TEGUCIGALPA – Hondurans saw Xiomara Castro sworn in as their country’s first female president Thursday amid a sea of waving flags in the national stadium.
Castro blasted the outgoing administration for leaving her a heavily indebted country where poverty and a lack of opportunity have driven hundreds of thousands of Hondurans to migrate in recent years.
“My government will not continue the vortex that has condemned generations of young people to pay the debt taken on behind their backs,” Castro said.
“We have the duty to restore the economic sector on the basis of transparency, efficiency, production, social justice, wealth distribution and national revenue,” she said.
The 62-year-old Castro faces high expectations to turn around the deeply troubled country amid uncertainty about whether an unfolding legislative crisis will allow her the support she needs.
Relatively smooth elections and a healthy margin of victory Nov. 28 came as a relief, but political maneuvering in the run-up to Castro’s inauguration has muddled the outlook and distracted from what was to be a hopeful new beginning after the two terms of President Juan Orlando Hernández.
Honduras has been engulfed by a dispute over who will lead the newly elected Congress. Two congressional leadership teams have been selected — neither legitimately according to experts — and their standoff threatens legislative paralysis at a time that Castro desperately needs to quickly get to work addressing Honduras’ problems.
Elected lawmakers from Castro’s own Liberty and Refoundation Party backed one of their own to be the new legislative body’s president Friday rather than support Castro’s choice, which had been agreed with her vice president to win his party’s support. Neither group backed down leading to surreal simultaneous legislative sessions Tuesday.
High unemployment, persistent violence, corruption as well as troubled health care and educational systems are just some of the pressing challenges awaiting Castro.
The United States government, seeing an opportunity to gain an ally in a region with few friends, has strongly backed Castro and stands ready to provide support. In a possible sign of tensions in the region, presidents from neighbors El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua were not scheduled to attend.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who was given the task of addressing the challenge of Central American migration, met with Castro shortly after the inauguration ceremony.
The two discussed “the root causes of migration, combatting corruption and expanding economic opportunity,” according to a statement from Harris’ office.
“Vice President Harris welcomed President Castro’s focus on countering corruption and impunity, including her intent to request the assistance of the United Nations in establishing an international anti-corruption commission and commitment to advancing necessary legislative reforms to enable such a commission to succeed,” the statement said.
Washington sees areas for cooperation on Castro’s priorities of battling corruption and increasing economic opportunities in her country, two areas that could affect decisions by Hondurans on whether to stay or try to migrate to the United States.
Jason Marczak, senior director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council, said, “Honduras has been a very difficult partner for the United States, especially during the administration of Juan Orlando Hernandez for a number of reasons, including the consistent swirl of illegal activity around him and his family."
“The anti-corruption agenda being front and center and her (Castro’s) pledges is music to the ears of the Biden-Harris administration, given its focus on rooting out corruption not only in Central America but its global efforts on corruption,” he said.
Castro said again Thursday she plans to formally invite the United Nations to set up an anti-corruption mission in Honduras.
That would be welcome by Hondurans like 22-year-old José Manuel Suazo, who waited for Castro’s appearance inside the stadium. He said he voted for Castro, and believes many other young people did too, because he wants her to attack corruption and end impunity.
Castro won on her third bid for the presidency. She was previously first lady during the presidency of her husband, Manuel Zelaya, which was cut short by a military coup in 2009.
On Thursday, just hours before her inauguration, Castro announced her cabinet picks via Twitter. There were two women out of 16 announced positions. Her son Hector Zelaya, will be her private secretary and Manuel Zelaya's nephew, José Manuel Zelaya, is her choice for defense secretary.
Ramón Sabillón, a former National Police chief, who recently returned after years living in exile in the United States, was her pick for security minister.
In her speech, Castro gave him a lengthy to-do list including guaranteeing “citizen security, no more death squads, no more silence on femicides, no more hired killers, no more drug trafficking, no more organized crime.”
Many voters this time said they were motivated above all by the possibility of removing Hernández’s National Party from power. Hernández was first elected in 2013 and a friendly Supreme Court allowed him to overcome a constitutional ban on re-election and run again in 2017 in an election plagued by irregularities.
Federal prosecutors in New York have repeatedly spoken of Hernández’s purported ties to drug trafficking, alleging his political rise was funded in part by drug profits. Hernández has not been formally charged and has repeatedly denied the accusations.
On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Norma Torres said in a statement she had asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to see that Hernández was indicted and extradited to the U.S.
"President Hernandez has been a central figure in undermining the rule of law in his own country and in protecting and assisting drug traffickers to move their materials through Honduras and to the United States,” Torres said. “He has been repeatedly identified as a co-conspirator in other drug trafficking cases and has caused incredible pain to both the people of Honduras and the United States. I believe it is essential that the United States hold him accountable for his criminal behavior.”
On Thursday afternoon, Hernández was sworn in as a representative of Honduras to the Central American Parliament, a traditional transition for Central American ex-presidents that affords them immunity from prosecution.
Guatemalan representative on the regional body, Amilcar Pop, confirmed Hernández's swearing in, but said he withdrew from the virtual session because “I am against his swearing in, that he's given immunity.”
On Thursday, 48-year-old Carlos Hernández lugged a nearly life-size Castro pinata through the streets near the stadium before the inauguration.
“This is now or never,” Hernández said. “I do this out of conviction, we want our president to not fail us.”
He and his family came because he wanted Castro to feel she had the support of the people. “I had never even voted, but I was sick and tired of the National (party)."