By Fulton Armstrong
The Honduran government expects to get the green light this month from a Korean consulting firm for a master plan to hand governance of several small communities over to private investors to develop them, but concerns about the plan run deep and appear unlikely to fade. Called ZEDEs – the Spanish acronym for “Employment and Economic Development Zones,” the specially designated areas are also called by their proponents charter cities, model cities, and startup cities. The first tranche of towns facing conversion are in the southern Honduran departments of Valle and Choluteca, with a new port built on the Gulf of Fonseca. The government says that the affected communities will remain an “inalienable part of the Honduran state,” but amendments to the Constitution, laws, and regulations permit their governing body – which is unelected – to establish “policies and regulations” and their own police and other public services. Called the “Committee for the Adoption of Best Practices,” the board is dominated by representatives of Honduran millionaires and an even greater number of non-Hondurans of predominantly libertarian ideology. Among them are American anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist; former President Reagan’s son Michael; and Michael Strong, chief executive of Radical Social Entrepreneurs. The ZEDEs’ guiding principle is to liberate communities from government taxation, oversight, and corruption in order to attract investment and stimulate prosperity.
The ZEDEs initiative has been plagued by opposition since its inception, however. Numerous reports underscore that the affected communities were never consulted, and demands for a referendum have repeatedly been rebuffed. Honduran implementation of the model has been rejected by the U.S. economist who proposed it, Paul Romer (formerly of Stanford University; currently at New York University). He withdrew because of the lack of Honduran transparency, including secret deals with interested U.S. parties. The Honduran Supreme Court initially voted 4-to-1 against a Constitutional amendment allowing creation of ZEDEs in 2012, but the Congress impeached the four dissenters and replaced them with supporters who voted unanimously in favor. There are numerous reports of intimidation of local civil society leaders, who deem them credible in view of clashes between wealthy businessmen and campesinos in other areas resulting in hundreds of deaths in recent years.
Honduras has a desperate need for economic growth – two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line – and its model of national governance, riddled with corruption and non-transparency, is indeed in crisis. But there’s no evidence that fighting one form of corruption with another non-transparent system will help anyone but the big investors. Indeed, Honduras has ranked among the most violent countries in the world for several years, with the term “failed state” looming darkly over it – making it perhaps the worst place to experiment with provocative new models of governance without popular consultation or support. Critics seem to have a good case: real reform and economic stimulus would focus on cleaning up the government and holding accountable the elites that have brought the country to ruin and now are trying to impose this model on their fellow citizens, rather than usurping the affected communities’ sovereignty.
March 19, 2015