This week, after having made an emergency landing at Joint Andrews Base outside Washington due to faulty landing gear on Air Force Two, Kamala Harris landed in Guatemala City on a back-up plane to make her first visit to Central America as vice president and as the Biden Administration’s point person to resolve the migration and border crisis.
The central thrust of that effort will be fighting corruption. The Biden administration issued a presidential memorandum on corruption and national security last week detailing what it expects other nations to do to end corruption within their borders. It has made abundantly clear that the U.S. relationships with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras will depend on these governments making a sincere effort to combat corruption and present tangible results.
While corruption is a major driver of poor governance and drives people to flee these countries, combatting corruption alone is not enough to revitalize a democracy. The U.S. strategy must include robust efforts to strengthen democratic institutions, including civil society organizations and the press.
There have been a few cases where a focus alone on corruption is not enough. For example, the legislation that made Brazil’s Operation Car Wash possible focused on creating institutions and mechanisms to prosecute and punish corrupt elites, with the hope that pushing them out of the way would make government more transparent and accountable. While that might seem like common sense, strengthening the mechanisms against impunity without strengthening democracy was a losing bet.
Operation Car Wash ended with one president behind bars and created the breeding ground for the deep anti-political sentiment that led to Jair Bolsonaro’s election. In another well-known case, the Commission Against Corruption and Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) demonstrated the limitations of prosecuting corruption without simultaneously carrying out major political reforms, including an independent judiciary.
Although corruption drives massive protest movements, that energy can be easily wasted if it is not channeled into producing concrete reforms to allow younger, newer voices into the political process and end corruption by political establishments. All of this will take time and will require an often-elusive bipartisan consensus.
So how can political mobilization result in real political reform? There’s one central lesson that the Biden administration has learned and made explicit: The U.S. relationship will not be exclusively with the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (whose president is being investigated in the United States for drug trafficking). The administration will focus on building relationships with civil society groups and grassroots movements. Both the White House and the embassies should redouble their efforts to consult and involve these groups—and Harris met with some of them during her trip—in the redesign of policy towards their countries.
To take full advantage of what civil society — academia, activists, grassroots groups, independent media, and nongovernmental organizations — has to offer, the U.S. government will have to rethink its funding models, and make them more accessible to local actors, organizations, and movements. Money, as well as technical capacity, must reach the ground, not stay in the hands of costly U.S. intermediaries.
Finally, the administration will have to be realistic about the possibilities of change. In the short term, the Biden Administration is right to use more than $300 million in humanitarian aid as a carrot to assist and protect thousands of migrants, and to prevent and respond to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Donating and exporting even more vaccines would be a logical next step, followed by the installation of physical and human capacity to produce them locally. In the medium term, a compensation scheme in exchange for social work would not only generate civic and labor skills in increasingly hopeless young people, but would also anchor them in their communities, contribute to adaptation efforts in the face of the climate crisis and reconstruction after damaging hurricanes. This is a long-term investment and should be done with a realistic calculus of the chances of incremental change, through a calibrated mix of carrots and sticks.
Corruption has undoubtedly contributed to these democracies being unresponsive to their citizens and to governments ineffectiveness in addressing the climate crisis and epidemic of violence, the two factors driving migration.
This won’t be a quick fix for the U.S. government; this a long term gamble that incremental change will result from working with and investing in civil society.
(Pedro Abramovay is the director of the Latin America Program at the Open Society Foundations. Iván Velásquez is the former head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala.)