Vice President Kamala Harris is set to depart Sunday for Guatemala, with plans to meet President Alejandro Giammattei amid growing concerns about the migrant crisis at the U.S. southern border.
Harris is the point person to handle the migrant crisis, but she has not yet held a press conference or visited the border with Mexico – some 75 days after President Biden tapped her for the role.
This week, she will visit Mexico and Guatemala, but she could face a tense meeting with Guatemala’s president.
Giammattei has had a tumultuous career in politics: He served as director of the Guatemalan Penitentiary System starting in 2006, but several conflicts and accusations that he orchestrated prisoner executions led to his own brief incarceration in 2010, Reuters reported.
Guatemala’s President-elect Alejandro Giammattei gives an interview in Guatemala City, Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. Giammattei said Tuesday that Guatemala will not be able to hold up its side of an immigration agreement with the United States by serving as a “safe third country” for asylum seekers. (AP Photo/Oliver de Ros)
He made three prior runs at the top office, failing in 2007, 2011 and 2015, according to The Global Americans, before finally winning in 2019. He assumed office on Jan. 14, 2020.
Guatemala faced a political crisis in November 2020 when Giammattei set out a budget that favored privately funded infrastructure improvements over helping with pressing domestic issues, such as poverty and child care. Protests led to the burning of Congress and demands for Giammattei to resign.
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Giammattei has shown support for the U.S. approach to migration in recent months, but he has made a number of critical statements as well, signaling a complicated relationship ahead between the nations.
Chief among Giammattei’s complaints has been “confusing” messaging from the Biden administration on immigration, which the Guatemalan president blames for fueling the crisis at the border.
Vice President Kamala Harris meets virtually with Guatemala’s President Alejandro Giammattei, seen on screen at left, Monday, April 26, 2021, from her ceremonial office at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
“I believe that in the first few weeks of the Biden administration, messages were confusing,” Giammattei told MSNBC on April 13. “They were compassionate messages that were understood by people in our country, especially the coyotes, to tell families, ‘We’ll take the children.’”
“And children can go, and once children are there, they will call their parents.”
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Giammattei said he has seen coyotes – the smugglers who ferry migrants into the U.S. for a fee – carry out “horrible acts” and criticized the U.S. for not properly responding to the surge of migrants, according to The New York Post.
In the run-up to Harris’ visit this week, Giammattei criticized Special Prosecutor against Impunity Juan Francisco Sandoval for “left-wing politicization” of the fight against corruption in his country – an approach the U.S. has supported, according to Reuters.
Protesters gather outside Congress in Guatemala City, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. Hundreds of protesters were protesting in various parts of the country Saturday against Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and members of Congress for the approval of the 2021 budget that reduced funds for education, health and the fight for human rights. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
“Everybody has a right to their own ideology,” Giammattei said. “The problem is when you transfer that ideology to your actions, and worse when you are in charge of justice.”
Giammattei accused Sandoval of selectively administering justice to suit his agenda. However, U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala William Popp last week said Washington was working to “robustly” support Sandoval.
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Harris has spoken to Giammattei over the phone and virtually in the past few months, with Harris pledging an additional $310 million to humanitarian relief and food insecurity in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
In response, Guatemala has agreed to increase border security, Politico reported.
Giammattei also planned to open “migrant resource centers” to provide education and assistance in following legal pathways for migration. The first center will appear in Guatemala City, and is meant to be up and running by the time Harris touches down in Guatemala.
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These more positive steps occur in contrast to a move by Giammattei to seemingly “pre-empt” talks with Harris after he said Thursday that Guatemala would receive a half-million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from the U.S., seizing on Biden’s promise to share some 80 million doses with struggling nations around the world, USA Today reported.