TEGUCIGALPA - Xiomara Castro was sworn in as the first female president of Honduras on Thursday in the midst of a political crisis over the control of Congress that threatened to derail her presidency before it began.
The crisis had also threatened to deliver another blow to U.S. foreign policy interests in the region. With relations soured with other northern Central American nations, the Biden administration has pivoted toward Honduras since Castro’s overwhelming victory in the November election with the hopes that she will become Washington’s top ally in the region.
“This is sort of Washington's last gasp in Central America,” said David Holiday, a Central America expert. “The decision to send the vice-president here for the inauguration of Xiomara Castro is a huge statement about the importance they put on the potential relationship.”
Vice-President Kamala Harris is the highest-ranking U.S. official to attend a presidential inauguration in Honduras.
"No more drug trafficking"
In his inauguration speech at the National Stadium, Castro lambasted the outgoing government of Juan Orlando Hernández as a corrupt "dictatorship" that had left the country's coffers empty. Looking ahead, he said his government would present "a transparent, anti-corruption" budget.
"The country should know what they did with the money," he said, adding "no more drug trafficking or organised crime".
Hernández has been dogged by multiple accusations of receiving drug money in a series of court cases in New York, something he has vehemently denied.
Hernández announced weeks ago that he would not attend the ceremony and instead the presidential sash was handed to Castro by her husband.
Describing his government as "socialist and democratic", Castro said the country had regressed during Hernández's eight years in office, with poverty increasing and a budget that made it "practically impossible to meet debt payments".
Her government would provide fuel subsidies and free electricity to the poorest households, she said, with the biggest consumers obliged to pay more to the state electricity company to make up the difference.
Former First Lady
For Castro it was a case of third time lucky after being defeated in two previous bids for the presidency and has already had a close-up view of the job of president.
Born in Tegucigalpa in 1959, Castro studied business administration before marrying Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya a rising politician who would later become president himself in 2005.
Castro will take the reins of government at a critical moment for the country and with much greater challenges than when Zelaya became president. 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.
A signature pledge of her campaign – and one of the primary reasons she was elected – was to address the corruption that has looted government institutions and stalled economic growth.
The political crisis in Congress has only complicated the beginning of her mandate, and is a sign of the resistance she may face.
The presidency of Congress is one of the best political trampolines to the presidency of the republic, launching the past two presidents Porfirio 'Pepe' Lobo and Juan Orlando Hernández.
The congressional crisis blew up on January 20 when a group of legislators elected from Castro’s center-left Libre Party were no shows at a meeting called to discuss the party’s position on the election of the leadership of Congress that was set to begin the next day.
Soon after, an up-and-coming Libre legislator, Jorge Calix, stole the show and was sworn in as president of Congress with the support of the outgoing National Party and members of the Liberal Party.
Castro denounced Calix as a “traitor” on social media. Just before Christmas, Castro and her political ally Salvador Nasralla of the Savior of Honduras Party (PSH) announced that they had decided upon Luis Redondo, a fervent anti-corruption crusader, as the alliance’s candidate for president of Congress.
But the roots of the crisis date back much farther. Univision spoke with numerous party insiders on the condition of anonymity so that they could speak freely about the causes.
The rise of Jorge Calix
In February 2019, Calix announced that he would run for president with the support of one of the Libre Party’s strongest internal movements. Just 33-years-old at the time, Calix first joined Congress in 2014 as a deputy legislator. In Honduras, each legislator has a deputy who can substitute when needed.
Most deputy legislators languish in anonymity, but Calix was active in the legislature, and in particular, on social media, which helped him gain notoriety and the attention of party leaders, including former President Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya, the party’s founder and the husband of president-elect Castro.
In 2017, Calix ran for election to Congress, this time as the ‘proprietory’ legislator, winning the most votes of any opposition candidate for Congress. His high popularity, relative youth and dominance of social media started to draw comparisons with Nayib Bukele, who won a resounding victory in El Salvador’s presidential election in the weeks before Calix announced his own candidacy in 2019.
Calix’s candidacy was at first supported by Zelaya and other party leaders. But when Castro decided to run for the presidency, they not only withdrew their support from Calix, but launched a campaign to force him to abandon his candidacy. Calix reportedly felt humiliated and contemplated leaving the party.
Nevertheless, Calix campaigned hard for Castro and continued as one of the party’s most visible faces. Calix reportedly believed that he would become president of Congress if Castro won the presidency.
Nov 28 election
Castro ended up winning the Nov 28 election by a stunning 15 points and Calix earned the most votes out of any legislator in the nation. But the opposition alliance fell just short of a majority in Congress. Libre won 50 seats, PSH 10 and there were four dissidents from the Liberal Party who had supported the alliance and Castro, giving them 64 votes in a Congress with 128 seats – one vote shy of a majority.
Calix’s bid for the leadership of Congress, ultimately led this week to a situation where two different leadership groups of Congress were elected – both with legitimate questions of their legality – with Calix being supported by the National Party and Liberal Party legislators who represent the corrupt elite he had been known for railing against.
After being one of the most popular politicians in the country with a bright future, Calix has seen social media turned against him, becoming one of the most hated politicians with a murky future ahead. With his tail between his legs, he met with Castro on Wednesday afternoon, who offered him the job as coordinator of the cabinet in order to end the crisis in time for her inauguration.