous leader of Honduras, who was implicated in a drug trafficking case. Kamala Harris spoke with Castro in December, the first time she had spoken with a leader from that country since she began her assignment last March. All other communications between the United States and Honduras previously occurred at other levels of government.
“The Vice President’s visit will advance the commitment she and President-elect Castro made during their December 10 phone call to deepen the partnership between the United States and Honduras, and work together to promote economic growth, combat corruption and address root causes of migration,” Sabrina Singh, deputy press secretary to the vice president, said in a statement last week announcing the visit.
Among those who will travel with Harris to Honduras are the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, and the Democratic representative of California Raúl Ruiz. Diplomats in the delegation include José Fernández, undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment at the State Department.
In a statement to Trends Wide, Ruiz, chairman of the Hispanic congressional caucus, said he looks forward to joining the delegation as it “represents an incredible opportunity to strengthen our partnerships in the Western Hemisphere and advance our common interests.”
Matthew Rooney, managing director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative, called the vice president’s attendance “an important gesture.”
“The arrival of a new president in Honduras is an important opportunity to shape the conversation with the region and engage,” he told Trends Wide.
Migration, a difficult task that will never be easier
Navigating the Northern Triangle governments and the issues that come with them has been a challenge for previous administrations, and that remains true for the Biden White House. Finding a reliable partner in the region has been difficult for the administration.
In El Salvador there are concerns about limiting checks and balances in government, while in Guatemala there are concerns about government corruption. And in Honduras, concern was even greater about corruption within the government.
“The former president’s family relationships with a convicted drug trafficker made him radioactive from the American point of view. And I think it seems pretty clear that it was a pretty corrupt government,” Rooney said, referring to President Juan Orlando Hernández.
A source familiar with the US government said officials are looking at “a wide range of different ways” to help Honduras. And he added that officials have traveled to Honduras before the inauguration to lay the groundwork and figure out what the country might need.
Civil society organizations in the region are also heralding Castro’s inauguration as a breath of fresh air, Ana María Méndez-Dardón, director for Central America at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Trends Wide.
Castro, a former first lady whose husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, was ousted in a coup 12 years ago, will become Honduras’s first female president.
Honduras, the second trip of Kamala Harris to the region
This Thursday’s trip will mark the second time that Kamala Harris will visit the Northern Triangle. It comes more than six months after his first trip, to Guatemala and Mexico, was marred by message failures and pointed questions about why he hadn’t yet visited the US-Mexico border.
Harris’s role has proven to be a bumpy ride so far, as Republican critics have sought to make her the face of the Biden administration’s response at the border. And he drew criticism from his own party for a stern warning to undocumented immigrants not to cross the border, which he delivered on the same trip.
Now Harris looks ready to begin her second year in office by leaning on the series of root causes that President Joe Biden assigned her last year. Earlier this month, Harris spoke with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. The two discussed migration, economic development and the fight against corruption.
Private investments have still flowed into Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador under Harris’ direction, and are expected to continue in the coming months. Last month, Harris announced a new list of private sector commitments to the region, building on an initial agreement that detailed $750 million in commitments from major companies including Microsoft, Mastercard, Chobani, Duolingo, Nespresso, Bancolombia and Davivienda.
Nespresso, for example, is working with more than 1,200 farmers in the region and is buying coffee from farms in Honduras and El Salvador for the first time in the company’s history.
Microsoft plans to expand Internet access to millions of people in the region by July.
But cooperation from countries like Honduras in the future can produce far-reaching results in the region, argued Jonathan Fantini Porter, co-founder and executive director of the Association for Central America, which supports Harris’s “Call to Action.”
“You cannot reach the scale of impact at the national and regional levels without true public-private partnerships,” he said. He added: “Change does not happen if the whole system is not implemented.”
“Numbers don’t lie”
But one of the challenges in executing the vice president’s root cause strategy is finding a partner in the region willing to work with the US on key issues like fighting corruption.
“If Honduras is our best hope for moving things forward in Central America, we’re in a really tough spot,” the source familiar with the administration’s plans said bluntly, noting the challenges the country presents.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated deteriorating conditions in Central and South America, prompting people to travel north. Of the 170,186 arrests Border Patrol made in December, more than 47,000 were migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, according to data from US Customs and Border Protection. The United States is still expelling tens of thousands of Central American migrants under a public health order implemented by then-President Donald Trump.
“The numbers don’t lie. And you see, migration continues. And it’s a big problem,” Méndez-Dardón said.
In recent months, the number of migrants from South America has also increased steadily, although the flow gradually slowed this month.
Panamanian Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes told Trends Wide on Friday that the number of people crossing the treacherous Darien Gap, which runs between Panama and Colombia, has “decreased considerably.” Migrants from South America often pass through that gap on their way to the United States.
“The situation is much more under control,” he said. “We recognize that it could change at any time.”
Mouynes attributed the decrease in crossings into Panama to the repression of smuggling networks and greater coordination between the countries of the region.
Administration officials are considering a possible regional pact encompassing Central and South American countries to promote coordination to stem the flow of migration and work to stabilize the region.
Biden acknowledged the state of the region during a nearly two-hour news conference last week, saying he is in contact with the leaders of South American countries and working closely with them “to try to help the countries in question”. He also nodded to the plight of people who choose to leave their home countries.
“People leave because they have real problems,” he said.