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Vice President Kamala Harris's high-profile visit to Central America and Mexico to discuss the surge in migrants to the southern United States omitted stops in two of the three Northern Triangle countries, El Salvador and Honduras, where diplomatic ties are complicated by allegations of corruption.
Cris Ramon, an independent migration consultant, said he was hopeful that upon taking office, the Biden administration would pursue “a full-fledged regional approach that incorporated all the countries from the northern triangle and Mexico,” but that effort has been stilted.
“In the case of El Salvador, there is the concern … from a democracy and human rights perspective” about President Nayib Bukele “trying to consolidate more power,” Ramon said. “I think the reality catches up with you, and the recognition that what each country does is going to impact whether or not you want to engage with them.”
Harris and other Biden administration officials have criticized Bukele, saying he undermined the country’s judicial system after his party ousted the attorney general and five top judges earlier this year.
Bukele met with Biden’s special envoy for the Northern Triangle in May but only after each side had rebuffed the others' attempts.
“The administration is trying to say, ‘We're going to engage with these other countries, if you want to get on this bandwagon and get some benefits of being able to manage migration and help us out, that's going to be a major benefit [for you],’” Ramon said. “I think if you're smart, you are going to offer those states some benefits of cooperation with the United States.”
For example, if the administration tried to open up immigration pathways for Guatemalans, he said, “El Salvador is going to be looking at that and saying, ‘It might be nice to have people be able to work legally in the United States.’”
The White House is largely leveraging government aid and economic investments by private sector companies, announcing new spending and business development initiatives for the region this week. However, it said it requires willing partners.
For now, the administration is largely working with Mexico to "foster agricultural development and youth empowerment programs in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala," the White House said on Tuesday.
A senior administration official traveling with the vice president this week told reporters the visits were about cementing relationships under the expectation they will yield results.
“It’s about having a constructive relationship with someone, so you can deal with the real issues,” the official said. “You don’t seek an adversarial relationship, and you don’t seek a relationship that’s just about the friendship. You look for relationships that are about getting business done, and that’s the receptivity we’re getting from the other side."
President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala and President Lopez Obrador of Mexico have each chastised the White House, but geographically, these countries are the closest to the southern U.S. border, acting as a literal buffer for migrants heading north.
Mexico, in particular, “has been an incredible partner of the United States for a long time now,” notably on migration issues, said John Sandweg, a former senior Homeland Security official who served in the Obama administration.
Still, it was just six years ago that then-Vice President Joe Biden met with Central American leaders in Guatemala with the same hope of halting the flow of migrants, including from El Salvador and Honduras.
Harris did not travel to Honduras or El Salvador and has not met virtually with either leader.
Asked during an interview with NBC News whether the U.S. had enough reliable partners in the region, Harris said the administration was liaising at a high level with leaders in both countries, echoing other officials.
“We talk about hard things with all the countries involved,” a U.S. official told reporters at the start of the trip.
Earlier this year, Bukele refused a meeting with Special Envoy Ricardo Zuniga, and spats with Democrats have also complicated his relationship with Washington.
Harris and other Biden administration officials have been critical of Bukele, rebuking actions they say undermine the country’s judicial system after his party ousted the attorney general and five top judges.
An adviser to Bukele bristled at the accusations at the time, telling the Washington Examiner the Biden administration had done more to harm relations between the two countries "than any president since Carter," when the White House boosted a U.S.-backed government with military aid.
"Biden and Harris are trying to save their reputation by destroying ours," the adviser said.
And the bad blood extends beyond the White House.
Rep. Norma Torres, a California Democrat, has repeatedly sparred with Bukele on Twitter. She recently said she sleeps with a nine-millimeter handgun nearby, fearing she is a target of his supporters.
Still, there has been a thaw in recent weeks.
Zuniga held a three-hour meeting with the president of El Salvador in May, a conversation the official characterized as “honest.”
In Honduras, accusations have piled up on President Juan Orlando Hernández and other top officials accused of colluding with organized crime and stifling civil society.
In March, U.S. prosecutors charged that Hernández took bribes from his brother, an alleged drug trafficker, as recently as 2019 and endeavored to move tons of cocaine into the U.S., which he denies.
The White House contends these failures built a lawful state that drives the migration crisis.
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Original Author: Katherine Doyle