Photo: President Xiomara Castro of Honduras and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris. Source: Erin Schaff / New York Times.
Honduran President Xiomara Castro is far from the typical U.S. ally. Promising a “socialist and democratic state” at her inauguration last week, Castro used one of her first executive actions to recognize Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. And yet U.S. leaders have taken exactly the right approach with the new leader of Honduras, welcoming Castro as a partner to resolve the root causes of migration.
End of a Narco-State
With Castro’s inauguration, Hondurans marked the end of twelve years of rule by the conservative National Party, led first by Porfirio Lobo (2010-2014) and then by Juan Orlando Hernández (2014-2022). Corruption and drug trafficking flourished under National Party rule, landing close relatives of both presidents in U.S. prisons. Cementing Honduras’ status as a narco-state, U.S. prosecutors alleged in 2019 that Hernández himself had accepted bribes from drug trafficking organizations.
Under Hernández’s rule, free and fair elections were far from guaranteed. In 2017, left-wing candidate Salvador Nasralla consistently led in polls against the incumbent president with Xiomara Castro as his running mate, but narrowly lost the vote. The Organization of American States reported widespread irregularities and called for a new election. When Hernández refused, the resulting protests lasted more than a year, leaving 38 dead and over 1,000 arrested. The Trump administration, which recognized Hernández’s victory after a month of violence, only made matters worse.
Last year’s election was different, in part thanks to the actions of the Biden White House. Constrained by term limits, Hernández designated his hand-picked successor, Nasry Asfura, to face off against Castro, who now sat at the top of the ticket with Nasralla as her running mate. Shortly before the election, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols visited Honduras to urge free and fair elections.
When election day came on November 28, many Hondurans feared a repeat of 2018. At midday, the National Party announced—in a since-deleted tweet—”We won, we have a president!” A few hours later, Mel Zelaya, the husband of Xiomara Castro and himself a former president, tweeted that Castro’s coalition had won the presidency, before the electoral commission had released preliminary results. By that night, preliminary results indicated that Castro had won in a landslide victory, and Asfura began urging his supporters to wait for the official results. Once they became available on November 30, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Castro, and Asfura conceded to the president-elect in person.
It’s important not to overstate the U.S. role in ensuring that Honduran elections were not rigged. The most important factor preventing a stolen election was the broad coalition that Castro had assembled with her local allies; faced with such a landslide, the government could not have manipulated the results without being brazen. Yet to the extent that foreign pressure played a role, the Biden administration was acting in U.S. interests, promoting stability and rule of law in a country where both are key to stemming immigration to the United States.
The Biden administration’s welcoming gestures toward Castro have further promoted U.S. interests following the election. In the last two months, the United States sent two under secretaries of state to Honduras, along with USAID Administrator Samantha Power, and, to top it all off, Vice President Kamala Harris. While Castro promised to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China during the campaign, her administration has since pledged to strengthen ties with Taipei. This decision may be partially due to pressure from the United States; shortly before the election, Reuters reported that a visiting U.S. delegation had urged both candidates to maintain relations with Taiwan if elected.
A Plausible Partner
As Castro takes office, a productive U.S.-Honduras relationship will continue to yield benefits. When Biden entered office, his team correctly adopted a more confrontational stance toward Juan Orlando Hernández and President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador. For a time, Guatemala’s Alejandro Giammattei appeared a credible ally, but his increasingly illiberal behavior has recently soured the relationship. Castro is now the only plausible U.S. partner in the Northern Triangle of Central America, one who is willing to combat corruption and cooperate with Washington to limit immigration. Castro’s social democratic politics may even be an asset in her dealings with the United States, with her views on economic inequality and women’s rights aligning with Biden’s. As Benjamin Gedan and Richard Feinberg wrote in Foreign Policy this week, “In many ways, the region’s social democrats are natural allies of Washington.”
Castro’s task will not be easy. Even before the inauguration, a crisis erupted when several members of Congress formed their own, breakaway legislature. The crisis, likely an attempt by corrupt legislators to stymie Castro’s good governance reforms, remains unresolved.
Yet here too, U.S. support for Castro is the best path forward. While some of Castro’s agenda items, such as an international anti-corruption commission, depend on Congressional approval and are likely out of reach, others can be accomplished through executive action alone. The United States can complement Castro’s anti-corruption agenda with legal, financial, and technical expertise—as well as the ever-present threat of extradition—to circumvent the Honduran legislative crisis even if it persists far into the new president’s term.
If Castro is far from a typical U.S. ally given her avowedly leftist policy positions, she is also far from a typical leader in her region given her stance against corruption. In the last two decades, nearly every president in the Northern Triangle has faced credible accusations of corruption. Many have been jailed. Castro’s election presents a golden opportunity; the time for U.S. support is now.
Robert (Bo) Carlson is the Editor of Global Americans. He previously held roles at the OAS and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and has written for The National Interest and The Diplomat. You can find him on Twitter: @bocarlson1.