Xiomara Castro was sworn in as president on January 27 after her resounding victory in the Honduran elections last November. Castro won 51% of votes — the highest vote for a Honduran presidential candidate ever — to become the country’s first woman president.
Running for the Freedom and Refoundation party (Libre), Castro defeated National Party of Honduras (PNH) candidate Nasry Asfura by more than 10%. Her inauguration marks the end of 12 years of right-wing PNH rule and the first time since 2006 that Honduras has a legitimately-elected president.
Castro is the wife of former president Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted by a United States-backed military coup in June 2009.
Zelaya won the 2006 elections, going on to introduce moderate reforms, such as raising pensions and salaries for teachers. He established relations with then-Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and joined the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) — a bloc of leftist Latin American governments set up to counter US-promoted free trade in the region.
Ahead of the 2009 elections, Zelaya proposed a non-binding referendum on a constituent assembly to rewrite and democratise the country’s constitution.
This was too much for conservative forces in Honduras and their US allies. Under the direction of Honduran military leaders, soldiers kidnapped Zelaya and removed him from the country at gunpoint.
Through violent repression and US legitimisation of the coup, PNH’s Porfirio Lobo was installed as president later that year in elections most electoral observers condemned as illegitimate.
The PNH regime proceeded to impose a neoliberal program with the help of the International Monetary Fund. This included slashing wages, weakening labour laws, privatising healthcare and education, and withdrawing from ALBA.
The militarisation of the police and army ushered in an era of increased violence. Death squads targeted those who resisted the government, including environmental and Indigenous rights activists.
While the poverty rate had fallen under Zelaya, it rapidly rose again after the coup to surpass 70%.
US diplomatic and financial support, including millions of dollars in military aid, not only propped up the PNH regime but contributed to the violence, poverty and corruption that has become rife in Honduras.
Libre’s electoral victory was both a protest vote against this situation and an expression of genuine desire for structural change in Honduras. Young people voted for Libre in unprecedented numbers as turnout for these elections rose to 70%, compared with 57% in 2017.
Roots in resistance
Libre is rooted in the resistance that emerged against the 2009 coup and subsequent illegitimate regime.
The National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP) was formed as a coalition of unions, poor farmers, Indigenous groups, women’s rights activists and other grassroots organisations united in opposition to the coup.
The FNRP led huge demonstrations against the coup regime in the face of brutal state oppression. Many FNRP activists and leaders were arrested, killed, imprisoned or disappeared by the military and police.
Libre was founded in 2012 as the electoral arm of the FNRP to contest the following year’s general elections.
Many Libre members remain part of the struggles for Indigenous, women’s and worker’s rights.
Libre campaigned on an anti-neoliberal platform that proposed raising taxes on wealth, higher incomes and welfare payments, the withdrawal of mining concessions, and changes to Honduras’ restrictive abortion laws. Castro also promised the formation of a constituent assembly.
Both in her campaign and plan for government, Castro highlighted the need to address structural violence against women and LGBTIQ people.
Castro has pledged to support reproductive and sexual rights, including access to contraception such as the ‘morning after pill’ and decriminalising abortion in certain circumstances. This is a significant step forward in a country where abortion is illegal in all circumstances and access to safe contraception is rare.
In her inauguration speech, Castro pledged “to close the gap and create the conditions so that our girls can fully develop and live in a country free of violence”.
Libre’s coalition partner, the Saviour Party of Honduras, has presented a draft bill to do away with Economic Development and Employment Zones (ZEDEs).
Facilitated by a law passed under the PNH regime, ZEDEs are autonomous territories within Honduras handed over to transnational companies to exploit for profit. Within ZEDEs, private companies can establish their own judiciary, police and education systems, outside of government control. Largely the result of the displacement of Indigenous communities and farmers, these zones are sites of widespread human rights abuse and environmental destruction.
Castro’s government faces several challenges.
Gender inequality and gender-based violence is rife in Honduras: the country has the highest rate of femicide in Latin America.
Privatisation and underfunding of the healthcare system has left it unequipped to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 10,000 Hondurans have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
Due to climate change, Honduras is vulnerable to disasters of rising severity and frequency, such as floods, cyclones and droughts. Two cyclones in November 2020 caused widespread damage and deaths.
Powerful right-wing forces still control large parts of Congress, the judiciary, the military and the economy. They will undoubtedly seek to destabilise Castro’s government if she attempts to challenge the neoliberal status quo.
Despite these challenges, Hondurans have welcomed the return of a democratically-elected government and potential respite from more than a decade of state violence.
Speaking to Kawsachun News, Honduran women’s rights activist Wendy Cruz said the election of a Libre government “has opened a space for dialogue to listen to our demands based on our needs and the realities that women face in this country”.
She emphasised that achieving decision-making spaces will require “a tenacious struggle” that has not ended with the electoral victory of Castro; rather, her election has provided an opportunity to demand political participation.
In December, Libre party officials met with activist groups such as COPINH, Honduras’ biggest coalition of Indigenous rights and environmental activist organisations, and student activists to listen to their demands.
Speaking on the day of her victory, Castro made clear her government’s commitments: “No more death squads! No more corruption! No more drug trafficking and organised crime! No more ZEDEs! No more poverty and misery in Honduras!”