On Sunday, November 28th, Hondurans went to the polls to elect a new cheif executive after 8 years under the corrupt rule of rightwing President Juan Orlando Hernandez. The choice was between two main candidates, Xiomora Castro, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist representing the progressive Liberty and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), and Nasry Asfura, the mayor of the country’s capital, Tegucigalpa. representing the conservative National Party. Voters also chose their representatives in the country’s congress, with LIBRE looking likely to form a majority in that body, although most of these races are at this point still too early to call.
The vote came in a country of 10 million reeling from two hurricanes that tore through the nation in 2020, a pandemic and a 2017 election that resulted in massive civil society protests and state violence after the unpopular former president, sometimes referred to by his initials as JOH, was returned to office amid widespread allegations of fraud.
On top of all these problems, 59% of Hondurans live in poverty, which plays a huge role in outward migration, mainly to the United States, with citizens of the country accounting for 20% of asylum seekers on the U.S. southern border in recent years.
President Hernandez, despite receiving the support of the Trump administration in 2017, was surely hoping for victory for his party’s candidate, Asfura, as he may face serious charges in the United States, where his brother Tony is already serving a life sentence plus 30 years for drug trafficking. Many commentators in the country and abroad have argued that JOH oversaw the creation of a ‘Narco state’ in his country with out of control security forces often seeming to behave little better than the criminals they are supposed to fight.
Prior to the election, Castro was clear in stating her conviction that she’s the right person for the demanding and possibly dangerous job of running the country, telling supporters, “I believe firmly that the democratic socialism I propose is the solution to pull Honduras out of the abyss we have been buried in by neo-liberalism, a narco-dictator and corruption.”
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Castro, 62, who claimed victory on Monday after receiving over 50% of the vote, will become Honduras’ first female president in January, 2022. Her husband and senior advisor is also an important figure in the country’s politics, Manuel Zelaya, who was removed from office in a coup in 2009 that was supported by the governments of the U.S. and Canada.
Although he was considered more ‘moderate’ than many leaders on the Latin American left, one reason given for Zelaya’s removal by the Honduran military was his perceived closeness to the leadership of Venezuela.
The tried and true method of smearing leftists by labelling them as totalitarians while ignoring this tendency on the right was on display in the lead up to the election. As reported by the Los Angeles Times late last week, Castro was portrayed in commercials and on billboards throughout the country not as the progressive candidate she campaigned as but as a ‘communist’ bent on destroying the country for unknown but obviously sinister reasons.
It’s hoped that Castro will be able to stem the epidemic of violence in the country, which reaaches into it’s politics. As reported by Canada’s national broadcaster, the CBC, just before the election, “Since primary elections in March, political violence has already claimed 31 lives, including local candidates and activists across all three major parties: Castro’s Liberty and Refoundation (Libre) Party, the National Party and the centrist Liberal Party.”
The danger has been shown to be particularly acute for activist voices, especially those engaged in the struggles for the rights of indigenous people and the impoverished Garifuna minority, who are of indigenous and African descent.
The daughter of Berta Caceres, an indigenous Lenca and environmental activists murdered in her home in 2016, was herself the victim of an attempted assasination in October. Olivia Marcela Zúniga Cáceres, who ran as a LIBRE candidate in the election for a seat in the country’s congress, was attacked in her home by assailants who attempted to suffocate her.
The same day, another LIBRE candidate, Nery Fernando Reyes, who was running for mayor in Santa Ana de Yusguare, was killed by gunmen in his vehicle while campaigning close to the country’s border with Nicaragua.
One reason for celebration for the people of Honduras is that Castro’s victory means an end to over a century of corrupt two party rule. The candidate for the Liberal Party, Yani Rosenthal, led for a short time by Zelaya, was a negligible factor in the election. This is unsurprising considering that he returned to the country to run for president after serving a 3 year term in U.S. prison after being convicted there on money laundering charges.
Castro’s victory also bodes well for women’s rights in the country as she has promised to ease the restrictions on abortion, which at present are not allowed under any circumstances, including rape and incest. She has also promised to promote the rights of the country’s LGBTQ communities.
Although Honduras is a small country, it represents so many issues that are of vital importance for the internationalist left. While in terms of the populist right, neighboring El Salvador offers a better example, the nexus of oligarchy, right wing politics and American foreign policy has held Honduras back for decades, even prior to the 2009 coup. With two hurricanes ravaging the country last year alone and severe droughts uprooting subsistance farmers who often find themselves in city slums where they are victimized by criminal gangs, the country is in the eye of the storm in terms of climate change.
One difference today is that a leader like Castro can reach out to progressive leaders like Jagmeet Singh in Canada and the Progressive Caucus in the United States Congress, potential allies who were not there just a few years ago.
Rather than another example of a Latin American narco-state, if Castro and her progressive allies are able to realize just some of their ambitions, Honduras could become an example for the region and the world. Considering the domestic political implications of the continuing crisis on the country’s southern border, it would be wise for the Biden Administration to offer her the support the Obama Administration he served in failed to give her husband a little more than a decade ago.