Dispatch

The view from the ground.

How Honduras’s Congress Split in Two

A country euphoric about its first woman president is plunged back into political turmoil.

By , a writer and independent journalist based in Honduras who covers social struggle in Central America.
Honduran President Xiomara Castro holds up her fist as she wears a blue and white sash at her inauguration. She is standing beside a person in a military uniform.
Honduran President Xiomara Castro holds up her fist as she wears a blue and white sash at her inauguration. She is standing beside a person in a military uniform.
Honduran President Xiomara Castro holds up a fist as she wears the presidential sash after being sworn into office during her inauguration ceremony in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Jan. 27. Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images

On Jan. 21, a fistfight broke out in Honduras’s National Congress. The inauguration of then-incoming President Xiomara Castro was less than a week away, and the country had slipped into crisis. A faction of lawmakers from Castro’s left-wing Liberty and Refoundation (or Libre) party broke rank. They elected a head of Congress who would likely support the continued power and immunity of outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández’s right-wing National Party, which critics have long accused of turning the country into a “narco-dictatorship.”

Legislators who remained loyal to Castro were livid, and more than two dozen of them swarmed the speaker’s stand, where things quickly came to blows. Within days, those lawmakers formed their own, separate Congress. Honduras’s Congress had split in two.

Much of the country, previously euphoric after having elected Honduras’s first progressive president, was outraged. In the days that followed, indignant crowds gathered around the country—including outside of the National Congress—to protest a move, though technically legal, that most Hondurans saw as treason.

On Jan. 21, a fistfight broke out in Honduras’s National Congress. The inauguration of then-incoming President Xiomara Castro was less than a week away, and the country had slipped into crisis. A faction of lawmakers from Castro’s left-wing Liberty and Refoundation (or Libre) party broke rank. They elected a head of Congress who would likely support the continued power and immunity of outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández’s right-wing National Party, which critics have long accused of turning the country into a “narco-dictatorship.”

Legislators who remained loyal to Castro were livid, and more than two dozen of them swarmed the speaker’s stand, where things quickly came to blows. Within days, those lawmakers formed their own, separate Congress. Honduras’s Congress had split in two.

Much of the country, previously euphoric after having elected Honduras’s first progressive president, was outraged. In the days that followed, indignant crowds gathered around the country—including outside of the National Congress—to protest a move, though technically legal, that most Hondurans saw as treason.

The crisis may prove to be a canary in the coal mine for the Castro administration. Prospects for Castro’s proclaimed anti-corruption efforts now seem bleak, even as many Hondurans remain hopeful in the early days of her presidency.


Castro won Honduras’s Nov. 28, 2021, elections in a landslide. She ran as a wildly popular progressive, campaigning on undoing the legacy of 12 years of far-right governments since the 2009 military coup that ousted her husband, then-Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. In those years, stolen elections and murderous state repression became the norm, and hundreds of thousands of Hondurans fled the country. Meanwhile, Castro became a prominent opposition leader in her own right, co-founding the Libre party in 2011. Her message resonated so strongly with Hondurans that she circumvented attempts at vote-buying and electoral fraud to defeat Nasry Asfura, the National Party candidate.

But Castro was only able to gain a lead over Asfura after her Libre party and the populist Savior Party of Honduras (PSH), which was founded on an anti-corruption platform in 2020, formed an alliance in late 2021. The agreement was that the next head of Congress would be PSH lawmaker Luis Redondo. 

But then, last week, 18 Libre party members rejected the terms of this alliance and unexpectedly named one of their own, Jorge Cálix, as head of Congress. The implications were deep: Castro may be in charge of the executive branch, but without the alliance that helped her garner support to win the presidency, it would be far more difficult to push through anti-corruption measures or progressive reforms, rendering much of Castro’s project toothless.

There are indications of connections between the leaders of the Libre legislators who defected and the National Party, though multiple defectors have denied this. (One of them, Denis Chirinos, told Honduran media that “at no point were we offered money [to vote for Cálix].”)

“We, the people, never thought Jorge Cálix would do that to us.”

Given Cálix’s surprise bid to lead Congress, many Hondurans believe he was leaned on by the National Party to impede Castro’s anti-corruption political project. After being sworn in as head of Congress on Jan. 23, Cálix flew via helicopter to a country club near Tegucigalpa, Honduras’s capital. On Jan. 25, the National Party and centrist Liberal Party published a letter expressing support for him. Cálix, along with the 17 other legislators, has now been expelled from the Libre party. (He currently does not have a party.)

“This crisis has practically been created by the [National Party] that formerly governed this country, which wants to maintain the impunity, injustice, and lack of accountability, and to prevent investigations into their acts of treason against the country,” said Tomás Ramírez, a PSH congressman for the department of Atlántida, on Jan. 26.

That these lawmakers could be bought off didn’t surprise some Hondurans: “We’re in a very vulnerable political system,” said Nelson Javier Cruz, a Libre voter in Tegucigalpa. “Latin American politicians are easy to buy, their prices put up by businessmen.”

The Libre-PSH coalition, in turn, formed a separate Congress, with Redondo at the helm. Redondo’s coalition has 96 members, while Cálix’s has 80 members, including all National Party legislators; Redondo’s Congress works in the legislative palace in Tegucigalpa, which often lacks electricity, while Cálix’s Congress works via Zoom calls.

Both the Libre and National Parties have filed constitutional injunctions against each other, and the National Party has filed criminal complaints, including the usurpation of public positions, against Redondo in the Public Ministry.

The rebellion caught some off guard. “We, the people, never thought Jorge Cálix would do that to us,” said Laura Alvador Alvarado, a street vendor from Tegucigalpa, outside the National Congress.

For now, it’s unclear how the two Congresses will reconcile. On Jan. 26, Castro offered Cálix a cabinet position in exchange for allowing Redondo to be head of Congress. Cálix tweeted that same day that he “would have his answer soon” but has yet to elaborate.


One reason disappointment over the betrayal in Congress was so acute was the sheer scale of hope surrounding Castro’s election. Despite the ongoing crisis, the exhilaration in Tegucigalpa on her inauguration day was unmistakable.

At dawn, hundreds of people arrived at the cathedral where Castro would begin her procession, to see what they hoped was the end of an era. The street was lined with rough wood stalls serving baleadas, soda, candy, and coffee. Standing guard were state security forces, municipal and national police, soldiers, secret service, and special forces—almost all notorious for being led by cachurecos, loyalists to the National Party. Near the church, a group of motorcycles mounted with Libre flags, hanging loose in the morning air, waited on the sidewalk to follow Castro to the national stadium, where she would be sworn in.

Amid a steadily growing crowd of supporters near a plastic police barricade, Maria Jesus Sierra Varela, an elementary school teacher and Libre voter, spoke of the significance of one oft-referenced aspect of Castro’s inauguration: “It’s a wonderfully happy moment that a woman is finally president of Honduras,” she said. “There’s been 48 presidents of this country—all men. We hope policies for women get better [here], that this can bring an end to femicide, the unemployment of women.”

Notably present at the inauguration was U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris. Previously, Ricardo Zúñiga, the U.S. special envoy for the Northern Triangle, avoided meeting Honduras’s leadership in his first visit to the region last April. (Presumably, Washington wanted to avoid bringing attention to the fact that Hernández, formerly a close U.S. ally, had been flagged by a U.S. court and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as a major state drug trafficker.) Castro likely seemed like a fresh start, and at a meeting following the inauguration, Harris met with her to discuss, among other things, vaccines, sexual violence, combating corruption, and economic opportunity.


But Honduras’s congressional crisis jeopardizes Castro’s ability to push through tangible policy changes—especially on the order she’s promised.

Castro has said she will abolish the Zones for Employment and Economic Development (ZEDEs), the semi-autonomous corporate enclaves that have their own low tax schemes as well as independent legal systems, environmental and labor regulations, and security forces. ZEDEs—which are considered a pet project of Hernández’s, who pushed them through the Supreme Court in 2013—are widely loathed in Honduras, where many see them as a means of divvying the country’s territory to sell off to largely foreign investors while contributing to the displacement of rural minorities.

Castro has also said she intends to reverse draconian abortion laws and rework the Central America Free Trade Agreement, the 2004 accord that has displaced farmers and suppressed wages, fueling immigration.

More broadly, she’s promised to dramatically reduce the violence and corruption supercharged by the 2009 coup, when a spike in political assassinations and rise in criminal violence made Honduras one of the most violent countries in the world.

“There will be no more death squads,” Castro said in her inauguration speech. “There will be no more silence in the face of femicides or organized crime.” 

But it’s not just a divided Congress that could prove intractable in the face of progressive change or anti-corruption efforts. There is a powerful domestic oligarchy with transnational influence invested in stymying economic reform—families like the Facussés, who acquired immense power through economic restructuring in the mid-1990s and, some argue, came to seize control of the Honduran state itself during the 2009 coup. (For instance, the patriarch of the Facussé dynasty, Miguel Facussé—whose palm oil company has been allegedly connected to more than 100 murders and who was accused in leaked U.S. State Department cables of using his plantation to land drug planes—was a major supporter of the takeover.)

There is a powerful domestic oligarchy with transnational influence invested in stymying economic reform.

“Xiomara and her agenda are going to be sandwiched between the social movements that helped bring her to power, on the one hand, and the interests of the oligarchs, the National Party, and Jorge Cálix, who is the agent promoting their agenda, and the United States—because the United States has always sided with the economic elite in this country,” said Karen Spring, a Canadian human rights activist who’s lived and worked in Honduras since 2009. Indeed, Washington has a long history of favoring economic elites conducive to foreign investment in Central America.

The military and police, two extremely powerful institutions, could also be an obstacle to change. Numerous officials in state security forces, such as former national police chief Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla Valladares, have been complicit in the drug trade.

State security forces’ human rights abuses, which accelerated in the post-coup era, will most likely continue, Spring said, though Castro, as head of state, can put pressure on those institutions to begin changing their culture. “Although Xiomara will control the military and the police, there are still gangs and groups in the military and police that have never—and will never—respond to the interests of the new president and are still operating in organized criminal groups,” Spring said. She pointed out that the army and police have worked together not just with organized crime groups but also with the economic elite—creating, for instance, paramilitary death squads to murder peasant activists—in a pattern that will likely continue.

That doesn’t mean Castro won’t try. “My government will bring the maelstrom of theft to an end,” Castro said to a packed stadium at her inauguration. Outside, as crowds stood in sweltering heat, several celebratory cannon shots resounded over the rust-colored valley of Tegucigalpa.

As of Tuesday, Cálix hasn’t decided whether to take the cabinet position, and the country remains split between two Congresses. Meanwhile, Castro has begun her first week as president, and the congressional crisis, still unresolved, threatens to undermine her term.

Correction, May 3, 2022: A previous version of this article inaccurately discussed allegations made against the Atala Faraj family and Banco Ficohsa. The article has been updated to remove these claims and any reference to the family or bank. We regret these errors.

Jared Olson is a writer and independent journalist based in Honduras who covers social struggle in Central America. His reporting has appeared in the Intercept, the Nation, VICE World News, and El Faro English, among others. Twitter: @jolson321

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