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8 May 2011

Honduras is “open for business”

The US-backed Honduran government seeks to attract investment.

By Tom Kavanagh

Dignitaries from 55 countries descended on San Pedro Sula this week as the city played host to the Honduran government’s “Honduras Is Open for Business” forum. The event is intended to tempt foreign investors back to a country still racked by political instability following the bloodless coup d’état that toppled President Manuel Zelaya two years ago.

Zelaya was seized by the military after the country’s supreme court issued a detention order, ostensibly to block him from holding a referendum that sought to extend the maximum number of terms a president can serve.

This, however, was a smokescreen. Zelaya had long attracted the anger of the Honduran business community and powerful corporate media, having increased the minimum wage by 60 per cent and channelled money into social welfare programmes in the Americas’ second-poorest country.

Foreign capital has fled Honduras since the coup, with a 46 per cent decline in investment after the turmoil that followed Zelaya’s deposal. The military declared martial law, broke up rallies held by groups loyal to the ousted leader and arrested scores of political dissidents prior to the election of current president, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, in November 2009.

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Lobo, who holds a degree in business administration from the University of Miami, thanked Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, during his inaugural address for her support in the face of the refusal of other Latin American countries, including Brazil and Argentina, to recognise the legitimacy of an election boycotted by much of the country’s opposition.

Honduras now looks poised for readmission to the Organisation of American States, from which it was expelled following the coup. The Venezuelan government recently announced that it would recognise Lobo’s government after outstanding charges against Zelaya were dropped and a tentative process of dialogue between the two parties initiated.

Domestic dissent, however, has been more difficult to quell. This week’s international forum was derided as an act of “total submission” to the interests of foreign capital by Honduras’s National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP).

The group scoffed that the series of conferences, where speakers include the former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe and the US under-secretary of commerce for international trade Francisco Sánchez, “concretises the total surrender of our natural resources and national territory to foreign investors”.

The United States is the single largest trade partner of Honduras, the state department affirming that its policy is geared towards “improving the climate for business and investment while protecting US citizen and corporate rights” and “promoting a healthy and more open economy capable of sustainable growth” in the impoverished central American nation.

This doesn’t sit well with many Hondurans, whose economy has been dominated by foreign agribusinesses and textile manufacturers for decades. Profits have been repatriated to the US while Honduras has stayed mired in poverty, suffering from a severely deficient infrastructure and notoriously corrupt political system and judiciary.

The FNRP says that it is not opposed to “national or foreign investment” per se, and that it believes in “the generation of employment opportunities and improving the country’s competitiveness”, but that this does not extend to supporting “submission to the laws of the market, motivated solely by the objective of greed and profit for the benefit of big domestic and multinational businesses”.