Honduras: the end of a cycle?
As of 27 January 2022, Honduras has its first female president. Xiomara Castro, of the left-wing Libre party, was inaugurated more than a decade after her husband, former president Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown by a military coup. Her victory, with an impressive 51 per cent of the vote in an election with record voter turnout, ended a long period of conservative dominance. The new president will have to overcome enormous challenges to implement her programme of social equity, gender justice and anti-corruption. But for the first time in a long time, progressive change has become a real possibility.
On 27 January, the first female president in the history of Honduras was sworn in. The fact that the country with the highest femicide rates in Latin America voted for a woman president was enough to make headlines, but the significance of the event went further: Honduras’ new president, left winger Xiomara Castro, is also the wife of former president Manuel Zelaya, whose term was cut short by a military coup in 2009.
Her landslide win in the November 2021 election closed the cycle opened by a military intervention that shook regional institutions and started twelve uninterrupted years of conservative National Party (PN) dominance.
Third time’s the charm
Castro first entered politics in 2005, organising the Liberal Party’s (PL) women’s branch when her husband was preparing to run in its internal election. When Zelaya held the presidency, she performed the typical duties of a socially concerned First Lady.
Following her husband’s ousting and forced exile to Costa Rica on 28 June 2009, she organised the National Front of Popular Resistance, an anti-coup movement that mobilised on the streets to call for Zelaya’s return. Drawing from this movement, Zelaya founded the Freedom and Refoundation Party (Libre) in 2011.
2021 was Castro’s third time as Libre’s presidential candidate. She had previously run in the 2013 election, coming second to PN’s Juan Orlando Hernández. This effectively broke the traditional two-party system as she pushed PL to third place, both in the presidential race and congressional representation.
In 2017 she was nominated again but subsequently stepped aside when Libre formed an alliance with the Saviour Party, whose leader, sports journalist and TV presenter Salvador Nasralla, led a joint presidential ticket. In 2021 this arrangement worked the other way around, and Nasralla went on to become Honduras’ new vice-president.
A landslide victory
Although the polls predicted a tight race, Castro won by a 14-point margin. In an election where turnout reached a historic 69 per cent, Castro received 51 per cent of the vote, compared to 37 per cent for PN candidate Nasry Asfura, who quickly conceded. This marked a welcome contrast to the experience of 2017, when disputed results enabling President Hernández’s re-election resulted in protests, repression and violence.
Democracy and other unfinished business
Even before the military deposed Zelaya and forcibly removed him from the country in the middle of the night in 2009, Honduran democracy was recognised to be extremely fragile – it barely qualified as a ‘flawed democracy’ on The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. From then on, the situation only worsened. The coup and the attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and political activists that followed represented a deep regression in respect for human rights and the rule of law.
The 2009 coup: a nasty reminder of the past
The 2009 Honduras coup was a watershed not only for Honduras but for Latin America as a whole: it challenged the idea that military uprisings were a thing of the past and put regional multilateralism to the test.
The Organization of American States (OAS) realised how dangerous a precedent this military intervention could be and moved fast: on 5 July 2009, the body’s General Assembly applied the Inter-American Democratic Charter and adopted a resolution suspending Honduras’ membership and instructing the OAS Secretary General to pursue diplomatic initiatives to restore democracy and the rule of law.
In the early days of the coup, leftist presidents from the region, including Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo, supported a failed attempt by Zelaya to fly back to Honduras and reclaim his place. They saw him as one of their own, because after being elected on a conservative platform, he made a drastic policy switch towards redistributive policies. This shift translated into close relations with Cuba and Venezuela and the incorporation of Honduras into ALBA, the leftist regional cooperation organisation.
In the months preceding the coup, Zelaya embarked on a war with the media, which he claimed were biased against him, and on a much-resisted campaign to change the country’s constitution – according to his critics, to eliminate the term limits that prevented him being re-elected, an accusation he denied.
Zelaya pushed for a referendum on the constitution, to be held on 28 June 2009, despite a court ruling it unlawful. Congress began to discuss the possibility of impeaching him. The military, which normally assist the government with election logistics, refused to carry out the president’s orders to get everything ready for the vote, and thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets on 27 June.
Zelaya was forcibly removed the next day, and the president of the National Congress, centre-right Roberto Micheletti, was sworn in as his replacement. A confusing episode followed as Zelaya returned in September and obtained asylum in the Brazilian embassy. Following a presidential election held in November, an agreement was reached between the president-elect, conservative Porfirio Lobo, and the government of the Dominican Republic, which offered Zelaya safe passage into exile. He remained there until he was allowed to return in May 2011.
Honduras was readmitted to the OAS on 1 June 2011.
From 2010 onwards, the Democracy Index has labelled Honduras a ‘hybrid regime’ – one that doesn’t meet the threshold conditions to be considered even a deeply flawed democracy. A look into the components of this index provides some clues as to what is wrong with democracy in Honduras – and a better understanding of what could improve following the 2021 election, and what is unlikely to. While Honduras gets a pass grade on electoral process and pluralism, it’s found most lacking in the areas of civil liberties, political participation, political culture and the functioning of government.
The 2021 election campaign was marred by record levels of political violence, with at least 23 candidates murdered, in a context of ongoing violence against social and political activists and journalists. In September, rights organisation Global Witness confirmed Honduras’ status as a country with one of the highest number of killings of environmental and land rights defenders in the world – behind only behind Nicaragua for per capita killings.
In its 2021 report on freedom of expression in the Americas, civil society organisation Fundamedios named Honduras as the most dangerous country in Central America for journalists, with four reporters murdered between 2020 and 2021. The Honduran government was accused of doing little to stop these attacks. On the contrary, it made conditions for journalists worse by criminalising defamation and libel.
Ahead of the election, Amnesty International published an open letter urging respect for the freedoms of expression and assembly. It expressed concern over the potential repetition of the events of 2017, when a fraudulent election was followed by repression of post-election protests, resulting in two dozen deaths and multiple human rights violations.
Big obstacles ahead
The dangers of fraud and violence were fortunately averted. This time, elections fulfilled the function they are designed for: to ensure a transfer of power without bloodshed.
For the first time there is real possibility of change. At the very least, Hondurans now have a government that is not itself part of the problem.
But the Castro presidency will have plenty of challenges to face: a deep economic crisis made worse by the pandemic, structural poverty, inequality and insecurity that drive mass migration, widespread corruption, the deep power of organised crime, the militarisation of internal security and a succession of climate-related disasters.
In her final campaign event, Castro promised to lead a ‘government of reconciliation’ and to ‘rebuild’ Honduras through ‘democratic socialism’. Her programmatic priorities are clear: she will focus on fighting poverty and hunger, widening sexual and reproductive rights – in a country where abortion is entirely banned – and stepping up anti-corruption efforts. This may see the revival of an internationally supported initiative such as the OAS-backed Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), which Hernández shut down as soon as it seemed to threaten his power. Castro will have to start by repealing a series of so-called secrecy and impunity laws, put in place to allow government business to be conducted in secret.
The last time someone attempted some redistribution in Honduras, it didn’t end well. The meagre social progress achieved under the Zelaya administration was quickly reversed in the early post-coup years.
And if corruption was a systemic problem a decade ago, it is an even bigger scourge today. Under three successive PN administrations, the ruling party appears to have turned into a full-fledged criminal enterprise. Hernández is under US investigation for drug trafficking, and a request for his extradition could turn into a political crisis for his successor. Even if Hernández ends up in a US jail, the dense network of criminality would remain in place and resist any attempt to dismantle it.
There is no guarantee Castro will be able to make progress on any of these fronts. But for the first time in a while there is at least a real potential for change. At the very least, Hondurans now have a government that appears to have the will to contribute to the search for solutions to the country’s ailments rather than being part of the problem.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The new government must repeal and replace laws that restrict civic freedoms and ensure that human rights defenders and journalists are able to carry out their legitimate activities in the absence of fear, harassment or undue obstacles.
The political right and key economic players should commit to working constructively with President Castro rather than simply trying to block any attempt at social reform.
The international community should provide appropriate support so that the new government can effectively tackle Honduras’ problems, and particularly those with an international dimension – corruption, organised crime, insecurity and migration.
Cover photo by Camilo Freedman/APHOTOGRAFIA/Getty Images