By Nandita Bose and Sofia Menchu
WASHINGTON, April 26 (Reuters) – The US’ first black Caribbean American Vice President, Kamala Harris, unveiled an additional $310 million in U.S. aid to Central America Monday, but will it stop the flow of migrants crossing the border?
The announcement came after a virtual meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on Monday, as the two countries agreed to work together to control migration.
President Joe Biden gave Harris the job of leading U.S. efforts with Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle countries – Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – to stop a growing number of migrants from crossing into the United States.
“We want to work with you … in a way that will bring hope to the people of Guatemala, that there will be an opportunity for them if they stay at home,” Harris said, adding she would visit the region in June.
In a statement, her office said the funds would come from USAID, along with the Departments of State, Defense and Agriculture.
For example, the humanitarian aid includes $125 million to deal with repeated droughts, food shortages and the COVID-19 pandemic, along with $104 million from the U.S. State Department to help with the safety and protection of refugees and asylum seekers.
The U.S. Defense Department will provide $26 million to increase partnership activities in the region aimed at health, education and disaster relief services, according to the vice president’s office.
Back-to-back hurricanes and the economic impact of the pandemic in 2020 have increased the number of people facing hunger this year in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to 7.8 million, according to the World Food Programme.
Following the Harris-Giammattei meeting, Guatemalan Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo told a news conference that Guatemala and the United States agreed “to establish a new joint border protection task force,” including a small number of officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
He said about 16 DHS officials would initially travel to Guatemala to train local officials in strengthening border infrastructure.
Under former U.S. President Donald Trump, a small group of DHS officials also operated in Guatemala for a time.
Brolo said Harris also spoke of helping build centers for deportees and beefing up security at Guatemala’s ports. Guatemala will send a team to the United States to help reunify unaccompanied Guatemalan minors with their parents, he said
In March, Mexico said more than unaccompanied 18,000 Central American children crossed its territory en route to the United States.
Brolo laid some of the blame for increased migration on Biden, saying people smugglers used expectations of “greater benefits” for migrants that emerged with the arrival of the new U.S. administration to persuade more people to travel.
‘VERY HARD ROAD’
Monday’s meeting was Harris’ second conversation with Guatemala’s leader in less than a month – a sign of the best opportunity she has to build a partnership in the region.
Harris has yet to speak with the leaders of Honduras and El Salvador.
Giammattei said Guatemala was looking forward to her visit but wants to reach an agreement on issues before she travels.
“I believe that we should build a road map between governments … so that we can reach an agreement… (and) can work on this very hard road that we have ahead of us,” he said.
Challenges surfaced during their first call, when Giammattei asked Harris about the possibility of purchasing COVID-19 vaccines, officials told Reuters. The question was not included in the U.S. readout of the call.
On April 5, Guatemala said it was purchasing 16 million Russian Sputnik V vaccines to inoculate about half its population.
Harris’ office did not comment on the issue, but an administration official said it was not politically tenable to assure vaccine supplies to other countries before inoculating every American.
Other problems have also emerged. Guatemalan lawmakers recently refused to swear in a corruption-fighting judge, Constitutional Court President Gloria Porras, whom U.S. officials had seen as key to the country’s fight against graft.
Hours before the call with Giammattei, the United States and the UK imposed sanctions on a member of Guatemala’s Congress over alleged corruption.
Harris will participate in a virtual roundtable with representatives from Guatemalan community based-organizations on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington and Sofia Menchu in Guatemala; Additional reporting by Merdie Nzanga in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler, Peter Cooney and Himani Sarkar)