Xiomara Castro was sworn in as Honduras’ first female president on Thursday, with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in attendance, as her government faces tests over a sharply divided Congress, rising debt and relations with China.
Castro, flanked by her husband former President Manuel Zelaya and their children, was sworn in at a packed open-air soccer stadium, her supporters dancing and shouting. She smiled broadly as the blue and white presidential sash was draped across her chest.
“The economic catastrophe that I’m inheriting is unparalleled in the history of our country,” a sombre Castro said in her inaugural address, denouncing a seven-fold jump in debt under her two conservative predecessors.
She said it was “practically impossible” to make current debt payments without a restructuring.
“My government will not continue the maelstrom of looting that has condemned generations of young people to pay the debt they incurred behind their back,” she added to thunderous applause.
Minutes earlier, the crowd roared its approval after Harris, who has been tasked by President Joe Biden to lead U.S. policy in Central America’s impoverished northern triangle of countries, was formerly introduced.
“Our relationship with Honduras is an important one,” Harris wrote on Twitter earlier in the day, adding she would later hold talks with Castro.
Harris’ attendance is notable, as lower-ranking officials typically lead such U.S. delegations.
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. 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 if elected president.
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.
The U.S. government acknowledges Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of its territory though it 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 Central America migration, but her trip comes as Biden’s popularity at home has waned and his immigration strategy has stalled.
During her meeting with Castro, Harris will 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,” said one administration official.
Castro, who describes herself as a democratic socialist, has vowed to tackle corruption, poverty and violence, chronic problems that have helped fuel waves of U.S.-bound migrants.
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 main 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 conservative 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’s immediate indictment on drug charges. She added that U.S. authorities should request his extradition, in a statement issued on Thursday.
But Hernandez may be shielded from extradition for up to four years as a new member of the Central American parliament.
Hernandez was a longstanding U.S. ally in both immigration and anti-narcotics operations. But U.S. prosecutors have revealed that Hernandez, 53, was under investigation as part of a 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.