WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris visited Honduras on Thursday to attend the presidential inauguration of Xiomara Castro, the country’s first female head of state, who the White House hopes will become a crucial ally in addressing the corruption and emigration that have challenged Central America.
Ms. Harris’s trip to Central America, her second as vice president, was more than a show of support, but also a sign of the Biden administration’s eagerness to pursue a fresh start in tackling the poverty and graft that have pushed thousands of vulnerable families to the U.S. southern border in recent years.
Top officials in other nations, including Guatemala, where Ms. Harris pressed for an independent judiciary during her first foreign trip last year, have continued to undermine democratic institutions and challenge Washington’s influence.
“We must uproot the corruption of the last 12 years of dictatorships,” Ms. Castro said after acknowledging Ms. Harris’s presence among the dignitaries in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. “We have the right to refound ourselves on citizen values and not on usury.”
After the two met hours later, Ms. Harris told reporters she was optimistic the partnership would help the administration improve conditions in the region and deter migration north.
“I was impressed with the passion with which she talked about her priority on addressing and combating corruption,” Ms. Harris said.
But the Biden administration’s aggressive pursuit of a fresh partnership with Honduras also highlighted the complexity of Ms. Harris’s task. Days before Ms. Castro’s inauguration, her own leftist Libre party rebelled over her outreach to centrist allies. The rebellion threatens her agenda, aimed at tackling the rampant crime and corruption that have generated mass migration from Honduras in recent years.
“This complicates everything significantly without a doubt because what you assumed was going to be the case with this new leadership is now completely thrown out the window,” said Cris Ramón, an immigration analyst who has consulted members of Congress in Washington. “If the administration is now dealing with a country facing a major political crisis, a country central to migration management, this is a major obstacle for the administration to pursue its goals.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded more than 300,000 crossings by Hondurans in the last fiscal year, making the country the second-largest source of migrants after Mexico.
Ms. Harris’s team is monitoring the situation in Honduras but believes it is inappropriate to intervene, according to senior administration officials. The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the goals of the vice president’s trip, cited Ms. Castro’s invitation to the United Nations to establish an anti-corruption panel in Honduras as evidence that her election would lead to an effective partnership.
Ms. Harris’s office said in a statement Thursday that the United States would deliver “several hundred thousand additional doses” of coronavirus vaccine to Honduras over the next two months, as well as 500,000 pediatric syringes and $1.35 million for refurbishing educational and health facilities to fight the pandemic.
In their meeting, the two leaders also discussed expanding educational and economic opportunities and combating gender-based violence and corruption, according to the statement. Ms. Castro’s predecessor, Juan Orlando Hernández, has been accused in U.S. court of maintaining close ties to drug traffickers and facilitating shipments of cocaine.
When Ms. Harris’s arrival was announced, the inauguration crowd chanted in Spanish, “take away JOH,” referring to Mr. Hernández.
The Biden administration has maintained enthusiasm over Ms. Castro’s election even after she alarmed some in Washington during her campaign when she suggested switching ties to China from Taiwan, the island democracy China considers its territory. President Biden has sought to make competing with China’s economic rise a focus of his foreign policy strategy. During Ms. Harris’s second foreign trip to Southeast Asia, she accused China of threatening “the sovereignty of nations.”
China has deepened economic and political ties in Latin America over the past decade, becoming a top trading partner and lender to many of the region’s countries, according to a report published in November by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Those investments have given China geopolitical influence on the U.S. doorstep.
In private discussions with Ms. Castro’s team, Ms. Harris’s aides have emphasized that Taiwan can bring economic gain to Honduras, both through its civil society organizations and development projects, according to a U.S. official. William Tai, the vice president of Taiwan, also attended Ms. Castro’s inauguration on Thursday. (U.S. officials said on Wednesday Ms. Harris had no plans to meet with Mr. Tai).
Ariel Ruiz, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based research group, said Ms. Harris’s trip was not just an opportunity to forge a new partnership but to send a message to leaders throughout the region.
Nicaragua has slid headlong toward authoritarianism in recent years. President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador has publicly criticized U.S. officials and has been accused of weakening democratic institutions. In Guatemala, where Ms. Harris met with President Alejandro Giammattei last year, the attorney general has continued to undermine prosecutors and judges who have sought to expose corruption.
“This is an opportunity for the United States and Vice President Harris to provide and better contextualize more effectively what the U.S. tends to do in the region in its second year,” Mr. Ruiz said.
Before she returned to Washington, Ms. Harris told reporters she appreciated that the countries in the region did not want to be perceived as “a monolith.”
“There are commonalities in terms of the concern that we have about corruption, certainly commonalities about irregular migration, including the issue of human smuggling and human trafficking,” Ms. Harris said. “But there are varying degrees in each.”
The trip also presented an opportunity for Ms. Harris, whose allies are increasingly concerned she has been saddled with politically dubious assignments and has struggled against criticism she is falling short, to reassert herself. During her first trip to Central America, Ms. Harris drew criticism from progressives for having warned U.S.-bound migrants “do not come.” Republicans have sought to make her the face of the administration’s struggle to quell U.S. border crossings.
Ms. Harris’s aides have said the vice president has successfully rallied nations and private companies to commit to investing $1.2 billion in Central America. Previous investments by the United States in the region, including those managed by then Vice President Biden, failed to adequately improve conditions and stem migration north.
Anderson Warlick, the chief executive of Parkdale Mills, which makes yarn used by companies like Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, Levi’s and Abercrombie, met with Ms. Harris on Dec. 13 to discuss her efforts to invest in the region. He said his company was eyeing land near Choloma, Honduras, for a yarn factory that will directly employ around 500 people.
“You’ve got to create something for people to want to stay there,” Mr. Warlick said, adding praise for the administration’s efforts to expand the supply chain for textiles and apparel in the Western Hemisphere. “And not want to immigrate to the United States.”
Zolan Kanno-Youngs reported from Washington, and Natalie Kitroeff from Mexico City. Oscar Lopez contributed reporting from Mexico City, Joan Suazo from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Ana Swanson from Washington.