Q24N – Arriving in the Guatemalan capital about two hours late, after the plane in which she was traveling had to turn around due to technical problems, U.S. vice-president Kamala Harris, on Sunday, began her mission to address the “root causes” of illegal migration from Central America to the United States and to address the fight against corruption.
Wearing a dark suit and mask, the vice president arrived at 6:18 pm (local time) to the Guatemalan Air Force (FAG) base, on the south side of Guatemala City, on her first trip to Latin America.
She was received by the Foreign Minister of Guatemala, Pedro Brolo, and the United States Ambassador to the country, William Popp.
According to U.S. media, Harris is going to Guatemala and Mexico not to implement a one-and-done solution, but rather treating it as a fact-finding mission to stem the flow of migrants to the US, with lots of people asking what she’s doing heading out on her first foreign trip as vice president before releasing a comprehensive strategy.
“We’re still in the information-gathering mode, getting very close to being able to finalize it,” a White House official told CNN. “The visit will certainly play a role in forming the Biden strategy.”
Harris said the visit (that will also take her to El Salvador and Honduras) is an opportunity to enhance her foreign policy bona fides and the goal to drum up investment for the region. She and her team are hoping for some short-term victories.
Speaking to CBS News, Guatemala’s president, Alejandro Giammattei, says he has spoken to the VP most frequently about U.S. immigration policy describes her as a straight-talking, detail-oriented leader paying careful attention to the long-standing reasons that people leave his country.
Giammattei, currently questioned for his lack of commitment to the fight against corruption, will be host Harris on Monday, also says that the change of administrations in Washington was exploited by human traffickers, known as “coyotes,” who ferried thousands of children to the U.S.-Mexico border within days of President Biden formally rescinding the Trump-era family separation policy.
The meeting will take place in a tense atmosphere due to criticism of independent judges and prosecutors, an issue that worries Washington.
One of the cases is the harassment reported by Juan Francisco Sandoval, head of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity (FECI).
“Guatemala is suffering an accelerated regression in the field of human rights. A climate of persecution has been established against dissidents (…), which is reminiscent of the military dictatorships that we believed we had eradicated at the end of the 20th century,” said the Guatemalan ombudsman Jordán Rodas.
Rodas, who has asked Harris to pressure Giammattei, assured that the “conditions” described make it “impossible to expect real progress in the fight against corruption and to remove the roots that cause irregular migration.”
On the subject, Harris has assured that she will seek “very frank and honest conversations” in Guatemala about the fight against corruption, crime, and violence.
Giammattei said he wants American lawmakers to toughen federal laws against traffickers and is ready to extradite them to face charges.
In their Zoom and telephone meetings so far, Harris “doesn’t hold back, which is good. She is frank,” Giammattei said.
‘Help is on the way’
Before starting the trip, the vice president assured that her visit seeks “to give people a sense of hope, that help is on the way, that if they stay, things will improve”.
The vice president’s tour is linked to the promise of the US president, Joe Biden, of a more “humane” immigration policy after the harsh repression of his predecessor.
But Harris faces even more complex challenges than Biden encountered when, as Barack Obama’s vice president, he was in charge of the same issue.
“Conditions have deteriorated dramatically since 2014,” with a worse economic and violent situation, aggravated “considerably” by the pandemic, said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
‘Kamala Go Home’
A small group of Guatemalan protesters, linked to right-wing groups and retired military, sympathizers of former President Trump, rejected Harris’s arrival outside the FAG by accusing her of being a “Marxist” and wanting to manipulate the country with her “left-wing policies.”
“She comes to manipulate [the citizens] politically, with her leftist policies, of socialism, and we do not agree with that,” said former right-wing MP Fernando Linares during the demonstration, who also questioned Harris’ favorable position on abortion.
The protesters are part of groups that frequently question the work of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI) and that supported the closure of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Cicig), an entity attached to the UN, which ended its functions in 2019.
They also extend their criticisms of Guatemala’s Public Ministry processes on human rights issues.