Remarks by Vice President Harris and President Giammattei of Guatemala in joint Press Conference

Palacio Nacional de la Cultura
Guatemala City, Guatemala

For Immediate Release                            
June 7, 2021
11:45 A.M. CST

PRESIDENT GIAMMATTEI:  (As interpreted.)  Thank you very much.  You may take your seats, please.

Truth be said, for the government and people of Guatemala, the visit by Madam Vice President of the United States represents the opportunity to be able to work on a joint agenda with lines of action that we have defined — that our work teams have defined prior to this meeting and which, in the end, seeks to accomplish prosperity in our country to ensure that we can create more employment so that we can go and look into the inner cities of our country with a program of rural development where we will have the support of the United States.

But in addition to that, we discussed several topics — topics having to do with the concerns that the United States has concerning the evolution of this country.  We shared our points of view and the ways in which we have thought of tackling the different issues, and the search for openness of their market to give us greater access to the United States to generate prosperity in our country by introducing necessary changes to — for migration to become orderly migration.

Through H-2A visas and H-2B visas, we believe that we can start a very simple process to allow people to migrate regularly to the United States.  We also spoke about the need to support the United States with a returnee center that will be located in the western part of the country and for which we will join efforts to implement and, in that manner, help to ensure that the flow of persons in the southern border of the United States be controlled.

We are also working strongly on a family reunification program — legally, however — legally so that persons who wish to reunify their families can do so by filling out the paperwork in the consulate in the — in the United States Embassy that will have a special section for this.  And, in that case, we can start regular, controlled migration, but particularly whereby we can begin to generate the opportunities in the historically neglected departments that are at the border with Mexico and that keeps expelling our fellow citizens — for which Madam Vice President has begun contacts with members of the private sector in the United States that, through their companies, can establish businesses in our country to create more employment and thus stop migration.

I just wish you to say to you, Madam Vice President, that it was an honor to have you with us today.  I take your word that you’re going to come back, and we will go together to visit those areas where we need development and where, with your cooperation, starting on ground zero, we can begin to further strengthen the relationship between Guatemala and the United States.

And we can move forward, mile after mile, until we can turn this country into a country of opportunities where people wish to stay, but, particularly, where the hope of staying is realistic because they can find a better future, and that will be the foundation for them not to need to migrate.

Thank you very much for being with us, Madam Vice President.

VICE PRESIDENT HARRIS:  Thank you, Mr. President.  And thank you for warmly welcoming me and our delegation to Guatemala.  We had a robust, a candid, and a thorough conversation about the many issues that are priorities for each of our countries.

The President and I discussed a fundamental belief that most people don’t want to leave home.  They don’t want to leave the place where they grew up, where the language they know is spoken, where their culture that they know is present and has been, in this case, for centuries.  Most people don’t want to leave where their grandmother lives.

And when they do, it is usually for one of two reasons: because they are fleeing some type of harm or because to stay means that they cannot provide for their essential needs and the needs of their family.

The President and I share a firm belief that our responsibility and our capacity is to give people a sense of hope.  We talked extensively about this through the many conversations we’ve had, including today.  The power of hope — the ability that each of our governments has to give people a sense that help is on the way, to let them know that they are seen, that they are heard, that we see their capacity, but we also understand their challenges and their need for support and the resources that any human being needs to be able to survive, much less thrive.  So that was fundamentally the spirit behind the conversation that we had.

And, as I mentioned, Mr. President, I believe that our world is interconnected and interdependent.  And certainly, the most recent issues that have plagued our globe, including the pandemic, have made that point clear.  Our world is interconnected and interdependent.  And, therefore, what happens abroad is of priority to the United States of America.

And that is why I’m in Guatemala today.  And that is why President Joe Biden will travel to Europe later this week.  We are renewing our relationships around the globe and our presence around the world.  In fact, just last week, I shared with the President that the United States will provide, as a first donation, 500,000 vaccines to Guatemala — again, understanding the interdependence, the connection between us, and the importance of looking out for and prioritizing the needs of one’s neighbor.

I am proud to report that the agreements between President Giammattei and I have made today will strengthen the security and the prosperity for both the people of Guatemala and the people of the United States.

And before we get to the questions, I — I just want to highlight several of those agreements.  First, on the issue of security — it’s probably one of the highest priorities for each of our nations — the President and I agreed to continue our work to manage migration at Guatemala’s northern and southern borders.  We also discussed illicit drugs that are being smuggled and humans who are being trafficked across those borders, undermining the security of both the people of Guatemala and the people of the United States.

Our nations have collaborated on these issues, and we will create a smuggling and human trafficking task force which will work with local law enforcement to stop these crimes.  And I have personally worked on these cases in my career and can say that when we see some of the most vulnerable in our communities being taken advantage of, being sold for profit, being abused, it should be a priority for all of us who care about the human condition and humanity.

Second, on economic development: The President and I also discussed the root causes of migration, in particular the lack of economic opportunity for many people here in Guatemala.  The United States recognizes that it is both in our interest and reflective of our values to help create that opportunity and to share in economic prosperity.  We will launch a young women’s empowerment initiative to increase education and economic opportunities for girls and women — understanding, here in Guatemala, there is a rich tradition of girls and women being a part of the culture and the economy with extraordinary skills and therefore the ability to thrive when seen as someone who can be the source of investment for the economic growth of the entire community.

We will also invest in agribusiness and affordable housing and supporting entrepreneurs.  President Giammattei has mentioned to me many times today and in previous conversations about his priority around what can happen in terms of the planting of trees and what that can mean in terms of ecology and in our environment.  Well, recently, there’s been a lot of talk about “ecopreneurs” — entrepreneurs who are focused on climate, who are focused on what might happen, which is to protect our environment but also see the capacity for jobs and economic development as a connection with that pursuit.

I will also continue to work with CEOs around the world to encourage investment in Guatemala.  And, Mr. President, I look forward to working with you on that.  As I shared with you in Washington, D.C., I recently convened some of our biggest CEOs who have a profound interest, for many reasons, on supporting the work that happens here and the work that can happen here in Guatemala to, again, uplift folks who may have been overlooked or neglected, but also uplift the natural capacity and resources of this beautiful country.

Which brings me to our third area of discussion and agreement.  The President and I discussed the importance of anti-corruption and the importance of an independent judiciary.

The United States will create an anti-corruption task force — the first of its kind.  Our Justice Department, our Treasury Department, and our State Department will work together to conduct investigations and train local law enforcement to conduct their own.  Our task force will support Guatemalan prosecutors, including FECI.  And, listen, no corruption — corruption does not know borders.  And we want to make sure that this is about transnational crime, and we have to follow the money, and we have to stop it.  And that’s what we intend to do.

I can tell you, from my work on this issue years ago: Follow the money.  The underlying reason for so much of what we are seeing, in terms of this level and type of corruption, is about profit.  It is about profit without concern for the damage it creates to real human life, to families, to children, to communities.

And I want to emphasize that the goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home.  At the same time, 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.  There are legal methods by which migration can and should occur.  But we, as one of our priorities, will discourage illegal migration.  And I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back.

So let’s discourage our friends, our neighbors, our family members from embarking on what is otherwise an extremely dangerous journey where, in large part, the only people who benefit are coyotes.

And let us do our work together, Mr. President, again with our mutual commitment of knowing that hope is on the way.  And I believe the actions we take together will improve the lives of Guatemalans.  And as I meet with Guatemalan community members and leaders throughout this day, I will speak with them on what more can be done.

Again, Mr. President, I want to thank you for such a productive conversation, for your role of leadership and for the work we have yet to do together.

Thank you.

Now I —

MODERATOR:  (As interpreted.)  And now we leave room for questions and answers.  Ms. Hilary [Symone] Sanders, and the Secretary of Social Communication of the Guatemalan President Patricia Letona will give the floor to the media who are with us.

MS. SANDERS:  Thank you.  Our first question will come from Alex Jaffe from the Associated Press.

Q    Sure.  Thank you both for taking questions.  Madam Vice President, you just spoke about this — you’ve spoken about this in the past: the need to combat corruption to address the root causes of migration.  But given President Giammattei’s record on the issue, his criticism and objections to and resistance to anti-corruption reformers in the nation, has he given you any commitments that he will not try to interfere in anti-corruption efforts in the nation?  And what makes you believe that you can trust him as a partner on that issue?

And then, President Giammattei, what do you say to critics who say that you are, in fact, part of the problem of corruption in your nation and that you don’t take combating it seriously?

And then one more just because we’re going to Mexico tomorrow: Madam Vice President, there have been questions about why you and President Biden have yet to visit the border — the U.S. southern border — and I’m wondering if you can answer some of those.  Republicans have charged that you’re not taking the situation there seriously.  So how do you respond to that criticism?  And when will that visit come?

VICE PRESIDENT HARRIS:  So, on the issue of corruption: As you know, the President of the United States recently issued a very clear statement about where we, as the United States, stand on this issue.  It was unambiguous that we will look to root out corruption wherever it exists because we know it is not in the best interests of a democracy.  The President speaks — the United States President, Joe Biden, speaks a lot about this.  And actually, President Giammattei and I spoke about that today.

If we are truly to have and fight for democracies, especially in a world where increasingly they are under attack, one essential ingredient of our priorities must be to fight corruption.  It erodes the confidence that people have in their government and its leaders.  It compromises the ability of any country to maximize its natural resources to help and support its citizenry.

On the issue of any corruption in — on the issue of Guatemala, that has been one of our highest priorities, in terms of the focus that we have placed here after the President asked me to take on this issue of focusing on this region of the world.

And the work we are doing in furtherance then of that priority is the work of, again, creating an anti-corruption task force, bringing a renewed effort on behalf of the United States Department of Justice, the United States Treasury Department, the United States State Department to work collaboratively to identify, to support investigations, and ultimately, to support prosecutions and consequences for those who would endeavor to engage in corrupt behaviors.

Furthermore, in bringing together the CEOs — that we have been doing in the United States — and convening them — they’ve made very clear that when it comes to the private sector, be it there or I might venture to say “here or anywhere around the world,” they want to know if they’re going to put their hard-earned resources into any issue or initiative that it will go to its intended beneficiary.  And that means going to the people who need that support — and not corrupt hands.

There are many reasons why this is one of our highest priorities, which I think the people of Guatemala know well and the people of the United States understand well.  If we are to be effective, if we are to be true to our principles, we must root out corruption wherever it exists.  And that is one of our highest priorities for that reason.

On the issue of Republicans’ political attacks or criticism or even concerns: The reason I am here in Guatemala, as my first trip as Vice President of the United States, is because this is one of our highest priorities, and I came here to be here on the ground, to speak with the leader of this nation around what we can do in a way that is significant, is tangible, and has real results.  And I will continue to be focused on that kind of work, as opposed to grand gestures.

Q    (As interpreted.)  Madam Vice President, Mr. President, we know that several topics — important topics have been addressed in your bilateral meeting.  However, we would like to know: What has been the most important progress obtained as a result of this bilateral meeting?

PRESIDENT GIAMMATTEI:  (As interpreted.)  Thank you.  Well, for us, I think that we have addressed a number of topics that are of concern to both countries.  One is to accomplish the economic development of the country, starting with the areas that have normally been neglected and are far departed from development, that are very much the areas that expel our people — the department of Huehuetenango, Alta Verapaz, Quiché, and San Marcos.

We made a presentation to Madam Vice President about the causes that lead to migration.  And it has been determined that the number of people who are leaving our country, arguing security problems, is a very small number.  People leave due to lack of opportunities, and the municipalities in areas of greater migration coincide with the areas where the poverty is greater.  So we need to fight poverty.

We also spoke strongly on how to combat corruption — a topic that is a matter of concern to both governments, something that structurally has been faced with many barriers to control in the country.

Our commitment is to improve the capability by providing financial support to the public prosecution, as we have already done, to ensure that we have public prosecution officers in all the departments and all the municipalities of the country.  The attorney general of this country has received these resources, and today we have coverage in all 340 municipalities, which is the first step to ensure that the judicial process is strengthened.  And that included identifying the greater needs, and that is why we have prosecution offices in all 340 municipalities.

We spoke at length about the topic of corruption that comes from drug trafficking, and how important it is for us to continue to work together in the fight against the drug trafficking, because one of the main causes for corruption in this country has historically been drug trafficking.

And if we want to view it that way, this corruption has reached many sectors including society that many times are the cover for — that prevent us from reaching places where — an aircraft landed where there are drugs.  And this also responds to the needs of these persons who are protecting drug traffickers, which should not happen, but rather they should have a way to survive, but to have a surplus of production that they can sell.

Today, what we need to do is fight corruption in every sense, not only in the executive branch where we already have the presidential office to fight corruption — and is independent — but also fight it in the entire government apparatus, from City Hall and up, so that, through social control, we ensure that the works have cost what they say they have cost and that the works have been constructed.

Actually, we have spoken at large with — with Madam Vice President, and we celebrate that proposal that we made as we were elected in our first visit to Washington, D.C., before President Biden and Madam Harris government took office.

We asked the Secretary of Justice of the United States that we create an office to help us to follow the money, and particularly asked the United States that the assets that are seized in the United States which are the product of corruption, drug trafficking, and illegal actions and which are in the United States of persons who have committed these crimes in Guatemala have those resources sent back to Guatemala to be used to further strengthen criminal prosecution in our justice system.

MS. SANDERS:  Our next question will come from Ed O’Keefe from CBS.

Q    Madam Vice President, good to see you.  I know corruption has been a big focus of your work on this issue.  In recent months, you talked a little bit about it.

I’m curious, more specifically: Do you consider the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, or any other in this region to be corrupt?  And you just told people in this region, quote, “Do not come.  Do not come.”

Would it be fair to perceive the Biden administration’s work on stemming illegal immigration to be a failure if, because they’re so desperate, they still keep coming?

And I’m curious, as you stand here in this room — I’ll throw one more at you — if you could reflect on the history that you’re making today.  You’re the first American female Vice President to represent the country outside the country, in a region of the world where there aren’t many senior female leaders.

(Speaks Spanish.) (As interpreted.)  My colleague asked what you are saying that — they say that you, President of Guatemala, are part of the problem of corruption in the region.  What do you think about that, President Giammattei?

VICE PRESIDENT HARRIS:  So, on the issue of corruption, the conversation that I had with President Giammattei today was very frank and very candid.  And I think this is a quality that he and I appreciate in each other.  We don’t have time for glossing over concerns that we have.

And so, we did have a very frank conversation about the importance of an independent judiciary.  We had a conversation about the importance of a strong civil society.  I expressed concerns about those issues, including what is the potential here for tax reform — something like tax reform, which is very much connected with a lot of the concerns that we have.  And so, we had a candid conversation as it relates to those concerns.

And I do believe that with the work that we are doing — some of it which is new — there have been many attempts at collaboration between the United States and this region of the world over many years, as you know.  Some have worked; some have not.

There are aspects of what we are doing now that are new, and also are based on this new era, again, where there’s, I think, a greater appreciation for the interdependence and the interconnection.

And so we are creating this task force to address corruption.  We are working on a task force that is about human smuggling.  We are doing the work of requiring certain — certain progress be made if we are going to attract U.S. investment, private investment in this region.

And that is also a new approach — a relatively new approach, which is to bring together the private sector, understanding that the United States government cannot alone do the kind of work that we believe we collectively have the capacity to do.

So we have good reason to believe that we can have an impact.  And on — and in addition, there was a question about what’s happening in terms of immigration, as a general matter.  Ali Mayorkas, who, of course, is the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has — is going to be working on, through CBP, a relationship with Guatemalan border authorities on what we have named the “Mobile Tactical Interdiction Unit” — again, focused on what needs to happen to put law enforcement resources, as appropriate, onto the issue of what is going on in terms of really abusive and — and criminal behaviors among people who are predatory in nature and are preying on vulnerable people.

Your final point: I am — I’m honored to represent my country here in Guatemala.  I am — I am honored to be here in a nation that has a history that goes back thousands of years.

As I was walking through this building and appreciating the Mayan art that adorns the walls, knowing of the work that women and girls are doing and have yet the capacity to do in Guatemala, and to the extent that I can have any impact based on my gender, and the fact that I am the first, I welcome that.

I welcome showing anyone, whatever your race or gender, that you may be the first to do anything, but make sure you’re not the last.  And, in that way, let’s pave a path where we create an opportunity for others to become the first in their family or their community to do those things that perhaps others didn’t think they were capable of but God has given them that capacity to achieve, and with a little help, they will.

PRESIDENT GIAMMATTEI:  (As interpreted.)  More than information, the social networks carry misinformation.  I would like to turn this question back to you of: How many cases of corruption have I been accused?  I can give you the answer to that: zero.

We are in an honest fight against corruption, but corruption understood as an action, which is multi-dimensional.  Corruption is not only of politicians; corruption also involves individuals who obtained money from other countries to come do things here, and we do not know who sent it to them and what it is being used for.

Corruption is also in those persons who, when they are stopped by a police agent, they offer a bribe.  And we have been analyzing ways to face all of this before we came to government.  And we are now analyzing it with a presidential commission where there is accountability; where, for the first time in the history of this country, in the webpages of the Ministry of Finance, we have pages that outline transparency and where you can see any loan, any kind of money.

And (inaudible) we did away with the secret trusts.  It had been, for years, a secret how they were managed.  Now, all information is public to be able to respond to people who speak without evidence.

While I would spend my whole day speaking about that — because there are people who make affirmations without evidence and others that speak negatively without evidence — we know what we’re doing, and I believe that having reached the understandings that we reached with Madam Vice President, show that we have no interest or desire to hide anything — quite the contrary.

The more international certification there is that we are doing the right thing, well, we will continue to get rid of that narrative — that very different narrative in the United States from the narrative here.  And we have to fight that, and we are going to fight by doing.

We’re doing — we’re not going to say; we’re going to do.  Building — not building ideological trenches, because hunger has no ideology, because human hunger than — development needs more than ideology.  You need facts.

We have told the United States government that the Guatemalan government is not interested in getting one single penny for us.  But we are interested in working in public policies that transfer those resources effectively, significantly, and without the cost of an intermediary to ensure that these funds get to the communities where we can bring about changes in the way of living and the way of producing, and help them with our own agencies to seek markets to help them move ahead.

Regarding the prosecution, which is what your predecessor asked, as I understood, today there’s a trend in this country: There is judicial independence.  We have not meddled in the way  the public ministry and the attorney general manage their business.  That is her matter.

How the Supreme Court of Justice manages the court system is up to them.  How the executive branch manages our resources — our matter.  And we are doing that with accountability and by opening our doors to ensure that people can see what we’re spending the money on.

There’s a page called (inaudible).  Go there and you will find more than 3,500 works that are in construction at this time that tells you who was awarded the work, so what is the degree of financial progress, the degree of physical progress.  And anyone can go and look at the pictures to see that they actually belong to that work.

And we can, through social audit, get rid of the mindset that politicians have to be corrupt just because they are politicians; it’s not necessarily so, and proof of that is that we are working very hard to take cases that we detect in the executive branch to the court system for prosecution.

One last question by Juan Pablo Garrido from Noti7.

Q    (As interpreted.)  Thank you.  Good afternoon.  President Giammattei, I would like to know whether in the framework of this bilateral meeting you took advantage of the opportunity to request a TPS from the U.S.

And, Vice President Harris, I would like to hear what might be the position of your government today.

PRESIDENT GIAMMATTEI:  (As interpreted.)  Very well.  We got into TPS.  We reiterated our request to Madam Vice President, particularly in view of the effects of Eta, Iota, and volcano eruptions last year.  And we need them to help us to stop deportation for some time.

And we — yes, we asked the U.S. government for a TPS so that we can begin to focus on development, but also by helping migrants in the United — our migrants in the United States, not only to make money and send that, but also to give them financial literacy so that they can establish and grow companies and enterprises here in Guatemala so that they can come back to this country to create opportunities with what we have learned abroad.

Madam?

VICE PRESIDENT HARRIS:  One of the areas of focus for us is the issue of hunger, hurricanes, pandemic, and what these acute factors have caused in terms of the reason for the migration that we are seeing.  And when we look at then the capacity that we have to give support for people to be able to stay, we look at, as an example, what I mentioned earlier, the Young Women’s Empowerment Initiative.

In fact, Samantha Power, who is the new head of USAID, is putting a lot of attention into the capacity we have to support the indigenous community here.  It’s a big area of focus for me, given the fact — and I talked about this with the President — that we see that there are a lot of people from those regions of Guatemala that are leaving, not because they want to, but because they have no resources.

So, this is the predominant approach that we are taking, which is to look at the root causes and the acute causes and deal with those in a productive way.

And many of our initiatives, as I said earlier, are new initiatives.  These are efforts that have not been tried in the past, which we believe will be quite productive, again, when we approach it in a collaborative way, not only from the U.S. government’s perspective of an all-of-government approach, but bringing in the private sector, bringing in philanthropy, bringing in civil society, both here in Guatemala and around the world, and internationalizing our effort.
For example, I have talked with the Prime Minister of Japan, the leader of South Korea, who have all agreed to join us in our focus on Guatemala.  And that is the way that we are approaching our work.

MODERATOR:  Honor as President of Guatemala Alejandro Giammattei leaves and Madam Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States of America.

END                12:23 P.M. CST