Deposed Honduran leader’s wife leads in polls

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Manuel Zelaya was unceremoniously booted from power four years ago when Honduras’ army hustled him out of the country in his pajamas, a coup prompted by fears among Honduras’ business and political elite that he was getting too hungry for power.

Now he’s back with a new shot at the presidential palace, this time as the husband of the leading presidential candidate, Xiomara Castro.

Polls show Castro, 53, leading seven other candidates ahead of the Nov. 24 election, including the military general who conducted the coup. The country’s two traditional parties, which backed the coup, are struggling in third and fourth place, behind Castro and a popular sports TV personality.

The election of a self-proclaimed socialist could be considered a stunning change in a country where oligarchs have maintained political power over a poor, uneducated majority for at least a century. But Zelaya, too, is a wealthy landowner from the old guard, and most people see his wife as his cover in a country that bans presidential re-election. He is running for a congressional seat from his own state.

Even one of her former speechwriters says Castro lacks the political heft of other female leaders in Latin America, such as Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez or Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, who came to power with extensive records of their own. “She is an invented banner to fill the political needs of Manuel Zelaya,” said Sergio Suazo, a Honduras National University political science professor.

Zelaya says he is merely her driver and guardian, present in the campaign “to ensure the safety of Xiomara and to be as close to her as possible.” But when they arrive at political events, it is he who is mobbed by cameras and supporters. She stays in the background until he decides to hand her the spotlight.

Even Castro says her election would be a Bill and Hillary Clinton-style “Buy one, get one free.”

“The decisions are going to be made by me, now it’s my turn,” she told The Associated Press in a campaign swing. “But I will consult with him on every occasion, as he consulted with me in the past.”

It was the suspicion that Zelaya wanted to reform the constitution and seek re-election that helped get him kicked out in the first place. He was whisked out of the country at gunpoint in June 2009 after he defied a Supreme Court order to drop plans to hold a referendum asking Hondurans whether the constitution should be revised.

Zelaya was elected from the traditional, centrist Liberal Party, but began aligning himself more and more with the late leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, adopting his populist platforms and rhetoric. His ouster was backed by members of his own party, who thought that Zelaya, like Chavez, would seek to stay in power indefinitely. Chavez served 14 years and had just been re-elected to six more years when he died of cancer in March.

Zelaya has denied that was his intention, saying he just wanted to open up government to the people.

Honduras received widespread criticism and international sanctions for the coup, including its suspension from the Organization of American States.

Zelaya ended his long exile and returned to Honduras in May 2011 under a deal brokered by Colombia and Venezuela and that paved the way for the poor Central American country’s reintegration into the world community. He had already laid the foundations for a new Liberty and Refoundation Party, known as Libre — Spanish for Free.

Now Castro is running with the same goal, calling for an assembly to change the constitution. She and Zelaya vow to combat “savage capitalism.”

“We will help get the oligarchy out of power through democratic socialism,” Castro said, and she vowed to rejoin the leftist alliance founded and led by Chavez until his death, the Boliviarian Alliance for the Americas.

It’s far from clear she would be able to achieve those goals even if elected. While she has been rising in the polls, a Gallup survey last month showed her favored by 28 percent of voters. That could be enough to give her the presidency under the country’s no-runoff election system. But it also could leave congress firmly in the hands of far more conservative parties.

Salvador Nasralla, a sportscaster running with the recently created Anti-corruption Party had 21 percent in May. Congressional President Juan Orlando Hernandez of the ruling National Party, was third place with 18 percent.

The survey was conducted between May 2-8 and had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

The poll numbers reflect the collapse of confidence in the National and the Liberal Parties that have shared power in the Central American country for more than a century. Poverty is high and violence has become so common that Honduras considered the most dangerous country in the world.

Experts say the fall of the main two parties also reflects discontent over the coup. According to a poll by Vanderbuilt University’s AmericasBarometer program, 58 percent of Hondurans opposed the coup and 72 percent were against the expulsion of Zelaya.

Though voters went on in 2009 to elect Lobo of the conservative National Party, the turnout was only about 50 percent, compared to 56 percent when Zelaya was elected in 2005.

Castro is popular in her own right, a woman who earned credibility as the face of resistance to the coup. She married Zelaya at age 17 and has worked by his side in his 30-year political career. They have four children. As first lady, she was in charge of social development programs and worked in a coalition of first ladies working on problems of women with HIV for the United Nations.

“Xiomara is a woman who demonstrated leadership during the coup. She was the head of the resistance while her husband was in exile,” said Libre Party member Gerardo Torres. “She never hid, and she urged the people to continue their struggle peacefully.”

But she seems timid in the face of the outsized personality of her husband, and former insiders say she wasn’t part of his inner circle during the coup.

“When we were inside the building of the Brazilian Embassy, she was never part of the political committee, the writing of manifestos, the making of decision, she was always left out,” said Milton Benitez, who was with the couple when they were confined to the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa for nearly three months after trying to return.

Suazo said the coup was a great political miscalculation on the part of Zelaya’s political foes.

“The images of the army repressing, beating people in the streets, the forced exile of a president, not allowing him to return to the country, all this created a mysticism, a mythification of a leader that didn’t exist before. He became the champion of victims because he too was a victim,” Suazo said. If not for the coup, he added, Zelaya would be “on his farm in Olancho as a former president with little relevance.”

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