US Vice President Kamala Harris is making an attempt at values-based foreign policy in her current visit to Mexico and Central America. These values include democracy, human rights and justice. Attempting values based foreign policy is no small feat. While I wish her well, history has shown that immediate political realities often out weight values in US foreign policy.
This is Harris’s first foreign trip as Vice President. She has been assigned the unenviable role of addressing the root causes of migration from Central America. The White House is careful to explain that she is not responsible to what happens with migration at the US/Mexico border. That would be throwing her political future under the proverbial bus. President Biden, when he was vice president, was given a similar role.
Since the Cold War, a values-based US focus on Central America has meant foreign assistance to support economic development, public heath, governance and citizen security. I will make the case any day that economic and humanitarian assistance are better things to do with US money than the military aid of Cold War era. The metric for success is different than that era. Aid used to be given to keep communism from establishing a foothold in Central America. Now the metric is migration. Can the US keep people from wanting to leave Central America? While billions of US dollars in economic aid have gone to Central America, citizens from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras continue to flee the region for the US in huge numbers, escaping violence, lack of work and increasingly, the impact of climate change.
VP Harris often talks about hope, that the US wants Central Americans to see a future for themselves at home. This is on the mark. Migrants don’t risk everything, including their lives, for the fun of it. They take the risky overland journey out of desperation.
Anti-corruption is a new focus in the administration’s approach to values based foreign policy. While this theme isn’t specific to Central America, or foreign policy, it certainly applies to this trip. Central America has stayed poor because it is in the interest of local elites. Successful, innovative efforts to address state corruption have been systematically dismantled.
US administrations constantly struggle where professed values intersecting with political reality. At present that is manifest in Republicans using increased crossings at the US southern border to paint the Biden administration as weak. They want that paint to stick to VP Harris because she has a longer-term political future.
This is the context for the Vice President’s trip: the intersection of democratic values, anti-corruption and economic development in Central America, with the political desire for a visible reduction of migrants crossing the border. The countries with the levers to stem the flow of migration are the two she will be visiting, Mexico and Guatemala. During the Trump Administration, controlling the migration flow was the US’s number one priority with Mexico. My question for Harris’s trip is, “how will she balance aspirational values and the short-term goal of controlling migration?”
Corruption in Central America is a huge problem. It undermines justice and economic development and erodes people’s hope for a better future. Too often messages from US administrations prioritize deterring migrants over emphasizing the values US policy professes to embrace.
After spending a career accompanying human rights defenders in Latin America, I will continue to make the case for values-based foreign policy. The hope that inspires people to see a future in their homeland won’t come from the US. It will come from courageous individuals living out the values of justice, democracy and human rights. These people and processes need and deserve US support. While my experience tells me that short-term political considerations often trump ideals, when it comes to VP Harris’s visit to Mexico and Central America, I’m rooting for aspirational values.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson