Hondurans made history on November 28, electing presidential candidate Xiomara Castro of the leftist opposition as the first female to govern the Central American nation. Her victory marks the end of the National Party’s 12-year hold on power — a period riddled with corruption scandals, ties to drug cartels, grave human rights violations, and democratic backsliding. Her victory comes as a relief to many Hondurans and offers the country an opportunity to reverse course. Still, tackling the structural challenges facing the country will be no easy feat and will take time.
Castro ran as the candidate of the opposition Liberty and Refoundation Party or “Libre.” She rose to public prominence when her husband, former president Manuel Zelaya, was ousted by a military-backed coup in 2009. Castro took the helm of the mass protest movement that fought in the streets for his return to power.
The results, while still not officially certified, show Castro leading with over 53 percent compared with 33.98 percent for her main rival, National Party candidate Nasry Asfura, according to the National Electoral Council (CNE). Asfura met with Castro two days after the election and publicly conceded she had won the election. This was Castro’s third presidential bid. She will take office on January 27, 2022.
A referendum on the ruling National Party
Hondurans had braced for turbulent and violent elections. For many, the memories of the highly contested 2017 elections and the violence and repression that followed remained fresh in their minds. In that election, more than 30 people were killed and hundreds arbitrarily detained by the security forces. The run-up to this year’s election was marked by unprecedented levels of violence. Until November 18, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had registered more than 60 cases of political violence, including 29 deaths.
At the same time, there were multiple allegations of vote-buying schemes and the distribution of state-funded payments and bonuses totaling over $100 million to swing the election in favor of the National Party.
There were also doubts about the viability of the electoral system established by a series of new electoral reforms. These reforms were last minute, in some cases incomplete, which the Congress failed to fund adequately, resulting in inadequate preparation for the vote and the specter of political instability.
In spite of these fears and some reports of irregularities, the OAS electoral observation mission found that the elections were held in an “atmosphere of peace and courtesy.” What’s more, at least 68 percent of Hondurans turned out to vote, the highest percentage in recent memory, with an especially high participation rate among women and young Hondurans. The landslide victory of the opposition turned the fears of turmoil into nationwide celebrations.
Record participation was mainly driven by a deep desire for change and disgust with outgoing president Juan Orlando Hernández, himself linked to drug trafficking in the United States.
What’s more, National Party elites have used state coffers to enrich themselves, guarantee impunity for their misdeeds, and maintain themselves in power. When the OAS-backed anti-corruption commission, known as MACCIH, began exposing the depths of corruption, Hernández moved to ensure its closure by allowing its mandate to expire. Unsurprisingly, Hernández and his political allies in Congress passed several laws and measures to shield themselves from accountability, restrict access to information, and weaken enforcement mechanisms.
The embezzlement scandals around the pandemic relief efforts and poor management of emergency funds for the humanitarian response after hurricanes Eta and Iota further fueled people’s frustration.
The road ahead
The evening of the elections, Xiomara Castro promised to form a “government of reconciliation, a government of peace and justice … For 12 years the people resisted, and those 12 years were not in vain. God takes time but doesn’t forget. Today the people have made justice.”
She has vowed to rebuild democracy, as well as repeal the controversial special economic development zones and expand government subsidies.
On the security front, she’s promised to rein in the iron-fist policies of her predecessor and promote a community-policing approach to improve citizens’ trust in the police. She has promised to do away with the military police (PMOP) that was implicated in much of the post-electoral violence of 2017 and other egregious human rights violations.
One of her main campaign commitments was to take on corruption and work toward a more transparent government. She not only committed to repealing pro-impunity laws but also to creating a new anti-graft commission under the UN auspices to replace the MACCIH.
Yet, Castro faces an uphill battle. Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the world, with nearly two-thirds of Hondurans living in poverty. Twenty percent of the rural population lives in extreme poverty. The pandemic and devastation caused by hurricanes Eta and Iota exacerbated an already precarious economic environment. The country also faces high rates of violence and insecurity perpetrated by street gangs, organized crime, illicit networks, and the state. Weak justice institutions have resulted in widespread impunity.
These conditions have forced many Hondurans to flee in search of opportunities and security. A record 321,000 Hondurans were detained in the United States in fiscal year 2021, a 22 percent increase over the same period the previous year.
Aside from the structural issues, her administration’s ability to govern and advance its policy agenda will depend on the balance of power in Congress. Current results suggest a closely divided Congress with Libre holding a razor thin edge. The country’s electoral authorities are undertaking a recount of contested congressional votes due to claims of fraud and irregularities, so control of Congress hangs in a balance
Xiomara Castro’s victory presents both challenges and opportunities for the Biden administration. Libre’s historic relationship with Venezuela is likely to raise concerns among some in Washington. At the same time, Castro will have to overcome the U.S. government’s cozy relationship with subsequent National Party governments and especially Hernández.
Her victory presents an opportunity to write a new chapter in bilateral relations. With troubled and tense relationships with Guatemala, El Salvador. and Nicaragua due to systemic corruption and democratic backsliding, Honduras can become the partner the Biden administration needs in the region to address the violence, corruption, and poor economic conditions behind the ongoing surge in migration. Both sides seem to recognize this.
During the campaign, Castro signaled that she is interested in working with the Biden administration. Prior to the elections, the United States made clear that it would respect the will of the Honduran people. Minutes after the National Party conceded the election, Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Castro and expressed U.S. interest in working with her government.
The massive voter turnout shows that Hondurans are desperate for change. Washington ought to take that seriously and find ways to support this demand for democratic renewal. If Castro takes the right approach and demonstrates a firm commitment to strengthening governance and the rule of law, protecting human rights, and addressing poverty, the United States should recognize and support her efforts. With the tilt toward authoritarianism across the region, Honduras could set an example for its neighbors.
Adriana Beltrán is the Executive Director at the Seattle International Foundation (SIF), an organization whose mission is to champion good governance and equity in Central America through rule of law and a robust civil society.
Xiomara Castro, presidential candidate for the opposition Libre Party, speaks to supporters during a rally to present her campaign program, ahead of the November 28 election in Tegucigalpa, Honduras September 5, 2021. REUTERS/Fredy Rodriguez
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any a peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.
The Russian conquest of Avdiivka is unlikely to alter the war’s basic realities. Although delays in the delivery of aid to Ukraine have raised Russian hopes, no meaningful changes on the battlefield are near. The Russians cannot drive to Kyiv; the Ukrainians cannot eject the invaders.
The first phase of the war in Ukraine is drawing to a close. Both sides are coming closer to acknowledging what has been clear to the rest of the world for quite some time: the current stalemate is unlikely to be broken in any significant way. This round of the war is going to end more-or-less along the current front lines.
The actions taken in the next few years will determine whether or not there will be a round two.
The war’s end state is now clear, even if it may take a bit more time for the combatants to accept it. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion has failed, but Ukraine cannot return to the status quo ante. The only questions that remain concern the shape of the peace to come, and how best to avoid a second act in this pointless tragedy.
Loud voices in the West are already suggestingthatthe best way to avoid round two is for NATO to expand again, and bring Ukraine into the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on Kyiv's membership to the alliance, said over the weekend, "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before...it is not a question of if, but of when."
He said Nato was helping Kyiv to make its forces “more and more interoperable” with the defence alliance and would open a joint training and analysis centre in Poland. “Ukraine will join Nato. It is not a question of if, but of when,” he insisted.
If this is the path the alliance follows, future fighting is almost assured. One side’s deterrent is often the other’s provocation.
NATO expansion was a necessary condition for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It was not sufficient, since Putin has agency and made a catastrophically bad choice, but it was necessary. Those in the West who blame the United States for the war are as myopic as those who claim that Western policies had nothing to do with it. Putin remains a cold warrior at heart, and talked about NATO obsessively in the years leading up to the invasion.
Expanding NATO further would again provide the necessary conditions for tension and conflict. Russia will not stand by while Ukraine joins the enemy camp. A second invasion – perhaps before Ukraine formally joined the alliance, or perhaps afterwards – would be extremely likely. Those who suggest that deterrence would keep the Russians in check should listen to the rambling interview Putin just gave to Tucker Carlson. Ukraine simply matters more to the Russians than it does to us. Putin would calculate that no American president would be willing to sacrifice New York for Kyiv.
Another solution exists, one that might well assure Kyiv’s security without exacerbating Russian paranoia. Ukraine should be “Finlandized.”
During the Cold War, Finland was essentially a neutral country. It took no official positions on the pressing issues of the day, and was careful not to criticize the Soviet Union. Leaders in Helsinki made it clear to those in Moscow that they had no desire to join the West. They resisted pressure to join both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and discouraged their citizens from openly criticizing either side. Finland avoided the Soviet embrace by making it clear that it would avoid the West as well.
“Finlandization” was a forced neutrality. The term was often used in a pejorative sense during the Cold War, as a warning about what could happen to the rest of Europe if the United States was not careful. What was often overlooked at the time was just how well Finlandization worked out for the people of Finland, who managed to stay free and outside of the various Cold War crises. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that today Finns consistently rank among the world’s happiest people.
Finlandization was a recognition of geopolitical reality, and it was the best choice for a small nation with the misfortune to lie next to a superpower. Switzerland followed a similar path during the 1930s. Like the Finns, the Swiss realized that their independence and very survival depended on avoiding any perception of flirtation with the enemies of their neighbor.
Ukraine will soon find itself in a similar situation, beside an aggressive and unpredictable great power. It should make the same choice, and the United States should help it do so.
A Finlandized Ukraine would not be allowed to join the West, but neither would it come under Russia’s thumb. It would be neutral, a buffer zone between NATO and Russia, an independent state that would allow hawkish Russians to imagine that it is still part of their country. The Ukrainian people would be neutral, and therefore safe.
If Washington were to lead an effort to emphasize the enduring neutrality of Ukraine, to Finlandize it, Russia’s paranoia could be reassured rather than provoked. Finlandizing Ukraine would be the best outcome for all involved, including for the Ukrainian people. The disappointment in being excluded from NATO would be tempered by the knowledge that it puts them on their best path to peace and stability. And it would be the best way to avoid Ukrainian War Two.