LOS ANGELES – Vice President Kamala Harris will have the opportunity to engage with leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean as she welcomes them to her home state this week the pinnacle of the Americas. But whether it can prove its clout at the hemisphere’s first gathering, taking place on US soil for the first time since 1994, remains an open question.
Ever since Joe Biden criss-crossed Latin America as vice president, the region’s leaders have come to expect direct access to powerful interlocutors in the White House. Except that Harris takes on the thankless task of addressing the causes of migrationfor which progress has been slow, the region has seen little of her — a symptom, experts say, of greater US neglect of the region.
For the past few days, she and the President have been working on the phones support presence among left-wing leaders who have criticized the US decision to exclude the authoritarian governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela from the Los Angeles summit.
But the efforts have yielded few results. Among those staying at home are the presidents of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras — the only three leaders Harris has met on her two short trips to the region.
Brian Winter, vice president of the Council of the Americas, said Harris stepped off on the wrong foot as Biden’s point of contact to address the social and economic causes driving migrants to the US from Washington, Harris, a former California prosecutor, did not mention corruption fewer than 10 times, fueling resentment in a region where executives are sensitive to accepting speeches from US politicians.
“Corruption is a huge problem, but there are definitely trickier ways to deal with it,” Winter said. “Many doors closed even before she hit the ground.”
Harris’ greatest accomplishment to date in the region has been helping secure it Pledges from US companies to invest $1.2 billion in Central America, from where every year hundreds of thousands of mostly young adults flee from gang violence and crushing poverty.
She is expected to announce another $1.9 billion in pledges at the summit, according to a senior Biden administration official who declined to be identified ahead of the announcements. The commitments reflect Harris’ belief in the private sector’s ability to create jobs that fuel economic growth and discourage young adults from leaving their homes.
New initiatives announced include a $700 million expansion of wireless networks in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador by Miami-based Millicom; a $270 million commitment from Visa to advance digital payments; and a $150 million nearshoring investment by Gap. Inc., which could create up to 5,000 jobs near the US
But the Biden administration’s biggest policy proposal in the region — a $4 billion aid package for Central America — has stalled in Congress with no apparent effort to revive it. Meanwhile, the number of migrants at the US-Mexico border has risen to its highest level in decades, even as the Biden administration has little to show for the Democratic presidential nominee’s promise to introduce a “humane” asylum system that would break it Trump-era restrictions.
One challenge is finding partners in a region where institutions are weak, gang violence is rampant, and corruption is rampant.
It is possible that none of the countries Harris is charged with will be represented at the summit by their president. In recent months, the US has struck a scathing note against El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, accusing him of using his popularity to amass power and ruthlessly circumventing democratic checks and balances.
Meanwhile, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammettei said last month he would not be attending after the US criticized his decision to reappoint an attorney general allegedly involved in corruption.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was Honduran President Xiomara Castro, who was praised by US officials for her decision to extradite her predecessor Juan Orlando Hernández to the US to face federal drug charges. Harris, who attended Castro’s inauguration in January, has been speaking to Honduras’ first female president in recent days in a last-ditch effort to persuade her to travel to Los Angeles.
But in the end, Castro sided with his colleague on the left Andrés Manuel López Obrador from Mexico in the boycott of the summit. Her decision was certainly weighed down by the US’s quick acknowledgment of a new government after the Honduran military removed her husband, President Manuel Zelaya, from office in 2009.
“It’s a far tougher group of actors for the US to contend with than the one the Obama administration faced,” said Rebecca Bill Chavez, President of the Inter-American Dialogue.
Chavez, who advised Harris on foreign policy during her brief tenure as president, welcomed the vice president’s focus on gender-based violence and migrant women, something lacking in previous administrations. She also hopes that Harris’ family ties to Jamaica — her immigrant father’s birthplace — could help her connect with leaders in the Caribbean who are overlooked even in Latin American political circles.
But Biden’s record is hard to beat. As vice president, he made 16 trips to Latin America, and his presence in the region has been prominent since he served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when he helped formulate Plan Colombia, by far the largest military and economic aid package of the USA the region.
Chavez said that on issues of climate change, migration and inclusive economic growth, the Biden administration has an opportunity to craft a vision that speaks to all countries, regardless of their ideological leanings or their bilateral agenda with the US
“To be successful, they and the Biden administration really need to expand their leeway,” Chavez said. “Los Angeles is the perfect opportunity for them to show that. But it can’t be a one-off event. It has to be followed through to become a reality.”
Goodman reported from Miami and Megarian from Washington. Associated Press writers Christopher Sherman in Mexico City and Elliot Spagat in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/06/07/vp-harris-looks-to-show-her-clout-at-summit-of-the-americas/ VP Harris wants to show her influence at the Summit of the Americas