A dozen years after she led a mass protest movement following a coup that ousted her husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, Xiomara Castro became the first female president of Honduras on Thursday.
Her historic victory on Nov 28 by a surprisingly wide, 15-point margin, offers a nation beset by corruption and poverty a chance to reverse course after a dozen years of single-party rule. “We are going to write together a new story for the Honduran people,” said Castro.
Born in Tegucigalpa in 1959, Castro, 62, studied business administration before marrying Zelaya and moving with him to his hometown in the rural department of Olancho, where she dedicated herself to raising their four children and social causes while Zelaya, member of one of the area’s most prominent families, climbed the political ladder.
In 2005, Castro rose to national prominence during Zelaya’s successful campaign for president. As first lady, she helped oversee the administration’s social welfare programs. But it was in 2009 following the military-backed coup that she became a political force in her own right, earning the admiration and the empathy of many as she led the protest movement in the streets that fought for Zelaya’s return to power.
“She has suffered with the people”
“She is a woman with a lot of courage and bravery,” said Cristobal Ferrera, 70, while resting in Tegucigalpa’s central park ahead of the election. “She has suffered with the people.”
In 2013, she made her first run for president as the candidate for the center-left Libre Party, which emerged out of the protest movement following the coup. During the campaign, Castro demonstrated a political style very different from that of Zelaya.
“We know that President Zelaya is a politician with years of experience who, despite everything that has happened to him, remains a force,” said Juliette Handal, a businesswoman who was a vice-presidential candidate in Castro’s first campaign. “He breathes politics. Xiomara approaches politics in a more spontaneous, sincere way, and I think she will keep her promises.”
Promises, poverty and misgovernance
There have been many grandiose promises. “We are going to extinguish the pain and suffering of our Honduran people,” said Castro in her final campaign speech. “It’s now or never.”
Following years of poor governance and the recent blows of the pandemic and a pair of major hurricanes, 74 percent of Hondurans fall beneath the poverty line – the highest percentage since the return to democracy. Over the past four years, roughly half a million Hondurans have fled the country.
Castro will take the reins of government at a critical moment for the country and with much greater challenges than when Zelaya became president. Change will come slowly and she will face resistance from some forces within the country.
Corruption and migration
A signature pledge of her campaign – and one of the primary reasons she was elected – was to address the corruption that has sacked government institutions and stalled economic growth. Castro has proposed the creation of a new international anti-graft commission backed by the United Nations to replace the one that was kicked out by the outgoing administration.
It isn’t known whether or not the UN would back such a plan. Nevertheless, Castro’s government will have the opportunity to reshape the Honduran justice system due to the unusually high number of key positions whose terms will expire during the next term. The opposition coalition that catapulted Castro to the presidency appears poised to take control of Congress, which will elect a new Supreme Court, attorney general and public auditors.
“Let’s not get carried away. Whatever changes are going to come will take a very long time to take effect. The system is so rotten and corruption is so entrenched,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington DC.
Hopes that her election might stem the flow may be wishful thinking, some analysts say. "It is hard to under-estimate the pull factors of migration. So even if things seem more hopeful at the moment, any change will take a while,” said David Holiday and veteran Central America analyst. “Meanwhile, migration will still appear to be a good option for many Hondurans," he added.
But the elections could help improve U.S. relations with Honduras. "Honduras might even, surprisingly, all of a sudden be the Central American country most able to engage with the US. When you look at Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, the bar is very low,” said Holiday.
While U.S. officials are wary of Castro and her husband’s historical leftist ties to Venezuela, the virtual president-elect represents a marked improvement on current president Juan Orlando Hernandez. U.S. officials cut off all direct ties with him after his brother, Tony, was convicted of drug trafficking in New York court earlier this year.
Despite evidence in court directly implicating president Hernandez, he has strenuously denied any ties to the drug cartels. While he has so far not been formally charged with any crime, it is widely believed that a sealed indictment awaits him after he steps down from office in January. The United States does not typically indict sitting heads of state.
Castro’s husband has also been accused of receiving millions of dollars from drug traffickers. If president Hernandez were to go on trial after leaving office additional embarrassing details about Mel Zelaya could emerge.
Castro will be just the 12th female president in Latin American history – and the first elected in seven years. In a region plagued by machismo, that represents an extra burden as well as an opportunity. Honduras suffers from the highest rate of femicide in the region and women’s rights in the country have taken steps back in recent years.
Castro has proposed to ease the country’s total abortion ban – one of the world’s most restrictive – to allow for the termination of pregnancies in the case of rape, when the mother’s life is at risk, or when the fetus isn’t viable. Even with control of Congress, it’s unlikely she will be able to implement that change. But a legalization of the morning-after-pill, banned by the ruling party, could be possible and help women in a country with high rates of sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy.
The challenges that Castro’s administration will face are daunting. On top of it all, she will have to convince skeptics at home and abroad that she is up for the task and intent upon blazing her own path, instead of following the lead of other leftist presidents in Latin America who have become international pariahs.
Critics say that besides running two political campaigns, Castro lacks government experience. She avoided media interviews during the campaign but has surrounded herself with competent advisors, including Hugo Noe Pino, an economist who worked on her government plan, and Pedro Barquero, the highly respected former Director of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Cortés (CCIC) in the north of the country.
The experience of Zelaya’s administration could also be an asset. “Being so close to him, she was able to observe what things led him to failure and what things were really successful,” said Edmundo Orellana, who served as a minister in Zelaya’s administration. “That can be of great use to her if she knows how to take advantage of it.”
Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has suffered from extreme polarization. The election results present an opportunity to stich the country back together, and Castro has promised to work toward reconciliation. “We are going to extend a hand to opponents because I don’t have enemies,” said Castro in her victory speech.