Harris bets on new Honduran president to revive Central America policy
Vice President Harris is betting big on incoming Honduran President Xiomara Castro, attending the Central American leader’s inauguration despite continued political instability and years of cool diplomatic relations between Honduras and the United States.
The best-case scenario for Harris is for Castro to become a willing and able partner to address the root causes of migration in a region where the Biden administration has failed to find such partners in Guatemala’s Alejandro Giammattei and El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele.
Harris’s presence at Thursday’s ceremony is a big diplomatic boost for Castro, who will take the reins of the country amid political wrangling that’s seen two competing groups claiming to head the country’s legislature.
Immediately after the inauguration, Castro and Harris met privately at the presidential palace.
“I’d like to publicly congratulate you on your election. We’ve been watching the election process closely,” Harris told Castro. “We appreciate that your election was a democratic election.”
Castro in her inauguration address had railed against the country’s corruption, calling for the “refoundation” of Honduras after 12 years of “dictatorship.”
“The economic catastrophe that I receive is unparalleled in the history of the country,” said Castro.
Introducing foreign dignitaries present at her stadium inauguration, Castro shouted out Harris to cheers from the crowd, a sign that time has healed some of the wounds left by allegations of U.S. involvement in the 2009 coup in Honduras.
The United States was generally perceived to take a hands-off approach to the coup that deposed former President Manuel Zelaya — Castro’s husband — rather than supporting the duly elected Zelaya.
Biden administration officials treaded warily in their characterizations of U.S. expectations of Castro, careful at once not to wade into accusations of imperialism and wary of the reputational dangers surrounding Honduran politics.
“This is an initial call. We’re not looking at a large slate of programmatic deliverables,” said a senior administration official.
“But we do very much want and intend to do what we can to support this new president as she tries to make progress on what she has laid out as her priority agenda and the many things that we see as real positives on that agenda,” added the official.
Castro’s targeted focus on corruption bonds well with Harris’s approach to the mission to address root causes of regional migration in the so-called Northern Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
“Last year, the Biden-Harris administration released a comprehensive and strong plan to address complex issues impacting the region. This year, they must double down on the plan’s tenets,” said Sergio Gonzales, executive director of the Immigration Hub and a former immigration adviser to Harris.
“Success in this important work will only be achieved by policies that treat people fairly and with dignity, and through a shared regional framework that treats migration as a dynamic asset to be managed rather than deterred,” added Gonzales.
Harris’s first trip abroad as vice president was to Guatemala in June, in a first entreaty to the region overshadowed by the vice president’s plea for migrants to “not come” to the United States.
At the time, Giammattei was seen as the only potential state-level interlocutor in the region, despite his refusal to reinstate a United Nations-led international anticorruption task force ousted by his predecessor, former President Jimmy Morales.
El Salvador’s Bukele has proven a difficult partner for U.S. officials, who see more political risks than benefits in dealing with him at a high level, and the Biden administration had entirely avoided contact with Honduras’s outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández, against whom credible allegations of cooperation with drug trafficking have been levied.
The relationship with the outgoing Hernández strained to the point that Guatemala-born Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) this week wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Department of Justice to charge and extradite Hernández upon Castro’s inauguration.
“President Hernandez has been a central figure in undermining the rule of law in his own country and in protecting and assisting drug traffickers to move their materials through Honduras and to the United States,” wrote Torres, who has taken a leading role in addressing corruption in the region.
“He has been repeatedly identified as a co-conspirator in other drug trafficking cases and has caused incredible pain to both the people of Honduras and the United States. I believe it is essential that the United States hold him accountable for his criminal behavior,” she added.
Despite the continued political instability in Honduras, Castro has struck the right tone to invite U.S. support of her administration.
“We were very pleased to see President-elect Castro make the statements that she made about inviting the United Nations to reestablish a corruption fighting body within Honduras and very much want to support her efforts to do so,” a senior administration official said Wednesday.
The short-term challenge for Harris, accompanied on her trip by United States Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power, will be to provide Castro a route to implement the anticorruption and social development programs at the core of the root causes initiative.
“The United States should create mechanisms and promote agreements to implement the White House’s recently released strategy on countering corruption,” wrote Ana María Méndez Dardón and Julia Aikman Cifuentes, Central America experts at the Washington Office for Latin America.
“In the same vein, the U.S. and other international governments should support efforts to create an internationally backed anti-impunity unit as they did with the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), and should work to ensure continued support of an independent unit regardless of who holds the presidency,” they added.
Domestically, the Biden administration faces pressure to use executive action to relieve pressure on Honduras by redesignating the country for Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
The redesignation would give certainty to Honduran nationals already in the United States that they can continue to live and work legally in the country.
While Honduras is currently designated for TPS, the designation is only in place due to a court injunction against former President Trump’s attempt to strip it from the country, an action that would render about 80,000 Hondurans deportable.
Hondurans with TPS are guaranteed their benefits until the end of 2022; a new designation would almost certainly expand the number of Hondurans covered by the program.
“If the Biden administration seeks to immediately address the root causes of migration, they must first redesignate and expand the Temporary Protected Status program for Honduras, for Central America and for millions who continue to escape instability in their native countries,” said Jessika Girón, a Honduran TPS holder with the TPS Committee of Morristown, N.J.