We go to Honduras, where thousands took to the streets to celebrate the leftist presidential candidate Xiomara Castro’s lead in the polls ahead of the right-wing National Party candidate Nasry Asfura. The historic election saw a record voter turnout and could signal the end of the 12-year brutal regime under the conservative National Party, which rose to power after a coup backed by the U.S. in 2009 overthrew democratically elected leftist President Manuel Zelaya. Castro, who is Zelaya’s wife, would become the first woman to serve as president of Honduras if her victory is confirmed. “It’s brought hope to the entire country,” says Faridd Sierra, a high school teacher in Comayagua, Honduras. Years of corruption and conservative lawmaking “showed the Honduras people just how cruel the [National] Party was, and … they voted in response,” adds Honduran scholar Suyapa Portillo. Castro’s likely win “is a testament to bottom-up organizing,” she says.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Honduras, where leftist presidential candidate Xiomara Castro appears poised to become the country’s first woman president, putting an end to over a decade of right-wing neoliberal rule. While the official vote count has not been released, Castro holds a commanding lead over Nasry Asfura of the right-wing National Party, which has ruled Honduras for 12 years following the 2009 U.S.-backed coup which ousted Castro’s husband, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya. Xiomara Castro claimed victory Sunday night.
XIOMARA CASTRO DE ZELAYA: [translated] We are going to build a new era. Out with the death squads. Out with corruption. Out with drug trafficking and organized crime. No more poverty and misery. To victory! The people will always be united. Together, we are going to transform this country.
AMY GOODMAN: Xiomara Castro’s apparent victory in Honduras is seen as a blow to Washington, which has embraced successive right-wing governments despite widespread accusations that Honduras has become a narco-military regime. In April, a federal court in New York sentenced the brother of the Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández to life in prison for drug trafficking. Prosecutors also accused the president of being a co-conspirator in state-sponsored drug trafficking. This all comes as Hondurans continue to flee the dire social and economic conditions at home.
We’re joined now by two guests. Suyapa Portillo is a Honduran scholar and associate professor at Pitzer College in California, author of the new book Roots of Resistance: A Story of Gender, Race, and Labor on the North Coast of Honduras. She’s joining us from Claremont, California. And in the Honduran city of Comayagua, we’re joined by Faridd Sierra, who’s a high school teacher, has been closely following the elections.
Faridd, let’s begin with you right there in Honduras. Can you talk about the significance of the apparent victory of what will become the first female president of Honduras, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya?
FARIDD SIERRA: Yeah, definitely. I mean, the significance, first of all, I want to say that it’s brought hope to the entire country. I mean, people are celebrating out in the streets. I just got back from Tegucigalpa. I was there for the weekend. On Friday, people were tense. People were going to the stores expecting something negative may have happened, or for the weekend. And when the first ballot count came out, people were exuberant. People were relieved. And even yesterday, when I woke up in Tegucigalpa, there was this sense of hope in the country, which people hadn’t felt in such a long time.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Faridd, there were — could you talk about the environment on Sunday during the presidential elections? There were some reports of irregularities at polling places and some people suspecting that the National Party might even try to rig the vote. How was the atmosphere?
FARIDD SIERRA: The atmosphere was — you know, obviously, there were some reports of some incidents happening in certain locations. I can tell you where I went to vote in Tegucigalpa — because each person is required to go and vote in the place where they’re registered. And I had to go to Tegucigalpa. And for the most part, there was huge, huge lines. People were really excited to go vote. In the place where I went out there, people were just — they were calm, they were quiet. There was that tension, like I mentioned before, as to not knowing what would happen, because in 2017, everybody knows that at 4:00 they closed the election places early, one hour early, and then by 8:00, 9:00, there was fear of — there was dismay after hearing that possible fraud had happened, [inaudible] actual fraud had happened. So, people were excited. And at the same time, people were dismayed, because even on Saturday, when I got there, there were huge lines. The National Party was giving out financial bonuses, so people were still maybe suspecting maybe the National Party of maybe like buying their way to power again.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the lead-up to the elections, during the campaign, there were several incidents of violence, weren’t there? There was a mayoral candidate for Libre was assassinated in October, and also a congresswoman, the daughter of Berta Cáceres, the Lenca Indigenous land and water protector, she was beaten in her own home, wasn’t she?
FARIDD SIERRA: Yes, she definitely was. There was definitely several acts of violence that happened, especially once the primaries began in October. As a matter of fact, the U.N. Human Rights Commission reported that there was 30 candidates and their families who had been murdered since October of last year, and 60 incidents of either fights, attacks or any types of aggression acts had been reported since October of last year. Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Suyapa Portillo into the conversation, and I also wanted to go back in time. Suyapa Portillo is the Honduran scholar and associate professor at Pitzer College. Democracy Now! first spoke to Xiomara Castro in 2009. This was after the coup. It was an exclusive interview by phone just after the U.S.-backed coup overthrew her husband, President Mel Zelaya, as she tried to return to Honduras from Nicaragua.
XIOMARA CASTRO DE ZELAYA: [translated] What would you do if people came into your house and beat you and beat your family, and then this aggressor wanted to sit down with you and say, “OK, be nice, and stay out of the country”? Imagine, they have violated the president’s rights. They have invented accusations of crimes against him, when they never presented any order of arrest. They took him out, tied up, transferred him to another country, and now they sit him down to negotiate with the criminals.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Xiomara Castro in 2009 on the Honduran-Nicaraguan border. In 2011, Democracy Now! flew back with Mel and Xiomara Zelaya from Nicaragua to Honduras. I interviewed Xiomara Castro again, talking to her in a coffee shop in Honduras, asking her about the possibility of her seeking office, about her becoming president.
AMY GOODMAN: So you could run for president, if you chose?
XIOMARA CASTRO DE ZELAYA: [translated] Yes, the law does not stop me. That is very clear. The law does stop it. The law does stop Mel from doing that, because the process of the same law establishes that only one president can be president for four years.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re saying that President Zelaya did not serve out his full term. Is there any kind of allowance that is made for that? Same thing happened to President Aristide in Haiti.
XIOMARA CASTRO DE ZELAYA: [translated] No, there is no established procedure to make that happen.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, that’s exactly what Xiomara Castro has done today. She has run for president. But I want to go to one more clip, of Democracy Now! co-host Juan González raising the issue of the U.S.-backed coup in Honduras with then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during a meeting that she had with the New York Daily News editorial board. Juan worked for the New York Daily News. He asked about Clinton’s decision not to declare Zelaya’s ouster in 2009 a coup.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Do you have any concerns about the role that you played in that particular situation, not necessarily being in agreement with your top aides in the State Department?
HILLARY CLINTON: Well, let me again try to put this in context. The Legislature — or the national Legislature in Honduras and the national judiciary actually followed the law in removing President Zelaya. Now, I didn’t like the way it looked or the way they did it, but they had a very strong argument that they had followed the Constitution and the legal precedents. And as you know, they really undercut their argument by spiriting him out of the country in his pajamas, where they sent, you know, the military to, you know, take him out of his bed and get him out of the country. So this was — this began as a very mixed and difficult situation.
If the United States government declares a coup, you immediately have to shut off all aid, including humanitarian aid, the Agency for International Development aid, the support that we were providing at that time for a lot of very poor people. And that triggers a legal necessity. There’s no way to get around it. So, our assessment was, we will just make the situation worse by punishing the Honduran people if we declare a coup and we immediately have to stop all aid for the people, but we should slow walk and try to stop anything that the government could take advantage of, without calling it a coup.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state, with Juan González questioning her about why the U.S. had not declared what happened in Honduras a coup. Suyapa Portillo, Honduran scholar, associate professor at Pitzer College, can you talk about this U.S. history with Honduras, which leads right into the massive flow of migrants from Honduras, asylum seekers to the United States?
SUYAPA PORTILLO: Thank you so much, Amy. Listening to these comments brings chills up my back, because, you know, as a scholar and as a Honduran, we followed all those incidents day by day, moment by moment, waiting for the Obama administration to declare this a coup so that constitutional order could come back to the country. And, of course, he didn’t have that courage. Neither did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
So, the other thing I want to say is that this win for Honduras is a testament to bottom-up organizing, to people, without money, without any resources, facing exodus, facing migration, facing great violence, took to the streets peacefully to say, “Enough is enough. We are voting against a narco-dictatorship but also against a nationalist party, and voting for the dead.” Many of the social media posts from people celebrating, almost in tears, was: “We’re voting for the dead, for those who perished since the coup d’état.”
So, the history — I find that the history of the United States has been a history of intervention. The 2009 coup under a Democratic presidential administration was the most tragic event of the 21st century in not just Central America but in Latin America. It’s a shameful moment in the Obama administration and also demonstrates sort of the U.S. lack of care for Central America, right? That constitution that Mel Zelaya wanted to change was written during the Cold War period, during Reagan, right? It was a constitution that was antiquated, that needs change, that didn’t reflect the community now. Linking Honduras to Venezuela or linking Honduras to — you know, was irrelevant. Honduras has a different history, has a different kind of colonization by United States politics since the early 20th century and even before. And so, it didn’t make sense that the Democratic Party wouldn’t respect the rule of law in Honduras. Sadly, Honduras has not recovered from the coup until now, and this is how people are seeing it, as a moment of hope.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Suyapa Portillo, I wanted to ask you — you mentioned the narco-dictatorship. Could you talk about these years of the National Party rule in Honduras subsequent to the coup? Of course, Juan Orlando Hernández and his brother have been implicated by the federal government itself in trafficking, his brother convicted and he accused in actual federal papers here, and yet this administration continued to back him. And the impact it had on the Honduran people these last — more than a decade now?
SUYAPA PORTILLO: I think what’s really happening is that the United States allowed for the nationalist party to take over in January of 2010 — right? — six months after the coup. They saw that the Liberal Party was imploding by — because the coup came within the Liberal Party, and so they supported Pepe Lobo. In January 2010, when the extraordinary elections were held, there was 60% absenteeism, so Pepe Lobo was elected, you know, not by the people, basically, right? I don’t know who voted for him. And, you know, he continued to — the party continued to stay in power. And since then, there have been so many acts of corruption. For example, $90 million were stolen from the Social Security Administration to run the campaign of Juan Orlando Hernández.
And what’s interesting about that is that people remember the medication that they bought for the Social Security hospitals were made out of flour. They weren’t even real medication. They promised mobile hospitals during COVID-19. You know, just two weeks ago, a family member of mine died in Copán because there was no ventilators from COVID. There was no ventilators, there was no medication. Family members have to bring medication from pharmacies into the hospitals. So the situation is dire, right? There’s people dying because of violence, because of narcotrafficking violence. There’s people dying because of gun violence. But then there’s also people dying because the hospitals are not sourced with medication or ventilators.
There was also the accusation by the New York federal court. There has been a firing of the Supreme Court magistrates and imposing these very conservative people. But the really most amazing thing that has happened in Honduras to this point have been the last two cases that have been won by the people. One is the Berta Cáceres case, and two is the Vicky Hernández case in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. But until 2020, 2021, there seemed to be no justice for Honduras. It seemed like the Nationalist Party kept corruption up to date.
And, you know, the most shocking thing is that Juan Orlando Hernández allies with Trump, the Trump administration, right? So it shows their opportunism, right? They work with whoever will give them what they want.
And the last thing I think that really rubbed people the wrong way was these laws that were passed earlier this year, one enshrining in the constitution that abortion is illegal and gay marriage is illegal — two things that were already illegal in the country, but enshrining them in the constitution so that they could not be changed. And the other thing was the irregular — the passing of the law of the zones of economic development, which meant that national land could be sold to private investors for private cities.
All of these corruptions, laws being passed without discussion, without proper voting by congresspeople, really showed the Honduran people just how cruel the nationalist party was and how they didn’t care about them. And I think that that’s how they voted in response to their actions, right? I mean, I could go on all morning about all the acts of corruption, and both significant and small acts and also regional issues happening among the nationalist party.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you also — yeah, I wanted to ask you also about the role of Mel Zelaya. He was a campaign manager for Xiomara Castro. But Mel Zelaya, when he was elected, was one of the few examples in Latin American history of a person who was elected as basically a conservative leader who then becomes increasingly left-wing and progressive. Could you talk about the relationship between him and his wife politically and whether there are differences between them? Because she’s obviously much more — has been openly more democratic socialist in her viewpoints.
SUYAPA PORTILLO: Definitely. I think Mel Zelaya became politicized during the pink tide moment in Latin America, also because, you know — and he says this; he said it in various interviews — when he came into power — right? — the first group he met with was the businessmen, and then they started to dictate, “This is how the country is going to run.” And I think he wasn’t expecting that back in 2006.
You know, Xiomara has emerged as a leader. When you play those interviews of her at the Nicaraguan border coming back into Honduras, you know, that is one Xiomara — right? — the first lady defending the rights of the first family to come back into the country. And the Xiomara that you’re seeing now has gone through these 12 years of what Libre Party members called a dictatorship under the nationalist party. She has emerged as a progressive leader. I think she’s incredibly well prepared for this moment. And she has been able to amass a coalition, a wide swath of coalition that represents a very wide sector of the society, which is, I think, why she was able to win this time, right? There’s multiple parties, including environmentalists, including social movement organizations.
When she called for a permanent national dialogue, this has never happened in Honduras. I don’t think it’s ever happened in Latin America — right? — this idea that she is going to be in permanent dialogue with the Honduran people but also with the opposition. Right? She said, “I have no enemies. I’m willing to sit down and negotiate so that we can bring this country forward.” I think that that’s a different Xiomara than the 2009 Xiomara. I think that those are sort of things that she has been able to learn through the 2013 election and then other elections that happened, the fraudulent election of 2017.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have —
SUYAPA PORTILLO: That’s a different Xiomara.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to just end with Faridd Sierra in Honduras right now, what you see happening at this point, how the transition of power will happen. And when Juan Orlando Hernández is not president anymore, does he lose all immunity?
FARIDD SIERRA: That’s the big question that everyone’s asking here: What’s going to happen to Juan Orlando? But even before that, I do want to mention this thing. I think Professor Suyapa mentioned that there was, like — people believe that there’s no judicial cases that get like a fair trial. I do want to mention just one huge thing, is that the National Party is still in control. They have until January that they’re going to be in power. And we don’t know what laws are going to be implemented, whether those laws will affect Juan Orlando maybe possibly being extradited to the U.S.
But also I want to remind everybody there’s one thing that, when you hear about Honduras, no one hardly ever talks about. It’s that Honduras has political prisoners. And that includes the eight men who are locked up for defending the river, the Guapinol men, and who have been locked up for two years waiting for a pretrial. And even now, their trial begins on Wednesday. After two years, this is a pretrial. So Honduras has political prisoners. We don’t know what the Partido Nacional is going to do between now and January, how that’s going to affect Juan Orlando. But we do know that there are currently political prisoners in Honduras that the Partido Nacional still has locked up unfairly. And that includes human rights activists and environmentalists like the eight men of Guapinol.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Faridd Sierra, we want to thank you for being with us, high school teacher, speaking to us from the Honduran city of Comayagua. And I also want to thank Suyapa Portillo, Honduran scholar, associate professor at Pitzer College, speaking to us from Claremont, California.
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