Populism and Pragmatism: How the New Honduran President Can Advance Her Anticorruption Agenda

Like its Central American neighbors, Honduras is a country with a long history of endemic corruption and enduring institutional decay. This past January, Xiomara Castro—the leader of the leftist LIBRE party and the wife of former President Juan Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a 2009 military coup—won a landslide victory, becoming the country’s first female President and ending the right-wing National Party’s twelve-year rule. Castro’s presidential campaign combined progressive and anti-elite discourse with strong anticorruption messages. Indeed, she asserted that rampant government corruption is one of the main reasons 70% of Hondurans live in poverty. Her message resonated with an electorate that was increasingly outraged at the seemingly endless parade of egregious corruption scandals that characterized the previous administration (see, for example, here, here and here). Castro’s victory seems to be part of wider global trend of populist leaders capitalizing on a wave of anticorruption sentiment and a generalized feeling of distrust towards the political elite.

The challenge that President Castro and her administration now face concerns how to deliver on her ambitious promise to dismantle the corruption that is so deeply embedded in Honduran government operations. Encouragingly—and in contrast to far too many politicians who campaign on vague “anticorruption” rhetoric—Castro has articulated a clear and ambitious legislative agenda that includes nine concrete actions specifically focused on anticorruption. These include reforming the Criminal Code and related laws, seeking support from the United Nations to establish an international body comprised of foreign experts tasked with investigating high level corruption crimes (modeled on Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG)), and pursuing an overhaul of the civil service. But achieving these goals will not be easy, especially in light of the current composition of the legislature and the entrenched opposition of numerous private and public sector stakeholders. Accordingly, to advance her anticorruption agenda, Castro will have to find the right blend of pragmatism and populism.

Pushing through ambitious anticorruption reforms is always difficult, but Castro faces an especially challenging political situation, notwithstanding her landslide electoral victory. To get her most important reforms through, she needs the support of the legislature. And after last year’s election, there is no dominant force in Congress. Rather, there are numerous party blocs, many of which oppose the Castro government’s agenda. Making things worse, Castro’s LIBRE party has suffered an internal split due to a rivalry between two of its factions.

To make progress on her agenda, President Castro will need to assemble a workable political coalition. And to do this, she needs to be a pragmatic deal-maker. She should engage in direct negotiations with opposition party leaders and other stakeholders, and be willing to cut deals that advance the most important components of her anticorruption agenda, even if it means delaying or sacrificing other elements of the plan.

At the same time, this pragmatic posture needs to be backed by the same populist appeal that swept her into power. She needs to keep up the public pressure on opponents of reform my deploying an aggressive political communications strategy that keeps the corruption issue at the center of public discourse, outlines the actions she is taking to deliver on her campaign promises, and places the responsibility for stalling the adoption of reforms on the opposition. By leveraging her populist anticorruption appeal to keep up the pressure in public, but also making clear to the opposition behind the scenes that she is willing to cut a deal and move forward with her agenda, she may be able to achieve some meaningful reforms, even if it’s unlikely that her whole agenda can get through a resistant legislature.

Mobilizing popular support will be especially important if Castro hopes to make progress on what is perhaps the most ambitious of her proposals: the creation of an International Commission against Impunity in Honduras (CICIH), modeled on CICIG. Honduras already tried something like this recently. Back in 2016, Honduras, with support of the Organization of American States, established an international body, known as MACCIH, to cooperate with domestic law enforcement officials in investigating high-level public corruption crimes. But after MACCIH investigations pursued members of the then-incumbent government and its allies, MACCIH was shut down. If President Castro wants to revamp a more effective version of this body, she will need to overcome entrenched resistance. To do so, she and her team will need to mobilize not only mass public opinion, but also elite public opinion. She can make the case for a CICIH stronger by assembling a coalition of private sector, civil society, academia, and international community allies. With the backing of expert opinion and strong public support, she may be able to overcome resistance from skeptics and opponents.

For her political strategy to succeed, though, it is vital that President Castro maintains her credibility on the anticorruption issue. After all, her leverage in negotiations will be substantially undermined if the public grows skeptical or cynical about her motives. She therefore must maintain the highest standards of transparency and public accountability, and she must also clearly demonstrate that her administration will take a firm stand against corruption, no matter the ideological or political flag of the affected parties. Regrettably, some early missteps threated to undermine her credibility: Just a week after she took office as President, Congress approved a law, which she backed, that granted amnesty for crimes committed by members of her husband’s administration. This short-sighted miscalculation is precisely what the administration needs to avoid.

Meeting the political challenges of anticorruption reform will not be easy. Nevertheless, the strong mandate provided by voters to the new Honduran administration, coupled with the support from civil society and the international community, may make it possible for the Castro administration to make genuine progress against corruption in Honduras—and in doing so, bringing back some light to a country that is eager for change.

7 thoughts on “Populism and Pragmatism: How the New Honduran President Can Advance Her Anticorruption Agenda

  1. Thank you so much for your excellent and well-thought-out blog post, Santiago! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog post. I greatly appreciated how you were able to exhaustively discuss the viability of President Castro’s anticorruption agenda.

    I have a few clarificatory questions, however, on some of your points: (1) Will the CICIH be substantially different than the MACCIH with respect to its structure and reform agenda? Or will such bodies be more or less the same, considering the reason why MACCIH did not do well in the anticorruption forum was solely due to what you deemed as entrenched resistance?; and (2) How do you think President Castro will concretely be able to maintain, as you mentioned, the highest standards of transparency and public accountability? Did she address such an issue as she assumed office?

    • Hi Teri. Thank you for bringing up your excellent questions. With regards to the first, I believe that the challenge for President Castro is to lay out a framework that gives CICIH more power in the law enforcement domain than MACCIH had. I believe that the current context is more favorable for a strengthened CICIH, in that MACCIH only came about after Hondurans came to the streets to protest against the former administration’s corruption scandals. Former President Hernandez and his government had no political incentive to provide for an international body that was going to look into his administration’s misdeeds. Even though there will definitely be resistance to the CICIH proposal, the positive side of the story is that the initiative is supported by President Castro, her administration and allies. That, by itself, is a significant step forward and can prove seminal to the overall objective of creating a framework much like that of CICIG. The challenge is for any such body to have institutional guarantees that protect its independence and autonomy. To your second question, I think that Castro has to distance herself from her husband. She has to be politically smart and send the message that she is not simply an extension of Manuel Zelaya’s administration. For example, she should isolate her husband from being involved in official government business. Lately, he has participated in government meetings and has taken an important role in the leadership of the LIBRE party. This has created the perception that his involvement in the decision making process is much greater than it is publicly said. She should also refrain from interfering in any ongoing or future investigation against her husband’s administration. If she wants to protect the integrity of her anticorruption discourse, it is seminal to send the message that there is not going to be prosecutorial “cherry-picking”.

  2. Wonderful post, Santiago! I am especially curious to see how, if at all, this suggested blend of pragmatism and populism works out. Indeed, as history has shown, a lot of the traits you outline as necessary for Castro to enact these reforms – particularly political compromise and transparency – can be woefully missing in a populist regime. If Castro is successful, this could become an interesting case study in populist leadership as an anti-corruption success story.

    • Thank you for the comment Victoria. I agree with you, especially considering the current political context in Latin America. The wave of populism in the past two years has been evident, but I do think that Castro has an interesting opportunity to succeed in her anticorruption agenda. The outgoing administration left such a woeful legacy in the corruption front, that even small changes and reforms in that space could prove significant. Honduras is lagging significantly in social and economic indicators and the consensus is that, without curbing corruption, very little can be done to better the livelihoods of Hondurans. If Castro wants to leave a good legacy, she should prioritize making her anticorruption framework a reality.

  3. Thank you for this interesting post, Santiago! As you write, Castro’s ability to successfully meet anticorruption goals will depend on her public perception. I’m curious how fragile her credibility is, particularly given the recent mishaps you’ve named. How elastic do you think the Honduran public is to such missteps lately, especially given that her campaign heavily emphasized anticorruption discourse. Despite any disappointment they may have, I imagine the public still want her to succeed so they may see real measures taken to address a long history of corruption.

    • Thank you Sandy. Very interesting question. Even when the amnesty law misstep provoked public criticism, the general expectations of her anticorruption plan I believe still stand on ground. She should be careful though. Moving forward she will need the support of Hondurans if she wants to make her plans a reality. If she continues to engage in public scandals, and her anticorruption agenda stalls, Hondurans are going to become more skeptic about her true intentions and she is going to lose the much needed public support. She has to keep in mind that there has been public uprisings in Honduras in the past five years and that people will not second guess going out to the streets again if they feel that the government is involved in the same type of behavior that characterized the Hernandez administration. For that, the first year in office will prove decisive to determine if there is a true compromise with her campaign proposals. Politically, she has to be aware that there is very little room to play around with.

  4. Great blog post, Santiago! It actually seems to me that you have identified a strategy important for any populist who faces opposition in the legislature—that for any such leaders to be effective, they will need to be a populist in the streets and pragmatist behind closed doors. I wonder, then, if you have any thoughts on whether this strategy takes a different form depending on what kind of reforms are being sought? In other words, do you think this strategy might require a slightly different blend of populism and pragmatism when it comes to anticorruption reform than it does with, say, tax reform and wealth distribution? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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