Could Honduras turn left? A look at Xiomara Castro

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In the November 28 presidential election in Honduras, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya could make history in an already historic year: her victory would make her the first woman to lead the nation since she declared its independence from Spain 200 years ago.

A self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist and wife of former President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, Castro was a finalist in the 2013 presidential election. She finished runner-up as a running mate for television personality Salvador Nasralla in 2017, a ticket that lost by 50,000 votes in a contested vote that re-elected President Juan Orlando Hernández. This year, she is running again and has established herself as the opposition’s best chance to end the ruling National Party’s 12-year grip on the presidency.

Castro’s campaign was hugely successful when Nasralla ended his own campaign on October 13 in support of Castro. The smaller Innovation and Social Unity Party also joined the informal alliance endorsing Castro’s candidacy.

“This important act reflects the will of a people demanding unity, especially within the opposition, in order to defeat the dictatorship,” Castro said at a press conference, with Nasralla by his side.

The polls gave Castro a chance even ahead of Nasralla, who was third. In a September CID-Gallup surveyCastro recorded 18% support, not far behind the National Party’s Nasry Asfura at 21%. A few public polls showed Castro in the lead. In the one-round election, a simple plurality suffices for victory.

To learn more about the 2021 elections in Latin America, see our special section

Castro proposed big changes for the country in crisis, including a referendum to propose a rewrite of the constitution, the transfer of diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China and the creation of a similar UN-backed anti-corruption commission. to the once successful CICIG in Guatemala.

For many, however, the self-proclaimed “revolutionary” Castro would be far from a new beginning. Before being sacked in a coup in 2009, her husband brought Honduras closer to Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and much of the business establishment still fears the Zelayas will want to pick up where they left off. In his campaign, Castro tries to adopt a more moderate tone in meetings with private sector leaders. As for what she wants to repeat about her husband’s presidency, she underlines the poverty reduction during these years.

“Most of its policies,” said economist Roberto Lagos, “are tied to reducing poverty and inequality. This message connects with voters.

Winning can be the easy part

After 12 years of one party, “Honduras needs a change of power,” said Dr Rolando Sierra Fonseca, director of FLACSO Honduras. Whoever wins will have his work cut out for him. The pandemic pushed some 400,000 Hondurans out of work in 2020, and back-to-back hurricanes late last year have affected half of the population of Honduras and caused some $ 1.9 billion in damages. Much of the country wants to migrate, including six out of ten millennia. Castro would also inherit one of the worst on the continent energy crises. Meanwhile, the IMF projects public debt will reach 58.7% of GDP this year, against 54.5% according to estimates, which will complicate the financing of public projects.

Castro will have to fight to implement his program in Congress. Nasralla always asks his supporters to vote for his party’s congressional candidates. This means that the three main opposition forces in Honduras, including the once powerful but still relevant Liberal Party, are each likely to be represented in Congress. If they don’t work with Castro, they could be an obstacle to some of his signing proposals.

Castro would also have to contend with institutions shaped by National Party control for more than a decade.

“After 12 years, the bureaucracy is clearly aligned with the National Party, from the police to teachers to the health sector,” said Lester Ramírez Irías, director of governance and transparency at the Association for a fairer society, an NGO.

Castro greets supporters after launching his candidacy in January 2020.
Photo: ORLANDO SIERRA / AFP via Getty Images

There are also concerns that Castro and Zelaya are seeking revenge for the coup that toppled him after he decided to replace the constitution. Castro got involved in politics shortly before her husband’s election, and the coup protest marked her political rise. The movement she organized became Liberté et Refondation (LIBRE), the party under which she ran for president in 2013.

Opinions differ on the extent of Zelaya’s influence over a President Castro. Today, the candidate herself talks less about the coup and more about the defeat of the National Party with the kind of big tent model that has helped LIBRE become the second largest political force in Honduras.

Castro was Meet with business groups, promising collaboration in the event of an election and better conditions for job creation and investment.

“I want a social pact with all sectors, productive sectors, with companies, with workers, with teachers, with farmers and campesinos, with the informal economy and small and medium-sized enterprises ”, Castro noted when launching its campaign platform.

“She tried to send a message to the private sector about the need for a government of reconciliation in order to develop an agenda for growth and inclusion,” Lagos said.

Courting the private sector as a socialist might have obvious limitations, but there may be room for common ground on some issues, such as the controversial areas of employment and economic development (ZEDES). Hernández pushed for semi-autonomous free trade zones and said they will attract investment. Business and civil society leaders say the areas endanger local sovereignty. Castro fiercely opposes it.

A “transactional” relationship with the business sector is possible, unless her husband pushes her too far to the left, Ramírez said.

“If private companies got the impression that Mel Zelaya wanted to nationalize companies or adopt policies around state control, there would be a strong backlash from them,” Ramírez said.

Castro’s challenge is the one that the Peruvian Pedro Castillo recently faced, and soon the Colombian Gustavo Petro or the Chilean Gabriel Boric, left-wing candidates who hope to take advantage of an anti-titular wave in the region while facing the ghost. of Venezuela’s economic collapse. The country’s economic and democratic decline has made any association with Chávez’s brand of “21st century socialism” a serious handicap.

A repeat of 2009?

Fear of Chavismo played a central role in the political crisis in Honduras in 2009. Yet analysts do not predict a repeat of this kind of confrontation. The context in Honduras – and Latin America – has changed too much, analysts say.

In a scene from July 28, 2009, Xiomara Castro tries to reach her husband, Manuel Zelaya, across the border between Honduras and Nicaragua and unable to enter the country after his forced exile a month earlier.
Credit: José CABEZAS / AFP via Getty Images

Castro’s campaign “is not a movement to consolidate a dying socialist movement of the 21st century,” echoed Ismael Zepeda Galo, analyst and economist at the Social Forum on Foreign Debt and Development in Honduras, an NGO. Zepeda added that a Castro victory would signal not so much an advance by the left as it was voter exhaustion with the ruling party.

The feeling that lessons have been learned since 2009 underscores the optimism of some that a Castro presidency would end better than for her husband. “If they win, I think they can rule,” said one of Zelaya’s former ministers, who asked not to be named. The minister pointed to signs of Castro’s pragmatism.

“She needs to build bridges and clarify things that could link her to other leftist governments. It has to promote open markets, it has to support small businesses and entrepreneurs, and I think it does, ”said the ex-minister, who also expects the Zelayas to be willing to work with. Democrats in Washington, even as some think. Democrats did not react sufficiently to the coup d’état under the Obama administration. In recent years, trust between Honduras and the United States has eroded under Hernández, who is under investigation for drug trafficking in US courts. Vice President Kamala Harris ignored Honduras during her visit to the region in June.

Among the possibilities, perhaps the most likely outcome of a Castro government is some kind of deadlock with a divided Congress and without the fiscal resources to make big changes to the status quo.

“I don’t see the sectors that were in favor of the coup very willing to repeat a coup, given the consequences that followed,” said Sierra, the university director. “And I also think that LIBRE and Castro have assessed that they cannot propose a government of sweeping changes. The conditions are not there.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brendan O’Boyle is editor-in-chief at Americas Quarterly, where he writes on Latin American politics, produces the Americas Quarterly Podcast and manages the publication’s presence on social networks. Brendan has been featured as an expert on Latin American issues in various media including The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Key words: Elections 2021, Xiomara Castro

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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its editors.



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