Harris at the podium in Guatemala on a diplomatic visit

Addressing migration requires long-term commitment, says analyst on Harris visit to Guatemala

About $13 billion are squandered as a result of corruption in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, says Adriana Beltran, an analyst with The Washington Office on Latin America.

The World

Vice President Kamala Harris is on her first trip abroad as vice president. In Guatemala on Monday, Harris emphasized the need to restore hope for struggling residents of Central Americans who are considering the dangerous trek to the United States — and pleaded with them not to make it. 

Her comments came after her meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, in which she addressed everything from vaccine sharing to corruption in the region.

Related: COVID downward spiral in Latin America disrupts life-saving services

Governments there have been largely ineffective at solving the grinding problems of daily life. 

"On the issue of corruption, the conversation that I had with President Giammattei today was very frank and very candid, and I think this is a quality that he and I appreciate in each other," said Harris.

Related: ICE contracts at local, regional level spark contentious debate

The next stop of her three-day trip is in Mexico.

Adriana Beltran, with the watchdog group The Washington Office on Latin America, told The World's host Marco Werman that Harris is on-track to focus on corruption.

Marco Werman: When Joe Biden was vice president, he also took on this mission to try and nip the source of migration at the bud, and at least judging by numbers at the US-Mexico border, he failed. What is different this time, do you think?

Adriana Beltran: Unfortunately, over the last several years, what you've seen across the region, including Guatemala, has been a backlash against anti-corruption, anti-impunity efforts and, increasingly, actions by corrupt elites to undermine democracy and the rule of law.

So, as long as we're on the subject, explain in simple terms how corruption actually reduces the impact of US aid to Central America.

When we talk about corruption in Guatemala and Central America, we're not talking about a few bad apples, a few corrupt government officials that accept bribes. But what we're talking about is systems that have been put in place where corrupt elites and, in the case of Guatemala, increasingly tied to criminal groups, have taken hold of government institutions and have used their positions of power to enrich themselves by embezzling millions of public funds at the expense of the majority...Regionally, you're talking about $13 billion that I believe is lost a year to corruption. That means that there's no money for education, building a better health care system, infrastructure. It impacts the ability of these governments to respond to natural disasters or climate change. It impacts security. It impacts every aspect of daily life.

And, is that $13 billion just for Guatemala or all three countries of the Northern Triangle?

That's regionally, for Central America.

So, we hear about the three countries of the Northern Triangle, Guatemala — El Salvador and Honduras. The people from those countries are most likely to try to enter the US. But Vice President Harris is visiting only Guatemala. Why is that?

The challenges in Central America are immense right now. One, relations between the Biden administration and the Bukele government in El Salvador are very tense. This is a government in El Salvador that has repeatedly taken steps to attack the rule of law, to concentrate power in the hands of the executive and dismantle any real system of checks and balance. In the case of Honduras, over the last year or so, the US Department of Justice has investigated and convicted the president's brother for drug trafficking.

It sounds like basically you're saying, Guatemala may be corrupt, but it's the most likely government where Vice President Harris could get some traction and cooperation.

I think they started with Guatemala by default, not by design. But I would say that if corruption and the rule of law is not front and center in discussions between the US government and the Guatemalan government, the trip could do more damage than good. And I say this because since 2019, when the UN-led commission to tackle corruption was dismantled by the previous administration in Guatemala, you've seen a consistent effort and actions by the government, and by corrupt political and economic elites, to dismantle the advances that had been made in the anti-corruption effort.

How, then, can Vice President Harris hope to help build a model with Guatemala that might show the way forward in stemming migration?

Unfortunately, I think the US, different administrations have often turned their attention to the region whenever they perceive a crisis, and then attention wanes and shifts elsewhere. These are long-term challenges. These are deep, structural challenges that are going to require a long-term sustainable approach. And so, if the administration is committed to helping these societies address these structural challenges, then we need to commit for the long haul.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.