A cleansing turn in Honduras

Corruption reform is resetting democratic norms and shows regional leaders hope for addressing root causes of migration.

A child holds her father's hand as they walk through Huixtla, Mexico, on their way north with other migrants from Central America.

Between 1990 and 2020 the number of migrants from Central America increased 137%, according to United Nations figures, from 6.8 million to 16.2 million. Refugees and asylum-seekers from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador accounted for 72% of the total. The outflow from Honduras rose 530%.

Yet for Western Hemisphere leaders gathering this week in Los Angeles to address the “root causes” of human displacement in the region, another number may be more important: 61%.

That’s the most recent measure of public support for Xiomara Castro. The first female president of Honduras, she entered office in January promising a raft of reforms to tackle corruption, strengthen democratic institutions, and safeguard the rights of women and minorities. A Mitofsky poll in April found public support increased 10 points in her first four months – reflecting a broader desire in Latin America for new leadership that is honest and inclusive.

“The immediate effect of Xiomara’s election is to wake up with hope,” Nessa Median, a Honduran activist, told Women’s Media Center recently. “There are people who decided to suspend their plans to migrate because they know that the woman taking power will do it differently from what the last governments have been doing.”

The Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles marks the ninth time since 1994 that leaders from across the Americas and Caribbean have met to build stronger political and economic ties. That goal has met numerous setbacks over the years from populist and autocratic regimes. President Joe Biden had hoped to chart a more united way forward with a focus on causes of migration: weakened democracy, climate change, economic hardship, and violence.

Ms. Castro is a key partner in that project. She is part of a small cadre of reform-minded officials in countries like Ecuador and Guatemala taking on systemic corruption. Her task is formidable. She inherited the presidential sash after 12 years of democratic erosion under the previous ruling party. So far she has established a national anti-corruption council and repealed a vaguely defined public information law that enabled officials to invest millions of dollars in public funds without disclosure.

Most dramatically, in April, she allowed for the arrest and extradition to the United States of her predecessor, Juan Orlando Hernández, on narco-trafficking and weapons charges.

Those steps underscore both the urgency and symbolism of reform. The Honduran Constitution bars presidential incumbents from serving consecutive terms. Ms. Castro has just four years. Rooting out corruption in a country where 70% of the people live in poverty marks a step toward addressing the economic drivers of migration. Perhaps more importantly, it starts a process of entrenching new norms of public good.

“The fact that Juan Orlando Hernández has fallen sends a great message ... that presidents do not always go unpunished,” Jennifer Ávila Reyes, editorial director and co-founder of activist group Contracorriente told PassBlue media outlet. “People feel more empowered now. ... But it will not be so easy to dismantle the entire structure that these actors have left behind, many of whom still have power in the territory, like mayors, governors, legislators.”

On the day the summit opened in Los Angeles, a new caravan of migrants from Central America and the Caribbean – estimated to be the largest in history – set off northward from Mexico’s southern border. Not by coincidence they are reminding regional leaders of the toll of poor governance. Yet in one point of origin, Honduras, a restoration of democracy is underway.

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