WASHINGTON, D.C. – Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, a leading candidate in Sunday’s presidential elections in Honduras, is an inexperienced politician whose husband – the ousted former president Manuel Zelaya – has links to well-known drug traffickers.
That’s according to retired U.S. diplomat Roger Noriega, a former lobbyist for the interim government that replaced Zelaya. Noriega made the drug-trafficking claim on Nov. 19 in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing Washington think tank.
Noriega, one of three panelists at the event – “Insecurity in Honduras and the Upcoming Elections: What’s at Stake for Central America” – alleged that the 54-year-old candidate “has no experience in politics and is widely seen as an instrument of her husband’s political ambitions.”
Noriega then showed slides of Libre Party activists allegedly attacking buses carrying supporters of Juan Orlando Hernández, 45, of the ruling National Party. He warned that Castro’s Libre Party “could try to promote destabilizing and violent activities” on Election Day to keep voters home.
Manuel Zelaya was forced into exile in 2009 after he tried to promote a national referendum that would have changed the Honduran Constitution. If his wife wins, she would become the first woman president in Honduras and the first head of state in more than 100 years who does not belong to the National or Liberal parties.
“I can confirm from three separate DEA agents telling me that Manuel Zelaya is directly complicit in narco-trafficking,” Noriega told a Washington audience. “Several U.S. foreign service officers have told me the same thing. Even before the 2009 crisis, they said Zelaya’s association with narco-trafficking was well-known, and that it was absolutely ridiculous that the U.S. was calling for his return to power.”
Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, shared the podium with two other speakers: Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and Joseph Humire of the Center for a Secure Free Society.
Noriega warned that Honduras was indicative of a new caudillo phenomenon in which political strongmen follow the “Chávez model” espoused by Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chávez.
On democracy in Honduras, Noriega – who was a senior staff member for North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms (a supporter of white, Southern racial segregation) and who played a key role in ousting democratically elected Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide – had this to say: “This is the purposeful dismantling of democratic institutions that took the better part of the 20th century to construct. … It’s not just a left-wing phenomenon along the lines of Chávez, because you see it with power-hungry politicians seeking to profit from corruption. These new caudillos have struck a Faustian bargain with international crime syndicates, perhaps thinking, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’
Noriega said $30 billion in two-way trade with Central America is at stake if the isthmus reverts to insecurity and instability.
But much of northern Central America already is unstable and violent.
Olson pointed out that Honduras is the world’s most violent country, with homicide rates exceeding 85 per 100,000 inhabitants. In some cities, the rate exceeds 300 per 100,000.
“That’s higher than many countries at war,” he said. “By U.N. standards, any homicide rate over 20 per 100,000 is considered an epidemic.”
Noriega also noted that the Liberal Party’s Villeda “is basing his campaign on a critique of the current administration [of President Porfirio Lobo]. He appeals to many middle-class voters who are tired of the impunity that has marked Honduran politics in recent years, but he is lagging in third place in most places.”
Hernández, president of the Honduran Congress, is a bitter foe of the Zelayas and is on record as supporting Lobo’s plan to deploy 4,000 military police in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula and other major Honduran cities to reduce violence.
Noriega said, “It looks as if the Hernández political machine has kicked in and is moving public opinion his way.”
If Hernández has the momentum, it certainly wasn’t overwhelming according to the last official poll taken: Last month CID-Gallup showed 28 percent support for Hernández and 27 percent for Castro; a third candidate, Mauricio Villeda of the Liberal Party, came in with 17 percent. The margin of error was 2.5 percentage points.
A dire panorama
Olson warned that regardless of who wins the elections, Honduras faces serious obstacles to overcome – especially with regard to corruption and the weakness of state institutions to fight it.
“It’s an extremely violent country and the question is why. There’s no question that organized crime and drug trafficking is an element in violence in Honduras today,” Olson said. “We immediately think of drug trafficking, because that’s logical. But Honduras also has a problem with trafficking in contraband – used clothing from the United States, pirated goods and hardwoods and precious woods. A woman selling pirated CDs on a street corner might seem innocent enough, but she’s part of an organized crime system.”
Olson added: “We’re not just seeing the dismantling of democratic institutions. We’re seeing the failure of governments in the last three decades – lost opportunities that have failed to construct independent judiciaries, professional law enforcement, civilian institutions that could hold accountable those who have authority for the safety and security of Hondurans. The United States holds responsibility for this as well, but fundamentally, this has been a series of lost opportunities.”
Olson recalled that during his visit to Honduras last June, the country’s newly appointed minister of public security announced that the government had been paying as many as 2,000 ghost police officers – cops who didn’t exist.
“The institutions did not even know who was on their payrolls. Worse than that, they only had 64 police officers in four of the most chronically violent states. Either they didn’t know, or they knew but didn’t care,” he said.
He added that two-thirds of Hondurans recently surveyed expect fraud in Sunday’s elections, and that no legal requirements exist to carry out independent audits of campaign financing.
“So if they said they spent $1 million, no one knows how they got that money. The door is so wide open, the mechanisms of control and accountability are not there. One can just expect that this sort of thing is going on,” Olson said.
As for the elections tribunal, Olson said it is weak, and its members are politically affiliated.
“That does not automatically make them bad, but it calls into question – when push comes to shove – what the outcome might be,” he said.
Humire’s talk focused on dispelling economic myths he said have been promoted by the Zelaya campaign.
One is that more than 400,000 jobs were created during the former president’s term of office. In reality, the agriculture sector employs 39.2 percent of Hondurans yet contributes only 12.8 percent of its gross domestic product.
“They also claimed that public debt dropped under Zelaya’s administration. That’s mostly true, but that’s because of massive spending and social welfare, which further crowded out private capital investment, as depicted by the 18.45 percent lending rate by commercial banks,” he said.
Humire also noted that approximately 670 Honduran doctors remain on strike because the government has not paid their salaries.
Olson said one of the biggest problems with Honduras is that despite the country’s traditional two-party system, nine parties are competing in Sunday’s election. And with no run-off vote, the winner likely will only capture about 32 percent of the total vote.
Said Olson: “While I have a great deal of love for Honduras, I worry that the scenario is potentially dangerous and difficult.”