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Lead by example at home, not admonishment abroad


· Leadership


U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris just wrapped up her trip abroad to Guatemala and Mexico. The aim was to tackle the root causes of illegal migration to the U.S. from the Northern Triangle of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – and to stem corruption.

The fight against corruption is a priority in the Biden administration’s efforts to address the root causes of illegal migration at the border with Mexico. The VEEP’s first stop was Guatemala, where she wanted to discuss and advance shared priorities and talk tough on corruption. But, as argued in a previous article entitled “Is Corruption in America Better than in Guatemala?”, the problem is that you can’t legitimately call out someone else’s corruption without addressing your own.  

NIMBY in your face 

Corruption involves dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power. In Guatemala it is an unconventional type of corruption, wherein public government officials act without consideration for the public’s interest or well-being in order to attain specific and personal gain without offering anything in return; it goes hand-in-hand with violence and extra-judicial killings. In the U.S. it is a more conventional type of corruption, wherein government officials illegitimately accumulate an undue advantage for their own personal use or gain, disregarding public interest; it goes hand-in-hand with an element of reciprocity. But both use deceit and manipulation. Both instrumentalize leadership as power over others to obtain undue advantages and benefits. 

This is not say that thefight against corruption should not be a priority of American policy objectives. Quoting President Biden, it’s a “mission for the entire world.” It’s “not just good governance. It is self-defense. It is patriotism, and it’s essential to the preservation of our democracy and our future.” 

However, Vice-President Harris will not get far with arrogance and a wanna-be-intimidating NIMBY scolding. That approach does not augur well for restoring America’s standing as a world leader. It’s simply not the best way to build up relationships with foreign leaders or to mobilize them to more effective action.    

American sugar-coated corruption 

It’s no secret that corruption exists in America. The 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index   released by Transparency International reports that corruption in the U.S. is at the worst levels in over a decade. The U.S. lost 6 ranking points in 8 years; today it ranks 25/180, the worst score since 2012. The increasing level of corruption undermines the healthcare system, contributes to democratic backsliding, and poses a critical threat to the lives and livelihoods of citizens.  

Just like in Guatemala, although to a much lesser degree, in the U.S. veiled corruption is becoming a threat to the average citizen, particularly for the more economically disadvantaged. One of the latest examples is the number of GOP leaders who are ending unemployment benefits for their state’s jobless residents. The reason given is that those benefits incentivize a reluctance to go back to work.  

The veiled truth is that many political leaders in those states stand to gain from the policy change, as reported by Yeganeh Torbati  in The Washington Post on June 8, 2021. Many have a vested interest in cutting jobless aid because they have private business interests that will benefit from the policy or interests linked to the business interests of their donors and/or supporters. A majority of these businesses are in the leisure and hospitality, agriculture and personal services industries, three of the lowest paying industries.  

All 23 republican states are ending benefits early, affecting at least 3.7 million people , plus Alaska, where Republicans have split control of state legislature with Democrats, and Maryland, whose executive branch is controlled by republicans. This could be deemed atype of graft: a form of political corruption. Many GOP governors are unscrupulously using their authority for personal gain. This practice worsens already extreme inequality in the distribution of income, wealth and resources. It does not lead to sharing more of what remains from the fruits of the collective efforts of the citizens who voted them into office.  

But, hey!, as West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) was quoted in The Washington Post article by Torbati  as saying: “America is all about work”. That’s certainly true for the majority. But for those who hold or influence the purse strings it’s about safeguarding their personal holdings.  

For those who are business magnates and public servants at the same time, it’s all about the benefits that can be garnered from the work of others, regardless of whether those “others” are paid living wages or not; regardless of the persistent lack of child care; regardless of concerns over health safety in relation to a still significant number of people not vaccinated.  

After all, as New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu pointed out in that same Washington Post article:  “The timing works really well with our summer tourism season”. Indeed! What better way to address what republicans are calling a (cheap) worker shortage than by ending the benefits received by those who need it the most and are the most disadvantaged in terms of accessing living wage employment!  

Although this cannot be called direct coercion, like what you would find in Guatemala, cutting jobless aid early for those who have the least amounts to coercion nonetheless. AND it goes in the face of the evidence that unemployment benefits have NOT depressed the supply of workers.  

Leadership is about improving the lives of others, not profiting from them 

The job of political leaders, whether Guatemalan or American, is to lead their citizens to a better well-being through fair wages, working conditions and more access to resources, including extended unemployment benefits in times of greatest need. Leaders everywhere are voted into office to make decisions in benefit of their constituents.  

In America, like in Guatemala, corruption is about power-motivated opportunity, personal interests, business connections, and a lack of ethics at the expense of the people who live and work in the state or country. Like in Guatemala, where Vice President Harris admonished President Giammattei for corruption, many leaders in America prefer to not invest in their people, for example by improving working conditions, because it will negatively affect their personal holdings.  

In America, like in Guatemala, there are bad leaders, who only focus on the ideas that back up their own perspective and selfishly want it all for themselves. The bottom line for them is that business returns are better when you have labor that has no other recourse than to work for whatever they can get in whatever conditions are available. 

After all, as Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is quoted as saying:  “Work is good for the soul, good for our families”, even if that soul is beaten, tampled and hurting. And it’s certainly good for the pockets of those who lead the back-to-work kumbaya with a soul that is rotten through and through. 

It’s a funny thing, isn’t it, how when you criticize and blame others, like these Governors are doing and like Vice-President Harris did in Guatemala, you are avoiding some truth about yourself and your country.  

The truth is that millions of people, whether in Guatemala, the U.S. or elsewhere, suffer the consequences of corruption: they earn less than a living wage, work in unsatisfactory conditions, have few if any protections against bullying and sexual harassment, have no paid vacation, and can be easily fired at any time. Many in the hospitality industry, especially restaurant workers, have suffered abuse and trauma, and those deemed essential have consistently been treated as disposable.

So it’s no surprise that many Americans in the hospitality sector don’t have a particular desire to go back to work. But it’s not because they don’t want to work; it’s because of the terrible working conditions and less-than-living wages hidden behind a veneer of “America is great because it’s all about work” that veils over the private interests of corrupt politicians. Thankfully, in America, contrary to Guatemala, citizens have the freedom to air their refusal and protest the wages and conditions without fearing for their life.  

Forcing unemployed Americans back to work without addressing the root causes of their reluctance to return to unacceptable jobs deserves words on corruption as stern as those that Vice President Harris has offered Guatemala. As Helain Olen rightly concludes in a June 2, 2021 Opinion article in The Washington Post (online): Today’s “worker crisis” is really a debate about the terms and conditions under which our jobs are performed, and how much we should be paid for them. Think of it as a great reconsideration, one worker and workplace at a time.” 

So how do you address corruption? 

To solve a problem you not only have to recognize your share of responsibility but also admit that the things we detest and judge in others are a reflection of things we cannot accept in ourselves. This is as true for individuals as it is for entire nations.  

This maxim has become particularly relevant as a result of U.S. Vice Pesident Kamala Harris’ recent trip to Guatemala and Mexico, in which she called-out Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei for corruption. But you can’t expect to resolve someone else’s corruption if you can’t even resolve your own. 

Harris’ arrogance and cluelessness about Guatemala’s realities have been so off-putting, that Star-Ledger Columnist Paul Mulshine countered a Politico site piece headlined “Harris message in Guatemala: Do Not Come to America” with an improved version based on his conversations with the locals about her trip: “Guatemala to Harris: Do Not Come to Central America.” 

The fight against corruption in both Guatemala and the U.S. is really a debate about how it is no longer the exception, anywhere. It has become a generalized practice and is at the heart of an escalating political crisis that endangers democracy and minimizes the ability of the country to address the root causes of poverty borne of inequality.  

VP Kamala Harris made good history as America’s first non-white and female vice president. That is to be celebrated. Her first international foray should have been “momentous and anti-climactic", to quote Washington Post columnist Robin Givhan (June 9, 2021). Instead, it was remarkable because of how divorced from reality and off-putting it was. 

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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