Tegucigalpa, Honduras — Thousands of jubilant voters have been flooding the streets of cities across Honduras to celebrate the apparent electoral victory of leftist presidential candidate Xiomara Castro, who now has an overwhelming lead in the nation’s ongoing vote count.
Castro, who is part of the leftist Libre Party, is in position to become the first woman president of Honduras, and the overwhelming show of support for her candidacy is a repudiation of the conservative forces that — with backing from the U.S. government — carried out a coup in 2009 and seized power from democratically elected leftist President Manuel Zelaya, who is Castro’s husband.
On Sunday night in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, the sounds of the caravans of Castro’s Libre Party supporters filled the air as they drove around the capital, waving the red flag of their party, blaring their horns and shooting off firecrackers.
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Hondurans across the country are celebrating the end of the Juan Orlando Hernández regime and marking the beginning of a new democratic era in the country.
The National Electoral Council reported a 68 percent voter turnout, marking an increase over previous elections, and voters started celebrating based on preliminary results from the electoral authority that showed Castro with a commanding lead over the National Party’s Nasry “Tito” Asfura. According to the preliminary results, Castro has so far won 53.61 percent of the vote to runner-up Asfura, who received 33.87 percent; third place went to Liberal Party candidate Yani Rosenthal at 9.21 percent.
“[Castro] is a righteous woman, a decent woman, a woman who is concerned for the well-being of Honduras, not just a select group of people, but the entirety of the Honduras people,” Erodito Vásquez, a Libre Party voter in the Suyapa neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, told Truthout.
Voters’ expectations of her new government are extremely high. On top of restoring institutional legitimacy after eight years of rule by the scandal-plagued Hernández, there are a number of issues that social movements have been struggling around, such as conflicts over extractive projects and special economic zones, reproductive rights and freedom for political prisoners still languishing in jails, and activists expect the Castro government to act quickly on these issues. She has committed to reversing 12 years of neoliberal economic policy and tackling corruption and impunity, as well as loosening the country’s strict abortion laws.
Although Juan Orlando Hernández was not on the ballot in this election, his National Party administration was the central issue of the electoral contest. Hernández was first elected in 2013, replacing Porfirio Lobo Sosa, also of the National Party, who came to power after the 2009 military coup that ousted the leftist former President Zelaya.
As Zelaya’s spouse, Castro was thrust into the political spotlight after Zelaya was whisked away in the middle of the night by the armed forces to nearby Costa Rica. She became one of the most visible faces of the anti-coup resistance that sprang up in response to the rupture in the country’s constitutional order. Despite months of daily street protests, the coup was consolidated thanks to violent repression and the efforts of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who backed the election of Lobo in a vote held barely five months after the coup, despite widespread condemnation of the conditions in post-coup Honduras that ensured the vote could not be free or fair.
Over time, the National Front of Popular Resistance that was founded in the aftermath of the 2009 coup formed a political party called Freedom and Refoundation, or LIBRE by its Spanish acronym. The leftist party contested the 2013 election with Castro as its candidate, losing to Juan Orlando Hernández.
In 2017, Libre made an alliance with the Anti-Corruption Party, backing its candidate, Salvador Nasralla. That election was marked by widespread allegations of fraud. Even the Organization of American States called for new elections due to the unexplained jump in Hernández’s votes, which put him ahead of Nasralla despite the latter originally holding a 5-point lead in the preliminary report by electoral authorities. The Hernández regime brutally put down protests that were organized against the fraudulent result, succeeding in remaining in power and consolidating Hernández’s grip on the country.
The events of both the 2009 coup and the 2017 fraud loomed large over the vote in 2021. Despite the Libre Party leading in polls, there were widespread fears that the National Party would once again succeed in stealing the election. In an effort to avoid a repeat of the fraudulent 2017 election, the Libre Party pushed for important reforms to reduce the potential for fraud, such as the creation of the National Electoral Council, the purging of voter rolls and the introduction of biometric data readers.
The National Party is widely seen inside Honduras as an unusually efficient political machine, and ahead of the vote, it engaged in widespread efforts to secure support through undemocratic means. Having been in power for the previous 12 years, the party has cultivated a clientelist base, and in this election, mobilized state resources to win support from voters.
Election observers on the ground in Honduras said they noted several irregularities on the day of the election. Global Exchange, an international human rights organization, organized a delegation of over 250 Hondurans and 40 international observers to monitor the election, along with the Honduran Center for Democracy Studies (CESPAD by its Spanish acronym).
In a press conference, observers with the CESPAD delegation said they saw long lines at polling centers, efforts by National Party activists standing outside polls trying to sway voters, and efforts to exchange material goods such as roofing and flooring materials, as well as money, for votes.
Mood for Change
“Regrettably, that is the kind of democracy that we have in Honduras,” Juana Elizabeth Portillo, a member of the Libre Party, told Truthout.
The fraudulent actions by backers of the National Party regime, however, were not enough to affect the result. Castro’s landslide victory benefited from an overwhelming mood for change in Honduras, rendering efforts to steal the election moot.
“It is an unfair fight, but we know the people and God will carry out justice because we are tired of 12 years of narco-dictatorship,” said Portillo, referencing the credible allegations of Hernandez’s ties to organized crime.
Portillo argued that the Honduran population was “exhausted” with the National Party.
“They have seen the atrocities, the theft, the embezzlement in the state’s organizations and institutions … Juan Orlando transformed the state into a narco-state,” she said.
Jonny Pavón, a fruit vendor in the Alameda neighborhood in the capital, said it was not the country’s fault that conditions for working-class people were so hard, but the fault of those who had governed.
“What the Honduran people want is change, a total change, and that they do something for the people,” Pavón told Truthout ahead of voting day.
Pavón stressed that most Hondurans, like him, live day-to-day, and that previous governments had been governing in favor of an elite and not those like him.
“We are going to elect transparent people here who govern in favor of the country and the people,” he said.
Carlos Roberto Ucles Palada, who works as the caretaker at the Archbishop Jacobo Cáceres School in the working-class area of Suyapa in Tegucigalpa and a resident of the area for his entire life, said his neighbors were all interested in ousting the National Party.
“People realized that in eight years they did not give us anything until recently, distributing our own money back to us,” Ucles told Truthout.
Ucles says that vote-buying tactics might have worked previously, but in this election the people had “wised up.”
“I’m going to vote for the candidate that suits me better…. We won’t be played the fool anymore,” he said.
Victory After Decades of Struggle
“Honduras no longer just resists, Honduras no longer is afraid,” said Carla Garcia, a Honduran Garifuna woman living in New York who traveled to the country to participate as an election observer, during the CESPAD press conference.
Asked what he felt when the results came in, Gustavo Irías, executive director at CESPAD and a longtime leftist political leader in Honduras, said it was an “indescribable emotion” and the product of “decades of struggle.”
Irías told Truthout that Sunday’s result meant that those years of struggle were not in vain.
The wide margin of victory of Castro over her nearest rival makes a scenario like the one that played out after the 2017 election unlikely, but the country’s fragile institutions mean there is still risk of a fraud.
“Democracy remains very fragile in Honduras,” said Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) Co-Director Mark Weisbrot in a press release.
“This is a country that saw the military kidnap the president at gunpoint and fly him out of the country just 12 years ago, and there was very strong evidence that the elections of four years ago were stolen.”
Irías expects that social movements will find that the new Castro government will be easier to work with than previous regimes.
“We will keep fighting but in a more favorable context, a context that we hope will be less dangerous, where we will be less afraid, where we will be driven by the hope that it is possible to build a different society,” said Irías.
U.S. Department of State Principal Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter made a tepid statement Monday about the election, congratulating “the Honduran people for the high turnout as well as the active civil society participation in the election.”
With memories of U.S. support for the 2009 coup still present in the minds of the vast majority of Libre Party supporters, as well as memories of the role played by the U.S. in sustaining Hernandez in power, relations between Washington and Tegucigalpa under a Castro government are likely to be complicated.
However, with Hondurans representing the largest nationality crossing the southern U.S. border seeking asylum and U.S. President Joe Biden’s stated commitment to addressing the flow of migration from Central America, Washington will likely be forced to accommodate itself to the new government in Honduras.