‘She’s the only option’: Hondurans hope Xiomara Castro can lead the nation in a new direction

A week ahead of what may be Honduras’s most consequential election since the country’s return to democracy in 1982, the leading opposition candidate for president delivered her final address to an audience of fervent supporters.

“Today we are united as an opposition to say enough! Enough of so much theft, corruption and drug trafficking,” said Xiomara Castro, 62, as she addressed the crowd in Tegucigalpa on Sunday. “Enough suffering for the Honduran people.”

There has been plenty of suffering.

In the four years since the last election was marred by allegations of fraud, Honduras has been battered by two major hurricanes and mauled by the pandemic. Human rights groups have catalogued a litany of abuses including a clampdown on protests and targeted attacks against journalists, human rights activists and environmental defenders.

Meanwhile the ruling National party of President Juan Orlando Hernández have played starring roles in a string of drug trafficking and corruption allegations.

One of Hernández’s brothers was convicted of drug trafficking in a New York federal court. Prosecutors have accused the president himself of overseeing state-sponsored drug trafficking.

Hernández has vehemently denied the accusations, but appears likely to face indictment by US prosecutors on leaving office in January – a fact that, combined with the unprecedented flow of Honduran migrants to the north during the past four years, underscores the stakes of the election for the US and the region as a whole.

Hondurans desperate for change are betting on Castro to alter the nation’s course. “She’s the only option we have to get rid of this narco-government,” said Edwin Cruz, 29, on a recent afternoon in Tegucigalpa’s central park.

Castro would be the country’s first female president, but to win undecided voters she may have to overcome her own baggage from the past.

She first became a household name in 2005 when her husband, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, won the presidency for the center-right Liberal party. After he took office, Zelaya shifted to the left and allied himself with governments that had come to power as part of Latin America’s “pink tide” – including Venezuela’s late socialist leader Hugo Chávez. Such associations prompted the country’s conservative political and economic elite to oust Zelaya in a 2009 military-backed coup.

In the ensuing political crisis, Castro led the largest protest movement in the nation’s recent history. “She did it bravely, with talent, she never let her speeches be guided by feelings or emotions, she was always very rational,” said Edmundo Orellana, who served in Zelaya’s cabinet.

“From then on, Honduras identified her as a political figure with her own personality. Very different from Mel’s political personality," 彼が追加した.

Castro first ran for president in 2013, as candidate for the newly formed, center-left Libre Party, which emerged from the protest movement.

今回, she is backed by a coalition of parties across the political spectrum. それにもかかわらず, the conservative National party has launched a fierce campaign reminiscent of the effort against Zelaya before the coup.

Red billboards have popped up across the country painting Castro and her allies as communists. Campaign spots on television and radio mention Chávez so often that one would think he was on the ballot. (He died in 2013)

But the country’s precarious economic situation means that the cold war-style campaign often falls flat. “They say that we are going to end up without work, without houses, but we’re already worse off than under communism, there is no work,」とクルスは言った, who like many in his generation is unemployed.

Castro’s announcement that she intends to establish diplomatic ties with China has also raised some eyebrows. Honduras is one of only a handful of countries that still recognizes Taiwan, but the proposal is more likely motivated by the hope of Chinese economic largesse than ideology.

The fear campaign has also attempted to capitalize on Castro’s pledge to loosen the country’s draconian abortion laws. Honduras is one of only four countries in Latin America that prohibits abortion under any circumstance, and Castro has proposed legalization in the case of rape, when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother and when the fetus isn’t viable.

But earlier this year, the government passed a constitutional reform that makes it virtually impossible to modify the country’s total abortion ban, and Castro would find little support to change the law – even within her own party.

Castro’s main opponent, the National party candidate Nasry Asfura, has attempted to stay above the fray. A two-term mayor of Tegucigalpa known popularly as “Papi a la Orden”, or “Daddy at Your Service”, Asfura, 63, has focused on job creation and highlighting infrastructure improvements in the capital.

“If he were to run again for mayor, I know that many people would vote for him,” said Melissa Elvir, director of the Democracy Without Borders Foundation. “But to govern from the mayor’s office isn’t the same as to govern from the executive branch.”

As the candidate of a party which has been tarnished by countless allegations of criminal wrongdoing, Asfura has run under the slogan “Daddy is different” – a phrase which appears equal parts a recognition of the thirst for change among voters and an attempt to distance himself from Hernández.

But Asfura himself was accused in a corruption case involving the misappropriation of roughly $1m in public funds for which he suspiciously avoided indictment, and members of his party all the way down the ballot have been embroiled in scandals of their own. Asfura has denied the accusations.

The race between Castro and Asfura could end up dangerously close. If the latter comes out on top by a thin margin, there could be a repeat of 2017 when a large portion of the population questioned the results and protests were at times brutally repressed, resulting in the deaths of at least 23 人.

Many of the roughly half a million migrants who have left Honduras in the past four years have cited a lack of opportunity, corruption and electoral fraud as reasons why they lost all hope for change at home. If a scenario similar to 2017 were to play out this year, it could contribute to an even greater exodus over the next term.

“I’m waiting for the elections to see if the National party commits fraud,」とクルスは言った. “Then [if they do] I’d have to emigrate – because I have to survive one way or another.”