Victory for social democracy in Honduras

Amid the rise of authoritarian rule in Guatemala, El Salvador and even Nicaragua, there is a very good news story from Honduras, reports Mike Phipps

Xiomara Castro, the former First Lady of Honduras, has emerged as the runaway winner of the country’s November 28th presidential election with a 20 point lead over her nearest rival. She will take up office in January 2022, the first female president to do so.

Castro was a key figure in the resistance to the coup which overthrew her husband, Manuel Zelaya, in 2009, joining thousands on the streets in protests. As First Lady, she had been in charge of social development programs, and worked with the United Nations to address issues faced by women with HIV.

In the 2021 campaign, Castro hammered the incumbent National Party government which has been dogged by allegations of corruption. The sitting president was named as an alleged co-conspirator in a US drug trafficking case in which his brother was jailed for life earlier this year.

Castro’s win was all the more remarkable given previous attempts by the regime to falsify election results, the high degree of violence accompanying the campaign, the spread of lies about Castro from fake Twitter accounts and the lack of voter ID for hundreds of thousands of potential voters. Yet Castro overcame these obstacles – in a country where fewer than 3% of people are said to recognise the country as a “full democracy” – to win with the highest turnout since 1997.

 Thousands of people poured onto the streets to celebrate. “We have turned back authoritarianism,” Castro told the crowd in the capital, Tegucigalpa. “Out with corruption, out with drug trafficking, out with organized crime.”

The last twelve years have had a brutal impact. Following the 2009 coup, the Honduran regime set out to eradicate every vestige of the progressive agenda pursued under Zelaya. Today the country has the highest poverty rate in Central America, affecting 70% of the population, and one of the highest homicide rates in the world. The result has been mass emigration, mainly to the US.

Some 40% of the Honduran police are estimated – by police chiefs themselves – to be tied to organised crime. One anti-corruption official said 70% of the police were “beyond saving”. It’s estimated that in 2014 Hondurans paid $2 million to gangs specialising in extortion. Failure to pay is invariably fatal. This is the reality that fuels the huge wave of migration northwards.

The prospect of a reforming government offering a degree of hope to the people of Honduras could help reduce the exodus from the country. Ironically, this may make the US Administration less ill-disposed to Castro’s incoming government than it was to her husband’s reformist project over a decade ago. There is also overlap with US aims in Castro’s promise to crack down on corruption and narco-trafficking.

Speaking on television after the voting, Castro promised “direct, participative democracy”. There would be “no more hate, war, corruption, narco-trafficking, organized crime, and no more ZEDES, poverty, or misery.” ZEDES refers to the Employment and Economic Development Zones created under the outgoing government and controlled by investors who, take over entire areas – with their populations – and develop industrial-scale agriculture ventures, tax-free manufacturing and largescale mining and energy-producing projects.

Castro, who calls herself a democratic socialist, ran on a progressive platform, which included taxing wealth, creating new welfare benefits for the poor and elderly and easing the country’s complete prohibition on abortion. Her victory constitutes a huge win for the social movements that resisted the 2009 coup and continued to mount struggles over extractive projects and special economic zones, reproductive rights and freedom for political prisoners still languishing in jails.

But while Castro campaigned to rewrite the Honduran constitution – one of the supposed pretexts for the coup against her husband twelve years earlier – there is also evidence of some scaling back on a progressive social agenda, in an attempt to reassure conservative business sectors and US officials. Efforts to be economically radical may also be frustrated by the heavy debt burden she inherits from the outgoing government.

In the view of one commentator, “Xiomara Castro and her allies must repair a society that is the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere, a country that is narcotics transfer station for a large region, and a government relying on violence-prone militarized police.”

Crucial to this will be Castro’s getting a majority in the Honduran Congress. Preliminary results suggest she could get a simple majority in the one-chamber legislature, which would allow the passage of some of her priorities, but her pledge to convoke an assembly to rewrite the Honduran constitution could still be blocked since that would require a two-thirds majority. The same super-majority also would be needed to elect new members of the Supreme Court and make other constitutional reforms.

In 2022, Congress will choose a new Supreme Court of 15 judges, along with the country’s Attorney General. Which party controls Congress will have a major impact on who is chosen and on the longer term fight against corruption and drug trafficking.

The return of democracy to Honduras has had to wait a long time. Twelve years ago, the military kidnapped the president at gunpoint and flew him out of the country. It was the first successful Latin American coup in over two decades. Despite initial opposition, the Obama Administration moved quickly to recognise and stabilise the post- coup regime. A few months later, it endorsed the outcome of an illegitimate electoral process which was conducted by the coup’s leaders under martial law and widely condemned internationally.

The Zelaya government, overthrown in this putsch, had introduced free education for all children,   subsidies to small farmers, school meals for more than 1.6 million children from poor families and direct state help for 200,000 families in extreme poverty. This was exceptional in Honduran politics, which had been dominated for much of the 20th century by oligarchs closely linked to US economic interests.

The coup began a downward spiral of repression, violence and increasing poverty. The post-coup regime destroyed the rule of law and gutted the welfare state, making Honduras the most unequal country in Latin America. It also opened the way for spectacular corruption and the rule of organised crime.  Honduras became the murder capital of the world.

In response to protests, police executions and torture became increasingly commonplace. Activists were raped, disappeared or killed with impunity. Judges too were assassinated, along with anyone who upheld the rule of law, all while the US worked behind the scenes, praising each new electoral farce the regime orchestrated.

Yet new grassroots movements for constitutional order and social justice, involving farmers, trade unionists and others, continued to work energetically in the face of the repression. In 2017, Castro’s party was part of an anti-corruption alliance which was ahead in the polls but lost narrowly in a disputed election which even the Organization of American States called to be re-run. Instead the incumbent regime brutally suppressed the protests against the fraudulent result and consolidated its rule for a further four years.

In 2019, a national strike led by teachers and doctors shut down the country for several days, following government attempts to by-pass the Congress and move the education and health sectors towards privatisation.

Expectations for radical change are today high in Honduras. How radical Castro’s incoming government is allowed to be by the US, with its long history of intervention in the country, remains a critical question.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: “Xiomara de Castro liderando la manifestación” by hablaguate is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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