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Harris heading to Honduras under pressure to find a reliable partner in Northern Triangle

By Priscilla Alvarez and Jasmine Wright, CNN

Vice President Kamala Harris will lead a delegation to Honduras this week to attend the historic inauguration of President-elect Xiomara Castro, looking for additional buy-in to achieve her fraught task of addressing the root causes of migration to the US southern border.

In making Thursday’s high-profile voyage, experts tell CNN, the vice president and the Biden administration are clearly showing their interest in partnering with Honduras to achieve that goal. But Castro’s leadership is already facing a major test as the country finds itself amid political acrimony, presenting pitfalls for Harris and the Biden administration at large.

“I think it’s an opportunity that we haven’t seen in Honduras in quite some time,” Jason Marczak, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, told CNN. “And it’s an opportunity in which the United States has to use every tool at its disposal to try to move forward, given the importance of addressing these issues for the US’s own interests.”

Castro ran as an agent of change for her country. She was elected on a platform of rooting out corruption, restoring democracy and curtailing organized crime, which has rankled the country for decades. Those issues have all been identified by the Biden administration as having an outsized role in driving up migration.

But over the last week, Honduran lawmakers came to blows after members of Castro’s Libre Party rebelled and elected Jorge Calix as Congress president instead of Luis Redondo, denying Castro a chamber controlled by her allies. It’s left her politically weakened, causing some to question whether she will have the support to reset the country as promised.

Still, the administration appears set on making inroads with the new leader despite whatever political upheaval may exist. Harris’ visit will mark a pivot from the vice president’s approach to the previous Honduran leader, who had been implicated in a drug trafficking case. Harris spoke to Castro in December, marking the first time she had talked to a leader of that country since her assignment began last March. All other communication between the US and Honduras had previously happened on various other government levels.

“The Vice President’s visit will further the commitment she and President-elect Castro made during their December 10 phone call to deepen the partnership between the United States and Honduras and work together to advance economic growth, combat corruption, and address the root causes of migration,” said Sabrina Singh, deputy press secretary for the vice president, in a statement last week to announce the visit.

Those joining Harris include US Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power and California’s Democratic Rep. Raul Ruiz. Diplomats in the delegation include Jose Fernandez, the under secretary for economic growth, energy and the environment at the State Department.

In a statement to CNN, Ruiz, the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said he looks forward to joining the delegation as it “represents an incredible opportunity to strengthen our partnerships in the Western Hemisphere and advance our common interests.”

Matthew Rooney, managing director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative, called the vice president’s attendance “an important gesture.”

“The arrival of a new president in Honduras is an important opportunity to shape the conversation with the region and to engage,” he told CNN.

A tough assignment that never gets easier

Navigating the governments of the Northern Triangle and the accompanying issues has dogged previous administrations — and that has remained true for the Biden White House. Finding a reliable partner in the region has proved difficult for the administration.

In El Salvador, there’s been concern about limiting checks and balances in government, while in Guatemala, there have been concerns about government corruption. And in Honduras, there was an even greater concern about corruption within government.

“The former President’s family relationships with a convicted drug trafficker made him radioactive from the US point of view, and I think it seems fairly clear that it was quite a corrupt government,” Rooney said, speaking of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández.

One source familiar with administration thinking said officials are looking at “a whole range of different ways” to help Honduras, adding that officials have been traveling to Honduras leading up to the inauguration to lay the groundwork and decipher what the country might need.

Civil society organizations in the region are also heralding Castro’s inauguration as a breath of fresh air, Ana María Méndez-Dardón, director for Central America at Washington Office on Latin America, told CNN.

Castro, a former first lady whose husband was ousted in a coup 12 years ago, is set to become the first female president of Honduras.

Harris’ second trip to the region

Thursday’s trip will mark the second time Harris will visit the Northern Triangle, more than six months after her first trip, to Guatemala and Mexico, was overshadowed by messaging failures and sharp questions about why she hadn’t yet visited the US-Mexico border.

Harris’ role has proved to be a rocky ride so far, as Republican critics have tried to make her the face of the Biden administration’s response at the border. And she’s taken criticism from her own party over a stark warning to undocumented migrants not to come to the border, which was issued on that same trip.

Now Harris appears set to kick off her second year in office leaning into the root-causes portfolio that President Joe Biden assigned to her last year. Earlier this month, Harris spoke with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. The two discussed migration, economic development and anti-corruption.

Private investments have still flowed to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador at Harris’ direction, and are expected to continue in the coming months. Last month, Harris announced a new slate of commitments from the private sector to the region, building upon an initial agreement that detailed $750 million in commitments from major companies like Microsoft, Mastercard, Chobani, Duolingo, Nespresso, Bancolombia and Davivienda.

Nespresso, for example, is working with more than 1,200 farmers in the region and is sourcing coffees from farms in Honduras and El Salvador for the first time in the company’s history.

Microsoft is planning to expand internet access to millions of people in the region by July.

But the cooperation of countries like Honduras moving forward can yield more far-reaching results in the region, argued Jonathan Fantini Porter, co-founder and executive director of the Partnership for Central America, which is supporting Harris’ “Call to Action.”

“You can’t hit the scale of country and regional wide impact without true public-private partnerships,” he said, adding, “Change doesn’t happen if the entire system isn’t in place.”

‘Numbers don’t lie’

But one of the challenges in executing the vice president’s root-causes strategy is finding a partner in the region that wants to work with the US on fundamental issues like anti-corruption.

“If Honduras is our best hope for moving things forward in Central America, we’re in a really tough spot,” the source familiar with administration thinking said bluntly, noting the challenges the country presents.

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated deteriorating conditions in Central and South America, prompting people to journey north. Of the 170,186 arrests that US Border Patrol made in December, more than 47,000 were migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, according to US Customs and Border Protection data. The US is still expelling tens of thousands of Central American migrants under a public health authority invoked under then-President Donald Trump.

“Numbers don’t lie. And you see, migration still going on. And it’s a huge problem,” Méndez-Dardón said.

Over recent months, the number of migrants from South America has also climbed steadily, though the flow gradually decreased this month.

Panama’s Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes told CNN on Friday that the number of people crossing the treacherous Darien Gap, which spans Panama and Colombia, has “dropped considerably.” Migrants coming from South America often pass through the gap on the way to the United States.

“The situation is much more under control,” she said. “We recognize it could change at any moment.”

Mouynes contributed the decline in crossings into Panama to a crackdown on smuggling networks and more coordination among countries in the region.

Administration officials are considering a potential regional compact spanning countries in Central and South America to promote coordination on stemming the flow of migration and work to stabilize the region.

Biden acknowledged the state of the region during a nearly two-hour news conference last week, saying he’s in contact with the leaders of the countries in South America and working closely with them “to deal with helping the countries in question.” He also nodded to the plight of people who choose to leave their home countries.

“People leave because they have real problems,” he said.

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