Bloomberg Opinion — Partial returns suggest Honduras has voted overwhelmingly in favor of its first alternation of power in over a decade, breaking the hold of a ruling party that presided over human rights abuses, democratic erosion and high-profile cocaine-trafficking scandals. A peaceful transfer would be rare good news in a region drifting toward autocracy. That would be even more the case if victorious candidate Xiomara Castro, wife of an ousted leftist president, can choose moderation and fulfill her pledge to fight entrenched corruption.
She faces a powerful establishment, and while the incumbent National Party — which won by a whisker in 2017′s disputed vote and harshly repressed the protests that followed — says it will be a constructive opposition, it has time to make troublesome appointments and damaging demands before actually handing over the top job. Elites will likely resist a clean-up campaign. There’s also the inconvenient fact that Castro’s husband, deposed president Manuel Zelaya, is among those accused of wrongdoing, specifically taking bribes, a charge he denies.
It’s also not yet clear what Honduras’s military will do. Paul Angelo, fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out that the military backed the coup that removed Zelaya in 2009. The ruling party has since catered to the armed forces — loyalties that may impede Castro’s ability to take the reins, or to govern afterward. Castro is already likely to underdeliver on some of her radical pronouncements and electoral promises, like a new constitution.
Still, if she wins as expected, Washington can bolster Castro’s chances for a successful presidency.
President Joe Biden sees tackling economic inequality and corruption and promoting democratic governance as key in Central America, which has become a conduit for drug traffic and northbound migration; his administration has proposed a $4 billion plan to address “root causes.” But it lacks reliable partners, with fragile democracies fraying in Guatemala and El Salvador (the two other countries that make up the “northern triangle”), even as revolutionary-turned-autocrat Daniel Ortega has tightened his grip on Nicaragua.
Granted, it’s not always helpful to see Latin American developments through the prism of Washington, even if it looms large. Castro won votes in 2021 because she tapped the population’s anger at corruption and inequality little improved by back-to-back hurricanes and a pandemic, and at the lack of opportunity that causes six in 10 millennials to want to leave. Since 2014, more than two million have left Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. But particularly in the case of Honduras — the poorest of the three and a longstanding recipient of U.S. military and other aid — past U.S. decisions overshadow the present. All the more reason to help pick up the pieces.
Back in 2009, when Zelaya was abducted in his pajamas, the U.S. condemned the coup, but its response was hesitant, in part because he had been drifting uncomfortably leftward. Washington ultimately recognized the results of the elections that followed, creating a space that the National Party exploited to cement its power. Honduras became another instance of what Ryan Berg at the Center for Strategic and International Studies described to me as Washington’s ineffectiveness in dealing with elected autocrats — its failure to see that the chief adversary of democracy often comes from within.
Pursuing stability above all else in the region, as Hilary Francis, a historian at Northumbria University puts it, has created only the reverse, and Honduras is no exception. Outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernandez, elected in 2013, brought in business-friendly economic policies and reduced the stratospheric homicide rate, but he also hollowed out the judiciary, allowed corruption to flourish and further undermined trust in government. He agreed to President Donald Trump’s deal to block asylum seekers, but such myopic migration-focused policies involved the U.S. turning a blind eye to the criminality that was transforming Honduras into what U.S. prosecutors have called a narco-state.
It also ultimately did little to stem migration. In the 2021 fiscal year, U.S. authorities at the Southwest border had more than 319,000 encounters with Hondurans, a number equivalent to roughly 3% of the population.
Castro will have to recognize that this is not the “pink tide” that washed over Latin America when her husband was in power, and that she owes much of her success to the support of TV personality and moderate candidate Salvador Nasralla. There’s less tolerance for a radical left, and that may entail toning down constitutional plans. She needs to stabilize the budget, so it’s encouraging that her economic adviser says she will consider a program with the International Monetary Fund that would require narrowing the fiscal deficit. Business leaders have already congratulated her on the win.
What can Washington do? It can recognize that no problem, least of all migration, is solvable while corruption remains endemic, and enthusiastically back Castro’s efforts to set up a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission, modeled on the group that operated in Guatemala until it became a victim of its own success. It should continue to extend the long arm of U.S. law, of course: Hernandez’s brother was sentenced in March by a U.S. court to life in prison for drug trafficking.
Washington can also support the bruised economy through trade, something Vice President Kamala Harris has begun by encouraging private investment. Healthy economics are essential to consolidating fragile freedoms. The search for inbound cash is a large part of Castro’s motivation for contemplating a move to swap recognition of Taiwan for diplomatic relations with Beijing, as El Salvador did in 2018, attracting generous investment promises. Senators blocking Biden’s diplomatic nominations may consider the strong pro-democracy, anti-graft signal that putting a confirmed ambassador in place under Castro would send — after a hiatus that has lasted since 2017.
Crucially, in Honduras and across the region, Washington can take a longer-term approach. Strong, clean democracies take time. A better partner at the top is only one step toward that.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.