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. Continue reading →