Here's What Harris Will Do On Her 1st VP Trip To Guatemala And Mexico

Jun 7, 2021
Originally published on June 7, 2021 12:16 pm

Vice President Harris is in Guatemala City on Monday to kick off the first foreign trip of her time in office, a two-day mission aimed at trying to strengthen ties with Guatemala and Mexico and tackle tough and longstanding problems such as corruption, violence and poverty — some of the issues behind the record number of migrants from Central America seeking asylum at the U.S. border in recent months.

She is traveling with some good news: The administration laid out last week how it will share its wealth of COVID-19 vaccines with countries that have struggled to get shots in arms, including Guatemala and Mexico.

Here's what is on Harris' agenda:

Monday: Guatemala City

Harris will meet with President Alejandro Giammattei to discuss increasing economic opportunities in Guatemala, strengthening the rule of law, and working together on law enforcement, her aides told reporters.

The administration is expected to announce anti-smuggling and trafficking actions on Monday. Harris may have additional announcements after her meeting with Giammattei, aides said.

She will then meet with groups of Guatemalan civil society leaders and entrepreneurs.

Tuesday: Mexico City

Harris will meet with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador regarding how the two countries can cooperate on issues such as market access, business development and investment, and migrant smuggling by organized crime networks, her aides said.

Harris also will meet with female entrepreneurs and participate in a labor roundtable before returning to Washington, D.C.

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Vice President Kamala Harris is in Guatemala City this morning with a full schedule and a difficult task. She's there on a mission to address the root causes of a migration crisis that has sent tens of thousands of people to the southern U.S. border with Mexico.

NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is traveling with her and joins us now. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So what is on the vice president's schedule today?

KEITH: Meetings. She'll start off the day by meeting with President Alejandro Giammattei. Her aides told us that they will talk about how to increase economic opportunities, strengthening the rule of law and working together on law enforcement. Notably, though, later in the day, she is meeting with community and civil society leaders as well. This is a pointed effort to try to amplify the stories of people working to improve conditions in Guatemala from the inside, which can put them at odds with the government. Last week, the White House set out a policy emphasizing anti-corruption efforts globally, saying it's a threat to the U.S. national security because it feeds instability, the kind of instability that then drives people to flee to America. So that will be a message that the vice president is carrying on this trip, too, both here in Guatemala City today and tomorrow in Mexico City.

FADEL: So what are you expecting in terms of actual outcomes from this trip?

KEITH: Yeah - the vice president's team has teased that there will be announcements around trafficking and smuggling and possibly also corruption. But these are very deep-seated issues that have been around for a long time that America's been trying to address for a long time, including when Joe Biden was vice president and he had this same job of trying to address the root causes. Experts I've spoken to say things have actually gotten worse since Biden visited the region in 2014 and 2015. There have been recent natural disasters. The violence is worse. The economies are worse because of the pandemic. But it's more than that. The leaders in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador - these are known as the Northern Triangle countries - they're less eager to work with the U.S. government on anti-corruption efforts than some of their predecessors. And there are strong anti-democratic tendencies. Corruption is making it difficult for the U.S. to find partners, which is something that Ricardo Zuniga, the U.S. envoy to the Northern Triangle, was asked about in a briefing with reporters last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICARDO ZUNIGA: The best way to deal with these cases where you have a very complex relationship in a country like Guatemala is to talk clearly and plainly as partners - right? - as countries that have to get along. We talk about easy things, but we talk mostly about hard things. And we have different perspectives.

KEITH: And there have already been difficult conversations, frank conversations leading up to this trip. You can expect more of that will happen today. Rebecca Chavez worked on these issues in the Obama administration, and now she's at the Inter-American Dialogue.

REBECCA CHAVEZ: Like, I thought it was hard then. (Laughter) It's - I would say it's much more challenging now.

KEITH: ...Which is to say that there is not going to be a straight line between this trip that Harris is making and the number of people showing up at the border.

FADEL: So you described deep-seated issues that are very difficult to address. Are there any short-term solutions here?

KEITH: Well, there is a short-term problem, which is the pandemic, which has made things much worse. And the Biden administration is now throwing itself into vaccine-sharing in a big way, including with these Northern Triangle countries. And Chavez says this could help yield some short-term improvement in the conditions.

CHAVEZ: It's going to take time. Some of them are going to take a generation - the violence issue, for example. But I do think that one positive that could come out of it would be on the COVID vaccine. You know, I think a real commitment there would be one very positive potential outcome of the trip.

KEITH: And we may learn more about exactly how many vaccines they'll be getting.

FADEL: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thank you so much.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.