Vice President Kamala Harris spoke from Guatemala Monday after her bilateral meeting with the country’s president, outlining the beginning of her efforts to stem migration from the country and the Central American region.
Harris and Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei spoke to reporters from nearby the National Palace of Culture in the capital city, as part of the vice president’s first international trip since taking office. The vice president was later scheduled to leave for Mexico City Monday evening for her second bilateral visit.
Harris called the meeting with Giammattei “candid” and “thorough,” and the two leaders outlined their earlier discussion and their priorities moving forward as they seek to improve conditions in Guatemala to keep its citizens from leaving home.
The vice president said her vision was centered around providing “hope” for Guatemalans by focusing on three key areas: targeting smuggling and illegal activity, economic development and fighting corruption.
“Hope does not exist by itself,” Harris said at the top of the meeting with Giammattei. “It must be coupled with relationships of trust. It must be coupled with tangible outcomes in terms of what we do as leaders to convince people that there is a reason to be hopeful about their future.”
She announced the creation of a new anti-corruption task force, which will involve the U.S. Treasury Department, Justice Department and the State Department. The group will support Guatemalan law enforcement and prosecutors and conduct investigations.
“One essential ingredient of our priorities must be to fight corruption. It erodes the confidence that people have in their government and its leaders,” Harris said.
That task force will be paired with another to target "transnational human smuggling" networks, officially announced by the Department of Justice later Monday.
Giammattei himself has been accused of getting in the way of similar efforts within his country, including by criticizing a special office under the attorney general that is meant to target the issue.
The selection of judges for Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, its highest, was mired in influence peddling and allegations of corruption. Giammattei picked his chief of staff to fill one of the five vacancies. When Gloria Porras, a respected force against corruption, was elected to a second term, the congress controlled by Giammattei’s party refused to seat her.
On Monday, the Guatemalan president cast off those criticisms and promised his commitment to independent commissions working on corruption.
“How many cases of corruption have I been accused of?” Giammattei said, directing the question back at one American reporter. “Zero. We are in an honest fight against corruption.”
The two leaders also emphasized another core tenet of their plans: creating more economic opportunity for Guatemalans.
“People leave due to lack of opportunities,” the Guatemalan president said. “Areas of greater migration coincide with the areas where the poverty is greater. So we need to fight poverty.”
Vice President Harris announced plans for a young women’s empowerment initiative that will focus on education and opportunities for women and girls.
She also highlighted recent commitments from American companies to invest in the region, including help in areas like banking from Mastercard and internet from Microsoft.
The vice president was set to meet with Guatemalan community leaders and women entrepreneurs later in the afternoon before flying to Mexico City for Tuesday’s meeting with the Mexican president and officials.
Washington won some goodwill through its vaccine diplomacy this past week. Giammattei and López Obrador both received calls from Harris on Thursday telling them the U.S. would be sending 500,000 doses and 1 million doses, respectively, of COVID-19 vaccine.
But Harris’ aides say corruption will continue to be a central focus of her bilateral meetings with both Giammattei and López Obrador.
While in Latin America, Harris will also have to navigate the politics of immigration. Congressional Republicans have criticized both President Joe Biden and Harris for not visiting the U.S.-Mexico border and contend the administration is ignoring what they say is a crisis there. April was the second-busiest month on record for unaccompanied children encountered at the border, following March’s all-time high. The Border Patrol’s total encounters in April were up 3% from March, marking the highest level since April 2000.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.