Vice President Kamala Harris was upbeat as she left Honduras last week. In a five-minute gaggle with reporters, she used the word “optimistic” and “optimism” as she gushed about how impressed she was by the passion with which the country’s new president spoke about combating corruption during her inauguration speech.
That’s a lot of enthusiasm for a leader who threatened to expel 18 elected lawmakers before taking office and is now embroiled in a constitutional crisis.
Good day and welcome to Essential Politics: Kamala Harris edition. Today, I’ll explain what’s at stake in Harris’ latest foreign trip and why the Biden administration feels it has to place its bet on Xiomara Castro, the new Honduran president, warts and all.
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As voting rights failed, Harris turned south
First, a little primer on Harris. She has two prominent pieces of her portfolio: passing voting rights legislation in Congress and curbing migration in Central America. The Senate killed a voting rights bill last month, all but ending that quest. A week later, Harris got back to work on the second issue, addressing the root causes of migration, which is a long way from being solved.
The root causes strategy involves directing aid and private investment into Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, three countries that are known collectively as the Northern Triangle. They have been major sources of migration thanks to extreme poverty, crime, violence, COVID-19 and a string of natural disasters.
The administration agrees with many experts and activists who believe that reducing corruption in those countries is key to ensuring investments and aid make it to the people. Harris has been reluctant to deal with leaders in the region, however, because of a general turn toward authoritarianism.
Last year, Harris put her focus on Guatemala. But weeks after she met with President Alejandro Giammattei in June, the country’s government fired its lead anti-corruption prosecutor. The New York Times reported that the prosecutor, Juan Francisco Sandoval, came to Washington with evidence allegedly implicating Giammattei in a bribery scheme.
That and other actions by the the Guatemalan government, including the passage of new laws that could target journalists and nongovernmental organizations, underscore the risks of putting too many huevos in one basket.
To the south in Honduras, meanwhile, former President Juan Orlando Hernández had been off-limits because he has been implicated in the drug trade by American courts that convicted his brother, Tony, of drug trafficking. When Castro defeated Hernandez in an election late last year, the Biden administration decided they had a shot at finding a partner who could help deal with the migration problem.
In a background call with reporters last week before Harris attended the inauguration, administration officials emphasized that fighting corruption takes time. But they said they are impressed with Castro’s promises to work with the United Nations on bringing in an outside body to fight corruption, a strategy that has been tried in the region before.
But as my colleague Kate Linthicum wrote last week, Castro’s inauguration was marred by a crisis, with two groups of lawmakers claiming they were the rightful representatives in Congress as they held dueling assemblies. Castro was furious that lawmakers in her party had undercut a pre-election deal she made that helped get her elected. Instead of voting for her coalition partner to head Congress, as planned, they supported a rival candidate.
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‘A concerning question’
All of it is raising questions about how much control Castro will have of her government and whether, if her side loses in the courts, she will respect the role of the legislature.
“It is a concerning question,” said Lisa Kubiske, who served as U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 2011 to 2014. “All of those aspects are sort of rule-of-law issues.”
Despite those glaring concerns, Kubiske said she believes Harris’ decision to embrace Castro is not a gamble so much as an opportunity.
“If you’re a diplomat, any diplomat, you’re usually trying to see what you can accomplish. And starting out by berating the other side doesn’t usually help,” she said.
Harris’ embrace is drawing lots of attention in the region. Linthicum, who has been reporting from El Salvador this week, told me that Castro is viewed by many as a direct rival to Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele. Many of the people she is meeting see Harris’ budding relationship with Castro as a rebuke of Bukele, whose authoritarian tendencies have made him a persona non grata in Washington.
Castro is also a leftist, which could cause domestic political trouble for Harris, especially if Castro forms an alliance with Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, a socialist. Maduro is particularly unpopular in the battleground state of Florida.
Kubiske, a former career diplomat who spent the bulk of her tenure in the Western Hemisphere, said there is an opening for the White House in Honduras because Castro has several goals that coincide with American interests. Those include promises to fight corruption and plans to provide free electricity to the country’s large population of extremely poor people.
“All of the root causes stuff is a common goal,” she added. “How you get there may or not be. I don’t think inauguration day is the day to get into details.”
It’s all tough stuff to accomplish, both logistically and politically. And the U.S. still doesn’t really know what it’s getting with Castro. But Kubiske believes losing a seat at the table in a country that is at risk of becoming a failed state is a far worse alternative.
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The view from Washington
— Nolan D. McCaskill spoke to Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) about progressives’ recent defeats and how they view Biden’s presidency.
— From Tracy Wilkinson: A stormy, angry session at the United Nations on Monday heightened deep global rifts about the Russian troop buildup around Ukraine, with the American and Russian sides harshly accusing each other of escalating the conflict.
— A bipartisan effort on Capitol Hill to place parameters on the country’s biggest tech companies has found new support in recent weeks. But as Jennifer Haberkorn writes, it is also dividing Democrats as they confront a long-held campaign pledge.
— In 1980, Ronald Reagan vowed to name the Supreme Court’s first female justice if he was elected president — not unlike Biden’s promise to nominate a Black woman. The architect of Reagan’s campaign-trail commitment said it was all political, writes columnist Mark Z. Barabak.
— Erin B. Logan and Anumita Kaur report that Biden met with two key senators in the Oval Office on Tuesday as the White House sought to build congressional support for his eventual Supreme Court nominee.
— David G. Savage writes that U.S. Appeals Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has been the favorite for the next Supreme Court seat since Biden won the 2020 election. She graduated with high honors from Harvard College, was an editor of the Harvard Law Review and a law clerk for retiring Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
— Los Angeles County native and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger is also among the top contenders for the seat. Her résumé spans the nation’s top universities, elite law firms and the federal Department of Justice, Hannah Wiley writes.
The latest from California
— From Melody Gutierrez: Lawmakers declined to vote on a high-profile effort to overhaul California’s healthcare system on Monday, putting an end to a proposal that would have guaranteed medical coverage to every resident by levying billions in new taxes.
— As the midterm elections approach, new financial reports show California members of Congress continue to rake in millions of dollars, Seema Mehta Reports. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Reps. Katie Porter and Adam B. Schiff are among the most prodigious fundraisers in the nation.
— Nearly three years after Gov. Gavin Newsom halted executions in California, the state is accelerating an effort to move incarcerated people off death row and into other prisons, write Wiley and Richard Winton.
— In his campaign for Los Angeles mayor, Mike Feuer likes to tell voters about his family’s devotion to public service. But the two-term L.A. city attorney’s do-gooder profile took a gut punch in a 2019 scandal, writes James Rainey. Will voters care?
Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting.