The Restoration of Democracy in Honduras Isn’t About China — Or Taiwan

The Restoration of Democracy in Honduras Isn’t About China — Or Taiwan
Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

What you need to know

Pundits tend to interpret the victory of any leftwing political force in Latin America as a geopolitical triumph for China — and so an existential threat to Taiwan. But this myopic and self-defeating perspective doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

When Xiomara Castro won the presidency in November, Hondurans from all walks of life flooded the streets of cities like Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula to celebrate the restoration of their democracy. Castro’s decisive victory stunned observers around the hemisphere, many of whom anticipated sitting president Juan Orlando Hernández would use fraud and repression to steal the election, as he previously did in 2017. Instead, election day ended in defeat for Hernández’s handpicked successor, and tens of thousands took to the streets to celebrate the voters’ repudiation of “narco-politics” and elite gangsterism in Honduras. 

When she is sworn in tomorrow, Castro will become the first woman president in Honduran history. She will also become the first democratically legitimate president since 2009, when a coup deposed then-president Manuel Zelaya, who is Castro’s husband, suspending democracy in the country.

The 2009 coup was condemned by other governments throughout the hemisphere, but it received decisive support from the United States — one whistleblower has even alleged that the U.S. military provided “real-time coup quarterbacking.” With Washington’s blessing, the putsch leaders conspired to install a tight cohort of ultra-conservative political elites at the highest reaches of the Honduran state. Even as violence and extreme poverty spiraled out of control, spurring millions of Hondurans to leave the country, this coalition maintained its power for twelve years, largely thanks to its tight connections with the United States. Cycling through a series of illegitimate elections, the coup coalition re-solidified Honduras’s status as a client state par excellence, enthusiastically partaking in the militarized Alliance for Progress aid program while also collaborating with U.S. authorities to intercept and detain north-bound migrants.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
A poster of Xiomara Castro, presidential candidate of the Liberty and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), is seen as her supporters gather after the closing of the general election in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, November 28, 2021.

Now that coalition is out of power and the spouse of the deposed president is poised to enter the executive chamber. In this new context, it is urgent to understand Castro’s historic election beyond the staid and misleading categories provided by mainstream thinking on U.S. foreign policy.

American pundits tend to portray the victory of any leftwing or pro-democratic force in Latin America as a geopolitical triumph for China. To buttress this lazy analysis, these pundits also tend to point to the extension or denial of diplomatic relations to Taiwan as a key metric of China’s creeping influence in the region. 

Predictability, then, some observers seized upon Castro’s campaign rhetoric to predict that her election would augur a dramatic rupture in Honduras-Taiwan relations. But while Castro has signaled that she will pursue economic cooperation with China during her presidency — her platform includes a promise to “establish the most cordial and friendly diplomatic relations with the PRC” — this hardly constitutes a break from prevailing political trends in Honduras and the wider region. 

In fact, it was the ultra-conservative president Porfirio Lobo, who occupied the executive office in the years immediately after the coup, who first began making overtures to China (although they were quickly rolled back, likely under pressure from the U.S.). And as recently as 2018, Hernández insinuated that he would be open to Chinese financial support to replace the U.S. aid that receded under Donald Trump. 

What’s more, the incoming Castro administration has already taken steps which would seem to disprove the most hysterical predictions of diplomatic fallout. Close associates of Castro, working as part of her transition team, have made statements to the press clarifying that her administration will not seek to unilaterally end diplomatic relations. At the same time, Taiwan dropped all tariffs on twenty-five categories of Honduran products — including frozen prawns, of which Honduras is Taiwan’s number one supplier. (These measures enhanced a 2008 free trade agreement which resulted in an almost 200% increase in trade between the two countries over twelve years.) Finally, Castro invited Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen to attend her January 27 inauguration, who then elected to send vice president William Lai in her stead. Despite predictions to the contrary, so far, the two countries seem to be getting along just fine.

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Photo Credit: CNA
Vice President William Lai departing for the U.S. on his way to Honduras for Xiaomara Castro’s inauguration, January 25, 2022.

Clearheadedness demands that we resist those who would conflate popular democratic victories in Latin America with geopolitical triumphs for China. By stoking fears of diplomatic abandonment and geopolitical isolation, the U.S. cyclically reiterates its claim to be the exclusive guarantor of Taiwanese national security — in that way reinforcing the U.S. political class’s myopic and self-defeating view of the world, which has constricted the range of global political possibility for generations. In this context, the apparently ‘pro-Taiwan’ rhetoric of worry espoused by U.S. policymakers dovetails dangerously with the anti-China rhetoric that prevails across the western hemisphere, as nativist politicians from Brasilia to Washington to Bogotá regularly raise the specter of Chinese political interference to discredit and repress progressive movements at home. 

The reality is that, in the past several decades, Central American governments of both left and right have chosen to maintain or terminate their relations with Taiwan for reasons that have far more to do with short-term investment goals than with any kind of long-term geopolitical planning. 

The nominally leftist Daniel Ortega administration in Nicaragua, for example, maintained extremely friendly diplomatic relations with Taiwan for more than a decade, using aid and development contributions to triage the country’s rapidly deteriorating welfare state. At the same time, revanchist presidents in Guatemala and Honduras, in many ways rhetorical and ideological foils to Ortega, also drew closer to Taiwan for their own reasons. In each of these cases, Taiwan found a willing diplomatic ally to add to its perpetually unstable list of formal international partners — and each Central American country found something it was looking for too, whether that be an expensive donation of armable police helicopters, a blank check for lobbying activities in Washington, or merely a reliable source of emergency aid revenue. 

It’s true that a number of Central American nations have altered or suspended diplomatic relations with Taiwan in recent years, generally in bids to capture foreign aid and direct investment from China. But the commonplace claim that leftwing political leadership in Latin America naturally leads to diplomatic impasse with Taiwan simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny; Taiwan was, after all, Nicaragua’s single most generous foreign donor before Ortega’s abrupt termination of that relationship in December.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
President Tsai Ing-wen shakes hands with her Honduran counterpart Juan Orlando Hernández during a visit to the Presidential House in Tegucigalpa, Honduras January 9, 2017. 

The truth is that Central American states have overwhelmingly displayed a more open, or perhaps opportunistic, orientation towards Taiwan than official diplomatic measures might suggest. When it comes to trade and investment, for example, the withdrawal of formal diplomatic relations has mostly preserved lucrative relationships between Taiwanese firms and Central American partners, even resulting in the reconfiguration of some free trade agreements in key industries. 

Castro will inherit a seriously fragile set of democratic institutions in Honduras. Unlike neighbors Guatemala, El Savlador, and Nicaragua, the Honduran state was never subject to a negotiated peace process with revolutionary organizations demanding the comprehensive reconstitution of the national political system. Instead, Honduras’s status as a militarized U.S. client state, with all the political and social deformities such a condition entails, remained undisturbed through the end of the twentieth century; tellingly, the Honduran military wasn’t even brought under civilian control until 1999. In the twenty-first century, popular efforts to enhance democracy have already been met with catastrophic repression. And the “narco-politics” practiced by Hernández, who is widely believed to be a major international drug trafficker, has eroded the country’s political institutions even further by tightly tethering them to organized crime. 

It is still too soon to say what effect, if any, Xiomara Castro’s presidency will have on Taiwan. Her historic presidency cannot be reduced to its possible repercussions for the diplomatic Cold War between the U.S. and China, a wrongheaded and treacherous power-struggle in which Taiwan frequently finds itself a pawn. The question now is to what extent entrenched conservative interests, domestic and international, will allow Castro to govern in Honduras. (Already, her political coalition appears to be fracturing under the weight of its steep mandate, creating openings for rightwing and opportunist forces to coalesce in opposition to her agenda.) 

“For 12 years the people resisted, and those 12 years were not in vain,” Castro said in her victory speech, alluding to the lost decade Hondurans endured under the control of the coup coalition. “God takes time but doesn’t forget. Today the people have made justice,” she continued. Only time will tell if that justice can long endure. 


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Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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