On January 27th, 2022, Xiomara Castro, Honduras’ first woman president will take office. In the run up to the elections and their aftermath, Castro has made clear that her plans for Honduras are bold. In her recently released government plan to “Refound Honduras”, her team has identified participatory democracy, protection of human rights, combating corruption, and improving economic growth and quality of life for Hondurans as some of the incoming administration’s priorities. Given the country’s long-seated issues of organized crime, widespread corruption and impunity, and dire conditions for democracy and human rights defenders, keeping these promises will prove daunting, particularly as Castro also faces difficulties in the legislative assembly.
Castro’s administration will attempt to turn around a country overwhelmed by corruption and drug trafficking, where the judiciary lacks independence, and the police remain largely ineffective and engaged in criminal activities. In Honduras, endemic corruption has created a kleptocratic state comprised of clandestine groups and elites (economic, political, criminal, and military) that have infiltrated most government institutions and caused severe threats to human rights and democratic values. Half of its population lives in poverty, and tens of thousands leave its borders each year as violence, discrimination, persecution, and lack of access to economic, social, and cultural rights continue affecting vulnerable populations.
Advancing change will be extremely challenging given that the new administration will face forces of organized crime and drug trafficking that have reached the highest levels of government. In February 2021, U.S. court files identified outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández as having allegedly accepted bribes from drug traffickers and used Honduran armed forces to protect cocaine shipments.
Further complicating Castro’s starting hand, last week, congressional members of Libre, Castro’s political party, split after she tried to install an allied Savior party member as president of Congress based on a pact she had made with the party when its presidential candidate, Salvador Nasralla, dropped out of the race to support Castro. This institutional crisis not only undermined the rule of law but left her with little political means to advance her ambitious agenda. Thus, one of Castro’s biggest challenges will be to engage in dialogue, generate strategic alliances, and ensure strong coordination and synergy with congress. Congress’ role is essential to preserving democratic values and strengthening the rule of law through key legal reforms. Additionally, the selection of an attorney general and members of the Supreme Court of Justice, among other judicial elections, will be critical for Honduras’s judicial independence and Congress should ensure transparent and merit-based selection processes. Given these challenges, President Castro will need ongoing support from civil society and members of the private sector committed to democracy in addition to the international community.
The Castro administration will need to act decisively to dismantle illicit networks that have infiltrated the legislature, judiciary, security forces, and national and local government structures. This includes urging Congress to reform laws that present barriers to fighting corruption such as laws that prevent the investigation and prosecution of corruption and money laundering, those that reduce penalties for corruption, and those that sanction civil society activists and journalists fighting against corruption and human rights violations. Castro has announced some strategic actions, including the creation of a UN-backed anti-corruption commission. In this regard, her presidency offers a valuable opportunity to strengthen the rule of law and address the root causes of migration.
Violence and discrimination against women, LGBTQI+ persons, Garifuna, and indigenous communities are social, political, and legal issues that the new administration should prioritize by implementing consistent measures to address the causes of these violations and promote justice for those affected. Further, changing conditions for human rights defenders and journalists is critical. Honduras continues to be one of the most dangerous countries for human rights defenders as threats continue from security forces and impunity for human rights abuses remains the norm. In 2020, Global Witness listed Honduras as the country with the second highest number of attacks against environmental and land rights activists per capita.
In order to reach her goals, Castro and the Libre party should find mechanisms to create political alliances both at the municipal level as well as in the legislative assembly. This is particularly important given the already apparent divisions within members of her own party in the assembly.
While the road ahead will not be easy, the incoming administration provides a welcome opportunity for international re-engagement with Honduras, which could prove to be a key ally in an increasingly undemocratic region. Given that President Castro will face an uphill battle in addressing Honduras’ debilitated democracy, coopted judiciary and entrenched impunity, her administration will need support from the international community.
The U.S. and other allies should demonstrate this commitment through strategic aid and support conditioned on a commitment to combating corruption, protecting human rights, and strengthening democracy. The U.S. government should advance USAID programs focused on addressing socio-economic issues, in addition to ensuring that private sector investment is directed to benefit the people of Honduras. The United States should create mechanisms and promote agreements to implement the White House’s recently released strategy on countering corruption. In the same vein, the U.S. and other international governments should support efforts to create an internationally backed anti-impunity unit as they did with the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), and should work to ensure continued support of an independent unit regardless of who holds the presidency. Lastly, the international community should make regular efforts to consult with key actors in civil society throughout the country as they develop strategies for engagement.
While the challenges are daunting, there is also a sense of hope in Honduras. Relatively low levels of electoral violence in what was expected to be a violent and contested election, combined with record numbers of voters at the polls during a global pandemic, demonstrate the will of the Honduran people and the eagerness for change. The courage of civil society actors on the frontlines of the fight for democracy, rule of law, and human rights, has been and will continue to be vital. Equally important will be the international community’s support of these efforts to keep Honduras’ fight for a better future alive. Riding on this energy, on new municipal and legislative alliances, and on U.S. and international cooperation in providing strategic financial, technical and diplomatic aid, President Castro has the tools to alter Honduras’ path towards a more democratic and just future.