TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Ousted four years ago in a coup, former Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya is angling for a return to the presidential palace, once more setting up a proxy fight in this country between Latin America’s left and right.
Zelaya isn’t eligible to run in the Nov. 24 presidential election. But his wife, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, formally launched her campaign last month and has a narrow lead in polls. The couple say she’ll carry forward with Zelaya’s Venezuela-backed tilt toward “democratic socialism,” the course that put him at odds with conservative elites and ended with his forced expulsion in June 2009.
Since Zelaya’s ouster, Honduras has slipped deeper into economic and social disarray. The country is a prime transit corridor for drug cartels moving U.S.-bound cocaine north, and its homicide rate is the world’s highest. It remains one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere and was the third-largest source of illegal migrants to the United States last year after Mexico and Guatemala.
Opponents of the couple say Castro’s candidacy will upend the delicate stability they’ve worked to establish since the coup and could bring new waves of political violence. They depict Castro, who has never held public office, as a puppet of her power-hungry husband.
In an interview, Zelaya said that if his wife is elected, “I'll do whatever she tells me.”
“She is the most popular woman in Honduras, and it’s not because she’s my wife,” he said. “It’s because she took to the streets in protest [after the 2009 coup] and became the leader of a social movement.”
Zelaya said his wife was not available for an interview because she was recovering from knee surgery. But in a recent speech to supporters, she said Honduras had become “a sanctuary of paramilitaries and drug traffickers, where justice is bought and sold,” and described the country as stricken by “debt, poverty, death, systematic human rights violations and the murder of journalists, peasants, lawyers, students and businessmen.”
Castro and Zelaya say they want to wrest power from the military and wealthy elites and give it to the people through greater “participation.”
“Xiomara is going to give Honduran women a place in society that has always been denied to them,” Zelaya said.
Castro is running as the candidate of the new Free Party, which she and her husband formed after members of Zelaya’s Liberal party backed the 2009 coup against him.
The Liberal party and the right-leaning National Party have alternated in power here for the past century, but the latest surveys have both parties trailing behind Castro and another breakaway candidate, Salvador Nasralla, a popular sports commentator who has launched his own group, the Anti-Corruption Party.
There are eight candidates in the race, and since Honduras doesn’t have a runoff vote, a simple majority will be enough to win. A Gallup survey in May showed Castro leading the polls with 28 percent support.
If elected, she would be Honduras’s first female president.
The 53-year-old mother of four, who married Zelaya as a teenager, is fighting the perception here and beyond that she is a vehicle for her husband's comeback. Honduran right-wing leaders said their campaign strategy will be to paint Castro and Zelaya as divisive figures who will once more try to impose Cuban-style communism.
“They’re trying to create the impression that they’re not the radical left,” said Antonio Rivera, a leader of the National Party. “And if they win, they’ll be out for revenge.”
The couple don’t campaign as hard-boiled revolutionaries. They favor white cowboy hats over red berets, and their roots are in cattle ranching, not radical politics. Zelaya was viewed as a pro-business moderate when he was elected in 2005 but drifted to the left, boosting social spending and embracing then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who provided subsidized oil and membership in Venezuela-led political and trade pacts.
As he neared the end of his term in 2009, Zelaya showed a Chávez-
like interest in extending his rule through constitutional changes. Instead, Honduran soldiers stormed Zelaya’s home in a predawn raid and stuffed him on a plane to Costa Rica.
U.S. officials and Latin American leaders condemned the coup, and Honduras was suspended from the Organization of American States. But conservative lawmakers in the United States defended the coup as necessary to rescue Honduran democracy.
Zelaya’s attempts to return after the coup were blocked, but he eventually sneaked back into the country and took refuge in the Brazilian Embassy for several months. He then went into exile in the Dominican Republic, but with a new Honduran president, Porfirio Lobo, in office, Zelaya was allowed to return in 2011.
Graffiti denouncing the coup remain on the walls and buildings of this capital city, and many worry that Castro’s candidacy — and Zelaya's return to politics — will put the country back on edge.
Outside a McDonald’s restaurant near the presidential palace where he marched against the coup in 2009, Luis Esquivel said he thought Zelaya and Castro had “good intentions” but were surrounded by too many “radicals.”
“They’ll ruin the economy,” said Esquivel, who has struggled to find work since the pesticide company he worked for pulled out of Honduras after the coup. “The things they’re promising, like raising the minimum wage, are impossible to deliver.”
Honduran political analyst Raul Pineda said Castro’s candidacy is “a project of the international left,” but her husband continues to be the dominant political figure in the country, with his stature only enhanced by the coup.
And their folksy style and populist message remain a winning formula in a country with failing institutions, deep poverty and deep resentments, said Pineda. “Hondurans aren’t interested in a democracy that doesn’t provide food nor security,” he said.