Castro vows to pull Honduras 'out of the abyss' as first female president

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By Gustavo Palencia

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Honduras' leftist politician Xiomara Castro, who is on track to be the first female president of the Central American nation, doesn't shy away from making history.

In 2009, she catapulted herself to the helm of a protest movement after her husband, former president Manuel Zelaya, was ousted by a military coup, which pitched Honduras into crisis.

The Liberty and Refoundation (Libre) party emerged out of this movement, and after Sunday's elections it was slated to break a century-long run of governments formed from one of two parties.

Castro, 62, looked set for a landslide victory that would bring an end to 12 years of conservative National Party rule marred by corruption, allegations of the president's links to drug trafficking, and an exodus of migrants.

The second of five children in a middle-class family, Castro was born in 1959 in Tegucigalpa. She earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and later moved northeast of the capital where she raised four children with Zelaya.

Promoting "democratic socialism," Castro wants to decriminalize abortion, reduce bank charges for remittances, create a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission and repeal new laws that she says feeds corruption and drug trafficking.

"I believe firmly that the democratic socialism I propose is the solution to pull Honduras out of the abyss we have been buried in by neo-liberalism, a narco-dictator and corruption," Castro said in a campaign speech.

MORE DIRECT DEMOCRACY

"Participatory democracy" in the form of referendums and consultations on big policy changes will be central to Castro's administration, according to a document outlining her government's plans. Previous attempts at more direct democracy in Latin America have at times conversely strengthened patronage politics and leaders' power.

Castro will also convene a national assembly that could allow her to overhaul the constitution, a proposal her husband Zelaya initiated shortly before his overthrow. The document is vague on the goal of the overhaul, but mentions guaranteeing social and economic rights.

When Zelaya was president Castro was especially active in policymaking and pushed for social programs and subsidies for poor children, women and the elderly, which helped build her popularity.

She has also run agricultural and timber companies in the private sector.

Despite similarities in policy, Zelaya did not take a big role in his wife's campaign.

"Ex-president Zelaya knows that as party coordinator, he has a relationship of deferential respect to the president," said historian and longtime friend of the candidate Anarella Velez.

Velez added that Castro's strong-willed personality would keep her firmly in control of government.

The National Party, which was beset by corruption scandals, sought to portray Castro as a dangerous radical in order to remain in power.

Yet, while Castro's party Libre is part of the Sao Paolo Forum, an organization with the goal of reimagining the Latin American left after the fall of the Berlin wall, many doubt Castro will adopt extreme policies.

"We might see some cozying up to governments that preach 19th-century socialism, but it will be more a formality than anything else," said political analyst Raul Pineda.

"Honduras depends on trade with the United States and it's so weak it can't survive even a month of economic isolation from Washington."

(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia, writing by Jake Kincaid; editing by Laura Gottesidener and Grant McCool)

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