Every time I return to Honduras for a visit or talk to someone who has returned from Honduras, I ask them..."Aha vos, y como están las cosas?" I always get the same answer. "The value of the lempira has gone down again. The price of frijoles is much higher. We're without electricity, water a few times a day. The violence." It's been the same old story for the past 40 years, or ever since I've been engaging my relatives and friends in discussions about why things are the way they are in Honduras ― politically, socially, and economically.
I've heard about all the corrupt governments. I've heard about the destabilizing role of the military. I've heard about the inept tax system that fails to collect needed revenue from people of influence. I've heard about the lack of industrial development, the excessive dependency on agriculture. I've heard about the inequities of land distribution in the countryside. I've heard about malnutrition in children. I've heard about the difficulty in building an infrastructure in a country that is 80 percent mountainous. I've heard about the inherent laziness of Hondurans.
Amazing. There are never any shortage of answers as to what is wrong with our country. Just like in the United States, people are able to rattle off a litany of problems. Of course, the problem is... How do you resolve the problems? All the solutions I've heard from my friends and relatives never seem to leave me with much hope, unfortunately. Solutions such as revolution or electing a new president from the other party (or inventing a new party altogether) are either too high a price to pay or seldom make much of a lasting difference. Same with the great adventures of "re-founding" the country or establishing "model cities". More thoughtful solutions such as land reform, education, industrial development, and doing away with corruption are great in theory, but are hard to implement well. Now, of course, there is also all that crime, drug trafficking, and violence to worry about.
Oh, and our kids keep leaving.
The more I've thought about my native country, the more I realize that it is precisely this difficulty in "implementing" solutions that is the problem. Honduras has few tools for carrying out major projects on a mass scale. And it's not a matter of money or material resources ― or even a new Constitution ― but rather ideas, energy and the knowledge of how to get things done. In other words, human resources. It's also a matter of being able to use these human resources without having to worry about being stone-walled at each turn by a system that, sadly, doesn't function very well.
As much as we love our native country, it is not unfair to say that most of the institutions in Honduras do not function efficiently or professionally ― at least not like we're accustomed to seeing in the US. The fact that Hondurans commonly joke about ineptitude, corruption and greed within their government, the unprofessionalism of their police, and the lack of modern, diversified and internationally competitive businesses, means that there is at least an element of truth to it all.
How do you go about changing major flaws in a country's most powerful institutions? Particularly when a country lacks the most powerful institution of all for change ― a large, well-informed and well-educated middle class with wide access to capital. I think the answer is that you can't.
Without a powerful, influential and motivated middle class, I do not believe Honduras will ever truly progress. There will be cycles of improvement for our country. The economy will show new signs of life whenever the price of coffee and bananas fluctuate favorably in world markets. Once in a while there will be a spurt of road and hotel construction which will encourage travel and tourism. Once in a while some smart business people will invest and create a new industry such as the harvesting of shrimp or we'll get lucky and already have a commodity in place such as tobacco which caters to some new international fad like cigar smoking.
I believe, however, that all of these things are destined to be cyclical and short-lived without a strong middle class to constantly push our country forward and keep its other institutions honest and functioning effectively. How do you create a middle class in Honduras, when over 75 percent of its people are poor and are busy simply trying to survive from day to day? How do you expand a middle class that makes up only about 20 percent of the population when its members are working just to keep up with inflation and numbingly high interest rates and maintain a semblance of economic security? There exists relatively little left-over energy, time or money to invest in getting involved in ideas, projects that do not somehow improve your lot or the well-being of your family and friends.
This type of situation will never be conducive to implementing serious change in Honduras. Gradual, minor changes will occur in our country through a sort of natural momentum of events, as has always been the case. There will be times that are less bad for our country as a whole, and there will be times such as now when things are very bad. But I fear there will never be times that are truly good for our country. Disregarding the destruction that Hurricane Mitch brought in 1998 and the economic and social setbacks caused by the overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, or the current epidemic of drugs and extreme violence fueled by the start of Mexico's "drug war" in 2006, I would not anticipate things in Honduras will be much different twenty years from now as a whole, or fifty years from now... unless we try a different angle on this matter of progress, development.
My assumption is that profound change cannot occur in Honduras solely from within. We have too many things working against us. My assumption also is that help from the outside such as economic aid and strategies for development from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank are not the answer. First, because assistance from international organizations usually comes with strings attached. Second, because all the assistance Honduras has received from these organizations for the past half century have not produced serious change for the country as whole. In some cases such as the agrarian reform efforts of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, World Bank development policies, for example, actually made things worse in Honduras by aggravating the situation between wealthy landholders and landless peasants.
Without delving into a long explanation of how this happened, I can say that generally the reason the policies of international organizations hurt our country is because they emphasize growth. Unfortunately, growth is not the be-all-and-end-all in an impoverished country... Development is. Believe it or not, there is a difference. I'll leave you to figure it out.
The most important reason why help from international organizations is not the answer is because these bodies are not independent. Because they are not self-sustaining financially, they are subject to the interests and politics of the governments that fund them. These organizations are also bureaucratic by their nature and the people that run their programs have many different agendas, be it personal or professional. For better or for worse, these organizations cannot always be relied upon to place the best interests of Honduras as a whole at the very top of their priority lists. Sometimes they will. Sometimes they won't. Besides, plain common sense tells you that any individual, any family, any company, or any country is infinitely better off when they don't have to rely on someone or something else for their well-being. Ultimately, Honduras must rely upon itself and its citizens. Again, though, how can it do so when the vast majority of its citizens are powerless? One hell of a quandary isn't it.
I've been called naïve to think this, but it strikes me that there may exist a reasonable number of Hondurans and Honduran-Americans (as well as "friends of Honduras") in the US and in other countries with the capacity to help make a difference in Honduras (working in partnership with the people of Honduras), and they don't even know it. I came to live in the US when I was four years old. For most of my life here, I've seldom run across another individual or family from Honduras. I've known that there are plenty of Hondurans living in New Orleans and Houston, but in all the towns and cities in which I've lived, I've always been a unique nationality. Of course, I've long maintained acquaintances with Hondurans who work at the Honduran Embassy and Consulate in Washington, DC. And in the past three decades, I've developed relationships with Hondurans who have immigrated to the US to work as physicians or to study. But these people have been few and far between.
It wasn't until I met a fellow Honduran and we started talking that I began to fathom the possibility that there might be lots of Hondurans and Honduran-Americans just like us tucked away in pockets of American society. Many of us have interesting professional careers, backgrounds. Contrary to popular opinion, not all Hondurans that have come to the US are refugees or migrant workers. There are lots of us who have grown up in the US, studied here, and work in a diverse range of professions. There are others of us who are enrolled in universities and colleges around the country. Some of us are here to stay for good. There are others of us who will eventually go back to Honduras.
The point is that, combined, I think we have the potential to be one of Honduras' greatest resources because many of us are unhindered by the internal problems of our native country. While we may not have huge financial resources at our disposal, many of us do have sufficient means to allow us the luxury of volunteering portions of our time to activities that can help Honduras. I've seen the tremendous outpouring of time, effort and material resources of which Hondurans and Honduran-Americans (not to mention average Americans) in the US and Hondurans in other countries are capable.
We are also unhindered by institutions in Honduras. If we want to accomplish something for Honduras, I feel confident we can find a way if we pool our expertise, ideas, and personal contacts. Many of us are independent and creative people who do not stop until we resolve problems, particularly when we have nothing to lose by trying. If there is any one thing that we have to have learned from living in the US, Europe and elsewhere, it is that anyone can accomplish anything if they work hard enough at it. If we can merge this positive spirit with our talents and resources and the selfless affection that we have for Honduras, along with our personal and professional relationships in Honduras, it would be fascinating to see how much we can do.
It would be a rather unconventional movement we would be creating to affect change in our home country. But you know, unconventional approaches have a way of gaining momentum sometimes. And, after all, all we're really talking about here is starting to communicate with one another. That's mainly what projecthonduras.com is all about.