Xiomara Castro’s presidency in Honduras offers the Biden administration the opportunity to work on addressing root causes of migration with a partner that now seems far more reliable than in El Salvador or Guatemala. And it offers the U.S. government a chance to begin to address the harm successive U.S. administrations did to the Honduran people by accepting the 2009 coup and embracing corrupt and abusive presidents in power for the last dozen years. Through its support for these repressive and corrupt leaders, the United States has helped to create and intensify the human rights crisis in Honduras. Now, the Biden Administration, if it chooses to do so, can begin to right this wrong.
The Biden administration’s actions since the elections —including quickly recognizing Castro’s win and sending Vice President Harris to the inauguration— show that it is indeed willing to work with this new partner. No doubt, the U.S. government will encourage and support President Castro as she seeks to obtain the United Nations’ help in creating an anti-corruption mission in Honduras and will help fund such a mission as well as other anti-corruption efforts. USAID will also look to support initiatives that address poverty and the root causes of migration.
So far, so good. But the Biden administration should go farther.
First, the U.S. government should encourage and support President Castro if, as her campaign platform promises, she tries to protect civic space and freedom of association in Honduras. This means unraveling the web of legislation that makes it harder to prosecute money laundering and corruption and places harsh penalties on human rights activists and journalists investigating, protesting, and organizing against corruption and human rights violations. It also means encouraging the government to find ways to end the criminalization of environmental and land rights activists. The Biden administration must go further than simply supporting an anti-corruption agenda. It must support and encourage the protection of those on the frontlines of organizing to defend rights.
The United States should encourage transparency in government, another component of empowering Honduran citizens. Xiomara Castro has promised to support transparency, and this effort is already advancing with the legislature’s repeal of the so-called “Law of Secrets.”
Second, the U.S. government should support inclusive economic initiatives by the Castro government to empower and serve the most vulnerable. This means more than supporting a few positive social programs. It includes supporting efforts to undo the ZEDE investment law creating labor-rights and environmental-rights-free zones and not opposing efforts to regulate extractive industries. It also means making sure that U.S. government-sponsored private investment does not undermine the rights of Indigenous, Afro-descendant, campesino, or poor urban communities. Investment that sounds good—like investing in renewable energies—can be carried out in ways that cause harm, fail to consult communities, and even displace them. Vice President Harris’s call to action encouraging U.S. investment pledges, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) as well as USAID programs and international financial institution loans must ensure tough screening so that any investment supported, funded, voted for, or encouraged by the U.S. government protects internationally recognized worker rights, avoids investing with corrupt actors, and ensures free, prior and informed consent of communities regarding economic projects. Ensuring the Biden administration really supports inclusive economic initiatives through its aid and investment policies will be the hardest objective, requiring pressure from progressive members of Congress in the United States and Honduran and U.S. civil society organizations.
Third, the Biden administration should encourage and support the Xiomara Castro administration as it seeks to strengthen the rights of women and LGBTQ+ Hondurans and to address the serious problems of discrimination and gender-based violence. USAID should expand support for civil society and government efforts to combat discrimination against LGBTQ+ persons and for investigating femicide and hate crimes due to sexual orientation or gender identity.
Fourth, while it’s impossible given the grim history of U.S. security cooperation in Honduras to recommend U.S. security training, the Biden administration should diplomatically support President Castro if she undertakes serious security sector reform. This reform should ensure rights-respecting, community-based policing and remove the military from law enforcement, including disbanding the Military Police of Public Order (PMOP). Members of the PMOP, created in 2013, have committed grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions in the aftermath of the 2017 elections and many other serious and systematic abuses.
Finally, the Biden administration should work with President Xiomara Castro’s administration to establish policies that protect the rights and well-being of migrants, returnees, and internally displaced Hondurans. The U.S. could advance the processing of cases of unaccompanied migrant children under the Central America Minors program and support international and civil society organizations providing services to returned migrants and to internally displaced persons in Honduras. In addition, the Biden Administration should redesignate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Hondurans living in the United States based on the impacts of Hurricanes Eta and Iota. While TPS for Hondurans has been renewed until December 2022, redesignating Honduras based on the impacts of the hurricanes would allow those living in the United States to live and work freely and send remittances back home to their families, strengthening the Honduran economy and protecting Honduran immigrants in the United States.
Making the most of these chances means supporting those elements of Xiomara Castro’s agenda that tackle corruption, empower and protect human rights activists, and deliver inclusive economic benefits for Honduras’s most vulnerable citizens. To make sure the Biden administration is going in the right direction, it must change the way the U.S. government, certainly over the last dozen years, has systematically failed to listen to Hondurans on the frontlines of defending rights. The U.S. Embassy must listen to and engage with a wider range of civil society perspectives. USAID programs must be shaped by regular and broad consultation with civil society organizations, including land rights and environmental defenders, women and LGBTQ organizations, human rights, and labor organizations.
The future of Honduras should of course be in the sovereign hands of its citizens. But the United States, which helped to create the human rights nightmare that Hondurans have endured since 2009, now has the moral obligation to change course.
Lisa Haugaard is co-director of the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), a civil society organization based in Washington, DC.