“I am overwhelmed with joy; I just cannot believe it,” says Dr Oriel María Siu speaking to me from the city of San Pedro Sula the day after Hondurans like herself voted in presidential elections. Siu was ecstatic to learn that Xiomara Castro de Zelaya had an insurmountable lead over Nasry Asfura, the candidate representing the incumbent conservative party. Castro, the wife of ousted former president Manuel Zelaya, is a democratic socialist and will become the first woman president of Honduras. She triumphantly told her supporters, “Today the people have made justice. We have reversed authoritarianism.”
Castro was referring to the 12 years of repressive rule by the National Party, which took power after Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a 2009 military coup that, as per Siu, “the United States orchestrated”. Years after the coup, Hillary Clinton, who was the US state secretary at the time of the coup, justified Zelaya’s removal, saying in a 2016 interview, “I didn’t like the way it looked or the way they did it but they had a very strong argument that they had followed the Constitution and the legal precedence.” The Intercept later exposed how US military officers at the Centre for Hemispheric Defenxe Studies assisted Honduran coup leaders in their efforts.
National Party leader Juan Orlando Hernández claimed electoral victory in 2013 against Castro and then again in 2017 against Salvador Nasralla in the face of credible accusations of massive fraud. The man who has been deeply implicated in narco-trafficking in the US (his brother was convicted in a New York court of smuggling in hundreds of tons of cocaine) used the Honduran security forces as his personal militia during his tenure.
Terror and violence reigned across Honduras, and among the many victims of the post-coup era was prominent environmental activist Berta Cáceres, who led the resistance to a hydroelectric dam and was killed in 2016. Another victim was a 26-year-old nursing student named Keyla Martínez, who died in police custody in February 2021 after being arrested for violating a curfew. Her death prompted fresh protests.
Over the years, relentless state violence and corruption swept thousands of Honduran migrants northward who preferred the callousness of the US immigration system to the barbarity of Hernández’s security forces. Conservatives in the US refused to acknowledge the push factor of post-coup violence as a reason for Central American migration.
Still, resistance continued inside Honduras, and, according to Amnesty International, “the wave of anti-government demonstrations has been a constant in the country” in the face of repression.
Castro’s win may finally end this dark chapter, and it’s no wonder that Hondurans like Siu are celebrating. “People were expecting the narco-dictatorship to again steal these elections,” she says.
Castro, according to Siu, rose to prominence after her husband’s ouster and “was at the forefront letting people know, nationally and internationally, what was going on” in Honduras. Castro campaigned on a socialist platform and brought together a coalition of what Siu described as “local youth, Indigenous, black, Garifuna movements” that, after the 2009 coup, “became a very strong social movement attempting to fight against the criminality of [the] corruption, militarism, police presence in the streets and extrajudicial killings” that occurred under Hernández.
Although Castro is the wife of the ousted Zelaya, Siu insists that president-elect Castro “has a brain of her own and has a platform that is beautiful”.
Suyapa Portillo Villeda, a Honduran American and associate professor of Chicano/a-Latino/a transnational studies at Pitzer College, says Castro won on a proposal of promising “participatory democracy” and that “she is trying to establish a new kind of pact with the people in calling for a national assembly to rewrite the Constitution”.
It’s a bold position considering that Zelaya was on the verge of holding a referendum on the Constitution when he was deposed in a military coup. “This is the demand that has been there since 2009 that people have been organising around, to have a new Constitution that would get rid of the Cold War anti-communist Constitution that was written during the Reagan era,” says Portillo Villeda.
Although the conservative backlash to a new constitution ushered in Hernández’s violent tenure, in many ways, Honduras’ democracy may have emerged stronger as a result. A system that Portillo Villeda describes as consisting of two “oligarchic” ruling parties is now a multiparty system, and Castro has managed to build a formidable coalition among several of them. “This was a very Honduran type of win,” says Portillo Villeda, referring to the grassroots organising of Castro’s candidacy that included a lot of young Hondurans.
Castro’s win also represents a potential end to more than a decade of repression that includes violent misogyny. “Women here die every day and rapes go without any form of justice,” said Siu, who says she doesn’t dare to walk on the streets after sundown. Honduras has been referred to as, “one of the most dangerous places on Earth to be a woman”.
Since 1985, Honduras has also maintained one of the most draconian abortion bans in the world, and under Hernández’s rule, Congress strengthened the ban. Pregnant people are not allowed abortions under any circumstances including rape or incest. Castro has promised to ease the ban.
The coalition that brought Castro to power includes a nascent feminist movement as well as a new queer and transgender movement working alongside traditional activist groups such as unions, as well as black and indigenous communities. That is a big reason why Hondurans like Siu are hopeful, saying, “she has the support of historically marginalised communities all throughout the nation”.
Taking her broad mandate from a population eager for change and translating that to legitimate power in a nation whose governmental machinery has been decimated will be Castro’s most serious challenge. “Of course, it’s going to be difficult,” says Portillo Villeda, of the task ahead of Castro. “She’s inheriting a broken country, legal system and Supreme Court and is coming into an empty house that has been robbed.”
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.