Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Honduras 'Model City' Plan in the Spotlight

A plan to build “model cities” in Honduras, with their own laws and police force, is facing growing controversy with the resignation of its oversight committee, dozens of legal challenges, and the murder of a lawyer who was a leading opponent.

The New York Times has a piece on Paul Romer, a US economist who developed the idea of the “charter city,” separate from the rest of the country, which would be administered by foreign governments, comparable to Hong Kong. The Economist has compared the plan to “internal start-ups -- quasi-independent city-states that begin with a clean slate and are then overseen by outside experts.”

The plan is moving forward in Honduras, following a 2011 constitutional amendment to allow for the new cities, but Romer and the rest of a transparency commission that was meant to oversee the process resigned en masse on September 7. They complained that the government had shut them out of the process, including negotiations with UK-based MGK Group that plans to invest. “The one absolute principle is a commitment to transparency,” Romer told the NYT.

Honduras Culture and Politics comments that this loss of the committee does not seem to bother the Honduran government, as they now have control of the entire process.

MGK Group is lead by CEO Michael Strong, who the NYT describes as an “activist” -- “He promises that his investors include Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Central American investors, but when pressed for details, named only one Guatemalan businessman.” The newspaper says that the lack of details has made even pro-government newspapers question the reality of the project. Honduras Culture and Politics says that the group’s “bare bones generic website grupomgk.com ... was hastily erected in the last week.” El Heraldo reported on September 14 that the organization did not exist, and that no trace of it could be found online.

Honduras Culture and Politics reports that Strong has been involved in projects including Conscious CapitalismRadical Social Entrepeneurs, and Peace Through Commerce, which all share the idea that poverty can be combatted through better legal systems that allow poor people to set up businesses free from restrictions.

Strong’s vision of the project differs to that of Romer, as Honduras Culture and Politics sets out. He does not want the Special Development Regions, or REDs, to be governed by foreign powers, but by a Honduran governor, and the land would not be granted by the Honduran government, but privately purchased.

“Once we provide a sound legal system within which to do business, the whole job creation machine – the miracle of capitalism – will get going,” he told Fox News. “Our goal is to be the most economically free entity on Earth,” with no taxes except on property. MKG Group will not only build the city but make its laws, according to Fox.

There is broad opposition to the plan in Honduras, and Honduras Culture and Politics had counted 76 separate legal challenges to the constitutional amendment by Friday.

One of those involved in the opposition was lawyer Antonio Trejo Cabrera, who was gunned down in Tegucigalpa on September 22. He was part of a group of lawyers who presented a challenge to the project on September 5, according to Human Rights Watch.

Strong told the Associated Press that the company was horrified by Trejo’s murder:

We believe that Antonio Trejo, had he lived long enough to get to know us, would have concluded that our approach is 100 percent beneficial to Honduras and Hondurans.”

News Briefs

  • Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos has announced that he is suffering from prostate cancer. He will undergo surgery on Wednesday, and said that there is a 97 percent chance he will be completely cured, reports Reuters. The news agency said it was unlikely that the operation would derail peace talks with the FARC rebel group. The news comes soon after the FARC announced that the official start of the talks in Oslo had been delayed for a week, until October 15. La Silla Vacia points out that the news on Santos’ health raises questions about that of his vice president, Angelino Garzon, who suffered a stroke earlier this year.
  • Venezuela President Hugo Chavez has promised to push through still more socialist reforms if elected to another term in Sunday’s election, reports the AP. The Wall Street Journal looks at surging government spending in the run-up to the election, reporting that this hit $9.3 billion in August, up from $8.6 billion in July and $5.2 billion in August last year. Meanwhile, Mary Anastasia O’Grady makes dire predictions about the election, warning that: “From buying votes with state resources to intimidating voters to messing with the ballots that the Chavez-controlled electoral tribunal will tally to unleashing a jackboot crackdown on anyone who objects, the Chavez machine has plenty of ways to thwart the electorate.” She even suggests that the Cuban government might step in to prevent a handover of power.
  • The AP has a report with more details on the victims of Saturday’s fatal shooting of opposition supporters. One of the men, Jason Valero, “was so excited about the possibility that Henrique Capriles could unseat President Hugo Chavez that he took a few weeks off from his job as a dump truck driver to work on the opposition presidential candidate's campaign.”
  • InSight Crime has published an investigation, carried out with four other media organizations in the region, into the new face of displacement in Latin America. It features reports from Mexico (Animal Politico), Guatemala (Plaza Publica) and El Salvador (El Faro), as well as Colombia (Verdad Abierta).
  • The first restitution claim for land allegedly stolen by the FARC was lodged on Wednesday, and regards some 700,000 hectares in the central-eastern Colombian province of Tolima, reports El Tiempo.
  • IPS reports on anti-government protests in Haiti, where thousands marched through the streets on Sunday demanding the exit of President Michel Martelly, on the 21st anniversary of the coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The march contained both groups who opposed Aristide and his supporters, according to the report. Martelly returned to the country the following day, after a trip to the US, and the Miami Herald reports that he walked from the airport to his residence accompanied by carnival music and bands, though with fewer crowds than the previous day’s protests.
  • Reporters Without Borders reports that Ecuadorian magazine Vistazo has been fined $80,000 for an editorial it published in May last year, after a ruling that this constituted propaganda ahead of a referendum. President Rafael Correa personally complained about the editorial, and asked for sanctions. 
  • A boss of the Gulf Cartel,  Juan Roberto Rincon Rincon, has been convicted of drug trafficking in a Texas Court. He was a close associate of cartel leader Jorge Eduardo Costilla, alias “El Coss,” who was recently captured, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • La Silla Vacia is putting together a database of people appointed by Colombian Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez, who is standing for reelection. It notes that one of the cornerstones of his “immense” power is his authority to name at will hundreds of positions which come with good salaries, giving him a greater bureaucratic power than the president. Semana has a long piece on the politics around the controversial re-election, titled “The inspector general in his labyrinth.”
  • In Haiti, many people are ignoring the new ban on the sale and use of plastic bags and foam food containers, reports the AP.

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