WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris has spent just three days in Latin America since President Joe Biden assigned her 15 months ago to tackle migration issues in Central America — half as long as First Lady Jill Biden devoted during a single trip to the region last month.
The lack of travel is a reminder of what some observers see as ambivalence from Harris toward a high-profile issue that is politically fraught at home and challenging abroad as she embarks Monday on a week of diplomacy at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. The issue of migration is certain to take center stage at the conference, a meeting of nations across the Western Hemisphere intended to showcase U.S. leadership in the region as the Biden administration seeks to tackle such complex challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
Harris and other top U.S. officials have been scrambling in recent weeks to shore up attendance at the summit, which some countries have threatened to boycott over the Biden administration’s decision to exclude leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
“I don’t know if Central America is still a priority in the U.S. agenda … in this electoral year,” said Alvaro Montenegro Muralles, one of the founders of a group called Justice Now in Guatemala, who met with Harris last year. That lack of consistent focus, which predates Harris, has been one of America’s problems in sustaining a long-term strategy, he said.
Specialists say Harris’ lack of engagement in the region — partly the result of unreliable governments she has to deal with there — has stymied her ability to cajole its leaders on a raft of policy challenges. Harris has also not been a key player in the intensive effort to persuade Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to drop his summit boycott threat, nor has she been deployed to Latin America like Jill Biden, who recently spent six days in Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica promoting the summit.
“She is not perceived as a credible person on Latin America,” said Michael Shifter, past president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “She has not established herself with the Latin Americans.”
Biden asked Harris last year to address the so-called root causes of migration from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador as people in those countries, including children and families, fled in record numbers. Migration from the region has spiked due to a web of factors, including poverty, corruption, racism, disease, natural disasters and gang violence.
It’s a daunting task, one that Biden himself took on in 2014 when he was vice president under President Obama. Despite Biden’s vast experience as a leading foreign policy player in the Senate, he also failed to stem migration from the region or contribute appreciably to improving conditions there.
Though the issues are tougher today than a decade ago, many veterans of Latin American policy saw the opportunity for Harris to expand the assignment and position herself as a key player throughout the hemisphere, just as Biden had done, even before he was officially asked to work on Central America. The then-vice president traveled to Latin America 16 times over eight years.
“He was doing some tough diplomacy. … It wasn’t go and show the flag and eat the local cuisine,” said Eric Farnsworth, who leads the Washington office of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society, a think tank focusing on the region. “That type of role is what many of us anticipated that the current vice president would be doing.”
Farnsworth credits Harris with bringing “high-level attention to some really difficult issues” in the three countries she was tasked with improving. But he also noted there hasn’t been much progress.
“Have we seen dramatic change in Central America?” he added. “The answer is no.”
A White House official who declined to be named said Harris has dug into the job, at least as it has been defined by Biden. The vice president has helped direct $1.2 billion in private investment to the three countries, announced an anti-corruption task force established by the Justice Department and a federal human trafficking task force, along with strategies aimed at better spending U.S. development dollars. The official said she has also played a key role in urging Caribbean countries to participate in the summit, where she plans to introduce climate and energy programs intended to help them.
The official said Harris will meet with business and civic leaders and expects to announce more private investments in the region at the conference. The official pointed out that the vice president has spent a day each in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, noting that it’s rare for an official at her level to visit the same place twice in a short period.
Harris’ travel has been limited in part by the pandemic and a series of unreliable partners. She made her biggest bet in Guatemala, spending a day there in June last year to meet with President Alejandro Giammattei. She pressed him publicly to support anti-corruption prosecutions, but the lead anti-corruption prosecutor, Juan Francisco Sandoval, was fired just six weeks after Harris and Giammattei exchanged smiles and handshakes.
The dismissal infuriated and embarrassed American officials who had put stock in Giammattei’s assurances that he wanted to combat corruption as much as Harris did.
It also deeply frustrated human rights and anti-corruption activists who met with Harris in Guatemala.
“The government is like the central piece of the corruption now,” said Montenegro of Justice Now. “They’re the ones that are attacking judges. They’re the ones making business with Russian guys.”
The trip quickly turned into a domestic political headache too. Harris was blasted by liberals and activists for telling would-be migrants to “not come” north because they would be “turned back” at the U.S. border. Republicans, meanwhile, sharply criticized her for not visiting the border when she traveled to Mexico after Guatemala. (She went weeks later.)
Harris has since pivoted to Honduras, making a brief trip to attend the inauguration in January of President Xiomara Castro in hopes that she will offer a more stable partnership. But that country’s problems also run deep. Former President Juan Orlando Hernández was extradited to the U.S. in April to face a slew of federal weapons and drug charges, a sign of how deeply embedded the drug trade is in the government.
Even if Castro proves to be on the same page with Harris in fighting that corruption, Harris’ engagement appears to have limits. A day after the vice president spoke with Castro by phone last month to discuss cooperation on economic and migration issues, Castro tweeted that she would not attend the summit unless everyone was invited.
It is not clear whether Giammattei and Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador, will attend. If they join the boycott, Harris’ reputation in the area is likely to suffer.
Human rights and anti-corruption activists in Central America have wondered why Harris was given such a difficult assignment. Some have speculated it was to undermine her political prospects. Others worry the political situation in the U.S. and in their countries has tempered her enthusiasm to wade into the region’s intractable challenges. Either way, such talk has eroded the faith of some reformers that Harris has the sway, or time, to create lasting change.
Manfredo Marroquin, a Guatemala-based human rights advocate, said he believes Harris has pulled back since her early trip to Guatemala because “she doesn’t want to expose herself” to the potential embarrassment of having her attempts at reform undermined by the region’s anti-democratic leaders.
“She knows the risk of having a setback,” he said.
Carmen Rosa de Leon, a human rights activist who is now living in Spain because she fears being jailed by the Giammattei government, said she likes some of the changes she has seen under Harris, including a greater focus on working with local groups to distribute humanitarian aid. Such programs can take years to develop.
The countries’ leaders, meanwhile, “are expecting that the Republicans are going to win” in the 2024 presidential election, Rosa de Leon said. “They’re expecting that they just have to wait” for a change in administrations.
(Times staff writers Courtney Subramanian and Tracy Wilkinson and staff researcher Cary Schneider contributed to this report.)