Photo Source: Reuters
Xiomara Castro de Zelaya is slated to be Honduras’ next president. With more than half the votes counted from the presidential elections held on November 28, Mrs. Castro, is leading her nearest rival, Nasry Asfura, the mayor of Tegucigalpa, 52 percent to 35 percent. While a substantial number of ballots remain to be counted and the margin will likely decrease, the results are clear, and Asfura and his party have conceded the race. In a positive sign for a peaceful transition of power, Asfura met with Castro and promised to cooperate with the incoming administration. The composition of the new National Congress is yet to be determined. Preliminary results indicate that Castro’s LIBRE party will receive between 48 and 52 seats out of 128, with the ruling National Party obtaining 42-44 seats. The Salvador Party, aligned with Castro, will likely win 12-14 seats, with the remaining seats going to the Liberal Party and other smaller parties. The results point to a fragmented Congress, one in which Castro can likely cobble together a simple majority to pass some legislation, but not enough votes to change the constitution or approve organic laws (laws that alter the fundamental structure of state institutions).
Xiomara Castro’s husband, former president Manuel Zelaya, was ousted in 2009 by a military coup, launching 12 years in which the country suffered from significant levels of corruption, violence, authoritarianism, and electoral manipulation. The 2017 elections in particular, which saw the re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández, were mired in allegations of fraud, violence, and state repression. A recent survey by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) found that only 23 percent of Hondurans expressed trust in elections. However, the election of Castro represents a significant departure from recent history dominated by the National and Liberal parties, and it presents a possible democratic renewal for the Central American country.
The new president will confront significant challenges ranging from a devastated economy, systemic corruption, the power of illicit networks, migration pressures, and a security apparatus closely aligned with the ruling National Party.
The country’s GDP contracted by 9 percent in 2020 due to the pandemic and the impact of two successive hurricanes. The proportion of the population living under the US$5.50 poverty line increased a projected 55.4 percent in 2020; even before the pandemic, Honduras held the second highest poverty rate in Latin America and the Caribbean, after Haiti.
President Hernández’s 8 years in office have been characterized by authoritarianism, militarization of policing functions, high levels of corruption involving the president and his family, and state-sponsored repression. In fact, the penetration into state institutions by illicit networks has been so widespread that journalists, Central American leaders, and even U.S. prosecutors have labeled Honduras a “narco-state.”
While the election results, and particularly the quick recognition of Castro’s victory by her opponents, represent a significant step forward for democratic governance, the political culture of democracy in Honduras remains fragile. Results from the 2021 Americas Barometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project indicate that only 30 percent of Hondurans are satisfied with the way democracy works. This is the lowest satisfaction level since the survey began in 2004, and it represents a precipitous decline since the measure peaked in 2010. Fewer than half of Hondurans (49 percent) agreed with the proposition that despite its problems, democracy is the best form of government. More troubling is the proportion of Hondurans who are willing to support a military coup under conditions of high corruption— nearly 45 percent—and who are willing to justify the closure of the national congress by the president if the country is facing “difficult times,”—26 percent, which represents an increase of 17 percent since 2010. Only 22 percent of Hondurans believe that the political system protects basic rights—lower than all but two of the 20 countries surveyed. More than two-thirds (68 percent) of Hondurans expressed the opinion that the majority of politicians are corrupt. On one positive note, the percentage of Hondurans who support a coup under conditions of high corruption has declined 10 percent since it reached its highest level in 2008; a year prior to the 2009 coup, this figure sat at 55 percent.
The survey also found that a majority of Hondurans (54 percent) express a desire to emigrate. This is an increase of 30 percentage points in the intention to emigrate since 2004. The survey points to food insecurity and economic dislocation as the primary factors leading to people’s choice to emigrate, with over 75 percent of Hondurans choosing the United States as the preferred destination. Food insecurity is widespread, with half of respondents saying they have run out of food in the previous three months. Of those Hondurans who indicate they are planning to emigrate; 71 percent say they are willing to do so undocumented.
Other important findings of the survey confirmed the devastating economic effects of the pandemic. 69 percent of Hondurans say that their personal economic situation worsened in the last 12 months. About half of Hondurans said they had experienced food insecurity—a 35 percent increase since 2012, the highest percentage increase across all countries surveyed in 2021.
The fragile support for democracy in Honduras, the devastating effects of the pandemic, and the legacy of corruption, violence, and authoritarianism reflect serious structural problems facing President-elect Castro. It is still an open question whether she will have necessary support from the private sector, Congress, and the military to carry out the economic and political reforms she has promised. The economic reforms will require her government to challenge the entrenched interests, both licit and illicit, that currently control Honduras’ economy. Castro has promised to establish an UN-sponsored anti-corruption commission, modeled after Guatemala’s CICIG, to replace the OAS-sponsored Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), which ended in 2020 when Congress voted for its termination. The MACCIH’s mandate was always weaker than the CICIG, but it did highlight several corruption cases, particularly among members of Congress. Re-establishing an international anti-corruption body, particularly one with real teeth, would be a significant victory over systemic corruption.
While domestic concerns will be paramount, Honduras’ relations with the United States and its regional neighbors will also play an important role in determining the success of the new administration. The legacy of her husband and his relations with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez will weigh heavily in the initial impressions of Xiomara Castro’s foreign policy. Already, many foreign observers fear Castro’s budding relationships with Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Castro has been vague about her foreign policy, except for a promise to shift Honduras’ relations from Taiwan toward the PRC. Such a move would be strategically smart given the direction that other regional countries have taken in recent years and the potential payoff in Chinese investment. But the move will be controversial with certain domestic economic interests that rely on trade with and assistance from Taiwan, and it might complicate U.S.-Honduras relations at a time when the Biden Administration seeks to confront China globally.
The United States is Honduras’ top trading partner and bilateral aid provider. At this point, no other country in Central America has closer ties to the United States than Honduras. The Biden administration has already congratulated Castro on her victory and will no doubt expect the new government to be a reliable partner in its anti-corruption policy, as well as assist in stemming the flow of migrants. The latter will only occur if the United States and Honduras are able to cooperate effectively to tackle the underlying social, economic, and political conditions that lead to migration.
One issue that will likely surface fairly quickly between the United States and the new Honduran government is how to treat outgoing President Hernández. Hernández has been implicated in drug trafficking and money laundering, as well as other corrupt activities, and like his brother could be subject to an indictment in the United States. If Hernández is indicted by the U.S. Justice Department, does the new Honduran government cooperate by releasing evidence to U.S. prosecutors and extraditing the outgoing president to the United States? Does Hernández cut a deal with Castro whereby he avoids extradition in exchange for easing the transition of power, particularly among the security forces? Such a deal would disappoint many of Castro’s supporters and send the wrong signal to the United States about her willingness to combat corruption.
The victory of Xiomara Castro de Zelaya as president of Honduras is historic on several levels. First woman president, first civilian president from a party other than the National and Liberal parties since the 19th Century, first self-proclaimed social democratic president, and a leader who represents a clear departure from the post-coup period. The margin of victory (close to 20 points), the large turnout (68 percent), and the quick recognition by the ruling party provide Castro a mandate to change Honduras in significant ways. Combatting corruption, eliminating the influence of illicit networks, incentivizing economic development, and ending the authoritarianism and repression that have characterized the country since the 2009 coup is a tall order. Will she succeed? No one really knows. But there is no doubt that she carries the hopes of millions of Hondurans whose lives depend on her success.
Orlando J. Pérez is Dean of the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of North Texas at Dallas. You can find him on Twitter at: @perez1oj.