Alejandro Giammattei, Kamala Harris.
Jean Guerrero, Tribune News Service
Kamala Harris’ first international trip as vice president started in Guatemala with a blunt message for migrants: “Do not come,” she said, shaking her head at a news conference with Guatemala’s President Alejandro Giammattei. “Do not come.”
It’s possible that the message was meant less for the ears of migrants than for Fox News pundits and Republicans who relentlessly mischaracterise the Biden administration’s halfhearted steps toward a humane immigration policy as “open borders.”
Regardless, with those three words — “do not come” — Harris signalled disdain for the rights of asylum seekers under federal and international laws and dashed many people’s hopes that she might reform US foreign policy in the region, which has long involved a contradictory combination of humanitarian aid and support for militaries that attack human rights.
Harris travelled to Guatemala to address the “root causes” of immigration, such as poverty and violence. But she made no mention of the US role in those conditions, such as training right-wing death squads, financing coups or investing in extractive and exploitative industries. She promised to fight corruption but left out the US role in fuelling corruption.
Our understanding of corruption in countries south of the US-Mexico border is deeply flawed because it conceives of the problem as separate from ourselves and endemic to the region, rather than tangled up with American foreign policy, investments, gun smuggling and firearms exports. When US leaders talk of corruption in Latin America, it fuels racist tropes about Latinos by failing to acknowledge US complicity.
Instead of tackling that complicity, Harris announced tens of millions of dollars in more aid, such as a $40-million “empowerment” initiative for “young, primarily Indigenous women,” and bragged about convening “some of our biggest CEOs” to increase investments.
But even a cursory glance at those CEOs reveals disregard for history’s lessons. Among the companies is Nespresso, which was found to have Guatemalan child labour in its supply chain last year. Many coffee producers dread the Nestlé-owned company.
“Nestlé hurts us a lot,” Miguel Tejero, a coffee industry leader in Oaxaca, Mexico, told me. He said the company floods markets with cheaper Robusta coffee, decreasing demand for the high-quality Arabica that small-scale producers grow. Studies show that less than 10% of the wealth from coffee stays in producing countries.
Rather than encouraging more investment from corporations that guzzle profits, the US should invest in infrastructure for vulnerable communities to process, package and sell their own value-added products, Tejero said, as well as in the promotion of such products.
But while Harris had meetings with young women entrepreneurs, her primary function was as a human stop sign: “Do not come,” she said, warning that migrants who came to the border would be “turned back.” The administration previously enlisted the militaries in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico to block the flow of migrants. Biden’s budget requested $27.5 million in military financing for Central America, even though Congress approved a ban on military financing for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador because of their documented, recurrent involvement in the massacre of Black and Indigenous people.
After a day in Guatemala, Harris travelled to Mexico City, where she met with Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, announcing millions to “address child and forced labour” and more bilateral cooperation to stop migration. After meeting women entrepreneurs there, too, she declared the trip a “success.” Then she flew home.
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