Left-wing Honduran leader could provide opportunities for US

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) – If Xiomara Castro’s large lead in Honduran presidential election continues, his left-wing government could present challenges, but also opportunities for a Biden administration that has struggled to resolve the issues of the country while keeping the current president Juan Orlando Hernández at arm’s length.

There will be a painful story to overcome, primarily the US government’s refusal to call the ouster of Castro’s husband José Manuel Zelaya in 2009 what it was – a military coup – and then to work closely with it. the Conservative Presidents of the National Party who followed. And from the American point of view, how Castro and Zelaya got closer to then Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Among the first to congratulate Castro on his success – even before Honduran election officials – were the presidents of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, three of the hemisphere’s left-wing authoritarians. The US government did not comment on the election.

But during her campaign, Castro sent signals that she was interested in working with the United States. Notably Brian Nichols, US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, visited Honduras last week ahead of the election, sending a message that the United States remains interested in Honduras.

With just over half of the polling stations counted, the National Electoral Council of Honduras said Castro had 53% of the vote against Nasry Asfura of the 33% of the National Party.

Common ground between Castro and the US government exists in at least three key areas: immigration, drug trafficking, and corruption. And with strained relations between Washington and the rulers of El Salvador and Guatemala, the US government could use a productive relationship with Honduras.

Despite efforts by opponents to portray Castro as a communist, pundits expect her to rule as a centrist with a desire to uplift the poor in Honduras while attracting foreign investment.

A speech Castro gave to her Freedom and Refoundation party in June remains one of her clearest expressions of how she will navigate relations with the United States.

“In the first 100 days, we will execute and propose to the administration of President Joe Biden and Kamala Harris a plan to combat and address the real causes of migration,” Castro said.

Castro describes the emigration of Hondurans in terms of flight to escape inequality, corruption, poverty and violence. This sounds a lot like Harris’ assessment of the root causes the Biden administration wants to focus US aid on.

But Castro also puts some of the blame on the US government.

“I think the Biden administration has a huge opportunity to address the issue of migration,” Castro said in the June speech. “First, recognize that they have a share of responsibility in what is happening in our country”, she added, noting the coup of 2009.

“I think Xiomara Castro understands much better than the United States that if you want to tackle the issue of immigration, you have to tackle the root causes,” said Dana Frank, expert from Honduras and professor of history emeritus at the University of California at Santa Cruz. . “And that means having an economy that works. It means to have a functional state.

Poverty has only worsened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the Biden administration looks for ways to boost investment, help grow Honduran economy, and create jobs so that fewer people feel the need to flee, “some of its priorities may well match this. that the administration hopes to do, ”said Maureen Meyer. , Vice President of Latin American Affairs at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights organization.

Meyer warns that it is less clear how a US proposal such as the creation of a Honduran border patrol would be received by Castro. And in the same June speech, Castro also said she wanted to open relations with China, another potential sticking point with the U.S. government.

Castro hammered the outgoing Hernández administration for corruption. It was the Hernández administration that let the Organization of American States’ anti-corruption mission in Honduras expire in 2020 after its work hit some National Party lawmakers for alleged abuse of public funds.

She said she was interested in returning an international anti-corruption mission to Honduras. That, combined with a strong and independent attorney general, could begin to tackle one of the country’s deepest problems.

“One of the key priorities of the Biden administration in its international cooperation, but particularly in Central America, is the rule of law and anti-corruption efforts,” Meyer said. Castro’s interest in the subject could reopen a door that Hernández had closed.

US federal prosecutors have examined under a microscope a strain of this corruption in drug trafficking cases that have reached high-ranking Honduran politicians.

Most notable was the conviction of Hernández’s brother, a former federal lawmaker, for drug trafficking which earned him a life sentence in the United States. In his trial and other cases, US prosecutors have accused President Hernández of fueling his own political rise with money from drug traffickers. Hernández has not been charged and has denied the charges.

U.S. prosecutors also accused Zelaya of accepting money from drug traffickers, which he denied.

Castro likes to call Hernández’s government a “narco dictatorship”.

At the end of her speech to supporters on Sunday night, Castro made it clear that she wanted a clean break in ties between the government and drug traffickers.

“Take out the war! Take out the hate! Take out the death squads! Get out of corruption! Get out of drug trafficking and organized crime, ”Castro said. “No more poverty and misery in Honduras.

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