Vice President Harris looks for a fresh start on migration issues in Honduras
Vice President Harris traveled thousands of miles to Honduras on Thursday for the inauguration of new president Xiomara Castro — a sign of the importance the White House is placing on finding a willing partner to help tackle the root causes of migration from Central America.
It's rare for an American vice president to travel to Latin America for an inauguration – especially to a small country like Honduras. Harris has the complex job of tackling the issues that have spurred growing numbers of people to leave Central America for the U.S. southern border, seeking safety and economic opportunity.
Castro has pledged to help Hondurans get better health care, education and job opportunities. In her inaugural speech, she spoke about wanting to fight corruption.
"I was impressed with the passion with which she talked about her priority on addressing and combating corruption and that fuels my optimism about our ability to partner on that issue," Harris told reporters traveling with her, noting it was key to attracting investment to fuel jobs in the country.
Harris told Castro that the administration would provide more COVID-19 vaccines and pediatric syringes, among other assistance to help reopen schools amid the pandemic. Samantha Power, the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, was also part of the delegation.
Honduran migration has grown in the past year
Honduras is a troubled nation with a poor economy, high levels of gang violence and drug trafficking. The number of Hondurans coming to the southern U.S. border has risen sharply since President Biden took office.
In the year ending Sept. 30, border patrol officials encountered Honduran migrants almost 320,000 times, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In fiscal 2020 — a year when COVID-19 affected migration rates — that number was as low as 42,000, while the previous year, there were 261,000 border "encounters," as the agency calls them.
The high numbers show how badly the root causes of migration need to be addressed, said Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-CA), who traveled with Harris to the inauguration. Ruiz chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
"You have to think that they are fleeing a dire situation — worse than the risk of violence, of getting COVID, of being kidnapped through their travels on the migrant caravan," Ruiz said in an interview.
Dealing with the issue can't happen without cooperation from governments in the region, Ruiz said, noting that Castro represents "a window of opportunity given that El Salvador and Guatemala have had backsliding in their democratic institutions."
Castro represents a fresh start
The United States had a difficult relationship with the departing president, Juan Orlando Hernández, accused by U.S. prosecutors of taking drug money.
Castro will be the first female president of Honduras. She is a former first lady to Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a coup 12 years ago.
She represents a fresh start for the administration, said Benjamin Gedan, who led Latin America policy in the Obama White House.
"This is an enormously important relationship for the United States," Gedan said. "The reality is that the migration nightmare the United States is facing is because of poor leadership in Central America and the inability for the United States to find partners in the region to address poverty, to address violent crime, to address corruption."
Corruption is a major issue in the region
Other leaders in the northern triangle region have proven difficult to work with. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele has issues with corruption, and has used social media to pick fights with the Biden administration.
Biden administration relations with Guatemala started off well. Harris went there in June to meet President Alejandro Giammattei. She said this month that the administration remains committed to working with Guatemala on addressing the root causes of migration.
But just last week, the State Department slammed the Giammattei government for going after a judge who has exposed bribery and corruption.
A new relationship with Castro represents an opportunity to change the dynamic in the region, said Eric Farnsworth, a former state department official now at the Council of the Americas.
But he noted that in the past, other Latin American leaders have been elected on pledges to root out corruption and fell short.
Castro has already suffered a major setback: a split in her party led to a divided congress that will make it harder to carry out promised reforms.
"There's a lot of expectation in terms of what the relationship will lead to and where it is right now — but we have to maintain realism, too," Farnsworth said. "The issues are really difficult. They're going to take a sustained effort and a longer timeframe to really address," he said.
Taiwan and China were also part of this trip
Migration was not the only issue importance to the administration on this trip. The United States is also concerned about Honduras maintaining diplomatic ties with Taiwan — a self-governed island that is a flashpoint in U.S.-China relations.
Honduras is one of the very few countries in the world to have formal ties with Taipei. The Vice President of Taiwan William Lai was at the inauguration sitting a few seats away from Harris, and Harris said she spoke with him briefly.
"The brief conversation that we had was really about a common interest in this part of the region — and apparently Taiwan's interest in our root-causes strategy," Harris told reporters afterward.
During her campaign, Castro suggested she could shift diplomatic ties to China — a step that some other nations in the region have taken, and something the Biden administration wants to avoid.
Eric Miller, a U.S. trade consultant working with Honduran firms, said China has been working to expand its sphere of influence into areas where the United States was previously unchallenged.
"In many respects, what happens in Latin America with China is something that is a very direct interest to the United States and is something that poses a bit of an existential threat," Miller said.