Introducing...Iris Xiomara Castro Sarmiento

Could social reformer Iris Xiomara Castro overturn Honduras’ reputation for authoritarian governance and corruption? Richard Swift weighs up the possibilities.

Official Photo by Simon Liu / Office of the President, Flickr

Although it seems unlikely, Honduras is now emerging as the bright spot in a Central American region with an all too well-deserved reputation for corruption and authoritarianism. The 62-year-old Castro, the first ever woman president and a democratic socialist to boot, swept to power in the November 2021 Honduran elections with over 51 per cent of the vote. The socialist Libre party candidate outpaced her National Party rival by nearly 15 per cent. It was a stunning victory in the face of a political culture poisoned by ballot rigging, voter restrictions and a generalized manipulation that traditionally keeps wealthy conservatives in power.

Honduras is the second poorest country in the Americas, trailing only Haiti. It is plagued with Mara gang violence, and dubious mining and hydro-electric developers have been given a free hand. The country suffers from a politics poisoned by conservative officials helping themselves to public wealth while the poor majority are subjected to round after round of repression and impoverishment. Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with political assassination a risk for any activist. The murder of anti-dam environmentalist Berta Caceres in 2016 is a case in point. Tens of thousands of Hondurans have fled the country over the past decade in the perilous trip to El Norte (the USA) and some semblance of a better life.

The Nationals had seized power after a 2009 coup against the government of Manuel Zelaya – Castro’s husband. The coup issued in a long decade of theft and brutal autocracy, latterly at the hands of National President Juan Orlando Hernandez. Zelaya and Castro had previously been active in Honduras’ Liberal Party. But after Zelaya was elected under the Liberal banner in 2005, he angered conservatives in his own party by swinging to the Left and joining the ALBA alliance founded by Hugo Chavez. After he was toppled and exiled, Castro led thousands of Hondurans in street demonstrations demanding her husband’s reinstatement. The demos were met with brutal state repression, but out of them sprung a new political party, Libre, led by Castro. The conservative Catholic and Opus Dei member Hernandez, supposedly devoted to God and family, proceeded to turn his country into a narco-state.

But in last year’s elections a decade of movement-building paid off.

Against some pretty long odds, Hondurans – particularly, although not exclusively, the young – rallied to throw out the US-backed National Party. Castro won as a massive turn out of nearly 70 per cent of the 5.2 million Honduran voters showed up at the polls to eject the ‘picaros’ (rascals).

Castro obviously has a steep hill to climb in her commitments to make Honduras more equal and democratic. She plans a UN-supported anti-corruption commission (based on one in Guatemala) and also a constituent assembly to rewrite the Honduran constitution, possibly inspired by the one in Chile. The latter will no doubt anger the country’s rightwing establishment: it was a similar proposal from Zelaya which immediately preceded the 2009 coup. The US, used to treating Latin America and Honduras in particular as its playground, will already be angered by Castro’s plans to recognize China over Taiwan. At home too, there is an early indication that the going will be tough. Castro’s Libre Party split over the choice of the speaker of the Assembly – with renegade Libre member Jorge Calix gaining the job, despite it being promised to an allied party. It remains to be seen if this split can be overcome, or whether it will be exploited by Castro’s political opponents to cripple her reform plans for Honduras.

But Castro is far from alone, as recent election results in Peru and Chile show a pink wave in Latin America re-establishing itself.