On November 28, 2021, Hondurans took to the ballot box in masses and voted the country’s first woman into the presidency, the leftist Xiomara Castro Sarmiento Zelaya. Her win comes twelve years after the 2009 coup d’état that destroyed constitutional order and the rule of law in Honduras.
Castro’s win is a blow to the oligarchic power of the National Party, which masterminded the 2009 coup with the help of the US State Department. The country never recovered from the coup; in fact, under National Party rule things got worse, with violence and narcotrafficking increasing while Juan Orlando Hernández, the outgoing president who was supported by the US State Department and Barack Obama’s administration, stole directly from public institutions.
Beyond his own implication in venal criminal activity, Hernández has allowed crime and corruption to flourish in an impoverished Honduran society. The working poor faces utter and unrelenting destitution, high levels of crime and violence are a part of everyday life, and conditions have forced a migrant exodus of mostly women and children.
Castro’s Libre party’s win was in significant part a protest vote against the National Party and a vote for the dead: those protesters who perished during the coup and later during the fraudulent 2017 elections; those who were killed in defense of Honduras’s rivers and ancestral lands; those who protested the Hernández administration’s many crimes, including promises of mobile hospitals to treat COVID-19 that never materialized; those who lost their lives to Hurricanes Iota and Eta during the pandemic, which rendered entire families homeless, living on the side of roads or in makeshift shelters on the Caribbean coast without aid from the government.
This was also a vote of the youth who came of age during the coup. Castro received the most votes ever for a president in Honduran history, and she was voted in by young people. Her win was also a win for Honduran feminists. After 200 years of independence from Spain and sixty-four years since women’s suffrage was won in 1957, Honduras will have a woman president.
This is significant in a time of extreme violence against women in the country and the culture of impunity regarding femicides. This year alone, according to the Red Lésbica Cattrachas, 304 cis women have been killed, out of which only fifty cases have been prosecuted. Of the 399 LGBT murders committed since the 2009, 123 of the victims were transgender. Castro’s championing women’s and LGBT issues will be a change in a country where previous presidents have looked away.
The Hernández administration was found culpable in June 2021 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for its failures to investigate and prosecute the case of the murder of trans activist Vicky Hernandez. The ruling demanded changes to the education system and the establishment of a law protecting various gender identities. In another case, Garífuna Community of Punta Piedra and Triunfo de la Cruz v. the State of Honduras, the Honduran state was found to have defied International Labor Law Convention 169 for its subjection of Hondurans to the privatization and theft of communal lands.
Other cases stuck in court without sentencing include the Berta Cáceres murder trial, where no sentence has been issued despite finding David Castillo of the Desarrollos Energéticos Sociedad Anónima (DESA) corporation guilty this past July, and the trial of Guapinol River defenders, who organized to protect the river from pollution and deforestation and are still incarcerated. Castro’s presidency is expected to bring Honduras into compliance with international human rights norms and to restore its own judicial order.
Most importantly, this Libre party victory is a win for bottom-up organizing of Hondurans who have organized and protested since the 2009 coup. This organizing took many forms, in every region of the country, from protecting rivers and ancestral lands, to standing up to extractive industries, to fighting for abortion and LGBT rights and a gender identity law, and protesting fraud year after year.
Castro has proposed a participatory democracy plan that would begin with a national constitutional assembly to refound Honduras, a fundamental demand of the resistance movement that emerged after the 2009 coup. This is an opportunity to draft a new constitution that would be reflective of all Hondurans, including those who have historically lacked sufficient legal protections like indigenous and Garifuna communities, women, and LGBT Hondurans.
President Castro faces many challenges, of course, not least of which is the building of unity and reconciliation in a society broken by the US-backed coup and the National Party. First, the coffers of the public sector have been emptied by the Hernandez administration, leaving the country economically devastated. She will have to rebuild constitutionality and the rule of law, and she will need to generate and maintain support for a national dialogue for reconciliation.
Then there is the challenge of the US State Department and its reach in the region, its covert forces and its drug war, as well as persistent anti-communist agendas, the local and regional oligarchs, narcotrafficking in the region itself, extreme poverty, external debt, and the migration crisis.
None of these issues are new, and they plague not just Honduras but all of Central America. What is new, however, is a feeling of hope that Castro has embodied. For the first time in a very long time, Honduras has a people’s president, elected by a majority of Hondurans in a legitimate election, and an accompanying coalitional movement of Hondurans ready to help lead on their own terms.