A glimmer of hope for democracy in Honduras
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.
While drug trafficking has been a problem for decades, Honduras evolved into a narco-state under the National Party’s rule. The tentacles of organized crime have reached and infiltrated all levels of government.
Earlier this year, former President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo (2010-2014) and his immediate family were sanctioned by the U.S. State Department for their involvement in corruption and drug trafficking. Hernández’s brother and former congressman, Tony Hernández, is currently serving a life sentence in the United States for drug trafficking, while Hernandez himself has been identified as a co-conspirator on multiple drug trafficking cases by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York and is likely to be indicted after he leaves office.
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.