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.