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Joe Biden’s first crisis is in Spanish

Vice-President Kamala Harris is caught up in a an intersection of tensions. The president has exposed her to one of the most delicate challenges of all: migration

Carlos Pagni
President Joe Biden at a press conference earlier this month in the White House.
President Joe Biden at a press conference earlier this month in the White House.KEVIN LAMARQUE (Reuters)

Joe Biden is dealing with his first crisis. And the crisis is in Spanish. It has to do with Latin America. With that dimension of Latin America that is part of America’s domestic agenda like no other. It has to do with migration. Roberta S. Jacobson, the National Security Council (NSC)’s coordinator in charge of ties with the Northern Triangle – made up of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – is leaving government. And she does so at a turbulent time. Migrant crossings through the US border with Mexico have reached record levels. And the way in which the Biden administration has addressed the problem has triggered the first signs of dissidence among Democrats.

The White House has understandably tried to minimize the impact of Jacobson’s departure, stating that her commitment was to serve only during the first 100 days of Biden’s presidency. Jacobson has built a highly successful diplomatic career. Under former president Barack Obama she was the State Department’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, heading a bureau that handles relations with Latin America. She was an ambassador to Mexico. And she was in charge of nothing less than the effort to restore relations with Cuba. When the current president won the election, she was tasked with organizing the new administration’s Latin America area. She is credited with having promoted Julie J. Chung to the position of Acting Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, under the orders of Secretary Antony J. Blinken. Jacobson has for years exercised a personal leadership over colleagues specializing in Latin American issues.

The exodus also creates conflict in the countries of origin

Statistical figures on migration flows indicate that an estimated one million single adults, 820,000 families and over 200,000 unaccompanied minors will have reached the US by the month of September. These children embody the main tragedy of this immigration pattern. Over 18,000 of them crossed the border in March. That is nearly twice as many as the previous month, when 9,400 minors were apprehended by authorities.

In response to this wave, a new refugee center with a capacity to hold 500 people was opened in Carrizo Springs, located 180 kilometers from San Antonio, Texas. These facilities have attracted a series of negative reactions. But one of them stands out. Democratic Party representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most caustic critics of former president Donald Trump’s immigration policies, tweeted: “This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay – no matter the administration or party.”

It is a mystery whether Ocasio-Cortez was speaking for herself only, or whether she was giving a voice to other party leaders who champion the idea of a change in border policies. The question is all the more sensitive in the case of US Vice-President Kamala Harris, who two weeks ago was charged by Biden to lead the immigration strategy on the southern border. Harris quickly initiated talks with Mexico. On Wednesday of last week she had a talk with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whom Biden had accused of refusing to take back illegal immigrants deported by the US. Jacobson was not part of that discussion, leading observers to suspect that her departure was driven by the vice-president.

This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay – no matter the administration or party
Democratic Party Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, speaking about a new detention center in Texas

Harris is in an intersection of tensions. Biden has exposed her to one of the most delicate challenges of his administration, one under strict surveillance by the Democratic left. It is a key issue in the electoral dispute. Meanwhile, Republicans are asking the new government to bring some order into an issue that plays a determining role in the size of the gap dividing them from the Democrats. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, wrote a letter to Harris demanding a solution to the humanitarian crisis on the border with Mexico, where criminal groups are operating and carrying out all kinds of outrages. And migrants themselves are turning to the vice-president for a solution. Last Friday, 50 families showed up outside her home bearing signs that read “Kamala, escucha, estamos en la lucha” (or, Kamala, listen, we are taking up the fight)

The migratory flows are encouraged by several factors. One is the contraction of the economy. According to figures released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Mexican economy shrank 8.5% in 2020 and will only recover five points this year. On top of economic hardship, Guatemala and Honduras were devastated by hurricanes in November, affecting an estimated 50% of Hondurans.

And the Covid-19 pandemic only adds to the nightmare, especially since vaccination campaigns are very deficient. As of last Sunday, Mexico had immunized 7% of its population. That is less than Brazil (9.1%), Argentina (9%) and naturally Chile (37.4%). In Guatemala, only 0.7% of the population has received one dose. In Honduras the figure is 0.5% and in El Salvador it is 2.5%.

The exodus also creates conflict in the countries of origin. The government of Alejandro Giammattei, in Guatemala, views its border with Honduras and El Salvador the same way that Americans view their border with Mexico. On March 29 Giammattei signed a controversial decree to militarize the region, increasing control over the area of Chimicula, a spot where routes from neighboring countries converge.

To Biden, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are the advance zone of a region with several hotspots of instability. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro is piloting a military storm despite – or perhaps because of – his decision to remove Armed Forces leaders who resisted being politicized. Not content with that problem, Bolsonaro is also involved in a confrontation with the Supreme Federal Court, which has greenlighted a congressional a probe into the federal government’s response to the pandemic.

In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro turned to the United Nations to pacify the border with Colombia. Colombians are being accused of conducting an unusual strategy to destabilize the area with terrorist forces. And the presidential election in Peru last Sunday evidenced that the country’s political class is pulverized, undermining hopes that Peru will be able to resolve a crisis that has already dragged down several governments. The most-voted candidate, Pedro Castillo, managed no more than 15.8% of the votes. In Chile, President Sebastián Piñera has handled the pandemic rather efficiently, notwithstanding a relaxation of measures that triggered a surge in the death count. Before the health crisis hit, Piñera had been dealing with street unrest without any clear flags or leaders. As for Bolivia, it is split down the middle, with the governing Movement for Socialism (MAS) putting its rivals in prison.

This is the background against which US officials Juan González, Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere at the NSC, and Julie J. Chung, his counterpart at the State Department, embarked on a trip to Colombia, Argentina and Uruguay this past weekend. All three countries have varying degrees of affinity with Washington DC, and varying influence from China, a matter of concern for the US government. But all three countries also have something that is priceless: a modicum of stability. González and Chung are headed south filled with satisfaction over the election results in Ecuador: at the Sunday runoff, the businessman Guillermo Lasso was the winner. In Argentina this could prove to be an uncomfortable reality. Lasso’s victory builds on the advisory work of Jaime Durán Barba, who was also the chief consultant to former Argentinean president Mauricio Macri – the latter in turn being viewed as the devil by the current Kirchnerist government of Alberto Fernández.

English version by Susana Urra.

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