Xiomara Castro, Honduras’s first woman president, is brandishing an ambitious agenda whose top priorities include reforming the Constitution and elevating women’s rights. Yet the success of Castro, a 62-year-old former first lady, depends heavily on how well she manages Honduras’s complicated relationship with the United States.
The stakes are high for both countries, and top officials in the Biden administration are showing signs of wanting to make the relationship work in favor of US interests while holding Castro to high — perhaps impossible — standards.
At least one barrier may be out of the way for Castro right now. A presidential predecessor, Juan Orlando Hernández, is seemingly out of national politics as he faces drug-trafficking and weapons charges in a federal court in New York City, after being extradited to the US on April 21.
Castro was elected president in November by the country’s largest voting turnout in history. Currently, she is one of only two women leaders in the Latin American-Caribbean region, apart from Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados.
The backdrop of Castro’s reaching the country’s presidency is messy: It features a US-backed coup d’état in 2009 that ousted her husband, President Manuel Zelaya. He was forced out after he attempted to create a constitutional assembly to reform the Constitution.
Yet as a presidential candidate, Castro promised that she would follow a similarly profound transformation during her four-year term to enshrine women, Indigenous and Afrodescendant rights.
For now, the US — a key political factor throughout Honduras’s history — is offering Castro support as Washington turns its back on Hernández. He had been a staunch ally of the US, under President Trump, but is now accused of committing or facilitating “acts of corruption and narco-trafficking,” according to a statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken released in February.
The US is keeping close tabs on Castro on no small matters: migration, corruption, human rights, security and the economy.
In February, Castro met with Gen. Laura Richardson, chief of the US Southern Command (Southcom), to discuss “strengthening cooperation to support mutual security goals, address cross-cutting threats, and contribute to stability in Honduras and the region,” a US press release said.
A day earlier, Samantha Power, the administrator of Usaid, met with Enrique Reina, Honduras’s foreign affairs minister, to discuss what Power’s office called “the root causes of irregular migration.” In a follow-up conversation in April, Power and Reina discussed “creating economic opportunities, strengthening democratic governance, and addressing violence against women.”
In that meeting, on April 25, the conversation also included Castro’s anti-corruption agenda and “the strong support” of the US for the creation of a United Nations-backed commission against corruption in Honduras, as well as developing “credible institutions” in Honduras.
The relationship of the Biden administration with Castro got underway when Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Tegucigalpa, the capital, for Castro’s inauguration in January 2022, which Power attended too. Harris talked about the “root causes strategy” in her conversation with Castro (see video below.) In April, Laura Farnsworth Dogu was appointed as the US ambassador in Tegucigalpa, a post left vacant for more than three years.
These steps mark a concerted new policy direction, given that former President Hernández was considered a reliable US ally until recently, despite that since 2019 he was repeatedly accused of drug trafficking by a US federal court. Hernández became close to President Trump after he agreed to stop migrants and asylum seekers heading to the US, triggered by the exodus of migrant caravans going north from Honduras in 2017 and 2018. Trump portrayed the flow as “an invasion.”
In April, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, referring to the “humanitarian” crisis in the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, said at a UN briefing that the US was leading a response that deploys resources from the Department of State, including the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, as well as from Usaid.
“Our response involves three critical and interrelated elements: providing immediate humanitarian aid, addressing irregular migration and forced displacement, and focusing on the root causes of the humanitarian crisis,” she said.
It took a year for the Biden administration to publicly change its position on Hernández, after Castro took office. That is when Blinken announced that Hernández had been included in the US Corrupt and Undemocratic Actors list, which also features his predecessor, former President Porfirio Lobo, who succeeded Zelaya after the brief interim government of Roberto Micheletti.
A State Department spokesperson said in an email to PassBlue that the extradition of Hernández “demonstrates Honduras’ commitment to the rule of law, and recognized the value of the Castro administration’s request for an internationally-backed anti-corruption commission.”
Power, a human-rights advocate in her previous roles as US ambassador to the UN and as a member of the National Security Council in the Obama administration, among other posts, “underscored” to Reina in April that protecting human rights is a major priority for the White House. Her office also said that she told Reina that the US wanted “to push for full accountability for those involved with murder of human rights defender Berta Cáceres.”
Cáceres, a celebrated Indigenous land defender in Honduras who was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, given to grass-roots activists, was murdered a year later in her home by armed intruders who were led by a former soldier trained in the US.
The most urgent challenge for the Castro administration’s agenda is propping up the economy. Honduras’s coffers were practically depleted by Hernández, who was in office for two consecutive terms in violation of the Constitution, from 2014 to 2022.
The country is bankrupt, Castro said at her inauguration, coping with a 700 percent jump in national debt and half of the national income consumed by its servicing. A constant flow of resources is badly needed, and that money comes mainly from the US.
In April, the Usaid committed to providing up to $796.7 million over five years to address the causes of “irregular migration” in Honduras, as Power’s office put it.
Remittances, which are Honduras’s primary source of income, represent close to 20 percent of the GDP. The country received $7.3 billion in remittances in 2021, mostly from Hondurans in the US, a 24 percent rise from 2020, according to the Central Bank of Honduras.
“The number one export in Honduras right now are migrants, who come to the US as undocumented workers without benefits, without Temporary Protected Status,” said Suyapa Portillo Villeda, a professor of Chicano/a-Latino/a Transnational Studies at Pitzer College, in Claremont, Calif. She is the author of “Roots of Resistance: A Story of Gender, Race, and Labor on the North Coast of Honduras.”
“The US has the upper hand here.”
Honduran emigration has skyrocketed. Apprehensions of Hondurans at the southern border of the US grew from 513 people in 2012 to 188,368 in 2019. Most of the people are trying to escape poverty, violence or natural disasters — or all three — while President Hernández consolidated his regime as a narco-state.
Besides relying on the US to prosecute Hernández, the Southern District of New York last year sentenced a brother of his, Juan Antonio Hernández, to life in prison for exporting 185 tons of cocaine to the US.
Juan Orlando Hernández could become the first former Latin American president to be tried in a US court for drug trafficking.
“The fact that Juan Orlando Hernández has fallen sends a great message: that not everyone will come out well, that presidents do not always go unpunished,” said Jennifer Ávila Reyes, the editorial director and a co-founder of Contracorriente, an independent media outlet led by women, based in Honduras. “But it will not be so easy to dismantle the entire structure that these actors have left behind, many of whom still have power in the territory, like mayors, governors, legislators.”
The US State Department is also offering rewards of up to $5 million each for information leading to the arrests and-or convictions of other Honduran drug traffickers, namely Herlinda Bobadilla and her two sons, Tito Montes Bobadilla and Juan Carlos Montes Bobadilla. (Another son, Noe Montes Bobadilla, is serving a 37-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine in the US.)
A movement propelled by women
Castro’s victory began to brew right after her husband was deposed in 2009, which occurred when Obama was president. She channeled the enormous social energy of a country steeped in resisting the plundering of its natural resources for private profit. That includes silver and gold, as well as bananas and coffee.
“La Resistencia,” the term used in Honduras to describe social movements that coalesced after the 2009 coup, “was held together by women, Afrodescendant and Indigenous,” Portillo Villeda said. “Women outnumbered men in the ranks of the resistance movement in the neighborhoods and the streets.”
In Castro’s election, won by 51 percent of the electorate, about 1.7 million votes, women are demanding basic protections from the new president.
The country has the highest rates of femicide in Latin America and the Caribbean (4.7 per 100,000 women), followed by the Dominican Republic, with almost half the rate: 2.4 per 100,000 women, according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Gender violence is paired with an enormous level of impunity: 95 percent of femicides (the killing of a woman because of her gender) are not convicted.
Hernández’s regime aided and abetted the impunity, reducing sentences for crimes against women and upholding a ban on emergency contraceptive pills, even in cases of rape.
Yet so far, Castro is being cautious about challenging the status quo on certain aspects of women’s rights. On International Women’s Day, March 8, she presented the Comprehensive Law Against Gender Violence and reaffirmed her commitment to elevate the National Women’s Institute to the ministerial level, although she did not address the issues of access to abortion and contraception.
The pushback to some of her stances are evident. In a widely watched Easter Mass, the Honduran Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, a Roman Catholic, linked the homicidal violence in the country to abortion rights. “Stop killing, stop killing each other,” he said, adding, “especially to those who promote abortion.”
The US support to Castro is undoubtedly conditional. In January, Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), who chairs the Central American caucus in the US Congress, wrote an op-ed for Contracorriente celebrating Castro’s victory while warning that the US should remain vigilant “by conditioning foreign assistance on adherence to rule of law and anti-corruption standards.” The standards, nonetheless, appear to be constantly shifting.
Dana Frank, a professor of history emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote “The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup.” In a TV interview on Feb. 16, she said that the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations bolstered Hernández with military spending, intelligence-sharing and support for the police. That backing, she said, remained “all the way up to the day that Xiomara Castro took power on January 27.”
Yet Hondurans are eager to see Hernández face trial in the US.
“Removing the head of the autocracy was already a great achievement and people feel that way,” Ávila Reyes said.
Hondurans are not about to let up, however, on pressuring Castro to deliver on her campaign promises. “People feel more empowered now,” Avila Reyes added.