The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The looming question as Harris returns to Northern Triangle: Will corruption stymie progress?

Vice President Harris at a meeting on the Northern Triangle last spring. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — As Vice President Harris attended the presidential inauguration of Xiomara Castro in Honduras on Thursday, the White House hoped it would display much more than a show of support during a historic meeting of female “firsts.”

“Looking forward to this partnership,” Harris told Castro during a meeting Thursday afternoon, as she announced new U.S.-supplied vaccines for the country.

In Castro, the first woman to lead Honduras, the administration believes America has found an ally who will help stem corruption in a region rife with government abuse and unethical excess. Stanching graft, advisers to Harris say, is a pivotal step to improve the lives of Hondurans, and to give them a reason to stay in their home country instead of making a dangerous trip in search of a better life in the United States.

But Harris’s attendance at the inauguration Thursday also provided a potent image of change in both countries. Harris, the first female vice president of the United States, stood to the side of the stage as Castro, the first female president of Honduras, delivered her inaugural address.

Harris traveled with all the trappings of a head of state — a ceremonial military escort, a red carpet rolled to the door of her helicopter, and a receiving line of Honduran officials — although she arrived late at the inauguration due to what a White House official said was “to allow motorcade routes to be cleared.”

When she was introduced at the inauguration, just after Castro was officially sworn in, there were loud cheers and a chant of “Viva Honduras!” as she waved to the crowd.

And she listened intently as Castro detailed hopeful plans for the country, including battling corruption, fighting narcotics traffickers and reducing poverty.

At a bilateral meeting with Castro in the afternoon, Harris said the Biden administration would be sending several hundred thousand more doses of coronavirus vaccines over the next two months. It would also supply 500,000 pediatric syringes and more than $1.3 million to help health and educational facilities.

The United States will also provide an additional $500,000 to support the Honduras government’s coronavirus vaccine and biosafety communications campaign and to strengthen vaccine deployment.

“I’d like to publicly congratulate you on your election. We’ve been watching the election process closely,” Harris said. “We appreciate that your election was a democratic election.”

According to the vice president’s office, they also discussed cooperation on a range of other issues, including “addressing the root causes of migration, combating corruption, and expanding economic opportunity.” Harris said she welcomed Castro’s focus on countering corruption, and they discussed their shared concerns with gender-based violence in Honduras.

Harris also said that the United States would send a senior-level trade mission and business delegation to generate business opportunities in Honduras.

The trip was Harris’s second to the Northern Triangle region of Central America since President Biden asked her to lead the administration’s efforts to attack the root causes of migration from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, a complex and politically volatile issue that has bedeviled generations of political leaders.

But the visit, and the hope that Castro’s government will resist the allure of authoritarianism and the dollars of drug cartels, underscores just how pervasive corruption in the region has become.

The previous occupant of the Honduran presidential palace, Juan Orlando Hernández, has been named as an unindicted co-conspirator of narcotics traffickers, accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes. In neighboring Guatemala, prosecutors are trying to determine whether Russian business executives bribed President Alejandro Giammattei to obtain a dock that would help their mining interests. Nearly half a dozen people connected with El Salvador’s president have been accused of corruption.

The United States sees a combination of public and private investment as a path out of poverty for people who live in Northern Triangle countries. A vice-presidential call to action has generated $1.2 billion in investment in the region. But experts say the plan will falter if businesses and aid groups fear that money meant to help people will instead be pocketed by politicians.

“The vice president has been working to develop collaboration with private industry and other agencies, international agencies, to come in and help promote economic opportunities, as well as combating the pandemic and making investments in the supply chain,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and traveled with Harris to Honduras. “In order to do that, the investors and the stakeholders need to trust that the money is going where it is intended to go … Combating corruption is an underlying necessity in order to do any of these things.”

In a background call with reporters, Harris advisers said they were buoyed by Castro’s efforts to combat corruption, including allowing the United Nations to establish a corruption-fighting body within Honduras. But observers say that while they are hopeful that Castro’s election is a positive step, rooting out corruption in many aspects of public life will not be an easy task.

“There’s still a lot of influence of organized crime, influence of drug cartels,” said Ana María Méndez Dardón, director for Central America for the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental organization that promotes human rights and democracy in the region. “Illicit networks that are made up of an alliance between politicians and organized crime are working within the government. We see a lot of hope in this new administration. We see that Xiomara Castro has made some great promises. We know what she wants to do, but the how is the key question that we have.”

Even before Air Force Two departed for Tegucigalpa for the inauguration, there were signs of tumult. Castro’s allies have been unable to secure an uncontested ruling majority in parliament, raising questions about whether there is a path for her to fulfill her political promises. Dueling blocs of recently elected politicians have chosen different sets of leaders and both claim they have a majority, an impasse that remained unsettled on the eve of the inauguration. Administration officials have encouraged Honduran leaders to continue negotiating for an enduring resolution.

The outcome will not just impact Honduran politicians. It may also contribute to how history sees Harris. In the United States, the her critics have sought to tie her to the crisis at the southern border, where there was a rapid influx of Central American migrants at the beginning of Biden’s presidency. Republican critics dubbed Harris as Biden’s “border czar” in an effort to connect her to an immigration quagmire that no U.S. political leader has been able to solve. Harris is widely seen as likely heir to Biden in 2028, or 2024 if the oldest president in U.S. history opts to not seek reelection.

The criticisms come as historic numbers of migrants stream to the U.S. southern border. More than 178,000 migrants were arrested by Customs and Border Protection agents last month, a record for December, but still down from a July peak of more than 213,000.

Harris’s first international trip as vice president last June showed the promise and peril of the assignment. She went to Guatemala bearing a raft of pandemic aid and promises of business investment. But that trip was colored by an exchange with NBC News’s Lester Holt in which she downplayed the urgency of visiting the border, as Republicans and other critics had urged her to do. Later that month, she bowed to pressure to go the border.

As Harris prepared to depart Honduras, she stressed the trip was the start of what she hopes is a fruitful relationship. “The strategy has always been clear, and we have been clear the work we need to do is going to be work that will manifest over a long period of time,” Harris told reporters. “Hopefully not too long, but certainly not overnight. The problems that we need to address are problems that did not occur overnight, and the solutions that are going to have any impact will not occur overnight.”

Nick Miroff and Matt Viser contributed to this report.