Archive for August, 2017

Honduras experiments with charter cities

https://www.economist.com/news/americas/21726121-central-american-country-has-bold-plan-attract-investment-it-not-going

The Central American country has a bold plan to attract investment. It is not going well

ONE sunny Wednesday in Amapala, off the coast of Honduras, 33 working-age men settled themselves on rows of chairs on the main street under a tarpaulin to watch a football game. There was not much traffic to disrupt. The dilapidated town on the island of El Tigre had once been a bustling port, dispatching coffee and other commodities to Europe. Herbert Hoover and Albert Einstein thought the place worth visiting. But the German merchants and shipowners who had managed Amapala’s commerce left after the second world war; in 1979 the port moved to the mainland. The football fans now work intermittently as fishermen, farmers and drivers of three-wheeled mototaxis, most earning less than $2 a day. Some of the peeling pastel-coloured buildings bear signs in English, put up in expectation of a tourism revival that never happened.

Honduras’s government is promising a return to the glory days. In 2013 it announced plans to build a “megaport” in Amapala, along with a customs office and processing plants for exports such as shrimp, textiles and bananas. The money would come from private investors, who would be enticed by the establishment of three “employment and economic development zones” (ZEDEs). More ambitious than typical free-trade zones, these would be independent jurisdictions with their own laws, courts and police. The capital they attract would create jobs and relieve poverty. Rather than fleeing to the United States, Hondurans threatened by the country’s ubiquitous gangs could find security and livelihoods in ZEDEs.

The government has such faith in this idea that in 2013 it passed a law that adds ZEDEs to municipalities and departments as units of the republic. It is considering proposals for 20 ZEDEs across the country and has signed more than ten memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with investors, says Octavio Sánchez, one of the project’s leaders. Some are “ready to go—land bought, maps drawn and capital raised”, he says. The government may announce the first few projects at the end of August. They might be as small as a call centre or cover an entire city.

Sweet dreams are made of ZEDEs

It is easy to see why Honduras might want to create enclaves of safety and efficiency on its territory. It is one of the world’s most violent countries; laws and contracts are spottily enforced; its bureaucracy is a hindrance rather than a help to its citizens; infrastructure is rudimentary and in poor repair (see chart).

The government’s proposal for overcoming these defects draws inspiration from the idea of “charter cities”, new jurisdictions on empty land that bypass weak institutions to attract investment and jobs. Paul Romer, now the World Bank’s chief economist, popularised the idea after noticing that autonomous cities like Hong Kong and Dubai became magnets for investment. In 2010 Mr Sánchez, chief of staff for Porfirio Lobo, Honduras’s president at the time, asked Mr Romer to help set up the first “model cities” after seeing a TED talk that he gave.

Like Dubai’s free-trade zones, ZEDEs are to be “seamlessly integrated into the city”, says Mr Sánchez. But they also hark back to an older model from Honduras’s banana-republic days, when the country in effect turned over swathes of territory to giant firms like the United Fruit Company. “Banana enclaves are an example of the successful functioning of models from other states,” says Ebal Díaz, the secretary of Honduras’s council of ministers.

But the plan to correct the country’s faults one ZEDE at a time is causing alarm. The zones can be created in thinly populated areas without the consent of the locals. Hondurans inside them will lose some rights. Under the law creating ZEDEs, just six of the constitution’s 379 articles must apply within them, points out Fernando García, a lawyer in Tegucigalpa, the capital. These do not include those underwriting such rights as habeas corpus and press freedom.

The project is beset by conflict between foreigners brought in to help monitor it and Honduran officials responsible for putting it into practice, and by strife among the Hondurans themselves. What decisions have been made and who has made them are a mystery to people outside the process, and even to some who are supposedly part of it. Outsiders assume the worst. A recent report by the Carnegie Endowment, a think-tank, calls Honduras “emblematic” of countries in which “corruption is the operating system” of networks formed by government, business and “out-and-out criminals”. The ZEDE saga suggests that such a system will have great difficulty in creating one that is free of its own shortcomings.

The ZEDE plan has its origins in a coup and the complicated politics that ensued. The government of Mr Lobo, who won hastily arranged elections after the army ousted a predecessor in 2009, passed a law creating a forerunner to ZEDEs. After the constitutional court struck down the law, saying it violated Honduran sovereignty, congress dismissed the four justices who had voted against it and amended the constitution to allow passage of the current “model-cities” statute in 2013.

By then Mr Romer had broken with the project (after he realised that the “transparency commission” he was supposed to chair would never in fact exist). But it still has plenty of political support. The current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, who is running for re-election, sees ZEDEs as a vote-winner. He recently posted on Facebook a (perhaps fanciful) map showing how they would transform Honduras into the Americas’ “logistics centre”. A motley group of foreign libertarians, who like the idea of lightly regulated mini-Utopias for enterprise, are still involved. The Inter-American Development Bank has said it may lend $20m to back their development.

Even after seven years of work, the scheme is as vague as it is ambitious. No one outside a small group knows what the first project will be. Agile Solutions, a Brazilian software firm, talks of investing $200m to open a “startup village” in Tegucigalpa, creating 6,000 jobs. Its Honduran boss, Carlos Cruz, sees the zone as a “blank slate”, which the company could use as a laboratory for new approaches to health care, education and tax.

Another candidate to be the first ZEDE is a public-private partnership with Canadian investors to create an “energy district” in Olancho department, where wood would be harvested for fuel. The ZEDE itself would be confined at first to a 1.6 square km (0.6 square mile) patch, which will be occupied by a power station. But it could eventually expand to an area covering 8% of Honduras’s territory and including 380,000 people. HOI, a Christian NGO based in the United States, is to provide health care and education from the outset in this “area of influence”.

After spending millions of dollars on feasibility studies for Amapala, South Korea’s development agency concluded that the area is not ready for a megaport. So the Honduran government decided to start with a tourism project that scoops into several fishing villages on the bay, plus factories and a customs centre nearby. Some proposed ZEDEs are based on “Plan 2020”, a master plan for the country drawn up by McKinsey, a consultancy. It suggests creating 600,000 jobs by attracting vehicle-assembly operations, call centres and other industries from Asia.

Even now, just how ZEDEs will work is a matter of argument among their supporters. The law places effective control in the hands of investors and a “technical secretary” who will administer each zone (and must be a Honduran citizen). They are answerable to an independent “commission for best practices” (CAMP). Civil and criminal cases will be adjudicated by special ZEDE courts, though it is not clear whether each zone will have its own or whether they will join a single parallel system. They could employ foreign judges to hear civil and criminal cases, just as Honduran football teams hire foreign players, suggests Mr Díaz. A “tribunal of individual rights”, guided by international conventions, will protect residents. Its decisions can be appealed to international courts.

But this governance structure is not settled; participants do not agree on what has been decided or even on who is part of it. The original CAMP, appointed by Mr Lobo, had 21 members, including Grover Norquist, an American anti-tax campaigner, Richard Rahn, then of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, DC, and Mark Klugmann, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan. This body met just once, in March 2015, on the resort island of Roatán.

According to Mr Sánchez and Mr Díaz, it has been pared down to 12 members. Seven are Hondurans from the ruling National Party; the five foreigners include Mr Rahn and Barbara Kolm, an economist with links to Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, but not Mr Klugmann. This group has been meeting secretly in Miami. But power is now exercised by a five-person standing committee led by Ms Kolm, who is the only foreign member.

Mr Klugmann denounces the sidelining of the original CAMP as “illegitimate” and illegal. Arnaldo Castillo, Honduras’s minister of economic development, denies that it has occurred. The argument over which CAMP is in charge is also about principle. Mr Klugmann thinks good governance matters more to investors than cheap labour and light regulation. He wants ZEDEs to perfect their institutional set-up before they start operations. Mr Rahn seems to be losing heart. He was “asked to try to bring in best practices of corporate governance”, he says. But it has been an “uphill struggle”. Although the CAMP is supposed to be independent, Mr Rahn has “the strong impression that there is government interference”.

Mr Sánchez’s Honduran faction seems more eager to sign deals, and more willing to cut corners. One proposal is for a public-private partnership with Conatel, the state-owned telecoms company. Its boss is Mr Díaz, who is also the member of the CAMP authorised to sign MoUs and the head of the agency that registers land titles. Mr Sánchez sees no conflict of interest in this accumulation of roles. “It’s the same government,” he says.

The fuzziness about governance will increase suspicion that ZEDEs are a further way to enrich an entrenched elite and erode the rights of ordinary Hondurans. The National Lawyers Guild, a left-leaning American NGO, fears that the CAMP and the technical secretaries will wield unchallengeable power over ZEDEs and the people who live and work within their boundaries. Once established, ZEDEs can seize land to expand the zones. That may provoke conflict: 90% of Hondurans do not have titles to their homes and scores have died in land disputes in recent years. Hondurans living in areas marked out for ZEDEs have little idea what is in store. “We have never been in the loop,” says Julio Ramírez, Amapala’s bespectacled town clerk.

It is possible that nothing will change in sleepy Amapala. Salvador Nasralla, the leading candidate to unseat Mr Hernández in elections on November 26th, says he would repeal the ZEDE law (though that would require a two-thirds majority in congress). The CAMP chaos may drive away investors. But if they come, the football aficionados of Amapala may learn what it is like to be guinea pigs in a daring economic experiment. Their little island will be in Honduras, but no longer of it.

This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline “A shadowy experiment”
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Kaptur statement on threats to human rights defenders in Honduras

TOLEDO — Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (OH-9) issued the following statement of concern related to the escalation of risk for human rights defenders in Honduras.

“I join the United Nations Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights and my colleagues in Congress in registering grave concern regarding the violent escalation of intimidating threats toward rights defenders in Honduras. Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno, Padre Melo,  the entire team of Radio Progreso and ERIC-SJ, the family of slain environmentalist Berta Caceres, and Berta Oliva, director of  the Committee of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras are all under threat.

“Statements made by public authorities in Honduras discrediting the work of human rights defenders and journalists put them at risk of physical harm and undermine freedom of speech. These precious advocates for liberty deserve the support and protection of the international community.

“Prior to her brutal murder in 2016, indigenous rights defender, Bertha Cáceres was targeted extensively by similar threats and intimidation. The alarming increase in threats to defenders of human rights in recent weeks underscores our responsibility to support the Bertha Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, to speak out on behalf of those at risk, and to insist that the government of Honduras respect, affirm, and protect the full exercise of the rights of all its people.”

Kaptur is a lead sponsor of the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (HR 1299), which would suspend U.S. funding to the Republic of Honduras for their police and military operations, including funds for equipment and training, until the Honduran government investigates credible reports indicating the police and military are violating citizens’ human rights, prohibit international loans providing for security assistance – from being dispersed unless Honduras makes serious inroads to addressing blatant human rights violations by police and military forces.

 

Jesuits Decry Attacks on Honduran Jesuit Fr. Ismael “Melo” Moreno

Fr. Ismael “Melo” Moreno, SJ
Jesuits Decry Attacks on Honduran Jesuit Fr. Ismael “Melo” Moreno, Prominent Human Rights Activist

August 7, 2017 — On July 31, the feast of St. Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus, Latin American Jesuits raised an alarm for one of their brother Jesuits, Fr. Ismael “Melo” Moreno, director of the Honduran Jesuit radio station, Radio Progreso, and the Honduran Jesuit social action center.

An outspoken human rights advocate in a country plagued by government corruption and violence, Fr. Melo has worked for years to promote dialogue while advocating for the marginalized.

Last year when the national university, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras (UNAH), was embroiled in student strikes, Fr. Melo sat at the negotiating table at the request of students. While agreements were reached between the students and the university, this year student strikes and protests continued, and in the aftermath many students have been injured at the hands of university-hired security forces and many more arrested. In addition, the recent murder of the father of a student activist, who was killed after attending the judicial hearing of his son, has created a climate of fear for those exercising their right to protest peacefully.


Fr. Melo at a protest.

On July 19, at a concert held on campus, Fr. Melo joined hundreds of students protesting the treatment of their fellow classmates by university authorities. Retaliating against Fr. Melo for his support of the students, the university’s rector accused the Jesuit of promoting anarchy and generating violence. The university subsequently canceled its contract with ERIC, the Jesuit-run social action center that Fr. Melo leads.

In their statement, the Jesuits of the Central American Province said, “We want to declare that the attacks directed against Fr. Melo are the consequence of working to defend the human rights of all sectors of society. … The defense of human rights … is the horizon that guides the work of the Society of Jesus in Honduras.”

The statement, which was endorsed by the president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the U.S. and the president of the Conference of Provincials for Latin America and the Caribbean, expressed strong support for ERIC-Radio Progreso and Fr. Moreno for maintaining “a spirit of open and flexible dialogue, of reasonable tolerance, and of unwavering struggle for justice.”

Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the U.S., said, “Fr. Melo’s entire life has been devoted to freedom of expression and human rights. It’s egregious that he’s being accused of inciting violence when he’s watched dear friends like environmental activist Berta Cáceres be gunned down for speaking up for the people of Honduras.”

According to U.S. Jesuit Matthew Ippel, the public attack against Fr. Melo by the university rector is a threat and part of a pattern of attack against human rights defenders. “It is embedded in a larger narrative that makes any dissenting voice the enemy. It is deeply alarming that those who advocate for justice, for the defense of the rights of the marginalized and excluded, are being discredited, criminalized and assassinated.”


Matthew Ippel, SJ, with Fr. Melo.

Radio Progreso, an important independent voice in a country where most broadcast outlets are controlled by special interests, serves both rural communities and large cities. In the last several years, two employees of ERIC-Radio Progreso have been murdered and threats have been made against others. In late March of this year, a defamation campaign targeted Fr. Melo and other activists.

According to the Organization of American States, Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world for human rights defenders.

In 2015, Fr. Melo was honored with the prestigious Rafto Prize for his “defense of freedom of expression in one of the most violent countries in the world.” In accepting the prize, Fr. Melo said, “I believe profoundly in life, and I profoundly believe in human beings and I deeply believe that the good will prevail against any kind of evil and violence.” [Sources: Central American Province of the Society of Jesus, The Jesuit Post]

The Via Crucis of Comayagua

The author’s nephew, Johnny Javier, pictured with his family. Javier was killed Feb. 14, 2012, in a fire at a prison in Comayagua, Honduras. (Photo provided by Mary McCann Sanchez)
The fire that swept through the medium-security prison in Comayagua, Honduras, on the night of Feb. 14, 2012, took the lives of 361 individuals. Devastating flames danced high above the prison walls. Hundreds of prisoners — as well as spouses admitted for a rare conjugal visit — perished in the sudden inferno.I lost my nephew, Johnny Javier, to that fire. The young man was locked in a wing of the jail where toxic smoke invaded, extinguishing any hope of survival. The scene was maliciously unreal. Firefighters arrived 40 minutes after the flames ignited, and first responders reported that guards with keys were nowhere to be found. Johnny and his cellmates died as captives.

An immensely painful personal tragedy? The loss of this young man was that and much, much more. The inability of the Honduran state to protect men held in its custody effectively fueled the incineration of hundreds of human beings. More than half of those imprisoned in Comayagua had never been tried or convicted of a crime, yet the lack of due process had metamorphosed into mass execution by fire.

My nephew’s case, however, had swiftly crossed desks in the court, where it was stamped and sealed and irrevocably filed away. In 2010, when Johnny was a 23-year-old taxi driver, he had fallen victim to a frame-up when an acquaintance asked him to moonlight in a stolen cab. Oblivious of the vehicle’s history, Johnny had accepted, anxious to supplement his scant income of $20 per day.

Soon after, Johnny was rounded up. An attorney appeared at the door of his in-laws’ home, where Johnny lived with his wife, Maribel, and their baby daughter. The lawyer convinced the young mother that a speedy admission of guilt would result in prompt release. Gathering the family’s savings, Maribel paid the lawyer and rushed to the prison where Johnny signed the papers that cost him his freedom.

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Once aware of the travesty, our family sought the services of credible attorneys who attempted to reverse the lethal effects of the unscrupulous lawyer’s advice. The backlogged court, however, had no room for the case. The only out was early release for good behavior.

Johnny stoically accepted his lot. Trusting no one, he worked quietly in the penitentiary garden and sewed uniforms for prison guards.

Those of us who loved Johnny felt the grip of anxiety. Johnny was young and strong, a sure target for gang lords ruling inside and outside the jails. And if he could withstand peer pressure, would he survive the penitentiary itself? We knew prisoners went hungry. I personally had seen how men slept on shelves of cots stacked six high in a prison on the northern coast, where a riot and fire in 2003 left 86 dead.

Nagging questions, not limited to the jail, became part of our lives. Honduras had been hard hit outside the prison walls, too. The legacy of the June 2009 coup in Honduras — the first golpe de estado in Latin America of the century — was one of constricted civil liberties and alarming, unexplained killings of attorneys and journalists. Four judges lost their places at the bench for speaking out.

As Johnny toiled within the prison day after day, pressures mounted outside. Urban centers and rural plazas became home to the weekly protests. Teachers, factory workers, indigenous people, professionals and people of faith protested the systemic failure to deliver justice, inside and outside the jails.

In response, long rows of heavily shielded, helmeted police forces flanked public parks and thoroughfares in relentless shows of force. A young woman died in a protest, choked by tear gas, a precursor to the suffocation that Johnny and others would be subjected to.

The prison complex went up in flames, due to causes never adequately investigated nor explained. The families of 800 inmates awaited news. Which cell blocks burned? Which wings filled with smoke? Who had escaped?

My nephew was declared dead based on cot location. He could be any one of the scores of charred bodies. Our family joined other mourners to travel to the prison and then the capital, seeking his remains. White-jacketed technicians tied rubber sashes on the tiny arm of Johnny’s daughter, and drew blood in pursuit of a DNA match.

The forensic review lagged cruelly. It was Lent in Honduras and the penance was real. Ash Wednesday, Passion Sunday, Good Friday — Easter came and went with no resurrection, no tomb to visit, no body to behold. My husband took to the streets with other mourners, placards in hand, to demand an end to the uncertainty.

Fifty-eight days after the fire, Johnny’s widow was summoned to a morgue in the capital. An officer escorted her to a coffin, nailed shut. “Do not open this box,” he warned her, “you will find only bones.” She leaned heavily on Johnny’s two brothers, standing by her side.

In Honduras, it is common for the bereaved to say good-bye to those they love. Gazing into an open casket is the moment of release, a time when peace might begin to set in. Throughout Central America, tenacious searches for the remains of loved ones, followed by exhumation and forensic discovery, have contributed to processes to uphold fundamental human rights.

In the case of the prisoners, however, the long-overdue delivery of impenetrable vessels of bones and ashes failed to provide closure, to engender trust.

And yet, these families in Honduras achieved modest gains: a partial purge of abusive authority, initial steps in prison reform, and meager economic retribution.

And on the broader scale, other victories emerged. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights upheld the right of free expression of the judges who had voiced opposition to the coup and demanded their restitution. Journalists exposed massive corruption at high government levels, despite backlash and punitive actions in what to this day remains an uphill struggle for the rule of law.

How does such suffering and such conviction speak to the Lenten journey and to the paschal mystery? The Via Crucis of the families required enormous fortitude. Intensely private love and separation by death transcended the realm of the individual into community and nation. Step by step, station by station, the cross passed from men and women present only in our hearts to unintentional communities of families and friends that rose to bear it.

Some years have passed since flames raged through the prison of Comayagua. As Lent begins, I am reminded that the suffering that penetrates this season is real and that sacrifice is more than self-deprivation. Clearly, Honduras is not the only country locked down by institutions too weak to uphold justice. Finding the answer to the age-old question of “Where is the victory?” has much to do with the struggle that we dare to take on and the companions that we will embrace on the journey.

[Mary McCann Sanchez is a teacher and writer with a long history of peacebuilding, social justice and community development work in Latin America and in Chicago.]