Xiomara's Way

by Emma Wohl

Illustration by Casey Friedman

published October 29, 2013

ON JUNE 28, 2007 SOLDIERS stormed into the bedroom of the presidential residence in Tegucigalpa, Honduras and forced Manuel Zelaya to leave the country. Still wearing his pajamas, the now-ex-president fled to Costa Rica. His wife, Xiomara Castro, went with him into exile.

     The coup was orchestrated by the military and legitimized by the Supreme Court, angry over the president’s recent attempts to convene a National Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution in order to extend his term in office. While Zelaya was at the time a member of the center-right Liberal Party, in the years since his election he had been moving farther to the left, allying himself with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

     A month after the coup, in August 2009, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya was back in Honduras. She stood on the bed of a truck, waving a Honduran flag and speaking through a megaphone to crowds of supporters, expressing her sympathy for those who had been injured in fighting with the military in the streets of Tegucigalpa. According to her husband, she slept in the street alongside his supporters.

     On May 22, 2011, after living for almost two years in exile, Manuel Zelaya returned to Honduras, where he now serves as a deputy of the Central American Parliament. On the fourth anniversary of the coup in June, he appeared in front of a crowd of thousands in Tegucigalpa, but he did not seem to be advancing his own political position. Rather, he was speaking about the brave actions of his wife, who is now one of the leading candidates in the upcoming November 24th presidential election. Castro, who is running with the brand-new party LIBRE, has the chance to be the first female president in Honduran history.




IN A STRAW POLL HELD in mid-September, Castro came out ahead of the eight other contenders with somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the popular vote, a small lead over Juan Orlando Hérnandez of the dominant National Party. She needs only the most votes, not the majority, to win. But corruption and distrust of the government are widespread. In the last presidential election, less than a quarter of the population voted. This July, the polling agency Paradigma reported that more than thirty percent of the population chose “None of the above” in a choice among presidential candidates.

     Honduras has five political parties with representatives in its unicameral legislature—Castro’s party LIBRE, which was only established in 2011, is not among them—but has essentially been a two-party system since 1920. Since then, only candidates from the center-right Liberal Party and right-wing National Party have been elected president. That LIBRE can put forward a viable candidate at all is, then, the news of the century.

     Almost all of LIBRE’s success can be attributed to the actions of its founder, Manuel Zelaya, and the first candidate to run under its auspices, Xiomara Castro. “We deserve a better Honduras, and because of this when they lay the presidential sash on me, my first words will be, ‘I convene a National Constituent Assembly, we are moving towards a new Constitution,’ ’’ Castro said in an public appearance in Cortés, the most northwestern region of Honduras, in August. “There are men willing to give up their lives if it is necessary to achieve this.”

     The Constituent Assembly was originally Zelaya’s idea, one of the attempts at consolidating power that gained him the most criticism in the weeks before the coup. Generally, Castro has combined the most effective, popular planks of her husband’s campaign—such as building infrastructure—with practical ways to increase Honduras’s economic growth and international competitiveness. This is a fairly moderate platform for someone commonly painted as a socialist. Yet Castro’s support does not come from the areas that have traditionally supported the Liberal and National Parties—big business and the military. In July she announced that under her plan the military would no longer police the streets and would be replaced by a stronger National Civilian Police.

     Castro’s base of support is found among rural and urban workers, due to her vows to extend low-interest credit to farmers and small businesses. She has held major campaign events outside the two largest cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, including in centers of rural organizing. She is also a favorite among Honduras’s small cultural sector, which faced repression from the government after the coup. In September, more than 100 artists banded together to support her in the remote city of Siguatepeque, after she announced her plan to create a National Council on Culture.

     Staying out of the capital and rejecting overtures from business interests has earned Castro criticism. Opponents tend to ridicule LIBRE for being rebellious, associating it with the coup and blaming the masses for the lack of stability in the aftermath of the military takeover. Earlier this month, the National Party capitalized on this fear, running a fake piece of literature for Castro’s campaign. It promised, “In memory of the Heroic Commander Chávez, we will be part of the great Bolivarian nation and we will change our national symbols to those of our sister Bolivarian republic of Venezuela.”

     The idea of a political figure out in the countryside, appealing directly to the people, still makes many in Central America uncomfortable. For Castro’s right-wing opponents, her events evoke Che and Fidel in the mountains, waiting to march on Havana, or the Nicaraguan Sandinistas seeking help from the rural poor to overthrow the Somoza regime. The fact that Xiomara is a woman just suggests further destabilization of the status quo.




WHEN FOREIGN SOURCES COVER Honduras, they rarely focus on electoral politics. Most of the attention the country has received in recent years has been due to its high murder rate: in the country of only eight million people, it is estimated over 20 people a day are killed. The country’s largest gangs commonly collude with police to avoid prosecution for murders and drug-related crimes committed by its members. Murder has become a tool to intimidate any who stand in their way. Migdonia Ayestas, who works in the Violence Observatory at the Autonomous University in Tegucigalpa, blames the Honduran government for failing to police its own borders, and for consistently declaring states of emergency. “We are on the brink of becoming a failed state,” she told NPR in June.

     In particular, femicide—murder targeting women—has skyrocketed in the last four years. In Honduras, one woman is killed every 18 hours, and less than 20 percent of femicide cases are investigated. In part, that is because women are afraid to report violence to the same police who are often involved in the attacks. Gladys Lanza of the Women’s Tribunal Against Femicide, a Honduran NGO, condemned the government for supporting this institutionalized impunity, which in turn perpetuates deeper hatred of women and a sense of impunity for killing them: “The government of Honduras says one thing and does another. Although it talks about its concern for the levels of violence in the country in general, it doesn’t even mention violence against women.”

     Many sympathetic observers think Castro will make a change in this system. She has spoken out against violence towards women before; in the military suppression of protests after the coup, sexual assault and torture of female protesters became common tactics, according to the Women’s Studies Center of Honduras. In response, Castro commended the show of support from the protesters but said, “It’s hard to see people in the demonstrations repressed so brutally.” However, in her campaign platform, she has not spoken specifically about issues of women’s rights and safety. Those who think her presidency will mark a major change generally base that assertion on the fact that she is a woman, rather than specific policies she supports.

     In a paper prepared for the Global Institute for Gender Research in 2010, Mala Htun and Jennifer Pispoco note that women in Latin America are still considerably underrepresented in positions with control over budgets, whether on a local, regional, or national level. In part, this is because such jobs, with the potential to enrich oneself, are more in-demand, but it also reflects a lag in these countries’ willingness to give up the reigns of power to women. Furthermore, they argue, more elected women officials in Latin America does not necessarily reflect steps towards gender equality.  Rather, “policies have changed when domestic and international actors worked together to hold political leaders—male and female—accountable for advancing women’s rights.”




THE FIRST FEMALE PRESIDENTS in Latin America were both elected in Central American countries; both were widows of prominent political figures. Violeta Chamorro, elected president of Nicaragua in 1990, opposed the left-wing Sandinistas and the dictator they overthrew. She portrayed herself as a maternal figure, an antidote to the machista violence of Daniel Ortega’s socialist regime and the civil war he had faced while in office. Panama’s Mireya Moscoso de Arias followed her husband Arnulfo, a three-time president, into exile and returned only to run under the Arnulfista Party after his death in 1988. Her older sister served as her first lady.

     Zelaya is very much alive and speaking with pride about his wife’s plans. “Xiomara,” he told The Post, “is going to give Honduran women a place in society that has always been denied to them.” Meanwhile, Castro adopts as her own the policies that got her husband forced out of office, counting on popular loyalty to protect her from the forces that conspired against him.

     The critiques voiced by her opposition are essentially sexist. They eschew complaints about her platform, instead arguing that her campaign is a dirty trick by her husband to reinsert himself into the nation’s politics. A leader in the National Party described Zelaya as “out for revenge.” The Honduran news site Proceso Digital called Castro “almost anonymous” last month, saying that her husband runs the campaign while she stays out of the spotlight. They cast Castro as a puppet guided by her husband. The United States press is not exempt from this trend. The Washington Post headline from July reads, “In Honduras, Manuel Zelaya in the running again with wife’s candidacy.” Another article from the Huffington Post asks, “Xiomara Zelaya: Puppet of a Power-Hungry Husband?”

     It’s hard to imagine that if a man followed his wife into politics, he would be viewed exclusively as an extension of her. That, though, is not yet the trend in Central American politics. Marco Cáceres, author of The Good Coup: The Overthrow of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, pointed out the cultural barrier to Castro’s chances of independence. “A machista man in a machista society…taking orders from his wife? Not a chance,” he said.

     Even if it is all for show, Zelaya is already bucking the male-centric trend. In July, he told The Washington Post if his wife is elected, “I will do whatever she tells me.”




FRANCISCO MORAZÁN IS HONDURAS'S national hero. In the 1820s, he united the Central American republics into the Central American Federation in order to maintain autonomy from the Republic of Mexico and fight against European encroachment. Morazán led the Federation for 10 years, until Rafael Carrera, an illiterate swineherd turned highwayman turned charismatic popular leader, led an uprising against the repressive measures of the central army and eventually had Morazán driven out. Morazán’s return to Honduras in 1841 was ill-fated; after fighting off a band of insurgents with a guard of 40 men, he was captured and executed. José Martí, the great Cuban revolutionary of the 19th century, called Morazán “a true statesman, perhaps the only one Central America has ever produced.”

     Up to a point, Manuel Zelaya has followed in Morazán’s footsteps. The colors of the party that got him elected, the Liberal Party of Honduras, are red and white, a tribute to the flag Morazán carried in most of his military campaigns. Zelaya is a bit of a maverick, like Morazán—after successfully campaigning as a pro-business, center-right candidate in 2005, he moved to the left, calling for state-funded infrastructure, a new constitution, and forging an alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. When his term was coming to an end, he clashed with the Supreme Court in attempting to extend it. Like Morazán, he did not go quietly into exile, but stormed through a series of leftist countries that gave him sanctuary. Unlike his role model, he has learned the risk of putting himself forward so publically in years since the coup.

     The history of governance in Honduras is all but devoid of female figures. Xiomara’s only role models are the quiet wives of influential men. Francisco Morazán had a wife—Maria Lastiri Lozano, a wealthy Salvadorian divorcée who poured her money into her husband’s political ambition. But she does not figure in the apotheosis of her husband in Honduran historical records.

     For Xiomara Castro, distinguishing herself as an independent figure is a matter of political expediency as much as reform. If elected, she will first and foremost have to fight to assert herself as a discrete entity from her husband if she wishes to move past the pitfalls that saw him removed from power.




ON MONDAY, PARADIGMA RELEASED its October results. They show Nationalist Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández pulling ahead of Castro to carry just over a quarter of the popular vote. These results have fluctuated month to month, and poll to poll, by well over the five percent difference currently between the two. But in polling, perceptive leads can easily multiply.

     Castro still deserves attention. She is asserting herself, with her husband’s blessing, in a country with a high rate of spousal violence and femicide. She was able to stir fears of socialist revolution in the hearts of the country’s elite—admittedly no great feat—just by speaking to rural farmers. But in studying her example, it is important not to lose sight of the ways the Honduran government remains limited—from violence, to drug trafficking, to the lack of confidence of its citizens. A female candidate can bring a new perspective to the job and be a powerful symbol. But her impact will remain limited in a country where the frontrunner in the presidential election, with a third of the vote, remains “None of the above.”


EMMA WOHL B’14 is puppet to no man.