LOS ANGELES – Vice President Kamala Harris said Tuesday that the Biden administration's work to attract investment to Central America, part of the U.S. effort to reduce migration, has generated $3.2 billion in private-sector commitments.
“We know the American people will benefit from stable and prosperous neighbors," she said during remarks on the second day of the Summit of the Americas, which brings together countries from across the hemisphere. "And when we provide economic opportunity for people in Central America, we address an important driver of migration.”
President Joe Biden, who arrives at the summit on Wednesday, tasked Harris last year with addressing the root causes of migration, which routinely strains U.S. resources at the border with Mexico. Progress has been slow, a reflection of the region's intractable problems and what some critics describe as U.S. neglect.
Harris said she would focus on empowering women who face poverty and violence in their home countries. The effort is known as “In Her Hands,” and it aims to connect more women to the banking system, help them participate in agriculture and provide them with training in coding and cybersecurity.
“When you lift up the economic status of women, you lift up the economic status of families, of her community and of our entire hemisphere," Harris said.
Her speech followed a roundtable with women leaders, including entrepreneurs, from Central America.
This week's summit, which is being hosted by the U.S. for the first time since the inaugural event in 1994, is an opportunity for Harris to connect with leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean as she welcomes them to her home state.
With her focus on the region, Harris is following in the footsteps of Biden himself, who worked on migration issues when he served as vice president to President Barack Obama. However, Harris has taken just two trips to the region since taking office.
In recent days, she and the president have been working the phones to shore up attendance among leftist leaders who have been critical of the U.S. decision to exclude the authoritarian governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela from the Los Angeles summit.
But the effort yielded few results. Among those staying home are the presidents of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras — the only three leaders Harris has met in her two quick trips to the region.
Brian Winter, vice president of the Council of the Americas, said Harris got off on the wrong foot as Biden's point person assigned to address the root social and economic causes driving migrants to the U.S. In a May 2021 policy speech delivered to Winter's international business group from Washington, Harris, a former California prosecutor, mentioned corruption no fewer than 10 times, stirring resentment in a region where leaders are sensitive to taking lectures from U.S. policymakers.
“Corruption is a huge problem, but clearly there are more delicate ways to handle this,” said Winter. “A lot of doors closed even before she got on the ground.”
Harris reiterated her anti-corruption goals — “we must promote the rule of law” — in her remarks Tuesday. The announcement that private-sector commitments have reached $3.2 billion includes $1.2 billion that was announced in December and another $1.9 billion being detailed this week.
New initiatives being announced include a $700 million expansion of cellular networks in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador by Miami-based Millicom; a $270 million commitment by Visa to promote digital payments; and a $150 million nearshoring investment by the Gap Inc. that could see as many as 5,000 jobs created closer to the U.S.
But the Biden administration's biggest policy proposal in the region — a $4 billion aid package for Central America — has stalled in Congress with little apparent effort to revive it. Meanwhile, the number of migrants at the U.S. border with Mexico has surged to its highest levels in decades, even as the Biden administration has little to show for the Democratic president's promise as a candidate to introduce a “humane” asylum system that would break with Trump-era restrictions.
One challenge is finding partners in a region where institutions are weak, gang violence is prolific and corruption is rampant.
None of the countries Harris is to work with will be represented at the summit by its president, according to the list of delegations the White House released Tuesday. All three nations are sending their foreign ministers instead. And in recent months, the U.S. has taken a strident tone against El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele, whom it accuses of using his popularity to amass power and ride roughshod over democratic checks and balances.
Meanwhile, Guatemala President Alejandro Giammettei said last month that he would not attend after the U.S. criticized his decision to reappoint an attorney general it alleged was involved in corruption.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was Honduras' President Xiomara Castro, who has won praise from U.S. officials for her decision to extradite her predecessor, Juan Orlando Hernández, to the U.S. to face federal drug charges. Harris, who attended Castro's inauguration in January, spoke in recent days with Honduras' first female president in a last-ditch effort to persuade her to travel to Los Angeles.
But in the end Castro sided with fellow leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico in boycotting the summit. Surely weighing on her decision was the United States' quick recognition of a new government after Honduras’ military removed her husband, President Manuel Zelaya, from office in 2009.
“It’s a far tougher set of actors that the U.S. has to deal with even compared to what the Obama administration faced,” said Rebecca Bill Chavez, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
Chavez, who advised Harris on foreign policy during her brief presidential run, welcomed the vice president's focus on gender-based violence and female migrants, something that was missing from past administrations. She's also hopeful that Harris' familial ties to Jamaica — her immigrant father's birthplace — could help her connect to leaders in the Caribbean who are overlooked even in Latin America policy circles.
But Biden's record is tough to top. As vice president he made 16 trips to Latin America and his presence in the region has loomed large since his days as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when he helped craft Plan Colombia, by far the biggest U.S. military and economic aid package in the region.
Chavez said that on issues of climate change, migration and inclusive economic growth, the Biden administration has the opportunity to lay out a vision with appeal to all countries no matter their ideological bent or bilateral agenda with the U.S.
“To succeed she and the Biden administration really needs to broaden their scope,” said Chavez. “Los Angeles is the perfect opportunity for them to show they are so. But it can't be a one and done event. It requires follow-through to become reality.”
Goodman reported from Miami, and Megerian reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Christopher Sherman in Mexico City and Elliot Spagat in Los Angeles contributed to this report.