Reprinted from the Boston Globe“Beyond unbelievable!” Those were the first words of an email I received after last month’s election in Honduras, from a scholar who has spent years studying that ravaged country. The result was indeed amazing.
A venal clique has ruled Honduras for the last 12 years. Violence became horrific, driving thousands to flee the country in migrant caravans. Now an impassioned eco-feminist and anti-corruption campaigner, Xiomara Castro, is poised to assume the presidency. “Get out war, get out hate!” she cried to a delirious throng after her decisive victory at the polls. “Get out death squads! Get out corruption! Get out drug trafficking and organized crime! No more poverty and misery in Honduras!”
Four years ago, Washington looked the other way as the Honduran elite appeared to steal an election to keep itself in power. This time we changed course. The regime we have supported for more than a decade was pushing people to flee toward the Rio Grande. Biden calculated that a fiery female president with a social conscience might persuade them to stay home. This may be the new US standard for governments in Central America: We’ll support any that reduce migration.
Shortly before the Nov. 28 election, Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols traveled to Honduras. According to Dana Frank, author of “The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup,” his message to the governing group was simple. Castro held a big lead in opinion polls, and the United States had decided she must be allowed to win and take office. Attacks on Castro’s supporters ended, she won a decisive victory, and her opponent conceded graciously.
Condemned by geography, Honduras has been a vassal of the United States for more than a century. We first overthrew a Honduran president in 1911, worked with fruit companies to corrupt governments over several generations, and in the 1980s militarized the country so it could serve as a base for our war against neighboring Nicaragua. We backed the 2009 coup because we believed the elected president, Manuel Zelaya, was becoming too friendly with leftists in the hemisphere. Now, 12 years later, we are effectively admitting our mistake and allowing the old regime to come back to power. President-elect Castro is Zelaya’s wife, so the return of the pre-coup regime is familial as well as political.
Never in the last century would the United States have accepted such a president in Central America. How the worm turns — and it’s all because of migration! Biden has evidently decided that any Central American leader who can curb migration is good for us, even if she likes Cuba and hates the IMF. His political prospects now depend in part on the success of democracy in Central America — ironic in a region where the United States is known more for crushing democracy than encouraging it.
Castro takes over a country that has been devastated economically, politically, socially, and morally. Prosecutors in New York are preparing to indict the outgoing president for drug trafficking when he leaves office next month. The Honduran state has failed to respond to urgent challenges ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change. Gang violence terrifies peaceable citizens. Business tycoons and drug lords control murderous police forces.
Yet despite these daunting challenges, democracy in Honduras no longer faces its longtime barrier: resistance from Washington. That makes results of the recent election “beyond unbelievable.” This is a remarkable historical moment. For the first time ever, the United States seems to be hoping that a socialist government in Latin America will succeed.
Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning author and foreign correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents. His articles and books have led the Washington Post to place him “among the best in popular foreign policy storytelling.” He was Latin America correspondent for The Boston Globe, and then spent more than 20 years working for the New York Times, with extended postings in Nicaragua, Germany, and Turkey. He is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. His most recent book is “The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War.”