When Xiomara Castro led a march through the Honduran capital in 2009, demanding that her husband, who was ousted in a military coup, be returned to power, it was the first time she seized the political spotlight, according to Honduran political experts CNN spoke to for this article.
Now, the former first lady is ready to take center stage as Honduras’ first female president, promising a radical agenda to counter years of governance plagued by corruption and scandal.
Castro, a democratic socialist, will be inaugurated on Thursday following a landslide victory in the November 2021 presidential elections.
Her party, the Freedom and Refoundation Party (Libre) won the vote with a lead of more than 14 points over her nearest opponent, Nasry Asfura, the capital’s mayor and candidate for outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández’s National Party.
Winning 51% of the vote share and 1.7 million votes, Castro garnered the largest number of votes in the country’s history, underscoring the public’s appetite for change.
The 62-year-old ran on campaign promises to battle corruption (and promised to enlist the United Nations to strengthen that fight), alleviate poverty and liberalize abortion laws.
But a recent shakeup within Castro’s own party could mean she might not be able to fulfil that agenda.
On Sunday, a group of Libre lawmakers rebelled over Castro’s pick for congressional speaker, leading to a split in the newly-elected Congress that could potentially see the National Party taking back control of the legislature.
That fracture means that Castro is facing a reality of leading the country without the support of her some of her party and its allies in Congress – days before she even is inaugurated.
Castro’s path to power has never been easy, however. It took her two failed campaigns in 2013 and 2017 before making it to the top post in Honduras, one of Latin America’s most conservative countries – with few female elected officials.
CNN reached out to Castro for this article. Her team told CNN that she was not giving interviews before her inauguration.
A watershed moment
Born in the capital Tegucigalpa, Castro dedicated her early years to family life, marrying businessman and politician Manuel Zelaya at the age of 19 and later raising their four children while managing his businesses, according her Libre Party website.
When Zelaya took office in January 2006, Castro had no other political ambitions than to accompany him and to support his work, sociologist Julio Raudales of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) said, playing an active role in social programs that included early education initiatives and HIV/AIDS advocacy work.
An unexpected twist in 2009 would change their lives. Zelaya was abducted from his house by military officers in a coup over a planned referendum on constitutional reform that would allow the president to be re-elected for a second term. Zelaya was taken to Costa Rica in his pyjamas. When he returned to Honduras in May 2011, he founded the Libre Party.
Then-United States President Barack Obama called the turmoil a step backward from the “enormous progress of the last 20 years in establishing democratic traditions in Latin America.”
Meanwhile, Castro took the helm as leader of the resistance movement that demanded Zelaya’s return to office. It was from that incident that her political career took shape, Raudales said.
Before then, Castro was seen as “just the wife of a former president,” lawyer and political analyst Raul Pineda said.
Her election victory marked a watershed moment in Honduran politics, said Raudales.
“At a time when Honduran democracy was highly questioned, Castro managed to show that you can defeat a lot of opposition if you work properly and get the sympathy of the population in Honduras,” he said.
In 2021, President Hernández was accused by United States federal prosecutors of helping an alleged drug trafficker deliver thousands of kilos of cocaine to the US in exchange for hefty bribes – a claim his office rejected as “100% false.” Hernández has not been charged.
Marvin Reyes, a restaurateur from the town of Santa Lucia, told CNN that “Hondurans were tired of so much corruption, of so much theft, so much impunity. So, it [voting for Castro] was a protest vote, rather than a hope vote – that was felt nationwide.”
A geopolitical balancing act
Outside of the problems that Castro’s already facing in Congress, there are other significant challenges Castro must tackle, Raudales said, including getting her agenda moving quick enough.
Change in Honduras cannot “occur overnight,” he said, even if Hondurans are ready for it.
The country is one of the poorest in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the World Bank.
And poverty is on the rise, according to a 2021 National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) report.
Poverty rates increased from 59.3% in 2019 to roughly 70% in 2020, the report said, a situation that UNAH attributes to a “failed” Poverty Reduction Strategy implemented by the previous government and natural disasters.
And that poverty is one of the main drivers of migration to the United States every year.
Earlier this month, up to 8,000 US-bound migrants entered Guatemala from Honduras over the course of just two days, according to a Guatemalan immigration official.
Castro’s promise to stamp out the systemic problems behind poverty – one of the root causes of that migration – is not only popular with the electorate, but has made her an attractive ally for US President Joe Biden’s administration.
US Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to attend Castro’s inauguration on Thursday, a move that Rolando Sierra, director of Honduras’ Latin American Faculty of Social Science (FLACSO) said “sends a good message.”
“The US is legitimizing Castro’s government because they’re seeing in Xiomara Castro the possibility of a certain leadership within the region,” Sierra said.
Diplomatic relations between the US and Central American countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua are strained.
Now, the US is eyeing Castro’s domestic policies aimed to mitigate migration as some of the most promising in the region. She has vowed to tackle the causes of poverty – and violence – that are driving Hondurans north, with a broad economic and social plan that includes free education, universal health care, social security, and a focus on creating more jobs inside the country.
At least 701,049 migrants from Central America’s northern triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) were detained at the US southern border in the 2021 Fiscal Year, according to US Customs and Border Protection.
Meanwhile, Castro has said in her foreign policy manifesto that the country is looking to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing, to the ire of Washington.
However, her transition team told Reuters last month that “the new government will maintain relations with Taiwan.”
Honduras is one of few countries that has diplomatic ties with Taiwan. As China recognizes Taiwan as its own territory, most countries need to choose one or the other to form diplomatic relations with.
Pineda notes that China’s investments are in Nicaragua and El Salvador. “So if China is not interested in having a strategic and commercial relation with Honduras,” Honduras will keep their relationship with Taiwan, “regardless of what Castro has said.”
Leftist Castro will also need to keep the US – which has a military base in Central America is in Honduras – on her side, Pineda said.
“I understand that they [the US] have conditioned economic support to the Castro government [on the maintenance of] a prudent distance from the governments of Cuba or Venezuela. Cordial relations will exist, but with a clear inclination towards the United States government,” he said, adding that any conflict with the US would be “economic suicide.”
But how Castro, who evoked the slogan of the Cuban revolution in her November 28 victory will negotiate that balance remains unclear.
Raudales told CNN that while Castro has the support of the country’s left, including union and labor leaders, he questions how deeply her radical politics lie.
“I don’t believe Xiomara and Zelaya have ever read the Communist Manifesto,” Raudales said.
But Castro has promised to listen to the needs of her citizens.
As a presidential candidate, Castro stood firm on her stance on women’s reproductive rights, promising to overturn the country’s laws on abortion and a long-standing ban on the use, sale and distribution of emergency contraception.
Castro vowed to decriminalize abortion for three reasons: In cases of rape, fetal impairment, or if the mother’s life is at risk. Women’s rights organizations have welcomed her proposals.
Rates of intimate partner violence in Honduras are high, with nearly one in three Honduran women over the age of 15 having experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner, according to UN data.
Abortions carry heavy sentences, with those convicted of obtaining one facing up to six years in prison.
But since her victory, Castro has scaled back her rhetoric, proposing that those policies be first debated in a public forum.
CNN’s Kara Fox contributed to this report.