Honduras to inaugurate first female president, with Taiwan ties in focus

Swearing-in ceremony of new Honduran President Castro in Tegucigalpa
People wait under the portrait of Xiomara Castro ahead of the ceremony in which she will be sworn-in as the new President of Honduras, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras January 27, 2022. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

January 27, 2022

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Gustavo Palencia

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) -Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro will take her oath of office on Thursday as the country’s first woman president with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in attendance, as the Honduran leader faces an early test in a sharply divided Congress.

Harris, who has been tasked by President Joe Biden to lead U.S. policy in Central America’s impoverished northern triangle of countries, arrived in the Honduran capital on Thursday morning.

She was greeted by two of Castro’s children as well as her incoming foreign minister.

    Harris and other U.S. officials want to work with Castro to curb illegal immigration from Central America and shore up international support for Taiwan as part of its efforts to stem China’s influence around the world. Honduras is one of the few countries maintaining diplomatic ties with Taipei instead of Beijing.

Castro assumes office embroiled in a dispute with dissidents in her own party. Rival candidates have declared themselves head of Congress, undermining her ability to pass legislation.

    Taiwanese Vice President William Lai is also attending the inauguration in a bid to bolster ties with Honduras under Castro, who during her election campaign threatened to switch allegiance to Beijing from Taipei if elected president.

After meeting Lai on Wednesday, Castro said Honduras is grateful for Taiwan’s support and hopes to maintain their relationship Lai had been due to hold formal talks with Castro and deliver materials to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, but that was canceled, Taiwan’s Central News Agency said.

Luis Leon, director of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy in Central America, said Harris’ arrival is a boost for Castro in the dispute over control of Congress and in addressing Honduras’ weak economy.

    It means the United States has an “opportunity to position its interests on issues such as migration and maintaining the country’s relations with its ally Taiwan,” Leon said.

The United States, under its “one China” policy, acknowledges Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of its territory though the United States does not endorse this stance. The U.S. does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Harris has been tasked with addressing the “root causes” of migration from Central America, but her trip comes as Biden’s popularity at home has waned and his immigration strategy has stalled

Harris, seen by many Democrats as a likely U.S. presidential candidate in 2024, has also seen her polling numbers drop and has been hit by resignations of top staffers.

During a meeting with Castro, Harris plans to discuss economic opportunity, the fight against corruption and managing migration, U.S. officials said.

“We do very much want and intend to do what we can to support this new president as she tries to make progress,” one administration official told reporters.

    Castro, who describes herself as a democratic socialist, has vowed to tackle corruption, poverty and violence in Honduras, chronic problems that have helped fuel illegal immigration to the United States.

    But her legislative program has been jeopardized by renegade politicians from her leftist Libre party, who over the weekend allied with the conservative opposition National Party to vote for one of its members to head Congress.

    That has created a rival legislature and breached a pact that Libre had made with its electoral ally, the Salvador Party founded by her first vice president, to appoint one of the latter’s members to lead Congress.

    Castro and the rest of her party have recognized a Salvador lawmaker as Congress’ legitimate leader.

    Castro’s inauguration ends the eight-year rule of the National Party’s Juan Orlando Hernandez, who has been accused in U.S. courts of corruption and links to drug traffickers.

U.S. Congresswoman Norma Torres, a member of Biden’s Democratic Party, called for Hernandez’ immediate indictment on drug charges after Castro is sworn into office. She added that U.S. authorities should also request his extradition, in a statement issued on Thursday.

Hernandez was a key ally to the United States under both the Obama and Trump administrations, in both immigration and anti-narcotics operations. But U.S. prosecutors revealed in court filings last year that Hernandez, 53, was under investigation as part of a sprawling probe into Honduras’ drug trade.

    Hernandez, whose brother last year was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years for drug trafficking by a U.S. judge, has repeatedly denied the allegations.

(Additional reporting by Nandita Bose, Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

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