Honduras looks set for its first woman president. What could it mean for immigration?
Leftist Xiomara Castro is routing her conservative rival in the vote tally for Sunday's election. Can she improve Hondurans' lives — and stem migration to the U.S.?
Honduras held its presidential election on Sunday, and with most of the votes counted, the winner looks to be Xiomara Castro — who would be Honduras’ first female president.
The Honduran election has an effect on U.S. policy: the Biden administration is trying to help fix Central America's grinding poverty, violence and corruption, problems past U.S. foreign policy helped create.
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Those crises force tens of thousands of Hondurans to migrate to the U.S. southern border each year. About a million Hondurans now live in the United States, most of them in Florida.
WLRN’s Luis Hernandez spoke with Americas editor Tim Padgett, who’s been following the Honduras vote.
Here are excerpts of their conversation, edited for clarity.
HERNANDEZ: Tim, Xiomara Castro has what looks like an insurmountable lead in the vote count. How soon are we going to know if she's officially the winner — and what should we know about her?
PADGETT: Castro actually claimed victory Sunday night and it's expected to be confirmed sometime this week. It's also expected to be a big win — a landslide, really. With 52 percent of the precincts counted Monday morning, she had a 20-percentage-point lead over Tegucigalpa Mayor Nasry Asfura of the ruling conservative National Party. If that holds, it would be a significant mandate for the first woman president of Honduras — and for her liberal Liberty & Refoundation (LIBRE) Party.
Castro is actually a former first lady of Honduras. She's the wife of former President Manuel Zelaya, a leftist who was thrown out by the military in 2009. She promised to improve the abysmal living conditions and public security that make Honduras the number one source of illegal immigration to the U.S. and of asylum seekers here. And she pledged to improve women's rights and equality in Honduras, which the U.N. says deteriorated quite a bit in the past dozen years the National Party has been in power.
And what was the turnout like?
It was big, almost 70 percent.
This election matters to Biden because the $4 billion investment he's planning in Central America looks riskier if he's working with corrupt leaders like Honduras' current president.
So why do you think so many Honduran voters apparently opted to go with the more liberal opposition?
The big reason is the current authoritarian president, Juan Orlando Hernández. In the eight years he’s been in office he's been linked to massive corruption, which angers voters in a country where 75 percent of the population lives in poverty. He's also under investigation in the U.S. for involvement with Honduras’ ultra-violent drug gangs — the same criminal maras, as they’re known, that terrorize so many Hondurans and force them to migrate.
Hernández denies this — but U.S. prosecutors identified him as an un-indicted co-conspirator when his brother Tony Hernández was convicted in the U.S., two years ago, for drug trafficking. Hondurans were just fed up with all this.
You mentioned a big fear was that the conservative ruling party would commit voter fraud. Why?
Because Honduras’ last presidential election in 2017 was so heavily tainted by fraud. This too involves President Hernández, who was the incumbent in that election. The vote count inexplicably stopped for days when it was apparent he was losing. When he was eventually announced the winner it was so suspect that the Organization of American States, or OAS — which is essentially the U.N. of the western hemisphere — even called for a new election. But that didn’t happen.
Why is the result of this election so important to the Biden administration?
The short answer is: $4 billion. That's what President Biden plans to invest to help tackle the poverty and violence that's driving so many migrants out of Central America's Northern Triangle: Guatemala, El Salvador and especially Honduras.
It's about addressing illegal immigration at its source instead of at the U.S. border, right? But that investment is risky if you're working with corrupt and dysfunctional governments and ruling parties like Honduras’.
Do you think the Biden Administration will be able to work with Castro?
That's a good question. I think so. For starters, I think they probably feel she couldn't possibly be worse than President Hernández. But the bigger question here may be: does Castro want to work with the U.S.?
Her husband, the former president I mentioned earlier who was deposed in a coup 12 years ago, leaned heavily to the left and he was a buddy of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and other socialist leaders in Latin America. He and Castro also felt the U.S. didn't respond aggressively enough against the right-wing putsch that ousted him.
Castro and her LIBRE Party lean in that leftist direction, too. There are indications she wants to govern more from the center; but will she want to cooperate that much with the U.S. when, for example, it's slapping heavy sanctions on leftist President Daniel Ortega's regime next door in Nicaragua?
It's hard to imagine her turning away the kind of aid the Biden administration is offering — but this could complicate things. So could Castro's plan to break Honduras’ diplomatic ties with Taiwan and establish ties with communist China. Will she prefer to work with Beijing over Washington when it comes to, say, modernizing Honduras’ decrepit infrastructure?
With so many Hondurans now living in the U.S., I guess a big question is: were they able to vote? And if so, which candidate do you think they favored, especially here in South Florida?
Well, of those million Hondurans who now live in the U.S., most of them in Florida, fewer than 15,000 were registered to vote. That's thanks largely to bureaucratic hurdles they say the Honduran government put up because it figured expats who fled the country aren't too fond of the ruling party.
A Honduran friend I played soccer with on Sunday told me he couldn't get registered to vote. And with so few of them registered, it’s just very hard for us to know right now who expat voters would have favored.