Monday, May 14, 2012

Is Honduras Too Backward to Have Sovereignty?

Pardon us for being blunt. But that is, really, the question at the heart of Paul Romer's promotion of his charter cities idea for Honduras.

The most recent volley in this campaign is a blog post on NPR by Romer and an associate. It follows a longer piece in a recent edition of the New York Times described by NPR as a "profile" of Romer.

The NPR piece inaccurately describes the plan as to "build a city from scratch — and get foreign governments to help run it".

The inaccuracy here comes from the fact that foreign governments have in fact declined to be involved. Romer may have wanted the experiment to have a veneer of international development, but it hasn't quite attracted the international support he apparently thinks it should.

Why? Maybe the terms of engagement hinted at in these two news stories give an idea of what might give pause to other governments.

The New York Times piece was titled Who Wants to Buy Honduras?

Too ugly for you? Try the seemingly nicer NPR headline: How Honduras Can Pull Off Five Centuries of Legal Reforms in a Decade.

Are you still not getting the message? Honduras is a backward country that can only be saved from itself by being sold to someone more advanced.

The NPR piece presents this as an opportunity for Honduras to "leverage" the experience of countries that supposedly have been "down [the] long and arduous path" to the rule of law. The authors are not clear about what countries they have in mind, but they quote former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown saying "the first five centuries are always the hardest" in developing the rule of law.

Apparently, Honduras can profit from the five centuries of experience Great Britain has had in-- what? what do Romer and his associate imagine is relevant experience here? Five hundred years ago, Great Britain was launched on its way to becoming the model of modern colonial power. One presumes that isn't the part of their experience with the rule of law that Romer meant to invoke.

Romer and company ignore the actual history of Honduras including progress in the rule of law-- progress that was erased in the coup d'etat of 2009 and its aftermath, which seems beneath Romer's notice.

Instead, the NPR piece describes the challenges Honduras faces as if they have no recent historical causes, and as beyond any efforts of the Honduran people to solve in ways that would preserve their autonomy:
The rule of law is grounded in trust and shared norms, but establishing trust and shared norms is impossible if people live in fear – rural farmers fear repression; landowners fear expropriation; businesses fear that rivals will gain advantages through bribery; government officials fear that businesses will break contracts with impunity; urban residents fear violence from criminal gangs.

No. The issue in Honduras today is not fear: it is impunity on the part of the rich and powerful.

Rural farmers suffer from the impunity of the powerful who can attack them with private security forces, or can influence the government to call in the army for "enhanced" policing.

Landowners either have impunity-- and can act as they wish, ignoring laws about land use intended to encourage uses that benefit the entire country-- or are at the mercy of those with impunity, not, as the original suggests, government expropriation. As the prolonged negotiations to compensate landowners in the Bajo Aguan show, even when there is a case to be made for claims on the land by dispossessed peasants, the person holding the land in questionable legal circumstances can count on being paid for it, can demand a particular amount, and the peasants who in theory should be receiving land can be bound in almost feudal economic relations to the business of those landowners-- with impunity.

It is notable that the only use of the word impunity in Romer's description refers to a claim that the government "fears" that businesses will break contracts. Really? What we see is a government complicit with the wealthy in letting contracts to shell companies, often with inadequate compliance with environmental protections, without guarantees that the recipients of contracts will ever actually deliver on what they have promised.

And oh, the utter lack of knowledge betrayed in that "urban residents fear violence from criminal gangs". People in cities like San Pedro Sula fear crime-- in large part, because the police will not investigate, the legal system offers no promise of justice. Violence is complicated and multi-centered: reducing it to "criminal gangs" ignores the documented role of the security forces in visiting violence on citizens. It ignores people who, armed with all-too-easily obtained guns, take their defense into their own hands, with fatal results.

We are not going to revisit our previous critiques of the charter cities proposal in detail here. The neocolonialist structure is clearly based on ignoring the external causes of the difficulties of countries like Honduras-- including more than a century of interference in internal politics by foreign governments protecting their economic exploitation of Honduran resources.

Instead, let's look at how weak the current arguments in favor of this proposal are, even in these openly promotional pieces. Here's the New York Times attempting to praise Romer:
Romer’s charter city is trying to avoid this dark side of urbanization by adapting older, more successful models. The United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong and Singapore were able to build well-designed cities that housed and employed millions, in part by persuading foreigners to invest heavily. Dubai created a number of micro­cities — one of which, for instance, is governed by a system resembling English common law with judges from Britain, Singapore and New Zealand. 
Each has had well-known flaws, but Romer said the core idea can be replicated without them. The new Honduran charter city can work, he said, if its foreign leadership can similarly assure investors that they’ve created a secure place to do business — somewhere that money is safe from corrupt political cronyism or the occasional coup. If a multinational company commits to building new factories, real estate developers will follow and build apartments, which then provide the capital for electricity, sewers, telecom and a police force.

This makes it quite clear what the charter cities are about: safety for investors, security for business, a place where "money is safe". People become ancillaries to money in this nightmare vision.

Who will the servants of money residing in these mini-states be? Romer has visions of a city of 10 million people, more than the entire population of Honduras. Romer himself wants to be the chairman of the board that will run the Honduran experiment (required because no international government would sign on). No suggestion that he will move there (which the enabling Honduran law requires of the governing board). But obviously, his goal is to promote others to emigrate, although only the right kind of compliant laborers:
His charter city will have extremely open immigration policies to attract foreign workers from all over. It will also tactically dissuade some from coming. Singapore, Romer said, provides a good (if sometimes overzealous) model. Its strict penalties for things like not flushing a public toilet may make for late-night jokes, but they signal to potential immigrants that it is a great place if you want to work hard and play by the rules.  

Work hard and play by the rules. Unlike who?

Unlike Hondurans themselves, who haven't managed to make any progress toward the rule of law, and need a benign dictator to come and rescue them-- or at least, to rescue the money to be made in the land they currently occupy, without realizing its full potential.

After all, as the fawning author of the New York Times' piece reminds us
It’s easy to criticize experimenting with the livelihoods of the poor, but... the poor are already conducting daily experiments in how to make life better outside the formal economy. By and large, it isn’t working. We have to try some new things, probably many new things. And we have to accept that some of them won’t work.

That's what Hondurans deserve: to be made the material of international experiments taking place without their consent, against the protests of even the business community (contrary to the NPR article's counter-factual claim of broad support), that will deprive them of the right to control their own country, and that if successful, will pay international investors with the fruits of their labor.

This has been tried. It was called slavery. It is no prettier dressed up in academic dreams and ignorance.

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