Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Juan Orlando Hernández Visits Asia

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández traveled to Asia last week to further joint development agreements.  He returned with many wishes of goodwill, but few concrete commitments.

His trip took him to South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.  During the trip, Hernandez promoted Honduras as a gateway for Asian commerce with all of Central America.

The first stop on the tour was South Korea. There he signed a memo of understanding with the port of Busan, to develop commerce between Busan and ports in Honduras.  The agreement anticipates cooperation in port management and development with the goal of increasing shipping between Honduran ports and Busan. In a meeting with the Busan Chamber of Commerce Hernandez spoke of the investment opportunities in Honduras and his goal of making Honduras the shipping logistical center of the Americas.

What Honduran ports? The Honduran press was vague about this, but there is every reason to think the main target is Honduras' port facilities on the Pacific Coast, where the country has a small coastal access via the Gulf of Fonseca.

Hernández also signed an agreement with the Korean government to supply Honduras with electric cars and establish a network of charging stations for them. To do this, Korea also agreed it would have to improve the electricity supply and distribution network in Honduras.

Wrapping up his achievements, Hernandez asked the World Taekwando Federation (WTF) in Korea to send taekwando teachers to Honduras to train Honduran children in schools, and in public parks and government buildings.  He asked that this program be funded through the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), and that the WTF do this as part of its Taekwando Peace Corps.  He is quoted as saying
“Violence is one of the serious social problems facing Latin American countries, and I think taekwondo is the most effective tool to solve the issue".
Hernandez had previous contact with the WTF while President of the Honduran Congress, when he attended a dinner in Korea to honor then-president Porfirio Lobo Sosa, who holds a 3rd Kukkiwon Dan certificate.

While in South Korea, Hernández also took delivery of the long-awaited ZEDE feasibility study, completed by KOICA. Alert readers may recall that one of the identified target areas for development as a ZEDE is the Honduran Pacific port of Amapala, on El Tigre Island in the Gulf of Fonseca. Nonetheless, reporting on the Korean leg of Hernández' trip does not mention ZEDE development.

In the next stop on his trip, in Japan, Hernandez sought further cooperation between the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Honduras.  He received assurances that Japan would fund $135 million in renovations to two existing hydroelectric projects, Rio Lindo and Cañaveral, to raise them to 60 megawatts output.

He also asked JICA to supply Honduras with teachers of art and sports to train Honduran children in schools and public places as part of his vision of how to deal with juvenile delinquency, complementing his endorsement of Taekwondo while in South Korea.

In addition, Hernandez requested that JICA fund the construction of a bridge from the city of Amapala, on El Tigre island, to the mainland. This might be characterized as Honduras' own Bridge to Nowhere: the entire municipality of Amapala, which includes the islands in the Gulf of Fonseca, has a population reported to be around 11,000.

So why the interest in a bridge there?

The bridge is cornerstone infrastructure needed for Hernandez's vision of ZEDEs in southern Honduras. The Rough Guide to Honduras evocatively describes the town of Amapala, located on Isla del Tigre, as "once the country’s major Pacific port and now a decaying relic of the nineteenth century". What Hernández envisions is making Amapala a major port again, with other people putting up the development capital.

Moving on to Taiwan, Hernández signed an agreement to promote mutual trade and investment. He made presentations to a group of businessmen and met with the Taiwanese government to pitch Honduras as Taiwan's way of getting more Taiwanese goods into Central America by exploiting Honduras's membership in CAFTA.

What did not come out of the Asian trip was any announcement of a group of investors prepared to take on development of the ZEDE opportunity. Nonetheless, the echoes of that initiative were there in the background, as they have been on most of Hernández' foreign presentations.

For example, earlier this month a Honduran commission traveled to Mexico to secure funding to complete two more segments of another infrastructure project that would be necessary to support Hernandez's ZEDE vision, the so called "dry canal": a four lane highway from Honduras's Pacific Coast to its Caribbean coast. 

The two road segments, already under construction by Mexican firm CAABSA and totaling a length of 54 km., need a further $30 million to be completed. A third segment of 46 km. is being built by a Brazilian firm, funded by a loan from the Brazilian Development Bank.  The whole of this roadway is supposed to be completed in 2017 and is necessary to make ZEDE developments along Honduras's Pacific coast economically feasible.

No reports exist in Honduran press relating the results of the Mexican trip. But combined with Hernández' pursuit of Japanese government funding for the bridge to Amapala, the mission of the Mexican trip shows that developing the Amapala port remains the focus of the Hernández government. Whether it will attract the foreign investment required, as a ZEDE or otherwise, remains to be seen.