U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris asked President López Obrador to allow non-governmental organizations to carry out their work without government interference, according to the EFE news agency, which spoke with Harris on Thursday.
But a spokesperson for the United States’ first female vice president walked back her reported remarks, telling EFE that Harris only made that request to Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, whom she met before traveling to Mexico City for talks with López Obrador on Tuesday.
“… Harris referred only to Guatemala, and not Mexico, in comments she made about civil society and NGOs this Thursday during an exclusive interview with EFE, her office assured after said interview,” the Spanish news agency said.
EFE originally reported that Harris said she was deeply concerned about government interference in the work of NGOs in both Guatemala and Mexico, where López Obrador has been scathing of organizations such as Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity (MCCI) and press freedom group Article 19, and the United States government’s funding of them.
(The White House announced last week that it would in fact increase support to international partners committed to the elimination of corruption despite the Mexican president calling on the U.S. government to stop funding what he described as political groups that disguise themselves as NGOs.)
“This is an issue that concerns me deeply because we want to ensure that there is independence, an independent judicial system [and] an independent press, and that non-profit organizations, NGOs, can do their work without interference. I made that very clear,” Harris said.
Her remarks came in response to a question in which López Obrador’s request that the U.S. cut its funding of some NGOs (those that have been critical of his government) was mentioned.
The vice president also told EFE that she was “very frank” with López Obrador and Giammattei, explaining that she told both leaders that she was worried about corruption and impunity in their countries.
“I was very direct with each of them with respect to those concerns,” she said.
Harris said she believed that the Guatemalan president and López Obrador, who has made combatting corruption and impunity the central goal of his administration, both valued her frankness.
EFE also asked the vice president about the blunt message she sent to potential migrants during her visit to Guatemala.
“I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border,” Harris said Monday.
Responding to EFE’s question – what do you tell people fleeing their country to save their lives or who have other legitimate reasons to seek asylum? Do you tell them ‘don’t come’ as well? – the vice president said: “Let me be very clear, I am committed to making sure we provide a safe haven for those seeking asylum, period.”
The softening of her language came after she was criticized by some members of the Democratic Party, including congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who called the vice president’s remarks “disappointing.”
“First, seeking asylum at any U.S. border is a 100% legal method of arrival,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter. “Second, the U.S. spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”
Harris also told EFE that the Biden administration wants to “expand legal pathways for immigration” to the United States.
“We are also rebuilding our immigration system, to the extent that it deteriorated under the Trump administration, but also we must address the root causes of migration, and that is why I traveled to Guatemala and then after that to Mexico,” she said.
During her visit to Mexico City, Mexican and U.S. officials signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a strategic partnership to address the lack of economic opportunities in northern Central America, namely Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, countries from which large numbers of migrants have fled recently to seek asylum in the United States.
The White House said in a statement that the U.S. and Mexico “will work together to foster agricultural development and youth empowerment programs” in those three countries and “will co-create and co-manage a partnership program enabling them to better deliver, measure, and communicate about assistance to the region.”
López Obrador, who faced criticism for getting Harris’ title wrong when he welcomed her to the National Palace and appearing to mispronounce her first name, said his meeting with the vice president was “important, beneficial for our people and very pleasant.”