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Tag Archives: Harris


Fight Night: Kamala v. Pete

The Veep is down, the mayor is up.

By Matthew ContinettiThe Washington Free Beacon

kamala pete
Getty Images

It was all hands on deck last month at the home of Washington, D.C., powerbroker Kiki McLean, according to the irrefragable Jonathan Swan of Axios. Some of the Democratic Party’s most experienced and influential female political operatives—Donna Brazile, Jen Palmieri, Stephanie Cutter, Minyon Moore—gathered for dinner to discuss a germinating crisis within their party. “These were old friends getting together for the first time since the pandemic began, and celebrating a Democratic president after the Trump years,” Swan reports. “But the dinner had an urgent purpose.” Its object was to salvage the career of Vice President Kamala Harris. I hope there was plenty on hand to drink.

The brain trust arrived at two conclusions. First, Harris should emphasize her years as California’s attorney general, thereby reducing her exposure to the charge that the Democrats are soft on crime. Second, the poohbahs decided that much of the criticism of Harris’s job performance amounts to sexism. “Many of us lived through the Clinton campaign, and want to help curb some of the gendered dynamics in press coverage that impacted HRC,” a source told Swan. The problem with ascribing your candidate’s difficulties to “gendered dynamics,” of course, is that it doesn’t work. A candidate is truly “impacted” by their own attributes and competence. Sexism didn’t bury Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Clinton did—with a big assist from Robby Mook.

The subtext of Swan’s article, and much of the Harris commentary these days, is the 2024 election. President Biden is 78 years old. Professional Washington appears convinced that he will decide against running for a second term. Harris, as vice president, is Biden’s presumed successor. But the enthusiasm for her candidacy is not exactly overwhelming. Indeed, one of the most entertaining sideshows in the nation’s capital since January has been the steel cage match between Harris and her rival within the cabinet, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. The prize is the Democratic Party. At the moment, Mr. Secretary can say—in seven languages—that he’s winning.

Recent months have not been pleasant for Harris. Her policy portfolio, consisting of voting rights and the southern border, has seen diminishing returns. Neither the unconstitutional “For the People Act” nor the anachronistic “John Lewis Voting Rights Act” is headed for passage. The Justice Department lawsuit against Georgia’s recent election reform is likely to be tossed out of court. Meanwhile, illegal immigrants continue to cross the border in record numbers. Immigration is Biden’s worst issue—thanks, Kamala—and the ploy to address the “root causes” of migration in Central America is diversionary and futile.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D., Texas) recently teamed up with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and called on the president to install Jeh Johnson, former secretary of homeland security, as “border czar.” It is unlikely that Biden will follow their advice—the rebuke of Harris would be too obvious. But Cuellar’s desperation is impossible to ignore. “Democrats would do well to remember that public opinion polling over the years has consistently shown overwhelming majorities in favor of more spending and emphasis on border security,” writes demographer Ruy Teixeira in his invaluable newsletter the Liberal Patriot. And Democrats would do well to remember Vice President Harris’s approval rating: It’s upside down.

Buttigieg, by contrast, is cycling his way toward a bipartisan success. It’s true that transportation wasn’t his first pick: He wanted, by all accounts, to be U.N. ambassador. But there was no way Harris was going to let Biden park Buttigieg in the Ritz-Carlton in New York City, where he could spend four years burnishing his diplomatic credentials and wining and dining the financial services crowd that funds presidential campaigns. The U.N. job went to a career foreign serviceofficer instead.

As it happens, though, the transportation gig is working out for the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Buttigieg’s interviews are as gaffe-free (and as somnolent) as one might expect from someone who as a youth tested talking points in the mirror and dressed up as a “politician” for Halloween. The legislation with which he is most associated—the 2,700-page, $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework now under debate in the Senate—has a good chance of becoming law. And it’s popular.

Could Buttigieg leverage his experience managing a mid-level department into a winning presidential bid? Stranger things have happened, I suppose. What must keep Buttigieg up at night is his utter lack of appeal to the Democratic Party’s most important constituency: Recall the CNN poll from the summer of 2019 showing him with zero support among black voters. True, he tied Bernie Sanders in the Iowa caucus. But Iowa doesn’t make Democratic nominees—South Carolina does. And Buttigieg placed fourth in the Palmetto State.

Then again, Harris doesn’t have much of a track record with black voters, either. She dropped out of the Democratic primary before the voting began, so it’s hard to judge her against actual results. Which raises this conundrum: How can the Biden Democrats succeed—or even exist—without Joe Biden?

Harris and Buttigieg, the two most prominent options in 2024, are gentry liberals with tenuous connections to working-class Democrats and suburban independents. It’s fun to watch them one-up each other. But Democratic professionals, including Kiki McLean’s dinner companions, must be wondering who else is on offer. Or might it be the case that President Biden has set up his heirs for failure on purpose, so that his party three years from now has no choice but to renominate his 81-year-old self? Sure, Joe Biden is a little crazy. But maybe he’s crazy like a fox.


The Veep From ‘Veep’

Kamala Harris can’t fix her office, much less the border

By Matthew ContinettiThe Washington Free Beacon

Kamala Harris

President Joe Biden has a problem, and her name is Kamala Harris. The vice president has become a comic figure in today’s Washington—a politician given to missteps and unforced errors who inspires neither loyalty nor trust within her inner circle. She might have been Biden’s safest pick for running mate. But now she’s a liability for both the president and the Democratic Party.

It’s not just that Harris is unpopular. Her unique combination of falsity and incompetence generates negative press and endangers her dreams of succeeding Biden. For Harris, the month of June has been an extended replay of highlights from Veep, the HBO comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a clueless and floundering politician on the make. Only Harris isn’t laughing.

Her favorability among registered voters is 7 points underwater in the latest Economist/YouGov survey. Biden’s approval, by contrast, is split even: 48 percent approve, and 48 percent disapprove. More worrisome for Harris is her “very unfavorable” rating. It’s at 40 percent. That’s 3 points higher than Biden’s number—and just 3 points short of Nancy Pelosi’s.

The reason for Harris’s unpopularity is no mystery. It’s her performance. She has a problem following through. She’s fine when working from a script, but she stumbles whenever she must improvise. The classic example came early in the 2020 campaign. Harris attacked Biden during a primary debate for opposing school busing in the 1970s. The moment went viral—and then evaporated. Harris couldn’t rebut Biden’s arguments against Medicare for All. She couldn’t withstand Tulsi Gabbard’s criticism of her record as California’s state attorney general. She didn’t make it past the first week of December 2019.

Last August, when Biden asked her to join the Democratic ticket, Harris took the Hippocratic Oath of running mates: first, do no harm. She lived up to the pledge. She followed the Biden strategy of letting President Donald Trump hog the stage and self-destruct. She made no great mistakes during her debate with Vice President Mike Pence. And she barely made a sound during the presidential transition. The biggest flap concerning Harris was over a Vogue cover shoot that annoyed her Very Online fan base.

It was Biden who set Harris up for a fall. By May, the surge in illegal crossings at the southern border had become impossible to ignore. Biden said the vice president would lead the administration’s response. This was a gargantuan and impossible task. After all, Biden’s reversal of Trump’s immigration policies is behind the increase in illegal immigration. And there’s no way Harris would contradict her boss, even if she wanted to.

Harris immediately distanced herself from her assignment. She recast her mandate as a diplomatic effort to address the “root causes” of migration. (The root cause is simple: America is a better place to live than the Northern Triangle of Central America.) Her evasion was transparent—and Republicans began criticizing her for refusing to visit the border. But the Harris team doubled down, scheduling a trip to Guatemala and Mexico in early June. It was a disaster.

Harris meant to strike a tough tone during her visit to Guatemala City. “Do not come,” she told potential migrants. But her message was undercut: first by Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei, who blamed Biden’s “lukewarm” rhetoric for the rise in migration, and then by NBC News anchor Lester Holt, who asked Harris why she was several thousand miles away from the border. A flustered Harris laughed awkwardly and tried to dodge before blurting out, “And I haven’t been to Europe!” Louis-Dreyfus couldn’t have delivered the line any better.

Harris’s inane reply amplified Republican charges that she was avoiding the real issue. By the time she returned from her trip, it was obvious that Harris would visit the border sooner rather than later. The question was when. On June 25, less than a week before Trump was scheduled to visit Texas, Harris hurriedly went to El Paso. The Democratic bastion is far from the Rio Grande valley that has been the busiest site of illegal activity. But Harris managed to get through her day trip without incident. The fallout didn’t arrive until later.

The voyage to El Paso illustrated another Harris vulnerability: She’s a terrible manager. Leaks and infighting bedeviled her short-lived presidential campaign. Working for her is hazardous to your health. Or at least that’s what an anonymous source told Politico on June 30. The blockbuster story, carrying three bylines and based on interviews with 22 “current and former vice-presidential aides, administration officials, and associates of Harris and Biden,” left no doubt that Harris runs a dysfunctional operation. “It’s not a place where people feel supported but a place where people feel treated like s—,” said a “person with direct knowledge of how Harris’s office is run.” Imagine what they say on the office Slack channel.

Biden adviser Anita Dunn told Politico that the situation was “not anywhere near what you are describing.” Perhaps it’s worse. One of Harris’s former Senate aides said, “The boss’s expectations won’t always be predictable.” Not exactly what you want in a leader. Politico says Harris “excels when those around her project calm and order, creating a sense of confidence and certainty.” Unfortunately, confidence and certainty are precisely those qualities that go missing in the ad hoc, improvisational, contingent, and situational world of global politics.

More interviews and stories like these and Harris will soon be living the politician’s worst nightmare: becoming a punchline. A cynic might say that Biden purposely handed Harris the toughest assignments to redirect negative public sentiment away from the Oval Office and to displace the frustrations and embarrassments he experienced during eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president. Democratic strategists worry that Harris exhibits none of Biden’s strengths, such as they are, while shouldering all his weaknesses. That doesn’t bode well if Biden opts not to run in 2024.

Then again, in the third season of Veep, the fictional president steps down. Louis-Dreyfus’s character becomes president. Think Harris is funny now? The joke might be on us.


Immigration: Tragedy & Human Suffering On The U.S. Borders

By George LandrithNewslooks

migrant children

I did something that neither the President or Vice President of the United States are willing to do.  I went to the border in Texas to learn and see with my own eyes what is going on.  And to be blunt, it is far worse than I imagined — for everyone.  The only people profiting from what is currently happening at the border are the human traffickers and drug cartels.  Everyone else — on both sides — is a loser if this situation persists. 

Here’s what I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears when I went to Del Rio, Texas — a town of about 35,000 people about 150 miles west of San Antonio along the Rio Grande.  Local law enforcement are overwhelmed and over run.  The local sheriff’s department was never intended to be a border security force.  Their job is to enforce the law within the county, not monitor the border.  They are stretched thin and only have four deputies to spare along almost 120 miles of border. That means one deputy to cover about 30 miles.

But even the US Border Patrol is overwhelmed. They have been put in an impossible position. Border walls are no longer being built. Technology to help border agents has been turned off. So they are left to patrol the border as best they can and even they believe they are only catching between 1/2 and 1/3 of those racing across the border. 
Imagine living in a town of 35,000 people and having four times that many people flooding across the border in the space of only a few months. And that is only a low-ball estimate. Even the Border Patrol agents said that probably double to triple that many are actually crossing the border. But that they cannot count them all because so many evade detection. 

I attended a townhall meeting where locals came to express their concerns. The auditorium was packed and many people were standing along side and back walls. For more than two hours a parade of local citizens — a slight majority of whom appeared to be people of color — came forward to the microphone an in a couple minutes told their experience. Here’s what I learned: 

Dozens and dozens of locals described how illegals had damaged their property, broken-in to their homes, sheds, and cars.  I listened for more than two hours as they described how their families and children are now living in constant danger and fear.

Some of those who spoke were descendants of the original Mexicans who wanted to be free of the despotism of Gen. Santa Anna. Their ancestors defended and died at the Alamo. Others joined Sam Houston’s army that ultimately defeated the Mexican army and won Texas’ independence. Some of the speakers came to America legally in the last decade or so and spoke English with an accent. Not that any of that matters, but the point, is, it was a diverse audience with a diverse background, but they were all united in one thing — the current situation is unbearable and must be fixed. 

They described how difficult it is to make ends meet even in better times — but that when there is a constant stream of trespassers damaging your property, destroying your fences, allowing your livestock to escape, stealing your vehicles, and putting you and your children in fear for their lives and safety, it just isn’t worth it. 

They described vehicles — stolen by human smugglers — driven recklessly and dangerously and colliding with locals — causing serious injuries.  Several speakers referenced a young girl and her father who miraculously survived but suffered life changing injuries  due to a head on collision with a human smuggler driving a stolen car. 

They described having to hide inside their homes as a group of more than a hundred illegals streamed across their property in the dark of night. 

A woman painfully described how her sister — who works as a house keeper at a local hotel which has been used by federal authorities as a place to house illegals before they are sent to other parts of the United States. This woman tearfully told us that her sister was brutally raped on the job.

They all had their own story, but they all expressed a sense of betrayal. And they also had a sense of anger and frustration that when they express their concerns, all too often, they are labeled as haters or intolerant and that they are ignored as if they don’t matter. 

A woman of hispanic descent holding babies and speaking in an accent described how she and her family had come to America legally years ago to have a better life and become an American. She spoke with pride of their home in America and the life that they had built here. But then she asked why she and her family don’t matter, why their rights to freedom and the pursuit of happiness are now irrelevant. 

Even Democrats told us that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and their policies are the primary cause of their problems. In Washington, we are used to partisans covering for their fellow partisans now matter how absurd the defense. But reality has forced this sort of blind partisanship to the side. 

But it isn’t just the locals in Texas who are suffering.  Many of those coming across the border are doing so because they’ve been invited to.  But they, too, have become victims of the human smugglers and drug cartels who make them indentured servants and who threaten with physical harm and death their remaining family who serve as collateral for the cost of being smuggled across the border. These remaining family members live the rest of their lives under constant fear that the cartels and human smugglers will pay them a visit because of a late payment. Simply stated, our current policies are allowing human smugglers and drug cartels to flourish and profit and with those profits, they will not be building hospitals and schools. Instead, they’ll be building armies to expand their human smuggling operations and militarizing the border.

The Biden-Harris administration says it is working on root-causes. But stamping out poverty in central America and around the globe, is not something that will happen this year or even this decade. America has spent literally trillions of dollars in the past generation to stamp out poverty and made little impact. So if they do as well in the rest of the world as they have in the US, 50 years from now, we will still be discussing the root causes of the problem and debating how many more trillions must be spent to fix it. 

But for people on both sides of the border that will be very sad news — a constant flow of crime and fear for generations to come and a perpetual stream of cruel and inhuman treatment from human smugglers and drug cartels. This is what I saw. This is what I heard. It was heart breaking. These are the cruel results of the ill-conceived and poorly thought out policies of the Biden-Harris Administration. False narratives won’t fix the problem. People on both sides of the border need solutions.  And a secure border is where it all starts.


Immigration: Tragedy & Human Suffering On The U.S. Borders

By George LandrithNewslooks

migrant children

I did something that neither the President or Vice President of the United States are willing to do.  I went to the border in Texas to learn and see with my own eyes what is going on.  And to be blunt, it is far worse than I imagined — for everyone.  The only people profiting from what is currently happening at the border are the human traffickers and drug cartels.  Everyone else — on both sides — is a loser if this situation persists. 

Here’s what I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears when I went to Del Rio, Texas — a town of about 35,000 people about 150 miles west of San Antonio along the Rio Grande.  Local law enforcement are overwhelmed and over run.  The local sheriff’s department was never intended to be a border security force.  Their job is to enforce the law within the county, not monitor the border.  They are stretched thin and only have four deputies to spare along almost 120 miles of border. That means one deputy to cover about 30 miles.

But even the US Border Patrol is overwhelmed. They have been put in an impossible position. Border walls are no longer being built. Technology to help border agents has been turned off. So they are left to patrol the border as best they can and even they believe they are only catching between 1/2 and 1/3 of those racing across the border. 
Imagine living in a town of 35,000 people and having four times that many people flooding across the border in the space of only a few months. And that is only a low-ball estimate. Even the Border Patrol agents said that probably double to triple that many are actually crossing the border. But that they cannot count them all because so many evade detection. 

I attended a townhall meeting where locals came to express their concerns. The auditorium was packed and many people were standing along side and back walls. For more than two hours a parade of local citizens — a slight majority of whom appeared to be people of color — came forward to the microphone an in a couple minutes told their experience. Here’s what I learned: 

Dozens and dozens of locals described how illegals had damaged their property, broken-in to their homes, sheds, and cars.  I listened for more than two hours as they described how their families and children are now living in constant danger and fear.

Some of those who spoke were descendants of the original Mexicans who wanted to be free of the despotism of Gen. Santa Anna. Their ancestors defended and died at the Alamo. Others joined Sam Houston’s army that ultimately defeated the Mexican army and won Texas’ independence. Some of the speakers came to America legally in the last decade or so and spoke English with an accent. Not that any of that matters, but the point, is, it was a diverse audience with a diverse background, but they were all united in one thing — the current situation is unbearable and must be fixed. 

They described how difficult it is to make ends meet even in better times — but that when there is a constant stream of trespassers damaging your property, destroying your fences, allowing your livestock to escape, stealing your vehicles, and putting you and your children in fear for their lives and safety, it just isn’t worth it. 

They described vehicles — stolen by human smugglers — driven recklessly and dangerously and colliding with locals — causing serious injuries.  Several speakers referenced a young girl and her father who miraculously survived but suffered life changing injuries  due to a head on collision with a human smuggler driving a stolen car. 

They described having to hide inside their homes as a group of more than a hundred illegals streamed across their property in the dark of night. 

A woman painfully described how her sister — who works as a house keeper at a local hotel which has been used by federal authorities as a place to house illegals before they are sent to other parts of the United States. This woman tearfully told us that her sister was brutally raped on the job.

They all had their own story, but they all expressed a sense of betrayal. And they also had a sense of anger and frustration that when they express their concerns, all too often, they are labeled as haters or intolerant and that they are ignored as if they don’t matter. 

A woman of hispanic descent holding babies and speaking in an accent described how she and her family had come to America legally years ago to have a better life and become an American. She spoke with pride of their home in America and the life that they had built here. But then she asked why she and her family don’t matter, why their rights to freedom and the pursuit of happiness are now irrelevant. 

Even Democrats told us that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and their policies are the primary cause of their problems. In Washington, we are used to partisans covering for their fellow partisans now matter how absurd the defense. But reality has forced this sort of blind partisanship to the side. 

But it isn’t just the locals in Texas who are suffering.  Many of those coming across the border are doing so because they’ve been invited to.  But they, too, have become victims of the human smugglers and drug cartels who make them indentured servants and who threaten with physical harm and death their remaining family who serve as collateral for the cost of being smuggled across the border. These remaining family members live the rest of their lives under constant fear that the cartels and human smugglers will pay them a visit because of a late payment. Simply stated, our current policies are allowing human smugglers and drug cartels to flourish and profit and with those profits, they will not be building hospitals and schools. Instead, they’ll be building armies to expand their human smuggling operations and militarizing the border.

The Biden-Harris administration says it is working on root-causes. But stamping out poverty in central America and around the globe, is not something that will happen this year or even this decade. America has spent literally trillions of dollars in the past generation to stamp out poverty and made little impact. So if they do as well in the rest of the world as they have in the US, 50 years from now, we will still be discussing the root causes of the problem and debating how many more trillions must be spent to fix it. 

But for people on both sides of the border that will be very sad news — a constant flow of crime and fear for generations to come and a perpetual stream of cruel and inhuman treatment from human smugglers and drug cartels. This is what I saw. This is what I heard. It was heart breaking. These are the cruel results of the ill-conceived and poorly thought out policies of the Biden-Harris Administration. False narratives won’t fix the problem. People on both sides of the border need solutions.  And a secure border is where it all starts.


The Biden-Harris Migration ‘Fix’ Would Throw Good Billions After Bad

While migrants from Central America stream to the U.S. border, any positive effects of Biden’s 'root-cause' strategy will be slow and incremental at best.

By Vince BielskiThe Federalist

The Biden-Harris Migration ‘Fix’ Would Throw Good Billions After Bad

The journey of Central American migrants to the U.S. border — a perilous trip across thousands of miles of mountains and deserts — starts in places like the dry corridor in western Honduras.

Many of the region’s 1 million small farmers still live in adobe huts with no running water and suffer acts of humans and nature. Corrupt Honduran officials have invested too little in stabilizing or modernizing the region, allowing violent gangs to extort families. Recent droughts and hurricanes have created widespread hunger.

“It’s been one crisis after another,” says Conor Walsh, the Honduras representative for Catholic Relief Services in Tegucigalpa, the capital. “Many people have already migrated and others are evaluating whether they can stay on their farms.”

These longstanding problems throughout Central America are driving the current crisis on the southern U.S. border, where more than 170,000 migrants arrived in March in search of jobs and asylum. As the Biden administration grapples with this mounting surge, it’s also proposing a $4 billion long-term plan to attack the root causes of migration — corruption, violence, and poverty in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

The initiative is as ambitious as it is familiar. Presidents as far back as John F. Kennedy have pursued similar aims only to come up short. Joe Biden himself ran the troubled Central America initiative during the Obama administration. It encountered the same obstacles that have stymied past U.S. efforts — governmental leaders and business elites who resist good governance and anti-corruption reforms to protect their own interests, according to a study by the Wilson Center, a policy research group in Washington.

‘You Have to Create a System of Accountability’

Consider Honduras, a showcase of government criminality. President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s election in 2017 was tainted by fraud. He is now under investigation by U.S. prosecutors who have brought a string of cocaine smuggling cases against prominent Hondurans. Members of the National Congress in Tegucigalpa have a habit of embezzlement, thereby robbing citizens of funding for health care, education, and jobs.

Nonetheless, U.S.-funded programs have struggled to make a difference in a nation in which government is a big part of the problem. Catholic Relief Services, for one, has helped boost the corn and bean yields and income of thousands of subsistence farmers in the Honduran dry corridor, offering a glimmer of hope. But a lack of roads, electricity, and credit for farmers means that only a sliver of them benefit from the technical aid. As a result, an unprecedented 47 percent of families in the dry corridor that stretches across Central America are moderately to severely food-deprived, according to an alarming 2017 United Nations study.United Nations World Food Program.

Now comes Biden’s crack at the region. He’s tweaking the U.S. aid playbook in hopes of a better outcome. The administration says fighting corruption is now the top priority since nothing will change until elected officials stop stealing and the governments become more accountable to citizens. Countries will have to meet stricter conditions, such as adopting governance reforms, before receiving aid, and officials face the threat of financial sanctions and revoked visas. The proposed $4 billion strategy, the biggest ever for the region, gives the administration some added leverage.

Vice President Kamala Harris heads the strategy team, which includes White House aide Juan Gonzalez and Ricardo Zuniga, the special envoy to the region. Zuniga was born in Honduras and both men worked on Western Hemispheric affairs in the Obama White House. In March, they traveled to the region and had “very frank discussions” with leaders about transparency, good governance, and anti-corruption, said one administration official.

The Treasury Department followed up those talks with sanctions in late April against Felipe Alejos Lorenzana, a Guatemalan Congressman, and Gustavo Adolfo Alejos Cambara, a former official. They reportedly facilitated payments to lawmakers and judges to try to interfere with the appointment of magistrates and protect against corruption prosecutions, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

“You have to create a system of accountability that goes after the very corrupt elements within these governments,” added Steven Dudley, co-founder of InSight Crime, which investigates organized crime in Latin America. “The people Biden put in place have the experience and ideas, but the bridge between that and actually doing something is long.”

Failures of the Past

The get-tough diplomacy is already hitting resistance. In early April, Zuniga visited El Salvador to press the case against corruption. But President Nayib Bukele, miffed over criticism from a State Department official about his commitment to the rule of law, refused to meet with the envoy.

The snub would be familiar to a long line of presidents who have stumbled in the region. Since 1960 administrations have strategically deployed about $24 billion in foreign aid to Central America and the Caribbean.

During the Cold War years, aid was meant to reduce poverty to build support against leftist movements in El Salvador and its neighbors. It didn’t work. When the decades-long civil wars in the region finally ended in the 1990s, peace did usher in a long stretch of economic growth and declining poverty rates. In the ensuing decade, as drug trafficking and gang violence soared, the George W. Bush administration took its turn in Central America. It sent assistance to combat crime. But the programs lacked coordination and had a limited impact, according to another Wilson Center report.

The Obama administration had bigger ambitions. It expanded on Bush’s security initiative by adding governance and economic programs. The $2.4 billion “strategy for engagement” for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras began in 2014 and included 370 projects to make local officials more accountable, reduce crime and create jobs. In an op-ed supporting the strategy, Vice President Biden praised the nations’ commitment to reform and even met with President Hernandez at the White House in 2015 — an endorsement that proved too bullish.

After five years, the Government Accounting Office was blunt in its assessment of the projects that were mostly run by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Those reviewed by GAO achieved only 40 percent to 70 percent of their own technical targets, such as the number of police officers trained. Officials didn’t even bother to evaluate most of the projects or whether they helped improve governance, security, and economic opportunity.

When the biggest wave of migrants in more than a decade hit the U.S. border in 2019, the Trump administration pulled the plug on the Obama root cause strategy. USAID, now run by Samantha Power, a former envoy to the U.N. under President Obama, didn’t provide a spokesperson to comment for this story despite several requests.

Honduras: Corruption Juggernaut

Biden, who now has a second chance to get it right, faces his biggest test in Honduras. Its economy, which was once dominated by exports of coffee and bananas to the United States, has produced a number of ultra-wealthy clans resistant to the idea of cleaning up corruption.

Miguel Facusse, whose nephew served as president of Honduras, became rich from palm oil production and consumer products. But his legacy is tainted by accusations from human rights investigations that his security forces were involved in deadly clashes with small farmers over their claim to land in the region where his plantations operate.

As the economy became more service-oriented, former Vice President Jaime Rosenthal made a family fortune estimated in 2015 at $690 million from banking, telecommunications, and other businesses. But before his death two years ago, Rosenthal was indicted by U.S. prosecutors for participating in a money-laundering scheme with Honduran drug traffickers.

Honduras emerged as a cocaine transshipment point between South America and the United States a few decades ago. The 2009 coup in Honduras that ousted President Manuel Zelaya opened the door to more trafficking. Zelaya, a Liberal Party politician, had raised the minimum wage by 60 percent and defended the land rights of small farmers. Even more worrisome to business leaders like Facusse was that Zelaya had become cozy with leftist despots in the region and pushed to amend the constitution in an apparent attempt to extend his own presidency.

Zelaya’s ouster by the military led to a period of internal tumult, forcing the National Police to focus on restoring order, often violently cracking down on protesters. By 2015, 90 percent of cocaine coming to the United States passed through Central America, with Honduras as the major hub. More recently Hondurans have developed labs to produce cocaine, extending its tentacles in the economy, according to a report by InSight Crime.

Harnessing the Experience of Nonprofit Groups

Today, President Hernandez tops a list of Honduran politicians, military, and police officers who are under investigation or have been convicted of operating what seems like a state-sponsored drug cartel, according to the U.S. prosecutors. They say in 2013 Hernandez, who was then in Congress and campaigning for the presidency, got access to millions of dollars in cocaine from a murderous trafficker. In return, the politician allegedly told the trafficker, who was convicted in a U.S. court in March, that the military and attorney general would protect his operation. The president has repeatedly denied any involvement in trafficking.

The president’s brother, former congressman Tony Hernandez, was involved in every aspect of the cocaine trade. The end game was political power. He funneled millions of dollars in profits into National Party campaigns for three presidential elections, including the two his brother won in 2013 and 2017, prosecutors say. Tony Hernandez was handed a life prison sentence in March.

The Biden administration points to the silver linings in the dark clouds of the region’s recent history. In the last five years, an effort to root out political corruption made remarkable progress before it was quashed. In 2016, large street demonstrations over the looting of at least $300 million from the public health care system — a small amount of which found its way into Hernandez’s first presidential campaign — forced the president to set up an anti-corruption commission in partnership with the Organization of American States. The United States embraced the move with funding and political support.

The commission’s quasi-independence — it was led by Peruvian prosecutor Ana Maria Calderon Boy and others from outside Honduras — keyed its initial success. The commission set up a new unit of vetted prosecutors within the national government. It went on to reveal an embezzlement scam that later allegedly implicated more than 350 politicians, including President Hernandez, according to the Wilson report. Amid the scandal, he essentially disbanded the commission last year — a decision that brought condemnation from a bipartisan group of U.S. House leaders.

The Biden administration now aims to set up a new anti-corruption group as its main weapon. This time even more independence will be crucial if it’s to work. Zuniga, the special envoy, had discussions with nonprofits in Central America that want to form a U.S.-backed civil society commission. It would draw on the expertise of these groups in exposing corruption and operate outside the reach of national governments to shut it down. But local prosecutors would still have to pursue the cases.

“Instead of creating another commission that the governments can kick out, the United States can support nonprofits that have years of experience doing this work,” says Kurt Ver Beek, co-founder of the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras, who joined the talks with Zuniga. “We will make the corruption cases public and, along with the United States, pressure the governments to bring charges.”

Purging the Police

The U.S.-backed effort to reform the National Police also got off to a promising start five years ago. The police served as a tool for cocaine smugglers, who easily exploited lowly paid officers with payoffs for dirty work. “Officers hijacked cars from citizens, dealt drugs for gangs, and lent out their services as hitmen,” according to a 2016 report by Ver Beek’s ASJ, the Christian nonprofit, which received funding from the State Department.

The revelation in 2016 that top police officials organized the assassination of Honduran’s anti-drug czar finally forced President Hernandez and Congress to set up another commission. Two ASJ leaders joined the group, which moved quickly to purge a remarkable 5,000 tainted and inexperienced beat cops and top officials — including six generals — equaling a third of the entire force.

The purge was a watershed moment showing that Hondurans could topple a fortress of criminality. But four years later drug smugglers are beginning to penetrate the police again, forcing good officers to choose whether to take a bribe or a bullet. “Traffickers tell cops, ‘I’ll kill you if you don’t help me, or take a bunch of money,’” says Ver Beek, a Cornell University-trained sociologist. “So they take the money.”

American agencies funded other projects such as community policing to reduce crime in Honduras, which a decade ago had the highest murder rate in the world. In her congressional confirmation hearing, Power, Biden’s new USAID administrator, pointed to the agency’s record of crime-fighting in the country as a bright spot to build on. “In districts where USAID had programming aimed at curbing violence, there was a drop in homicide rates,” she told senators in March. “That is encouraging.”

However, extortion of businesses by criminal gangs — a major driver of migration — may be getting worse. Gang members approach small businesses, such as barbers, food merchants and taxi drivers, and demand a small monthly payment that keeps going up until the owner can no longer pay it and flees. Hondurans refer to extortion as a “war tax,” which victimizes as many as half of all small businesses, Ver Beek estimates.

Struggling to Create Jobs

While officials pilfer public funds and gangs drive businesses to close, it’s no wonder that half of the Honduran population remains almost locked in poverty. The high rate hasn’t improved much over the last decade and is twice the level of neighboring El Salvador. As the Obama administration learned, foreign aid alone can’t do much to help kids escape this poverty trap.

USAID’s Future Employment program had ambitions in 2016 to train 7,500 at-risk youth in Honduras and place half of them in jobs to lure them away from gangs. The program struggled to find enough recruits in tough neighborhoods and enough employers willing to take a chance and hire them. Then the Trump administration cut off funding for projects across the three countries. By the end of 2019, fewer than 1,000 participants had found some employment, mostly in retail, in the year following training, according to a USAID evaluation.

While they certainly benefited from a job in the short term, their prospects of upward mobility are dim without more support from the Honduran government. For instance, the country has a federal minimum wage law that’s set above the poverty line and could help close the inequality gap. But almost half of employers ignore it and the government does little to enforce it, academic studies show.

“We have not produced the same kind of results that I’ve pointed to when it comes to physical security and crime,” Power said of USAID’s economic programs. “Hopefully we can begin to make a dent.”

Power could start by changing the way her agency runs projects in places like Honduras, nonprofit veterans believe. Aid experts have criticized the agency for hiring U.S. and international contractors to administer most of the program funding. The setup marginalizes local organizations that better understand on-the-ground issues and misses an opportunity to develop local advocates to push for reforms, says Sarah Bermeo, who specializes in foreign aid in Central America at Duke University.

“U.S. contractors are certainly overused compared to their ability to deliver results,” Bermeo says. “There is certainly room to improve outcomes by increasing the involvement of local groups in the design and implementation of AID-financed efforts.”

Meanwhile, migrants from Central America are streaming to the U.S. border. The increase that began a year ago has accelerated under Biden, threatening to top 1 million this year, the highest total in more than a decade. Biden’s root-cause strategy won’t change anything at the border in the short run. Advocates say progress will be incremental at best and measured in decades, not years.

“It’s going to be difficult but not impossible for the administration,” says Ariel Ruiz Soto, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “The U.S. investment has to occur over decades for there to be a real change.”


Biden Trips on the Border

The one issue where the White House plays defense

By Matthew ContinettiThe Washington Free Beacon

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The pickings are slim for Republicans in Joe Biden’s Washington. For the past few months, the president has maintained a job approval rating in the mid- to low-50s. He has a net positive rating in the double digits. He gets good marks for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, for his distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, and for his (misguided) decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The American Rescue Plan is extremely popular, and the American Jobs Plan polls well. The rules of the House and budget reconciliation in the Senate mean that Republicans are powerless to stop major economic legislation from becoming law. Meanwhile, the conservative grassroots are more interested in election integrity and identity politics than in policy. GOP officials are frustrated. “It’s always harder to fight against a nice person because usually people will sort of give him the benefit of the doubt,” Senator John Cornyn (R., Texas) told The Hill recently.

There’s one issue, however, where the public has doubts. It’s the border. The surge in illegal immigration throughout his first 100 days in office has left Biden vulnerable to Republican criticisms and worried about the political implications. The crisis has exposed as false the idea that this administration is staffed with an “A-Team” of “hyper-competent” technocrats able to manage anything that comes their way. Leaks to the news media reveal an administration playing an internal blame game. The typically unflappable Jen Psaki has been caught up in spats with the White House press corps. The upshot is that Biden’s missteps have given the GOP an opportunity to unite around border security and tight labor markets.

The public doesn’t like the results of Biden’s asylum policies. Just 24 percent of adults in a late March AP-NORC pollapproved of Biden’s handling of the border surge. Last week’s Quinnipiac poll showed 29 percent approval. A Morning Consult survey conducted at the end of last month found that a majority of registered voters blamed Biden, not “seasonal migration,” for the spike in illegal entries. Participants in the Engagious/Schlesinger swing-voter focus group doubted that Biden’s emphasis on diplomacy and humanitarian aid would reduce the pressure on the border. “Swing voter support for Biden’s border policies is like sand falling through an hourglass,” Engagious president Rich Thau saidto Axios.

And Biden’s response isn’t helping. He put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of efforts to solve the problem, but Harris recognized the political peril involved and quickly made it clear that she would be engaged in diplomacy rather than emergency response. Harris will meet virtually with the president of Guatemala on April 26, two days after her in-person visit to New Hampshire. The southern border has yet to appear on her schedule.

With Harris burnishing her foreign policy credentials, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra has been left to coordinate the administration’s efforts. One reason Republicans unanimously opposed Becerra’s confirmation was that he’s a lawmaker and activist in a job best suited for bureaucrats and wonks. They had a point. The press routinely depicts Biden as unhappy with Becerra and “frustrated” at his inability to house, care for, and resettle unaccompanied minors safely and swiftly. What did Biden expect? The moment demands a figure with the logistical brilliance of Dwight Eisenhower and the moral core of Albert Schweitzer. That description doesn’t exactly fit Becerra, who is best known for suing nuns.

Nor is the anti-Becerra leak campaign the only piece of evidence that the White House fears an immigration backlash. Last week, in the space of several hours, Biden flip-flopped on refugee admissions. First came the announcement that, contrary to his campaign pledge, Biden would not raise the cap on refugees. Democrats and progressives slammed the move as inhumane and illiberal. Then the White House, always keeping an eye on its left flank, said it would increase the number of refugees after all. Press secretary Jen Psaki blamed the confusion on “messaging.” She was right—the White House had two different messages in one afternoon. A week later Psaki was still trying to explain the discrepancy.

It turns out that Biden didn’t want to draw further attention to immigration by admitting more refugees during the border crisis. His political instincts may have been sound—but he wasn’t willing to test those instincts against criticism from his own side. The White House can’t even admit that what’s happening on the border is a crisis. When Biden toldreporters, “The problem was that the refugee part was working on the crisis that ended up on the border with young people, and we couldn’t do two things at once,” Psaki and other administration officials said he was referring to the “crisis” in Central America that is supposedly forcing migrants to seek a better future in the United States. Please.

Biden spoke the truth: There is a crisis on the border. What he can’t accept, however, is that his policies are responsible for it—and are making his political difficulties worse. And so he’s handed Republicans a powerful issue in an otherwise bleak environment. Now they have to use it.


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