New Honduran President Xiomara Castro reacts after receiving the presidential sash during a swearing-in ceremony in Tegucigalpa, Honduras 27 January 2022.; Credit: Jose Cabezas / Reuters

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Xiomara Castro was sworn in as Honduras' first woman president on Thursday 27 January 2022 in front of a cheering crowd including United States (US) Vice President Kamala Harris, who pledged US government support to stem migration and fight corruption.

President Castro's inauguration ends the eight-year rule of Juan Orlando Hernandez, a one-time US ally who has been accused in US courts of corruption and links to drug traffickers. Even as Mr Hernandez left office a US congresswoman called for him to be indicted, and for requests to be made for his extradition.

President Castro, flanked by her husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, was sworn in at a packed soccer stadium where supporters applauded her vows to fix the country's massive debt burden.

"The economic catastrophe that I'm inheriting is unparalleled in the history of our country," a somber President Castro said in her inaugural address.

Her government also faces tests over a sharply divided Congress, and relations with China due to Honduras maintaining diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

US Vice President Harris, who was loudly applauded when introduced during the inauguration, congratulated President Castro over her "democratic election."

In a meeting shortly after the ceremony, Vice President Harris promised to collaborate on migration issues, economic development and fighting impunity, and said she welcomed President Castro's plans to request United Nations help to establish an anti-corruption commission.

Vice President Harris has been tasked with addressing the "root causes" of migration in Central America's impoverished Northern Triangle of countries, but her trip comes as US President Joe Biden's popularity at home has waned and his immigration strategy has stalled.

"We do very much want and intend to do what we can to support this new president," said one administration official.

President Castro tweeted that she appreciated Vice President Harris' visit and the President Biden administration's willingness to support the Honduran government.

Vice President Harris also pledged to send Honduras several hundred thousand more COVID-19 vaccine doses along with 500,000 syringes and $1.3 million for health and educational facilities.

The two did not discuss China, she told reporters.

US officials want to work with President Castro both 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, and President Castro during her campaign backtracked on comments that she might switch allegiance to China as president.

Taiwanese Vice President William Lai attended the inauguration in a bid to bolster ties with President Castro's government. Vice President Harris said the two spoke over their common interest in Central America.

Luis Leon, director of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy in Central America, said Vice President Harris' arrival was a boost for President Castro in the dispute over control of Congress and in addressing Honduras' weak economy.


President Castro said it was "practically impossible" to make current debt payments without a restructuring, after debt jumped sevenfold under her two conservative predecessors.

The country's total debt stands at about $15.5 billion, or nearly 60% of gross domestic product, an economic problem President Castro frequently highlighted ahead of her landslide win in November.

"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.

She vowed to immediately give more than 1 million poor Hondurans free electricity, with bigger consumers subsidising the cost.

President Castro, who describes herself as a democratic socialist, has vowed to tackle corruption, poverty and violence, chronic problems that have fueled US-bound migrants.

But her legislative program has been jeopardised by renegade politicians from her leftist Libre party who allied with the opposition National Party to vote for one of its members to head Congress, breaking a pact with a key electoral ally.

President Castro also takes office at a time of controversy for her predecessor Mr Hernandez, who had served a maximum two consecutive terms as president and had been a longstanding US ally in immigration and anti-narcotics operations.

US Congresswoman Norma Torres has called for Mr Hernandez's indictment on drug charges, and for US officials to request his extradition.

But Mr Hernandez may be shielded from extradition for up to four years, as he was sworn in as a member of the Central American parliament shortly after Castro's inauguration.

He has repeatedly denied accusations of corruption and links to drug traffickers.

Mr Hernandez's brother last year was sentenced by a US judge to life in prison plus 30 years for drug trafficking.