Honduras: Is the Coup Finally Over?

By Fulton Armstrong*

Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro/ hablaguante/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro’s actions since her election on November 28 reflect optimism that the country can turn the page on the 12 tumultuous years since the military coup that forced her husband out of the country at gunpoint – and realism about the monumental tasks ahead. The voter turnout (69.28 percent) and her 15-point victory over the incumbent party’s candidate were historic. So was the level of violence – 23 candidates murdered – during the campaign.

A similarly historic basket of problems awaits Xiomara when she’s inaugurated on January 27.

  • Experts say that the government is bankrupt because of corruption, mismanagement, downturns in commodities on which the country has traditionally depended, two major hurricanes last year, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s foreign debt burden is more than $16 billion (nearly 60 percent of GDP), and the economy contracted 9 percent last year. Former Finance Minister Hugo Noé, Xiomara’s senior policy advisor during the campaign, says his team is already dialoguing with the IMF on a new debt deal.
  • U.S. investigations into outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) are reportedly very close to seeking his extradition for trial – which would thrust Xiomara’s young administration into a potentially major political crisis. JOH’s broad network of accomplices are not likely to go quietly either.

Most of the President-elect’s early actions have centered on building an effective transition to what she calls un estado solidario – drawing positive feedback even from potential opponents so far.

  • A transition commission is beginning a national consultation on priorities, especially “the elimination of poverty and hunger” among the 74 percent of Hondurans who are poor and 53 percent extremely poor. Noting that corruption is a major root cause of the country’s economic mess, Xiomara is calling for vigorous anticorruption efforts, including some with UN support, and for repealing the “impunity laws” and “secrecy laws” that have allowed illegal dealing that saps government resources. To address the violence that terrorizes citizens and drives them to migrate, she says she “will fight narco-trafficking head-on.”
  • She has pledged to fight for the protection of women and their rights. Honduras has the highest rate of femicide (4.7 cases per 100,000 women last year, according to CEPAL) and gender violence in the hemisphere – an ugly reality that analysts say is another root cause of migration. She’s advocated an unspecified loosening of restrictions on abortion, which is currently forbidden even in rape cases.
  • Potential opponents have so far gone along. The military high command, whose loyalty JOH worked hard to win, has released a statement committing to working with Xiomara and stating that “she will be the President and commander of the Armed Forces.” JOH allies in the business sector and traditionally conservative media such as the country’s largest newspaper, El Heraldo, have welcomed her.

Rhetoric that the 2009 coup reversed a flourishing democracy is exaggerated – it has always been a flawed democracy and ousted President Mel Zelaya, like his peers, was a flawed leader. But this vote and early reactions indicate broad agreement that the past 12 years have exhausted the country. Xiomara’s Partido Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) has soundly thumped the country’s two traditional parties, sending both back to re-think their strategies.

  • Governing is likely to be a learning process for Xiomara. Some of her early foreign policy statements – such as repeating her pledge to normalize relations with China (a sovereign decision the United States and most in the hemisphere have taken) and issuing unvarnished praise for Venezuelan Presidents Chávez and Maduro – have drawn unwelcome attention, but she pulled back and quickly put the focus back on her top domestic priorities. She also has to continue finessing coalition politics; her vice president, right-of-center sportscaster Salvador Nasrala, seemed to wander during the campaign but turned out to be a good asset. Her husband, to whom she’s referred as her “best advisor,” still has a reputation that will require some managing.

The U.S. reaction to her government will be crucial. Xiomara’s agenda, with its focus on the “root causes” of the country’s multiple crises, could make her an ideal ally to U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who’s worked hard to focus U.S. policy on those drivers. Neither woman can be expected to do magic, but stopping Honduras’s slide, which started under the putschist regime in 2009 and continued under the two National Party presidents who came after, would be a major victory in itself. The surge in Hondurans encountered on the U.S. border – up to about 300,000 in the past 12 months – has grabbed Washington’s attention, but the real test will be whether the Administration and the Honduran government can seriously address the root causes as promised.

December 9, 2021

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1 Comment

  1. fernando rojas

     /  December 9, 2021

    Balanced and timely note. Thank you and congratulations one more time. Can only hope the US and LATAM countries may now provide the necessary support– at least as decisively they did immediately after the coup.

    Reply

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