Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei was left out of President Joe Biden's democracy summit this week.
But that didn't stop the Central American leader from securing precious face time with top White House officials in the end.
Whether it had anything to do with a Fox News interview in which Giammattei charged that the Biden administration had kept him at arm's length, the White House won't say.
In the interview, Giammattei said the White House had not met with him since Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala City in June. He blamed this partly on ideological differences between the Biden administration and his conservative government.
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One day later, the White House announced that national security adviser Jake Sullivan had met with Giammattei on Dec. 8 at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce “to review extensive bilateral cooperation on migration, counternarcotics, and promoting economic opportunity.” Harris’s national security adviser, Nancy McEldowney, was also in attendance, along with senior National Security Council director Juan Gonzalez and U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala William Popp.
Asked about the timing of the meeting, Sullivan’s participation, and whether it came as the result of Giammattei’s pressure campaign, the White House declined to comment.
An official pointed the Washington Examiner to the readout issued Thursday evening and said there had been regular engagement by other Biden administration officials, including by the State Department at the undersecretary level.
“We value our partnership with the government of Guatemala and engage President Giammattei across all areas of the bilateral relationship, including strengthening the rule of law and countering corruption,” the official added.
The United States is confronting a politically fraught migration issue as Guatemalans in search of economic opportunity emigrate in growing numbers to America, crossing the southern border illegally. The surge in migration from Central America has prompted political concerns for the White House, with critics across the political spectrum voicing frustrations with how the Biden administration has handled the situation.
Biden tasked Harris earlier this year with leading the administration’s diplomatic efforts to stem the flow of migration from the northern triangle to the southern border. According to the White House readout, McEldowney provided an update during the meeting on Harris’s efforts to drive private sector investment in the region and address the root causes of migration. A request for further details went unanswered.
While visiting Guatemala earlier this year, Harris drew the ire of left-wing Democrats when she instructed migrants “not to come” to the U.S. She also sparked frustrations inside the White House after responding curtly to NBC’s Lester Holt over when she intended to visit the U.S. border.
“And I haven’t been to Europe,” Harris said, prompting a media storm.
In the interview, Giammattei said there was more the White House could be doing to dissuade potential migrants from leaving their home countries. A fatal tractor-trailer crash in Mexico this week which resulted in the deaths of at least 55 people, many from Guatemala, showed the dangers of human trafficking.
Washington could better enforce federal laws against coyotes, he said. “Then the U.S. can ask us to expand our extradition conditions — and with that, these coyotes would land in a federal prison with very severe penalties.”
He added, “This is something that drug traffickers fear.”
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While the White House declined to detail further meetings between the two countries, the official readout notes opportunities for additional cooperation.
Sullivan affirmed a desire for cooperation on expanded port security, praising the Guatemalan government’s work fighting the trafficking and smuggling of people and drugs.