Honduras-U.S. Relations Get a Reset

If incoming President Xiomara Castro lives up to her promises, there’s a chance to address the root causes of forced migration.

By , a freelance journalist based in Honduras.
Xiomara Castro, presidential candidate of the Libertad y Refundación (Libre) party, speaks at a press conference in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Nov. 28.
Xiomara Castro, presidential candidate of the Libertad y Refundación (Libre) party, speaks at a press conference in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Nov. 28.
Xiomara Castro, presidential candidate of the Libertad y Refundación (Libre) party, speaks at a press conference in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Nov. 28. Inti Ocon/Getty Images

Honduran opposition presidential candidate Xiomara Castro achieved a resounding victory in the Nov. 28 general election, ending a dozen years of single-party rule and offering a chance for a reset of relations between the Central American nation and the United States. “This is a real opportunity for the Biden administration to do what it said it wants to do, which is to help address the root causes of forced migration from Honduras,” Lisa Haugaard, co-director of the Latin America Working Group, told Foreign Policy.

Castro, 62, a leftist whose husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, was ousted in a 2009 military-backed coup, will become the country’s first female president when she takes office next month. Zelaya’s ties with the authoritarian president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, as well as his history of railing against U.S. influence in the region have raised eyebrows in Washington. But Castro won as the face of a coalition of opposition parties that extends across the political spectrum and on a platform that aligns well with the Biden administration’s strategy for Central America, which experts say could make her the preferred partner of the United States in Central America’s troubled Northern Triangle region.

“I think it’s going to be a relief compared to what [the United States has] been dealing with in the three governments of the Northern Triangle if Xiomara Castro lives up to her promises,” Haugaard said.

Honduran opposition presidential candidate Xiomara Castro achieved a resounding victory in the Nov. 28 general election, ending a dozen years of single-party rule and offering a chance for a reset of relations between the Central American nation and the United States. “This is a real opportunity for the Biden administration to do what it said it wants to do, which is to help address the root causes of forced migration from Honduras,” Lisa Haugaard, co-director of the Latin America Working Group, told Foreign Policy.

Castro, 62, a leftist whose husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, was ousted in a 2009 military-backed coup, will become the country’s first female president when she takes office next month. Zelaya’s ties with the authoritarian president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, as well as his history of railing against U.S. influence in the region have raised eyebrows in Washington. But Castro won as the face of a coalition of opposition parties that extends across the political spectrum and on a platform that aligns well with the Biden administration’s strategy for Central America, which experts say could make her the preferred partner of the United States in Central America’s troubled Northern Triangle region.

“I think it’s going to be a relief compared to what [the United States has] been dealing with in the three governments of the Northern Triangle if Xiomara Castro lives up to her promises,” Haugaard said.

Over the past four years, and even before the country was hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic and two major hurricanes last year, the U.S. Border Patrol has recorded an unprecedented number of encounters with Honduran migrants. Meanwhile, outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández and the ruling National Party were embroiled in a litany of corruption and drug trafficking scandals that have been increasingly recognized as push factors that contributed to the exodus and rendered his government a political lightning rod.

Hernández has been accused by U.S. prosecutors of overseeing “state-sponsored drug trafficking” and is widely expected to be indicted on drug trafficking conspiracy charges upon leaving office on Jan. 27. He has denied the charges. In Guatemala, President Alejandro Giammattei, whom the Biden administration saw at first as the lesser of evils, has continued with his predecessor’s assault on the independence of the country’s justice system, while the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, has concentrated power and attacked civil society and the independent press.

Castro was elected by a wide margin over her closest rival and with high voter turnout, giving her a level of legitimacy that recent administrations have lacked. For many, her victory restored a sense of “hope at home,” which U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said in a June visit to Guatemala was necessary to make people want to stay. The decisive nature of Castro’s win has also given her a mandate to address the top issues on Hondurans’ minds, which above all are the need to fight corruption and to create economic opportunities. Given the depth of the problems, neither will be easy to resolve. But the United States could play a crucial role in making progress on both fronts while at the same time improving its reputation in the country and advancing its agenda in the region.

Castro has pledged to create a new international anti-graft commission to replace one the Hernández administration expelled after it exposed numerous cases of corruption that implicated the president’s family and political allies. For it to become a reality, though, Castro’s administration will likely first have to take actions that would improve the conditions for the commission’s success. Whether or not she can achieve that will depend greatly upon Congress, the control of which currently hangs in the balance due to a slow vote count and allegations of fraud.

How efforts to fight corruption play out will also affect Castro’s ability to stimulate the country’s sputtering economy, which retracted 9 percent in 2020 due to the triple blow of the pandemic and back-to-back major hurricanes last November. A since-deleted recent report by the National Institute of Statistics found that 74 percent of the population falls below the poverty line—the highest rate since the country’s return to democracy in the early 1980s. The top push factor cited by migrants heading north in recent years is a lack of jobs that pay enough to cover basic necessities.

The Biden administration has pledged $4 billion in foreign aid over four years to Central America, but little of that money will go to the government, as it is mostly directed at government contractors and nongovernmental organizations. Nonetheless, by taking concrete steps to combat corruption and strengthen the rule of law, the Castro administration could regain access to funds from the U.S. foreign aid agency the Millennium Challenge Corporation—funds that Honduras lost due to corruption and democratic backsliding following the coup—that could be used to implement job-creating infrastructure projects.

The United States could also help the new administration with its goal of restructuring the country’s debt, which consumes over 30 percent of the government’s budget and limits the funds available to address other priorities, such as health and education. The majority of the foreign debt is held by international finance institutions whose principal funder is the United States. The last time Honduras was in such a precarious economic position was after it was devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The international community responded by canceling the entirety of the country’s debt.

The more support the United States provides Castro’s administration, the less likely it will be to take actions that are worrisome to Washington. These include cozying up to Latin American authoritarians and drifting away from democracy, as well as switching diplomatic allegiances from Taiwan to China, which Castro proposed during the campaign but members of her inner circle have backtracked on since the election. What happens in Honduras has an outsized influence on domestic politics in the United States. “There is an opportunity here, an incredible opportunity,” Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley said in a recent Senate hearing about Castro’s election. “The United States has to seize it with both hands.”

Jeff Ernst is a freelance journalist based in Honduras.

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