In just over a month, Xiomara Castro, the first woman to occupy the presidency in Honduras, will complete her first year in office. The road to the José Cecilio del Valle Palace and the months since her inauguration have not been easy. Expectations following the government of Juan Orlando Hernández (years plagued by human rights violations and corruption) and the urgency of the profound challenges facing the country translated into a demanding, and ambitious, agenda.
President Castro came to office after a campaign full of promises, mainly to put the country on the road towards becoming a fully democratic state, capable of promoting the fight against violence and corruption while guaranteeing respect for human rights.
When I met with President Castro during a WOLA visit to Tegucigalpa in November, the conversation was as promising as the campaign that brought her to power. We discussed our concerns regarding the impact of corruption affecting the country at all levels, the key role of civil society, and the importance of the government listening to its demands, as well as the need to strengthen institutions, particularly in relation to the justice system.
Among a long list of challenges it faces, Honduras continues to suffer from a high crime rate, including high rates of extortion, one of the highest homicide and femicide rates in Latin America, and a history of impunity in cases of human rights violations.
Combating the challenges that generate high crime and structural violence is no simple task. In fact, it requires the kind of strategies and tools that can only be developed with long-term political will and commitment. The imposition of a state of emergency at the end of November is the opposite strategy.
When a month-long state of exception went into effect on December 6 in 162 areas of the Central District (Tegucigalpa and Comayagüela) and San Pedro Sula, Castro said the measure was aimed at reducing violence and crime. In practice, the state of exception in Honduras suspends six constitutionally guaranteed rights, including freedom of movement, the right of association and assembly, and the inviolability of the home, and gives military forces internal security roles.
While the threat of violence is real, the fact remains that when military forces take on roles that belong in the hands of civilians, the risk of serious human rights violations increases exponentially. One need look no further than the situation in El Salvador, where thousands of reports of human rights violations have been documented, including arbitrary detentions and deaths in custody under its own state of emergency, to see the potential impact of such measures.
In Honduras, violence is closely linked to the corruption crisis, a scourge that President Castro has identified and which is visible in every corner of the country.
In response to this long-standing crisis, citizens, civil society, and the international community have recommended the installation of an International Commission against Impunity in Honduras (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Honduras, CICIH) to help strengthen the judiciary with much-needed tools to ensure that justice is a reality for all people in Honduras. Indeed, Castro has already taken firm steps in the process of creating the Commission. The proof of her success will be in the support she continues to give it in the future.
And that is not all. There are other reforms, in addition to those concerning the political and judicial systems, to which the president and her party have committed themselves and whose promises it is essential that they fulfill, such as the promotion of gender equality. Although progress in dialogue with civil society groups for the drafting of a bill guaranteeing women’s right to live free of violence is positive, there is still much work to be done. Honduras is one of the few countries in the world that criminalizes abortion with imprisonment in all cases (even when the pregnancy is the result of rape or presents a risk to the life of the pregnant woman). Reversing this law will not be easy, particularly after the constitutional reform that upheld the prohibition of abortion at the beginning of 2021. The executive branch, however, has the obligation to ensure the welfare of all pregnant people in the country, which includes guaranteeing free access to voluntary termination of a pregnancy.
To carry all these struggles forward, in the face of opposition in Congress or even in her own political environment, President Castro has to be able to cement her authority as a political leader, within constitutional limits, and to build alliances within Honduras, including with civil society, and outside her country.
The United States can still be counted among the president’s allies. Much of the ruling Democratic Party no longer identifies with the ideological issues that once meant distance from Honduras. The logic of the Biden administration is that a more prosperous and less corrupt Central America will be beneficial to the entire region.
The challenges facing President Xiomara Castro are considerable and the actions to be taken will not always be easy, but the alternative would continue to plunge Honduras into a place where corruption, gender-based violence and impunity are the norm, and nothing is less desirable.
This article was originally published in Contracorriente.