Honduran Dreams

First, let’s celebrate. Xiomara Castro’s resounding success in the November 28 elections was an astonishing victory for the Honduran people. Before the balloting, most assumed that the ruling National Party would once again intimidate voters, cook the books and steal the presidency, despite polling data which made clear that Castro, the centre-left candidate of a united opposition, was on track to win. When the first, partial results were released that Sunday night, though, she led the ruling party candidate, Nasry Asfura, by 19 points with a 62% voter turnout. It appeared she was unstoppable, unless the military rose up – and it hasn’t, yet.

By Wednesday, with over 50% of the vote counted, Asfura had conceded, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had congratulated Castro, and the current dictator, Juan Orlando Hernández, had acknowledged her victory on national TV. Could the long Honduran night have ended, and so quickly?  

Castro will be the first female president in Honduran history, with the highest vote total ever. Her landslide success was the product of twelve years of hard organizing against the regime installed by a 2009 coup. But in the face of victory, the Honduran people remain devastated after twelve years of repression and suffering, and the challenges Castro now faces are beyond daunting. Looming behind them is the empire of the United States – facing the potential loss of what has been one of its most captive nations.

Castro’s husband, Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya, was elected in 2006 from the Liberal Party, one of the two traditional ruling parties. He was by no means a leftist; but once elected he raised the minimum wage, blocked the Honduran elite’s privatization plans, and allied himself with the rising centre-left and left democracies elected across Latin America in the ‘Pink Tide’ of the 1990s and 2000s. In response, the military, Supreme Court, and majority in Congress combined to oust him in June 2009. The US initially protested the coup, then did everything it could behind the scenes to stabilize it, as a lesson to the region’s other progressive governments. It bided its time until a November election – boycotted by almost all international observers – and swiftly recognized Porfirio Lobo, the declared winner from the National Party, as president. Thereafter, the post-coup regime immediately plunged the country into a maelstrom of violence, poverty and the destruction of basic state functions and the rule of law. Gangs and drug traffickers, working hand in hand with the military and police, consolidated their control over all levels of government.

But an enormous grassroots opposition rose up to protest the coup, coordinated through the National Front of Popular Resistance, which united the women’s, labour, campesino, LGBT, Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous movements along with a broad swath of other Hondurans. They built a powerful culture of resistance, demonstrating in the streets by the tens of thousands for over two years and building strategic international pressure on the regime. Castro’s party, LIBRE (Libertad y Refundación), emerged out of that Resistance in 2011.

Castro first ran for president in 2013, and probably won. But the National Party, which controlled the election machinery, handed the presidency to a rising thug, Juan Orlando Hernández, whose victory was quickly rubber-stamped by the United States. Hernández, from a military background, had supported the coup as a congressmember and, as president of congress, led the ‘technical coup’ of 2012 that overthrew four out of five members of the Constitutional Branch of the Supreme Court in the middle of the night and replaced them with his loyalists. As president, he militarized the police, oversaw near-complete repression of protests and quickly asserted dictatorial control over the military, police, congress, judiciary and most of the media. With the support of the US-controlled multilateral development banks, he used neoliberal privatization as a front to eviscerate state employment and services, while he and his cronies siphoned off billions. In 2013 Hernández and his party stole as much $300 million from the national health service to pay for their electoral campaigns, bankrupting it. As the economy collapsed and terror metastasized, hundreds of thousands of Hondurans began to flee.

In 2017, aided by the Supreme Court, Hernández ran again, in violation of the constitution. His opponent was Salvador Nasralla, a centre-right anticorruption sportscaster, who ran as part of a coalition with Castro. On election night, the theft was naked: Nasralla led by five points in the early results, but after a few hours the government shut down the counting and a week later declared Hernández president. Once again, the US recognized the ‘victory’, despite an outcry from the Organization of American States. When Hondurans poured into the streets to protest, the military and police fired live bullets, killing at least 22 peaceful protesters and bystanders. In the years after that, security forces broke up almost all demonstrations with tear gas; protesters increasingly stayed home in fear. Banners from a 2020 campaign against state thievery of Covid funding, asking ‘Where’s the Money?’ were torn down by security forces.

Castro identifies publicly as a democratic socialist. Her domestic program promises to address poverty, transform the police by establishing community-based policing, and end violence against women and the LGBT community. Much of her agenda is mainstream, though. She wants to roll back the excesses of neoliberalism and promises to deliver a functioning state that provides basic services such as health care, electricity and education. With Honduras facing astronomical levels of debt after successive governments used international lending institutions as private ATMs, she has already signalled her desire to renegotiate the repayment terms. She will apparently welcome foreign investment, and has already hosted meetings with the Chamber of Commerce. To her left, though, she will be held accountable by the grassroots movements that enabled her victory, who have a more profound transformation of Honduran society as their goal. So far, she has joined their longstanding demand for a constituyente – or constitutional convention – which could be used to refound the nation from below. On the foreign policy front, she’s made clear she will establish a wide range of global alliances of her own choosing, including recognition of Venezuela, Cuba and China.

Whatever her goals, Castro will have to try to govern without a majority in Congress. Even in coalition with Vice-President-elect Salvador Nasralla and his allies, Castro will have a hard time repealing multiple laws that have passed since the coup, which guarantee state secrecy, expand surveillance, repress dissent and grant impunity to drug traffickers and government officials. Other key reforms will be even harder to achieve. Castro intends to abolish the ‘ZEDES’ – special economic zones in which the Constitution doesn’t apply – yet this may have to wait until at least 2023 when the next Supreme Court is elected, by the same Congress. Any anticorruption agenda will depend on the cooperation of the attorney general, whose term also expires in 2023 and is also elected by the Congress.

She will also have to contend with whatever further machinations President Hernández might employ to protect himself. In October 2019, his brother Tony was convicted in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and sentenced to life for money laundering, arms sales, drug trafficking and other crimes. Tony’s trial and subsequent cases are replete with evidence against the president, who allegedly took a $1 million bribe from El Chapo Guzman, the famous Mexican cartel leader; appointed a known death squad leader as National Director of Police and instructed him to commit murders; and vowed, memorably, to ‘shove the drugs up the gringos’ noses’. It is widely assumed that the New York prosecutors will charge Juan Orlando once he has left office. But the current attorney general – Oscar Chinchilla, who has been named in New York courts as working with drug traffickers, and is close to both Hernández and top US officials – could refuse to extradite him.

The military and police present Castro’s most serious, and potentially deadly domestic challenge. They remain loyal to Hernández, who has spent eight years promoting his cronies into top positions. The current Minister of Security, Julian Pacheco Tinoco, has four times been named in the SDNY for his involvement in drug trafficking, while the two most senior police officials have protected narcos. Evidence in the New York trials revealed that drug traffickers allied with the president have utilized government military bases, planes and helicopters, and deployed dozens of soldiers to oversee border shipments. These security forces have a long history of repressing peaceful protests in the streets and killing activists. They have used Covid restrictions as a pretext to further occupy the entire country. They are accustomed to tremendous power and could take over or cause disruption through provocateurs at any moment.

But the biggest threat to the president’s ability to govern as she chooses is the United States. The US not only supported the overthrow of Castro’s husband; for twelve long years it has provided the Honduran security forces with training, equipment and funding and looked the other way at drug trafficking up top. For twelve long years it has propped up a government that criminalized and slaughtered Indigenous, Afro-Indigenous, and campesino activists. Leopards don’t change their spots; they find new strategies for capturing their prey.

On November 30, Blinken was quick to recognize Castro – praising Honduran voters for their ‘commitment to the democratic process’. It’s important to mark that historic moment, when the US reversed its decade-long project of supporting the post-coup regime. A week before the election, Brian Nichols, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, travelled to Honduras to meet with top officials in the Hernández government and military. It appears he read them the riot act about manipulating the election results, and instructed them to allow Castro to win. But it’s uncertain how much further the State Department wants the elites and security forces to cede control, and what concessions from Castro it may have extractedin exchange for allowing her to be elected.

How do we explain the State Department’s tentative acceptance of Castro? First, her wide lead in the polls would have made it difficult for the US to try to legitimate another election stolen by the National Party – especially when members of the US Congress, led by Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Hank Johnson and Senators Patrick Leahy and Jeff Merkley, have been ratcheting up pressure for the US government to rescind its support for Honduran security forces. Second, the Democrats are rightly worried that Republicans will once again use the immigration question to triumph in the 2022 and 2024 elections, and aware that another National Party presidency would not solve the root causes driving migration. Past practice suggests that the US will now pressure Castro to concede to allies to her right on a number of crucial points, while it subtly questions her ability to govern on her own. Nasralla, a wild card who has been close to the US for many years, has already undermined the president-elect’s authority by declaring that she will not in fact recognize China, Venezuela or Cuba, or convene a constituyente.

In trying to manage Castro, the Biden administration’s goal at the deepest level will continue to be defending and expanding the operations of US-based transnational corporations in the region, whether in garment factories, export agriculture or extractivism. Beyond the interests of any particular company, it wants ensure a wider regional context in which all forms of corporate capitalism can flourish. Its close alliance with transnational capital was made clear in a May 2021 programme launched in a supposed attempt to stop migration, a ‘Call to Action to the Private Sector to Deepen Investment in the Northern Triangle’, in which the administration announced it was working with PepsiCo, MasterCard, Nespresso and other corporate behemoths to expand their investments in the region. 

The administration’s economic goals are enforced, in turn, by the United States Southern Command (Southcom), which sustains close relationships with US-funded, trained, and equipped Honduran armed forces, shares intelligence and issues public statements praising its top officers. Even if the US State Department sees no alternative to working with Castro for the time being, Southcom is an engine that runs by itself, backed by billions from military contractors. It has repeatedly demonstrated that it will raise the alarm about ‘enemies’ in order to extract more power and money from Congress, and has enthusiastically embraced a new Cold War with China. We don’t yet know how its leadership is reacting to Castro’s victory, or what signals it is sending to the Honduran military.

In its new posture of ostensibly supporting Castro, the State Department has publicly welcomed her commitment to fighting corruption. But its definition of ‘corruption’ is highly selective. When hundreds of thousands of Hondurans rose up in 2015 to protest Hernández’s theft from the national health service, the US blocked their demand for a UN-based commission. Instead, it orchestrated a far weaker body under the auspices of the Organization of American States, in order to maintain control and whitewash the regime, while attempting to discipline it. The State Department’s recent lists of corrupt individuals, mandated by Congress, have assiduously ignored Hernández, his top advisor, the president of congress, the attorney general, and the minister of security. We can assume that under Castro the US will continue to use ‘anti-corruption’ initiatives to choose which figures to rein in and which to protect, attempting to shape the leadership and thereby mould the Honduran government in its interests.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration will continue to flood the country with uncharted billions in ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ aid. We lack analyses of the full objectives and impact of these ‘soft power’ programmes, in which well-meaning functionaries circle in and out of USAID, think tanks, universities, the State Department, Congressional offices, NGOS and private contractors – learning the same toolkit from MA programmes and their mentors. What exactly do their ‘governance’ programmes consist of? In Honduras, ‘democracy promotion’ has in part meant grooming leaders that will serve US interests; ‘institution-building’ has included shoring up corrupt judges, prosecutors, and police by training them in technical skills; ‘gang prevention’ has meant working with a repressive police force that answers to a criminal chain of command, while marginalizing dedicated activists already working in their communities. Soft power – a seemingly benevolent imperialism – has a well-documented racist history, based on the idea, dating back to the expansion of the US empire into the Philippines and Caribbean, that ‘little brown people can’t govern themselves’ and are in need of tutelage from their white superiors.

Since Biden was elected, the US has been increasingly committed to ‘supporting Honduran civil society’, by which it means pouring tens of millions of dollars into puppet organizations like the evangelical-based Association for a More Just Society, an ostensible anti-corruption organization that follows US policy in lockstep and is understood to be close to Hernández. Private funds are also at play, such as the Seattle International Foundation, whose directors have worked closely with the State Department. It lobbies the US Congress and has moved into funding and showcasing Honduran and US journalists and other civil society actors, attempting to draw so-called independent journalists as well as solidarity activists into the administration’s agenda. Top officials from both the Association for a More Just Society and the Seattle International Foundation are routinely quoted in the mainstream US media as experts on Honduras.

All these challenges are formidable indeed. In the wake of Castro’s astonishing victory, we must once again take up the hard work of solidarity, supporting the grassroots social movements who will challenge their new presidenta to realize their dreams for Honduras’s future, and reject the profit fantasies of the United States.

George Black, ‘Central America: Crisis in the Backyard’, NLR 1/135.