Xiomara Castro, the leftist candidate who proposed switching diplomatic allegiances from Taiwan to mainland China, is set to be the next president of Honduras following a landslide victory in what was a closely watched election.
“I believe in multi-polarity and for that reason I propose establishing international relations with mainland China,” Castro said during her campaign, noting the economic benefits the relationship could provide, as well as increased access to Covid-19 vaccines, in a nation where less that 40% of the population is fully vaccinated.
Honduras is one of only 14 nations that still recognises Taiwan. The prospect of a shift in diplomatic ties prompted a political tug-of-war in the weeks prior the 28 November election, which brought an end to 12 years of conservative rule under the National Party, marred by rising insecurity and corruption scandals.
But following the election, Castro’s allies have tempered expectations of a switch to mainland China – at least for now.
We have a responsibility to Taiwan as we have had a good relationship, but we also have a responsibility to our own population to be realistic and pragmatic
Honduras has long maintained ties with Taiwan, which has often made generous contributions to the Central American nation. According to Reuters, since 2006 Taiwan has loaned Honduras around US$205 million and given another US$27 million in donations. Taiwan also donated to Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala after they were hit by Hurricane Eta in 2020, providing US$200,000 to each nation. As for mainland China, it has maintained commercial relations with Honduras, becoming one of its top trading partners, though the size of both its imports and exports is still far behind that of the US.
“I believe that we have a responsibility to [Taiwan] as someone with whom we have had a good relationship,” said Rodolfo Pastor, a foreign policy advisor to president-elect Castro. “But I do believe that we also have a responsibility to our own population to be realistic, to be pragmatic and to understand that mainland China today plays a determining role that we cannot let go unnoticed.”
The decision for the new Honduran administration could ultimately come down to economics. The more aid and financial support the country receives from the US – which has made it clear that it hopes to see no side-shifting – the less likely it is that Honduras will make a change.
Over the past fifteen years, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and El Salvador have also switched ties and without suffering any significant economic backlash from the US. This week, Nicaragua became the latest Latin American nation to do so, and while the US State Department blasted the decision – and also described its recent elections as a “sham” – any implications for US–Nicaragua economic relations remain to be seen.
Cooperation with mainland China has in many cases provided a political boost to local leaders. When Covid-19 vaccines were scarce, El Salvador raced ahead of the rest of Central America in vaccination rates thanks, in part, to vaccines procured from mainland China. Outgoing Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández – who has presented himself as a staunch ally of Taiwan – grumbled as his country lagged behind.
Though a recount of some votes in the congressional elections is currently underway after allegations of fraud, Castro will take power in January, and at a time of deep economic despair in Honduras. After the nation was battered by the pandemic and a pair of major hurricanes, more than 55% of Hondurans may now fall below the poverty line. It is one of the highest rates in four decades. At the same time, the country is heavily indebted and in great need of the kind of stimulus that the mega-projects China has been financing throughout Latin America can provide.
“We have to solve serious energy problems, for example, and I believe that mainland China can play a positive role in that regard,” said the advisor Pastor. The high cost of energy in Honduras is one of the most common grievances cited by residents, and the national energy company is on the verge of economic collapse. The effects of climate change, such as the hurricanes that caused widespread flooding in November 2020 and the prolonged droughts of years past, have also highlighted the need to build expensive dams and reservoirs.
For us to have our own reality, it’s healthy to diversify relationships and seek a balance that allows us to have a counterweight to undue influence
The Biden administration has pledged US$4 billion in foreign assistance for Central America over four years, but that money will in large part be funneled through civil society organisations and the private sector, and will not fund any major infrastructure projects. China and its investors, however, would likely be willing to fill some of the gaps and have demonstrated a clear interest in Honduras, for example in financing for the Patuca III hydroelectric dam, and exploring rail and port projects in the country.
In the week before the election, a US delegation visited Honduras to make clear its hope for a free and fair election, as well as the continued relationship with Taiwan. Zhao Lijian, a Chinese ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson responded: “This arm-twisting and bullying behavior will not win any hearts and minds.”
Zhao also warned of the US’ “hegemonic behavior” in the region. "Two hundred years on, the United States is still dreaming the old dream and treating Latin American countries as within its sphere of influence,” he said, referring to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 that some see as having emboldened US interventions in Latin American affairs.
Xiomara Castro is acutely aware of such a tendency. In 2009, her husband, former president Manuel Zelaya, was ousted in a military-backed coup that the US State Department failed to condemn. Secondary to the economic reasons, her proposal to switch relations likely has to do with an attempt to strengthen the nation’s sovereignty.
“Something that is fundamental for me, personally, is to seek balance,” said Pastor. “If we only depend on the United States, as has been the case historically, then the United States has an undue influence on our reality. For us to have our own reality, it’s healthy to diversify relationships and seek a balance that allows us to have a counterweight to that undue influence.”