(NewsNation Now) — Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to visit Honduras Thursday for the inauguration of Xiomara Castro as the country’s first female president, whose assumption of power has been clouded by political turmoil that Washington hopes to alleviate with a show of solidarity.
Relatively smooth elections and a healthy margin of victory Nov. 28 came as a relief, but political maneuvering in the run-up to Castro’s inauguration has muddled the outlook and distracted from what was to be a hopeful new beginning after the two terms of President Juan Orlando Hernández.
In the days when Castro was supposed to be rolling out her Cabinet selections, Honduras has been engulfed by a dispute over who will lead the newly elected Congress. Two congressional leadership teams have been selected — neither legitimately, according to experts — and their standoff threatens legislative paralysis at a time that Castro desperately needs to get to work addressing Honduras’ problems quickly.
Elected lawmakers from Castro’s own Liberty and Refoundation Party backed one of their own to be the new legislative body’s president Friday rather than support Castro’s choice, which had been agreed with her vice president to win his party’s support. Neither group backed down, leading to surreal simultaneous legislative sessions Tuesday.
Luis Ruiz, a 52-year-old Castro supporter and fruit vendor near the Congress, said the political disagreement threatened to divide the country. “She (Castro) has to resolve this situation through dialogue,” Ruiz said. “She hasn’t taken power and she’s already having problems, she must show her leadership.”
High unemployment, persistent violence, corruption as well as troubled health care and educational systems are just some of the pressing challenges awaiting Castro.
The United States government, seeing an opportunity to gain an ally in a region with few friends, has strongly backed Castro and stands ready to provide support. However, in a possible sign of tensions in the region, presidents from neighbors El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua were not scheduled to attend.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who was tasked to find ways to address the root causes of Central American migration, leads the U.S. delegation at Thursday’s inauguration ceremony.
Washington sees areas for cooperation on Castro’s priorities of battling corruption and increasing economic opportunities in her country, two areas that could affect decisions by Hondurans on whether to stay or try to migrate to the United States.
“Honduras has been a very difficult partner for the United States, especially during the administration of Juan Orlando Hernandez for a number of reasons, including the consistent swirl of illegal activity around him and his family,” said Jason Marczak, senior director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.
“The anti-corruption agenda being front and center and her (Castro’s) pledges is music to the ears of the Biden-Harris administration, given its focus on rooting out corruption not only in Central America but its global efforts on corruption,” he said.
Castro has said she plans to formally invite the United Nations to set up an anti-corruption mission in Honduras.
Harris was scheduled to meet privately with Castro shortly after her inauguration. Castro and Harris spoke by phone on Dec. 10.
In a call with reporters Wednesday, senior Biden administration officials said Harris expected to expand on that conversation about ways to deepen the bilateral relationship. “The topics will include expanding economic opportunity, combating corruption, and humanely managing migration,” a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Castro, 62, won on her third bid for the presidency. She was previously the first lady during the presidency of her husband, Manuel Zelaya, which was cut short by a military coup in 2009.
Many voters this time said they were motivated above all by the possibility of removing Hernández’s National Party from power. Hernández was first elected in 2013, and a friendly Supreme Court allowed him to overcome a constitutional ban on re-election and run again in 2017 in an election plagued by irregularities.
Federal prosecutors in New York have repeatedly spoken of Hernández’s purported ties to drug trafficking, alleging his political rise was funded in part by drug profits. Hernández has not been formally charged and has repeatedly denied the accusations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.