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Can Kamala Harris Resurrect the Alliance for Prosperity?

The vice president’s plan for Central America depends on tackling rising corruption.

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris conducts a bilateral meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris conducts a bilateral meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador via video link from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington on May 7. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It was noteworthy that when U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris laid out the Biden administration’s broad plans this week to tackle both the “acute” needs of the Southern migrant crisis as well as its “root” causes, she didn’t have anything bad to say about Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO.

Harris was blunt in criticizing the authoritarian abuses of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and other Central American strongmen, but López Obrador was given a pass despite his own authoritarian rhetoric and worrisome human rights track record. That’s probably because Harris plans to meet him next month following their virtual chat Friday, and the United States badly needs AMLO if it is to have any hope of solving the problem. And there’s the rub: Experts say the battle against corruption that is critical to success in Central America comes down to a grim choice of partners who rank from bad to worse. 

“That’s the root of the tragedy. Who are you going to work with? You have to have allies,” said Richard Feinberg, a Central America specialist at the University of California San Diego and former senior director of the National Security Council’s Office of Inter-American Affairs. 

It was noteworthy that when U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris laid out the Biden administration’s broad plans this week to tackle both the “acute” needs of the Southern migrant crisis as well as its “root” causes, she didn’t have anything bad to say about Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO.

Harris was blunt in criticizing the authoritarian abuses of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and other Central American strongmen, but López Obrador was given a pass despite his own authoritarian rhetoric and worrisome human rights track record. That’s probably because Harris plans to meet him next month following their virtual chat Friday, and the United States badly needs AMLO if it is to have any hope of solving the problem. And there’s the rub: Experts say the battle against corruption that is critical to success in Central America comes down to a grim choice of partners who rank from bad to worse. 

“That’s the root of the tragedy. Who are you going to work with? You have to have allies,” said Richard Feinberg, a Central America specialist at the University of California San Diego and former senior director of the National Security Council’s Office of Inter-American Affairs. 

A White House official who attended Harris’s virtual meeting with AMLO told Foreign Policy the two had a 50-minute conversation focused largely on a $45 billion joint development plan over five years to supply assistance to southern Mexico, including a new partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and its Mexican counterpart. But when the issue came to corruption and governance, little was said directly other than “there is shared commitment to combatting” it —nor will it be made a public issue. “We have decided to deal with those issues not in the public space but by engaging directly with the Mexicans,” the official said. “We’re not actually going to blast them in public as some people want us to do.”

“As with everything involving Mexico, we have to engage constructively,” added Juan Gonzalez, who is the senior director for Western hemisphere affairs on the National Security Council. 

Harris appears to be trying to resurrect the “Alliance for Prosperity” approach that then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden took in response to a large influx of migrant children in 2014. That aid program focused heavily on building anti-corruption institutions. U.S. authorities in coordination with the Inter-American Development Bank successfully pushed for prosecutions of corrupt officials in El Salvador and Honduras, and U.S. support for a United Nations-backed crime investigations unit led to 29 high-level arrests and the resignation of then-Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina.

“It was virtually unprecedented and largely successful. And then, [U.S. President Donald] Trump came into office. The program didn’t have enough time,” said Ivan Briscoe, a Bogotá-based expert with Crisis Group. The Wilson Center concluded in a 2020 report that “despite significant improvements in some areas—such as greatly reduced inequality in El Salvador, lowered infant mortality rates in much of the region, and better access to clean water and sanitation in many communities—neither economic growth in the Northern Triangle nor foreign aid kept pace with sharply negative trends.”

Trump put all his efforts and money into shutting down the border, and he cut off foreign assistance to the Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras until migration numbers decreased. By the time Biden took office, there were growing authoritarian tendencies throughout the region that only further entrenched corruption by the monied elites. 

The administration announced an additional $310 million in U.S. humanitarian relief and food insecurity support for the Northern Triangle countries on top of a four-year, $4 billion commitment to address the factors that prompt migration from Central America. “Now what we’re looking at is more money for the region—but also a lot more political urgency,” Briscoe said. 

In her speech at the 51st Annual Conference on the Americas, Harris spoke of the “incredibly complex” relationships between the United States and these countries and alluded to Biden’s own leadership of the Alliance for Prosperity. 

“We are focused on addressing both the acute factors and the root causes of migration,” she said. “First, the acute factors—the catastrophes that are causing people to leave right now: the hurricanes, the pandemic, the drought, and extreme food insecurity. Then there are the long-standing issues, the root causes.” Chief among them, she said, was systemic corruption, which she said will stymie any real progress.

U.S. prosecutors say they are investigating Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández for graft, and legislators from Bukele’s party voted to oust judges from the Salvadoran Supreme Court. That drew Harris’s condemnation, but she hasn’t said much about AMLO’s increased use of security forces to silence journalists and protesters. 

“The U.S. for years has been relying on Mexico as its primary migrant buffer,” Briscoe said. “I think what Harris will have to do is to negotiate a very complex relationship with a significant degree of mistrust.” 

The latest surge in southern migration has, as Harris suggested, lots of causes. Many people are on the run from police brutality, drug lords, and gangs that extort locals, especially in poor, largely Indigenous communities. On top of that, severe hurricanes that are believed to be exacerbated by climate change have forced thousands of displaced people to live in improvised camps or settlements with scant government support. And then on top of that came the COVID-19 pandemic as well as worsening endemic corruption by increasingly autocratic elites. “You are talking about environments which at times resemble quasi-feudal states, with waves of hypermodern violence and crime that makes living unbearable, and now climate change thrown in on top,” Briscoe said.

For now, the Biden policy is little more than the broad strokes Harris laid out at the Annual Conference on the Americas, and the administration has gone back and forth on migrants. Earlier this week, Biden reversed himself and said he would allow as many as 62,500 refugees to enter the United States during the next six months. This came a few weeks after Biden announced he was leaving Trump’s limit of 15,000 refugees in place, sparking widespread criticism from his fellow Democrats. 

“I didn’t get the impression that they have a Latin America policy yet. It’s a broad-brush diagnosis, not a response,” Feinberg said. Still, he and others say it’s impressive that new USAID head Samantha Power has brought in skilled veterans of the Alliance for Prosperity, such as Michael Camilleri, who is now executive director of the Northern Triangle Task Force.

“It’s a start, and they’re addressing the right issue: bad governance,” Feinberg said.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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