The election of Xiomara Castro in Honduras appears to open a new chapter in Central American polarization. Will it consolidate democracy?
By Fabiola Chambi (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – Xiomara Castro, elected as Honduras’ first female president on November 28th, has a unique political history. She’s married to former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya and was his first lady. After Zelaya was forced from power, she was twice the losing candidate. However, as the headlines in a local newspaper proclaimed: “the third time’s the charm”.
After 12 years of conservative government in Honduras, Xiomara Castro won with campaign promises of reconciliation, justice, peace, and a reestablishment of the democratic order. She now must accomplish these things in a country where everyday life is ruled by the choice between resigning oneself to staying, or running the risk of fleeing.
“God moves slowly, but never forgets,” Castro declared in a speech, in a clear reference to the reconquest of power. At the same time, she emphasized her intention to govern in her own way, under the slogan of “democratic socialism”. Still, doubts remain about the new government and the family’s political links.
Xiomara Castro’s husband, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, governed from 2006 to 2009 when a political-military alliance removed him from power, with only six months remaining until the end of his term. Many consider this a classic coup d’etat. Zelaya had attempted to realize a referendum aimed at modifying the Constitution. Those opposing him called his actions a reelection maneuver, since two consecutive terms was forbidden by the Honduran constitution. Zelaya’s exercise of power during those years was closely tied to the Latin American left, especially Hugo Chavez. In the current election, Nasry Asfura, the rightist candidate from the National Party, used this relationship to attack Xiomara Castro.
Xiomara Castro’s victory and that of her Libertad and Refundación [“Freedom and Rebuilding”] Party was decisive with over 68% of the electorate participating, a historic level of participation for Hondurans. The results are an important indicator for the future.
According to Honduran attorney and political analyst Raul Pineda, “the majority of the electorate supported Xiomara Castro as a way of punishing the governing party and to express the need for a political change that must begin with the departure of the current government.”
The ruling period of outgoing president Juan Orlando Hernandez was sunk in corruption, including US court documents that identified the president himself as a possible co-conspirator in drug trafficking and money laundering. These allegations deepened yet further the political and social crisis in this Central American country.
Analyst Olban Valladares says Honduras is displaying “a high degree of maturity” with an important generational change. “Young Hondurans, representing some 600,000 new voters, were the demographic segment that brought about the collapse of one of the most important traditional parties, even though they maintained some strength in Congress,” Valladares declared to the journalism platform CONECTAS.
Meanwhile, Neesa Medina, a feminist sociologist and member of the Honduran digital collective and platform Somos Muchas [“We are many”], declared: “the youth know nothing else but misery, poverty, corruption and the looting of Honduran society.
The other reason for the vote result is because the context of all this has become invisible, and we deserve a country that’s different from the one we’ve had for the last 12 years.”
It’s clear that Honduras is facing a decisive moment that imposes great challenges: consolidating a state where there’s rule of law and legal security; combatting corruption and drug trafficking; confronting a new phase of international relations; and slowing down the emigration.
According to Transparency International, Honduras holds 157th place among 181 countries in terms of the index of perceived corruption. Castro recently announced a closer relationship with the United Nations in order to set up an International Commission against Impunity in Honduras. In other areas, the Consular and Migratory Observatory of Honduras reported that between January and November 2021, deportations of Hondurans from the US and Mexico increased by 33.8%.
In this adverse context, the reactivation of relations with the United States could mark a new beginning. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken already took a first step on his Twitter account: “We’re working together to strengthen the democratic institutions, promote inclusive economic growth, and fight corruption.”
“Biden is very willing to collaborate with Xiomara, something that didn’t happen with previous presidents, including with Zelaya, who never received Washington’s blessing,” said analyst Valladares. He also believes the president elect “doesn’t have the leftist colors many have wanted to tag here with,” because she doesn’t come from a home with a political bent and a defined tendency.
However, this affirmation is seemingly belied by the phrase she used in her speech when she learned the initial voting results: “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” [Towards Victory, Always!”], a slogan emblematic of the Cuban revolution.
Waving the feminist banner as well
Honduras is the country in the region with the most femicides: 4.7 for every 100,000 women, according to Cepal, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Up to November 25 of this year, 321 women had perished in gender-based murders. It’s also noteworthy that Honduras is one of the five Latin American countries where abortion under any circumstances is criminalized. Castro plans to decriminalize abortion in three cases: for rape, fetal malformation or when the mother’s life is at risk. “It’s an alternative for change in an overwhelmingly macho country,” stated activist Neesa Medina.
At a time when a number of governments are more open to policies defending women’s rights, the path Castro presents could not only provide an answer within her country, but also for the international community.
However, such actions won’t be enough to consolidate her ability to govern as an independent voice and overcome the obstacles. There are those who express doubts about the decision-making influence that former president Zelaya might exercise.
The president-elect’s husband remained on the fringes of her campaign, appearing only in very specific circumstances, while roundly denying allegations of interference. “I think you have to value and respect Xiomara. She’s a fighting woman. I’ve accompanied her, and we’ve been married for 44 years with four children, five grandchildren. That speaks of a stable woman, with a lot of character. Yours truly, who’s been in politics for entire decades, has been able to advance right beside her, precisely for the capacity that Xiomara has, and you shouldn’t doubt that. There’s just one president, there’s just one presidential seat and there’s just one signature,” stated the ex-president during an interview with Expediente Publico.
His declaration hasn’t convinced everyone, since it’s open to two contradictory interpretations. Attorney Raul Pineda, for example, asserts: “Xiomara Castro isn’t currently perceived as a political figure independent from her husband.” However, in his conversation with CONECTAS he accepted: “She could come to have that profile if she surrounds herself with her own government team and maintains a role with some distance from former president Zelaya.”
The new Honduran leader doesn’t seem committed to such distancing, however. She has already named her husband as a presidential advisor. As if that weren’t enough, her son Hector manages the party and will coordinate the transition process, while her daughter Hortensia will be a deputy. Manuel Zelaya’s brother, Carlon Zelaya, will once again be a deputy as well, noted El Pais.
This is an all-too-familiar scenario in the region, seen with the Ortega family in Nicaragua, and the family of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. It has triggered alarm among opposition groups, who see Castro as a replacement part for consolidating the return of the left. Could a new chapter in the polarization of Central America be beginning? It’s still too soon to tell.
Meanwhile Hondurans have deposited in Xiomara Castro their hopes for change following many years of governments marked by corruption and indifference to the population’s real needs. Starting right away on January 27, the date of her inauguration, they’ll be measuring her capacity to fulfill those expectations. The first female president of Honduras holds in her hands the work of fulfilling that enormous responsibility, without endangering the democratic stability of the country.
Each week, the Latin American journalism platform CONECTAS publishes an analysis of current events in the Americas.
*Fabiola Chambi is amember of the CONECTAS editorial board.