In 2009, President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras was ousted by the army. It was an unexpected coup in Central America. Soldiers stormed the presidential palace in the capital, Tegucigalpa, early in the morning, disarming the presidential guard, waking Zelaya and putting him on a plane to Costa Rica. Zelaya was,and is, a leftist aligned then with then-President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and he angrily denounced the coup as illegal. But he was ousted, taken to Costa Rica and, despite strong speeches of condemnation from the Obama Administration, the Organization of American States (OAS), Venezuela and Cuba, the coup remained and Honduras had elections sometime later.
Twelve years after, Zelaya´s wife, Xiomara Castro, won the elections in November 2021 and will become the first woman to be president in Honduras in January 2022. She will become the first female president in a deeply conservative nation and its first leader to be democratically elected on a socialist platform. She has not been blatantly open in her support to Nicolás Maduro or Cuba, but her campaign was against “the corruption of the right.” She told supporters, after she was proclaimed as the winner of the elections, that she would immediately begin talks with political allies and opponents alike to form a government of national unity, but at the same time she called the current government “corrupt and violent.”
Who is the current president that will leave office in January? Juan Orlando Hernández, a devote evangelical and a very close friend of Israel. “Mr. President, you are a true friend of Israel,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told Juan Orlando Hernández shortly before the inauguration ceremony for Honduras’s new embassy in Jerusalem in June 2021. “The Jewish people have a long memory, and you will be recorded in the pages of history as having done a brave and justified deed for the State of Israel.”
During his eight years as president, Hernández has made Honduras—which recognized the State of Palestine less than three years before he took office—into one of Israel’s most reliable allies. Hernández has regularly supported Israel at the U.N. and other international bodies.
Under Hernández, Honduras regularly voted against or abstained on anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N. and other international bodies.
Honduras was one of only nine nations—including the U.S., Israel, and Guatemala—to vote against the 2017 U.N. General Assembly resolution that rejected America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It was also one of the 37 countries that boycotted the Durban IV conference in September. In May, the U.N. World Health Organization adopted a resolution focusing on Israel alone as a health rights violator. Honduras was one of 14 countries to vote against the measure. The most visible manifestation of that support was the embassy move in June.
In December 2018, a delegation of senior officials from Honduras visited Israel to explore the possibility of moving the Honduran embassy to Jerusalem. The embassy move was seen as especially problematic because Honduras has the second-largest Palestinian population in Latin America. The first move was to open diplomatic offices in both capitals. Hernández traveled to Israel in August 2019 to open Honduras’s office in Jerusalem and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
In January 2020, Honduras officially declared Lebanon’s Hezbollah a terrorist organization. That August, Israel opened a temporary representative office in the Honduran capital. The final decision, which included Israel reopening its embassy in Tegucigalpa, was announced in September 2020 but because of the COVID-19 restrictions, Hernández could not travel to open the embassy until June 2021. Hernández was the first foreign leader that Bennett met in person. The two discussed cooperation in milk production, agriculture and security. Israel finally reopened its embassy in Tegucigalpa in November at an event attended by Hernández, Israeli Strategic Planning Minister Eli Avidar and Israel’s Ambassador to Honduras Eldad Golan.
The big question now is how Xiomara Castro will manage the relationship with Israel and whether or not she will move the embassy back to Tel Aviv. The First Vice President-elect Salvador Nasrallah has issued anti-Semitic statements, saying in 2020 that “Hernández’s boss is the government of Israel.” The year before, he said in a debate that the Jews control the world’s money. His wife apologized publicly in 2017 after calling Hitler “a great leader.” Castro’s husband, Manuel Zelaya, claimed that Israeli mercenaries were torturing him with high-frequency radiation after his ouster in 2009. Zelaya’s close friend, journalist David Romero Ellner, said then it would have been “fair and valid to let Hitler finish his historic vision” of eliminating the world’s Jews.
Hernández believes there will not be a relocation of the Israeli Embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. He believes in the Christian Evangelical support to Israel in Honduras and in the strength of the Congress. So far, Castro has vaguely spoken of her desire to maintain close ties with Israel and the United States. One sign was a meeting between Castro’s representatives and Eldad Golan, the Israeli ambassador. On one hand, it is possible to think that, given the economic and social challenges Castro will face when she assumes the presidency in late January 2022, she may believe it a positive to continue cooperation with Israel. On the other hand, the experience in Latin America is that when radical changes in the presidencies take place, policies vis-a-vis Israel change too. It could be the location of the embassy or the U.N. record voting, but as a leftist in this current Latin America, it will be unlikely that she will not make some change vis-a-vis Israel.
Leftist Gabriel Boric, 36, who won the presidential elections in Chile some weeks ago and will take office in March will also be different vis-a-vis Israel than previous government. Even though Chile has not had a record of supporting Israel in the international agencies, neither with other leftist presidents (Michelle Bachelet) nor center-right ones (Sebastian Pinera), the general bilateral relations between Chile and Israel have been equitable and sometimes friendly. Will Boric follow those paths? He said in the campaign and before that Israel is a “genocidal state,” and he has publicly agreed with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS). We will see if, as president, he will keep that language but either way, it is very likely that there will be changes in his international policies, and not only those related to Israel.
As political instability in Latin America is a trademark, we witness changes all the time. This year there will be elections in Brazil and Colombia. The left is favorite in the polls to win in Brazil changes as well as in Colombia, the strongest ally of Israel in the region in the last decades.
Instability will remain, Israel and the Jewish communities will have to play with great skill in the diplomatic field and add more question marks about the rise of anti-Semitism and the need to face it once several political changes in various countries take place.