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Vice President Harris looks for a fresh start on migration issues in Honduras

Vice President Harris arrives at Soto Cano Air Base in Comayagua, Honduras, to attend the inauguration ceremony for Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro on Jan. 27.
Erin Schaff
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POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Vice President Harris arrives at Soto Cano Air Base in Comayagua, Honduras, to attend the inauguration ceremony for Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro on Jan. 27.

Updated January 27, 2022 at 10:14 AM ET

Vice President Harris traveled thousands of miles to Honduras on Thursday for the inauguration of new president Xiomara Castro — a sign of the importance the White House is placing on finding a willing partner to help tackle the root causes of migration from Central America.

It's rare for an American vice president to travel to Latin America for an inauguration — especially to a small country like Honduras. Harris has the complex job of tackling the issues that have spurred growing numbers of people to leave Central America for the U.S. southern border, seeking safety and economic opportunity.

Castro, who has pledged to help Hondurans get better health care, education and job opportunities, has also spoken about wanting to fight corruption, and has said she is open to help from the United Nations.

"Those are the things that we want to partner with her on," a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the trip. "We believe they are good for the people of Honduras, good for the region and good for U.S. priorities in terms of our overall partnership, as well as our specific goals on root causes" of migration.

Harris has already spoken with Castro about ways to work together, and is slated to meet with the new president on Thursday after the inauguration ceremonies.

Samantha Power, the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, is also part of the delegation.

Guatemala's military stops migrants who are part of a caravan from Honduras hoping to reach the United States after they crossed the border in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, on Jan. 15.
Delmer Martinez / AP
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AP
Guatemala's military stops migrants who are part of a caravan from Honduras hoping to reach the United States after they crossed the border in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, on Jan. 15.

Honduran migration has grown in the past year

Honduras is a troubled nation with a poor economy, high levels of gang violence and drug trafficking. The number of Hondurans coming to the southern U.S. border has risen sharply since President Biden took office.

In the year ending Sept. 30, border patrol officials encountered Honduran migrants almost 320,000 times, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In fiscal 2020 — a year when COVID-19 affected migration rates — that number was as low as 42,000, while the previous year, there were 261,000 border "encounters," as the agency calls them.

Xiomara Castro, celebrates her victory during general elections on November 28, 2021 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Inti Ocon / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Xiomara Castro, celebrates her victory during general elections on November 28, 2021 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Castro represents a fresh start

The United States had a difficult relationship with the departing president, Juan Orlando Hernández, accused by U.S. prosecutors of taking drug money.

Castro will be the first female president of Honduras. She is a former first lady to Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a coup 12 years ago.

She represents a fresh start for the administration, said Benjamin Gedan, who led Latin America policy in the Obama White House.

"This is an enormously important relationship for the United States," Gedan said. "The reality is that the migration nightmare the United States is facing is because of poor leadership in Central America and the inability for the United States to find partners in the region to address poverty, to address violent crime, to address corruption."

Corruption is a major issue in the region

Other leaders in the northern triangle region have proven difficult to work with. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele has issues with corruption, and has used social media to pick fights with the Biden administration.

Biden administration relations with Guatemala started off well. Harris went there in June to meet President Alejandro Giammattei. She said this month that the administration remains committed to working with Guatemala on addressing the root causes of migration.

Vice President Harris and Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei met in June in Guatemala City on her first foreign trip.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP
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AP
Vice President Harris and Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei met in June in Guatemala City on her first foreign trip.

But just last week, the State Department slammed the Giammattei government for going after a judge who has exposed bribery and corruption.

A new relationship with Castro represents an opportunity to change the dynamic in the region, said Eric Farnsworth, a former state department official now at the Council of the Americas.

But he noted that in the past, other Latin American leaders have been elected on pledges to root out corruption and fell short.

Castro has already suffered a major setback: a split in her party led to a divided congress that will make it harder to carry out promised reforms.

"There's a lot of expectation in terms of what the relationship will lead to and where it is right now — but we have to maintain realism, too," Farnsworth said. "The issues are really difficult. They're going to take a sustained effort and a longer timeframe to really address," he said.

Cadets march towards the plane of Taiwan Vice President William Lai, arriving in Honduras on Jan. 26 for the inauguration of Xiomara Castro.
Orlando Sierra / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Cadets march towards the plane of Taiwan Vice President William Lai, arriving in Honduras on Jan. 26 for the inauguration of Xiomara Castro.

Taiwan and China are also part of this trip

Migration is not the only issue importance to the administration on this trip. The United States is also concerned about Honduras maintaining diplomatic ties with Taiwan — a self-governed island that is a flashpoint in U.S.-China relations.

Honduras is one of the very few countries in the world to have formal ties with Taipei. The Vice President of Taiwan William Lai will also be at the inauguration but senior U.S. officials told reporters there were no plans for Harris to meet him.

"We do appreciate the constructive role that Taiwan has played in advancing development in Honduras, as well as the rest of the region, and very much hope that they will continue to play that constructive role," an official told reporters.

During her campaign, Castro suggested she could shift diplomatic ties to China — a step that some other nations in the region have taken, and something the Biden administration wants to avoid.

Eric Miller, a U.S. trade consultant working with Honduran firms, said China has been working to expand its sphere of influence into areas where the United States was previously unchallenged.

"In many respects, what happens in Latin America with China is something that is a very direct interest to the United States and is something that poses a bit of an existential threat," Miller said.
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