Can a new government dig Honduras out of its hole?
Observers hope the country’s incoming president will make a real effort to tackle corruption and socioeconomic crises.
Tegucigalpa, Honduras – When the first female president of Honduras, Xiomara Castro, takes office on January 27, she will face a number of daunting challenges: restoring the country’s battered democratic institutions, tackling widespread corruption, and recovering from the crises caused by COVID-19 and last year’s devastating hurricanes.
“We have to understand that she is receiving a country that is totally destroyed, and digging it out of this hole isn’t going to be an easy job,” Honduran researcher and activist Leonardo Pineda told Al Jazeera.
But a majority of Hondurans apparently believe she is up to the task. With about 86 percent of votes counted as of December 6, Castro, of the left-wing Libre Party, had won more than half of the ballot, with a 14-point lead over her closest opponent – giving her a strong mandate to make the drastic changes that many Hondurans want to see.
“We have faith that she can pull us out of a country that is divided and destroyed,” Victor Carbajal, a 34-year-old Castro supporter, told Al Jazeera during a rally celebrating her win in Tegucigalpa, the capital.
In the 12 years since a 2009 coup removed Castro’s husband, Manuel Zelaya, from office, successive conservative governments have gutted social programmes, increased militarisation, and launched a systematic attack on human rights and the environment.
Under the current president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, Hondurans have fled en masse to the United States amid crushing poverty, violence and disasters fuelled by climate change – all contributing to a sense of hopelessness, particularly among the country’s youth.
Allegations that the ruling National Party aided drug traffickers and looted public funds have further aggravated public frustrations, propelling Castro to the presidency.
“The elections show the necessity that the current government leave and that we begin a process of reconstruction of the country,” Julio Raudales, an economist at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, told Al Jazeera.
It is clear that Hondurans want change – but just how to achieve that will be Castro’s challenge.
‘Government of reconciliation’
In her celebratory speech late last month, Castro promised to “form a government of reconciliation” and to “guarantee a participatory and direct democracy”.
Cabinet appointments will be a key indicator of her direction for the government, Pineda said, noting it will be important to watch whether she chooses ministers based on qualifications over party interests. The makeup of Congress, which has yet to be finalised, will also determine her success, he added.
Projections based on a preliminary count predict that the Libre Party will have the most congressional seats, but will need to ally with other opposition parties to reach a simple majority, which could make it more difficult to govern, Pineda said. And it will not be until 2023 that the government can appoint new Supreme Court judges and a new attorney general.
“She’s not going to be able to govern with free rein,” Pineda said, noting it could benefit Castro to choose some easy wins at the outset, such as instituting a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission in Honduras, as she promised on the campaign trail. A similar commission operated in Honduras from 2016 until 2020, when the government decided not to renew its mandate after its investigations began to threaten powerful allies.
But the UN may be hesitant to invest resources in an anti-corruption committee that could be terminated if the political will fades, said Carlos Hernandez, director of the Honduran NGO Association for a More Just Society.
“It has to be an effort where there is participation, not just of the government,” he told Al Jazeera. “It has to be constructed with other sectors, so that there is sustainability.”
Articulating a strategy
Castro will also have to improve conditions for average Hondurans when it comes to poverty, gender violence and the crumbling healthcare system. About half of the population lived on less than $5.50 a day in 2019, according to the World Bank, and conditions only worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic, as the economy contracted by an estimated 9 percent.
Castro has promised to increase spending on healthcare and improve access to education.
On the healthcare front, Nurse Christopher Rodriguez, 27, said he hopes the new government will ensure all hospitals have basic supplies. “This government’s handling of the health system and its budget for the COVID-19 emergency left us with a bad taste in our mouth,” he told Al Jazeera. “We hope that [Castro] has a better way to handle things and follows through on her promises.”
On women’s rights, Castro has promised to ease the country’s strict ban on abortions and to pass legislation tackling gender violence.
Honduras, which has the highest rate of femicide in the region, needs a “coordinated strategy, articulated among the different powers of the state, for the prevention, attention, sanction and reparation” of gender violence, Regina Fonseca, director of the Center for Women’s Rights, told Al Jazeera. She expressed optimism that Castro would work towards this goal.
In addition, if Castro can tackle the issues facing the country’s youth, her actions could have an effect at the US border, Pineda said: “If a youth in Honduras has a place to study, and when they graduate they have a dignified job with a good salary, why are they going to leave?”
With widespread support across the country, analysts predict Castro will have at least a few months of goodwill before citizens start clamouring for more rapid results. “Hondurans have given another chance to democracy,” Raudales said. “But everything has a limit.”