SStanding behind a podium alongside the Guatemalan president during her first overseas trip this week, Vice President Kamala Harris emphasized the United States’ renewed commitment to fighting corruption as part of efforts to address the root causes driving migration from Central America.
But for many, the man next to them, Alejandro Giammattei, represents the challenge in a region where past and current presidents have been accused of crimes ranging from embezzlement and bribery to authoritarianism and drug trafficking.
Harris diverted attempts during the press conference for her to directly address the corruption allegations surrounding Giammattei. “We will seek to eradicate corruption wherever it exists because we know that it is not the best thing for a democracy,” he said.
The president was more direct. “In how many corruption cases have I been accused?” Giammattei said defiantly, blaming the suspicions around him on social media. “I can give you the answer to that: none.”
For the United States, the fact that he has not been formally charged with any crime seems to be enough.
The United States’ decision to make Guatemala its primary partner in the troubled Northern Triangle region, the largest source of irregular migration to the United States, is an acknowledgment of the country’s strategic geographic location, as well as the status of its president as possibly the lesser of evils. “It has been called a default option,” said Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst for International Crisis Group.
Relations with the other two presidents of the region have already reached a low point. President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras has been repeatedly accused by the Justice Department of conspiring with drug traffickers, accusations he vociferously denies.
Meanwhile, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, emboldened by one of the highest approval ratings in the world, has grown increasingly authoritarian, consolidating power with recent moves to oust the attorney general and court judges. constitutional.
If the United States is to achieve its goal of reducing migration along the southern border, it will need the cooperation of its counterparts at the source. But Joe Biden’s emphasis on corruption seems to meet resistance.
Complicating matters further are the lingering effects of the approach by Donald Trump, who was willing to turn a blind eye to misconduct, as long as his counterparts were equally willing to give in to his immigration policies.
According to Breda, the region’s political elites are increasingly willing to resist external pressure to reform. “As they have become accustomed to a more transactional relationship with the US, they have come to recognize the fact that the issue of migration, which is at the core of the US approach in the region, is to the same time a responsibility for US governments, “he said.
But what could become a drag on Democrats in next year’s midterm elections is viewed differently in Central America.
“For our countries, migration is a solution, not a problem,” said Helen Mack, president of the Myrna Mack Foundation in Guatemala. Migrants working abroad send large amounts of money back to their home countries that help support their families and prop up otherwise mediocre economies.
In 2019, the Northern Triangle countries received $ 21,713bn in remittances. The White House has requested the largest amount of foreign assistance for Central America in fiscal year 2022, but that number is still fair. $ 861 million.
Little of that aid goes directly to Central American governments, and the Biden administration has indicated that due to corruption, that proportion is likely to decline further. The state department has also signaled the intention to Decrease the number of grants awarded to US contractors., which are often for-profit businesses that, after accounting for profits and overhead, significantly reduce the amount of money that reaches its intended destination. Instead, more grants will be awarded to local organizations, helping to strengthen civil society, a pillar of the US strategy.
Other important sources of external financing for the region are international financial institutions, such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, which have continued to grant billions in loans with fewer conditions than, for example, the United States Agency for the International Development. Developing.
“Our governments live off international loans and debt,” Mack said, adding that infrastructure contracts and other projects that are awarded with loans are often a source of corruption throughout the region.
The United States also has geopolitical concerns. The pandemic has opened a door for China, which, while unlikely to supplant the United States in its own so-called “backyard,” seems determined to at least undermine its influence. El Salvador has led the region in vaccination against Covid-19 in part thanks to help from China. The two countries recently signed a cooperation agreement that Bukele claimed it was worth $ 500 million.
The Biden administration also faces a paradox. Studies have shown that as a country’s economic situation improves, migration increases before decreasing. In simple terms, more people can afford the costs of migration, such as hiring a human smuggler.
During his visit to Guatemala, Harris announced the creation of two new interagency task forces. The first will go after human traffickers. However, as with drug trafficking, with so much money at stake, it seems unlikely that trapping traffickers will have a significant effect on migrant flows. It could also have the unintended consequence of making the journey north more dangerous and increasing prices and profits for smugglers.
The second task force fulfills Biden’s campaign promise to create a regional anti-corruption body to replace the commissions that were ousted from Guatemala, Honduras and more recently El Salvador, the first two victims in large part of their own success, which threatened local elites.
Much remains to be seen as to how the Biden administration’s proposals will play out in practice. Local residents who spoke to The Guardian praised the expertise of those selected to oversee US foreign policy in the region and their messages thus far.
But the big shifts in focus between Biden and Trump also have them skeptical.
“The challenge for us is to make the United States understand that these policies must be long-term and therefore bipartisan,” Mack said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism