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 HernÃ¡ndez. 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 to support his former running mate. The smaller Innovation and Social Unity Party also joined the informal alliance supporting 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 poll, Castro registered 18% support, not far behind the National Party’s Nasry Asfura at 21%. A few public polls have shown Castro to be in the lead. In the one-round election, a simple plurality suffices for victory.
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 had brought Honduras closer to Hugo ChÃ¡vez from Venezuela, and much of the business establishment still feared the Zelayas would want to pick up where they left off. were arrested. 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 points to the reductions in poverty over the years.
âMost of its policies,â said economist Roberto Lagos, âare 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 affected half the Honduran population and caused some $ 1.9 billion in damage. A large part of the country wants to migrate, including six in ten millennials. Castro would also inherit one of the continent’s worst energy crises. Meanwhile, the IMF predicts that public debt will reach 58.7% of GDP this year, up from an estimated 54.5%, making it more difficult to finance 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.
âAfter 12 years, the bureaucracy is clearly aligned with the National Party, from the police to teachers to the health sector,â said Lester RamÃrez IrÃas, director of governance and transparency at the Association for a fairer society, an NGO.
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 LibertÃ© 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 met with business groups, promising collaboration if elected 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 enterprises, âCastro said when launching his 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 Zones of Employment and Economic Development (ZEDES). HernÃ¡ndez 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 âtransactionalâ relationship with the business sector is possible, unless her husband pushes her too far to the left, RamÃrez 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,” RamÃrez 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 ChÃ¡vez’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.
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.
âShe 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, âsaid 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’Ã©tat under the Obama administration. In recent years, trust between Honduras and the United States has eroded under HernÃ¡ndez, 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. âAnd I also think that LIBRE and Castro have assessed that they cannot propose a government of sweeping changes. The conditions are not there.
Key words: Elections 2021, Xiomara Castro
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its editors.