Two weeks ago the son of former President Pepe Lobo, Omar Said Lobo, was gunned down outside a Tegucigalpa nightclub. An official in President Xiomara Castro’s administration sprang into action, filing a motion to commute the ex-president’s wife’s March prison sentence for embezzlement to house arrest, purportedly for her protection.
Advisory minister for political prisoners Pedro Joaquín Amador listed himself in the petition as party to the case, which he is not. Even more jarring was his assertion that he asked for permission from Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, former head of state and husband to President Xiomara Castro. “Go ahead, help her,” responded Zelaya.
What say did Zelaya really have in the matter?
Castro is the first woman and first leftist to win the presidency in Honduras. Her victory last November also marked the return to the Presidential Palace of her husband, deposed in a 2009 military coup and founder and leader of Libre, Castro’s party.
Zelaya, formally a presidential advisor, has become a power broker in the administration. “Dozens of people enter the José Cecilio del Valle Palace every day hoping to meet with Mel,” write ContraCorriente’s Leonardo Aguilar and Jennifer Ávila. “Some come in hopes of getting a letter of recommendation from Mel for a government job.”
Zelaya says Castro approves his every move, and has even called those questioning his prominence golpistas, or coup-mongers, but he appears alongside Castro or stands in for her at state events, an omnipresence blurring the lines between state and party.
His limelight underscores the heavily male-dominated nature of the country’s political class. It’s also true that Castro built her political career in the wake of Zelaya’s deposal. The post-coup protest movement and her husband’s new party propelled her presidential bids in 2013, 2017, and 2021, despite lacking prior elected experience.
It’s no secret that Zelaya wields more influence than Vice President Salvador Nasralla, a former critic of the Zelaya administration who pacted an uncomfortable last-moment alliance with Castro to defeat the National Party.
Nasralla and the administration are now openly feuding. After Castro strongly condemned the U.S. State Department’s sanctioning of officials close to Zelaya last week, Nasralla retweeted one observer’s thoughts: “That’s a novel concept, building sovereignty and the rule of law by protecting the corrupt and handing out impunity.”
A Family Affair
The First Gentleman’s appearances stir questions about Castro’s anti-corruption bona fides given Zelaya’s alleged past ties to drug traffickers. In the same Brooklyn trial that implicated Juan Orlando Hernández and Pepe Lobo, the head of the Los Cachiros drug cartel also accused Zelaya of taking bribes in 2006, during his first year in office.
He’s unlikely to face an investigation, due to a law approved in March by Congress giving immunity from prosecution to officials from his three-year government. Libre insists that the law was approved to end political persecution stemming from the coup.
It appears the United States is not pleased with the amnesty law. Last week the State Department canceled the visa of an advisor to Castro and former top official who in 2014 admitted to embezzling $2 million in public funds to organize a referendum for Zelaya’s reelection. The official bunkered down in Nicaragua for seven years to avoid prosecution.
Also sanctioned were two top Libre legislators and three more Zelaya officials.
The Castro administration called the Engel List “politically motivated and interventionist.” Castro’s press secretariat issued an official press release in which Zelaya extensively condemned the list with the bizarre disclaimer that his words did not represent “the official voice of the state.”
It may seem baffling that just days later, on Tuesday, Honduras hosted DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The next day, Castro announced that she has hired the D.C. lobbying services of Hugo Llorens, U.S. Ambassador to Honduras in 2009 who, per WikiLeaks cables published by El Faro in 2011, unsuccessfully worked to avoid and revert the coup against Zelaya.
The olive branch may have something to do with the Honduran Chamber of Commerce. On Wednesday the president of the business association reiterated its support for Castro’s government but called for “more coherence” in U.S. relations.
Castro and Zelaya have brought their family with them to power. One of their sons is presidential advisor and a nephew is defense secretary. Another child, President Castro’s heir apparent, is named Xiomara Zelaya Castro, or “La Pichu,” now a member of the Honduran Congress. A movement within Libre even wanted her to run for president in 2021. She’s 37.
Should she run next time around, she likely has Mel’s support. “She has more of a right to do so than [party leader] Carlos Eduardo [Reina] and Xiomara herself,” Zelaya told the press in 2019. “She was my spokesperson when she was 17.”
Correction: A previous version of this newsletter stated that Honduras' current minister of defense, José Manuel Zelaya, is the son of Manuel Zelaya and Xiomara Castro. He is the nephew.