By Daina Beth Solomon, Ted Hesson and Matt Spetalnick
LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris has pooled $3.2 billion in corporate pledges aimed at addressing some of the economic factors driving migration from Central America, her office said on Tuesday, lending impetus to measures to be discussed at the Summit of the Americas this week.
The new commitments from companies, including Visa Inc and the apparel company Gap Inc, exceed $1.9 billion, adding to $1.2 billion made in December. The latest round of corporate investments announced by Harris are intended to create jobs, expand access to the internet and bring more people into the formal banking system.
The pledges form a major part of President Joe Biden's plan to address “root causes” of migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, a region known as the Northern Triangle. Curbing irregular migration is a top priority for Biden at a time when record numbers of people are trying to enter the United States at the Mexican border.
Biden, who travels to Los Angeles on Wednesday for the U.S.-hosted summit, will also promote a new economic plan for the Western Hemisphere building on existing trade agreements, U.S. officials said.
Even as he grapples with pressing concerns such as mass shootings, high inflation and the Ukraine war, the Democratic president wants to use the summit to repair Latin America relations damaged under his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, and to counter China's growing influence in the region.
But the administration's decision to exclude Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, which prompted Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to stay away, has threatened to overshadow Biden's agenda.
However, U.S. efforts to stem migration from the Northern Triangle have been hampered by corruption, with projects likely worth millions shelved and some private sector engagement stalled.
Further complicating matters, the presidents of Guatemala and Honduras have signaled they will not attend the summit and will instead send other officials. It was unclear whether El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele would attend, but the White House's official guest list shows his foreign minister as head of the delegation.
Several thousand migrants, many from Venezuela, set off from southern Mexico on Monday on a journey to the United States timed to coincide with the summit.
At least 6,000 people, according to Reuters witnesses, left the city of Tapachula, near Mexico's border with Guatemala.
The latest corporate pledges includes $270 million from Visa focused on bringing 6.5 million people into the formal banking system, and a $150 million pledge from Gap to increase materials sourced from the region.
The other firms span a variety of sectors, including auto-parts, agriculture, telecommunications and digital services.
A CEO summit running parallel to the leaders' gathering could yield commitments for further investment in economically troubled Latin America, which has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and is struggling to recover.
Harris also announced an initiative with the private sector that aims to connect 1.4 million women to the financial system and train more than 500,000 women and girls in job skills.
Additionally, Harris unveiled a $50 million project called the Central American Service Corps designed to give young people in the Northern Triangle paid community service opportunities in areas such as education and violence prevention.
Despite friction over summit invitations, most leaders in the Americas plan to attend. White House officials insist the controversy will blow over and the event – the first hosted by the United States since the first such gathering in 1994 – will be a success.
But before heading to the summit, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, in a newspaper op-ed, accused the United States of being “inconsistent, if not contradictory” for refusing to invite Communist-ruled Cuba and leftist-led Venezuela and Nicaragua while engaging with non-democratic governments in other regions such as Southeast Asia.
(Reporting by Daina Solomon and Matt Spetalnick in Los Angeles and Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Dave Graham in Los Angeles and Alexandra Valencia in Quito; Editing by Grant McCool)