Category Archives: Central America

Why foreign assistance is important to US economy

Too many Americans are just plain wrong when it comes to foreign aid.

In January 2016 a Kaiser Foundation survey showed that 15 percent of the American people believe the foreign aid budget represents more than half of the U.S. federal budget.  The average answer from the survey was that the US spend 31 percent of its budget on foreign aid. Only 3 percent had the right answer: 1-1.5 percent.

 

And now the Trump Administration wants to cut the aid program (and the rest of civilian foreign policy operations) by a third.

Contrary to the attitude that seems to come from the administration and its supporters, the purpose of foreign aid is not to just give away money to make us feel better. In fact, foreign aid is an important factor in improving the U.S. economy.

When poor people in another country start earning more money, they most often use the money to improve the lives of their children by investing in education and health. And once those basic cares are covered, these people then start buying things.

If the country has a free-trade agreement with the United States, that means U.S. products can enter the country with low or no import fees. And that means the U.S. products can be purchased by the emerging middle class.

Helping build a strong middle class in the developing world is part of what development aid is all about. One of the most visible programs in the US Agency for International Development universe is Feed the Future.

I have seen the program in action in Honduras.

Farmers who barely able to grow enough to feed their families were able improve their agricultural output under the Feed the Future program. I saw farmers install healthy stoves — designed to expel the smoke outside the house. The extra income was also used to improve the diets of the families, thereby making the children healthier and better able to learn. And the extra money was also used to educate the children so they can find better paying work when they graduate.

For less than a penny on the dollar, tens of thousands of people in Honduras were brought out of severe poverty — about $1 a day. The lives of these people was improved and their children were given opportunities to improve their future.

And this affects the U.S. how?

By giving young people a viable future, U.S. aid programs keeps them away from gangs — in particular the major syndicates that help move drugs into the United States. Also, by improving the local country’s economy, there are fewer reasons for young people to leave their country for the United States.

And to be clear, Feed the Future is not only for farmers. It works with people who have an idea for a company but who aren’t sure how to proceed.

Norma Linares owns Loma Alta, a thriving food processing enterprise that she and her husband founded in 2014 in their village of Azacualpa, Honduras. The husband and wife team turned about 300 plantains per month into chips, which they sold to local retail outlets. Home-based and family-run, the business started small, generating a net income of around $75 a month.

Soon after Loma Alta’s founding, Linares and her husband started working with a Feed the Future project, where they were introduced to a wide range of training and technical assistance to improve processing efficiency, quality control, and packaging in their business. Feed the Future also helped Loma Alta establish ties with market contacts, giving it year-round access to reliable buyers and a more steady income throughout the year.

Opportunities Sprout from Growing Plantain Business

Eventually the company expanded into other packaged foods and changed from a solely family business to one that hires people to package and sell their goods.

In just a few years this family moved firmly into the middle class in Honduras. And that means they will be able to buy U.S. products. It also means they will be staying in Honduras rather than making the dangerous journey to the U.S. to look for economic opportunities.

For about one cent on the dollar USAID (and the State Department) provide programs and assistance that helps build the economies of other countries, which in turn means more markets for U.S. goods AND reduced immigration.

So what is the more wasteful program: Building a wall and militarizing a border or providing assistance to people to work their way out of poverty?

Common sense says it is clearly the latter.

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Filed under Central America, Connections, Development, Story Ideas

Honduran Arrests Can Affect News Media Landscape

Originally posted at Journalism and the World, Society of Professional Journalists

The US government arrested Honduran Yanki Rosenthal when he landed in Miami October 6 on charges of money laundering. The next day indictments were handed down for other members of his family.

While many in the world media are focusing on Yanki’s ownership of a major Honduran soccer team and the family’s ownership of the bank Grupo Continental, the reach of the Rosenthal family is much more extensive.

For journalists, the indictments hit close to home.

The Rosenthals own one of the major newspapers — El Tiempo — and a national TV outlet — Canal 11.

How the Honduran press handled the arrest and indictments clearly showed the biases

El Tiempo lead with:

The Continental Group issued a statement rejecting the accusations made Wednesday the Treasury Department of the United States, where several companies linked to the group of the crime of money laundering. Facing accusations Continental Group denies allegations of money laundering involving companies in the Continental Group.

Competitor El Heraldo, however, went with:

The US attorney in Manhattan announced charges Wednesday against four Hondurans by “laundering of proceeds of drug trafficking and bribery crimes through accounts in the United States.

Rolando Jaime Rosenthal Oliva, Yani Benjamin Rosenthal Hidalgo, Yankel Rosenthal and Andrew Acosta Garcia Coello “were charged in connection with a conspiracy carried out over several years to launder profits from drug crimes,” said the office of the Southern District of New York.

The newspapers — and television news outlets — have never been shy about showing off the political leanings of the owners. It will now be interesting to see how the news media handle the trials of one of the five big families of Honduras.

What will be important for foreign journalists to pay attention to will not be the cat fight that is sure to be played out in the front pages, but rather if (when) the number of life-threatening threats against journalists covering this case increases.

Journalists in Honduras have faced numerous threats — not so much from the government as from the narcos. Threats will most likely come against anyone digging deeply into this story.

THIS IS BIG! In the past, the US and Honduran governments have acted against drug kingpins and their holdings. This is the first time there is a major move against such a prominent family and such large corporate holdings in the country. Among those indicted are a former president of the country and a presidential candidate for the Liberal Party, the mainstream opposition party to the ruling National Party.

Grupo Continental is one of the largest banks in Honduras. Its holding extend deeply into Honduran society, including — as noted — the news media.

Under Honduran law, the property and goods of indicted individuals is put under the control of the Administrative Office of Seized Goods (OABI). When a major narco was arrested, OABI took over control of his private zoo, which was occasionally opened to the public. OABI brought in animal experts to evaluate and run the zoo and kept it open to the public. (The narco zoo was much larger than the Tegucigalpa Zoo, but the animals were in much worse shape.)

Seized gym equipment was donated to outreach centers to help keep young people active in safe (non-gang related) activities. Likewise, OABI arranged for a boat, including fuel and maintenance for the boat, so a school in Cayos Cochinos could make sure the kids got an education. (The islands are inhabited by some of the poorest people in Honduras.)

The director of OABI fought corrupt bosses and politicians before he rose to the top job. Once he took command of the organization, he made sure everything was handled by the book. (In other words, no more seized cars for a political leader, just because he wants one.)

The director understands and operates OABI under a transparent and open system. He also understands that fighting back against intimidation is important part of beating corruption. His heart and mind are in the right place to allow El Tiempo and Channel 11 operate as fair and independent news outlets, if they are seized under the law.

He might even appoint a director of the newspaper and TV channel who will encourage the journalists in those groups to step out from the partisan restrictions of the current owners. And maybe even help arrange for some additional training.

And if anyone is looking for a success story about the fight against corruption, a profile of OABI and its director is a good place to start.

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Filed under Central America, Corruption

Honduras and Ayn Rand – One Author’s Look

Interesting piece in Salon today: My libertarian vacation nightmare: How Ayn Rand, Ron Paul & their groupies were all debunked

The greatest examples of libertarianism in action are the hundreds of men, women and children standing alongside the roads all over Honduras.  The government won’t fix the roads, so these desperate entrepreneurs fill in potholes with shovels of dirt or debris.  They then stand next to the filled-in pothole soliciting tips from grateful motorists.  That is the wet dream of libertarian private sector innovation.

The author —  — makes many good points. I particularly like how few Americans ever see the results of their idealistic vision.

Only 30 percent of Americans have passports, and if Americans do go places, it’s not often to Honduras.

And a few years ago, William Chalmers made an argument that only about 5 percent of the American people actually use those passports to travel to other countries.

The lack of international perspective is a real problem, especially for people promoting an ideology or political perspective. It is also a problem for reporters and editors who have to deal with immigrant communities in their local areas. (But more on that old chestnut another time.)

Lyngar makes a strong case that for all those promoting the libertarian views of Any Rand (and there are many in the GOP leadership), they should look carefully at what is happening around the world. In this case, Lyngar is looking at Honduras, but I bet examples can be found in many other countries around the world with weak governments and legal systems.

A disservice Lyngar does to Honduras, however, is take after them as if he were a fallen Catholic taking off on the Pope.

[Q]uestions about how best to provide a good society are not being asked in Honduras…

Actually they are being asked. The problem is asking such questions are new to Hondurans. Not because of political repression but rather because of a system that did not encourage it. Elites ran things and provided help to the poor to keep them in line. The breakdown in that system, along with a growing NGO community and rising expectations of more democratic participation, are now leading more Hondurans to question what is best for their country.

A good example of how a sector of society that was persecuted — not by the government but by the society as a whole — began to stand up for its rights is the LGBT community.

The LGBT community became natural allies with former president Manuel Zelaya and his LIBRE coalition. The rhetoric of LIBRE is all about helping the disenfranchised, with a strong dose of anti-USA and pro-Venezuela tossed in.

As the U.S. embassy began standing up in defense of LGBT organizers and inviting them to attend more embassy related events, the LGBT leadership saw that they did not have to put all their eggs in the LIBRE basket. The LIBRE leadership at times was so upset with the LGBT leaders at times that the LGBT leadership was told they might be bounced from the party if they keep attending US-sponsored events.

The LGBT leaders balanced the threats with the very public support from the US embassy and called the LIBRE leadership’s bluff.

In the end, LGBT activists learned it is possible to build coalitions with other organizations on one or two issues but still disagree on other. This revelation was a major step forward.

Along the way other NGOs also learned, through discussions and programs, that they do not have to agree with other NGOs all the time, just enough to get things done to improve society.

That is called progress and it is called thinking about what is best for the country, not just a small set of individuals.

All that said, I can understand Lyngar’s complaints. And his main point really does need to be stressed.

The view of government so many libertarians have does resemble what is happening in Central America.

If the no-tax, less-government people have their way, basic infrastructure will not be done. It will not be long before people start writing about American entrepreneurs filling in potholes with shovels of dirt or debris and then standing next to the filled-in pothole soliciting tips from grateful motorists.”

ADDITION

Here is John Oliver talking about infrastructure

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Nicaragua keeping canal plans under wraps

One thing that remains constant with governments such as those in Nicaragua and Venezuela, the government does like to control things.

The Committee to Protect Journalists now reports that details of the massive — as in US$50 billion — canal project are hard to find. In fact, it was even hard for reporters to attend the gala groundbreaking ceremony in December. (Reporters covering Nicaragua waterway project obstructed by lack of information)

Government officials told [journalists] to wait in a Managua hotel for a bus that would transport them to the ribbon-cutting ceremony, according to the Nicaragua Dispatch. But the bus never showed up. Tim Rogers, editor of the online news outlet, said that journalists who traveled to the Pacific coast site on their own were turned back by police.

To be honest no one should be surprised that the Ortega govenrment is being tight lipped about the project.

First, it is not in the nature of the Sandanista governments (and Ortega in particular) to be too enamoured with the idea of public scrutiny of government projects.

Second, the Sandinistas — like their patrons in Venezuela — have no great love for free and independent media.

Third, let’s face it , governments in the region in general are not hospitable to having people looking too closely at how money is spent.

And lastly, the partner in the canal is a firm that has an office in Hong Kong but whose founder is all up close and tight with Chinese state industries.

So you have a nice coalition putting the canal together by people who really don’t think it is anyone’s business but their own to know what is going on.

Given the global financial and political implications of another canal cutting through Central America, I would think there would be more pressure from U.S. and European business groups, governments and media outlets to see the paperwork on the building of this new canal.

Remember how conservatives in the U.S. got all hot and bothered when the Panama Canal was returned to Panama? Besides the whole “We stole it fair and square” stuff, they were also going crazy because Hong Kong businessman Li Ka Shing won the contract to handle the ports on either end.

Screams of how the Chinese communists were taking over the canal were heard across the land.  Unfortunately for the screamers, Li is no communist. He is from Hong Kong — a place Heritage Foundations loves for its economic freedom — and has no love for the rulers in Beijing. (In fact, Li is moving a lot of his holdings from Hong Kong to Bermuda. That should say something about how “lcommunist” he is.)

So now here comes a company, also registered in Hong Kong, but whose CEO is all about mainland China.

So, where are the stories? At least stories about how much we don’t know about the project.

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Filed under Central America, China, Freedom of access

Another Honduran journalist slain

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports another journalist murder in Honduras: Television station owner gunned down in Honduras.

Carlos Lauria, CPJ senior program coordinator for the Americas has it right:

“Honduras has a disturbing pattern of letting journalists’ murders remain unsolved and unexplained, perpetuating the cycle of impunity. Honduran authorities must launch an immediate and thorough investigation into the murder of Reynaldo Paz Mayes, fully examine all possible motives, and bring those responsible to justice.”

Part of the problem fully investigating the deaths of journalists — and taxi drivers and lawyers and anyone else — is that the Honduran government does not have well-trained law enforcement officers.

Some of that is changing, thanks to the US, Colombia, the EU and other countries. Together these countries are training special squads of police and prosecutors to seriously investigate crimes and to go where the evidence takes them.

Unfortunately, there are still too few of these trained (and vetted) investigators. But the number is growing.

Another problem is the rhetoric once a journalist is killed.

In the case of Paz, he had no background as a journalist. He was a political activist who set up his television station a couple of years ago to air stories and commentaries against the current government of Honduras. (Unlike, US stations, Honduran TV and radio stations are highly partisan.)

Paz received threats for his comments. So when he was killed, the immediate reaction from others also opposed to the Hernandez government was that Paz was killed for his political beliefs.

Juan Ramón Flores, owner of the television station CTV Canal 48 and president of the city chapter of  [the opposition party] LIBRE, told CPJ that Paz had received threats for years in connection with his political beliefs and, most recently, in relation to his on-air criticism of President Juan Orlando Hernández, who he accused of having undue influence over all branches of government. Flores said the most recent threats had been made in anonymous phone calls the week before the shooting. Paz had talked about the threats on his program, Flores said.

Other journalists in Comayagua, where Paz had his station, say they are not convinced he was killed because of his political views.

Without a doubt there are ethical and courageous journalists who have been killed because of their adherence to the idea of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. They thrived on exposing the pandemic corruption in Honduras. They saw their mission as one to let the disinfecting light of truth help clean up Honduran politics and society.

And many of these journalists were killed because of their dedication to their craft.

However, too often many of the journalists killed in the past few years in Honduras may not have been slain because they were journalists but because of other factors in their lives.

The pay really sucks for Honduran journalists, so some have side businesses. Maybe a stall in a weekend market, or maybe a small store. Unfortunately for Honduras, extortion of vendors and merchants is wide-spread. Gangs demand a “war tax” from companies and many market vendors.

Refusal to pay the “war tax” is often enough of an excuse for gangs to kill someone.

In at least one case, the murder may have been a case of mistake identity.

There are also situations that can best be described as “wrong place, wrong time.” A journalist is in a bar or restaurant just as any normal person would be. And maybe, a gang leader is also in the same bar or restaurant, completely unrelated to the journalist being there. Rival gangs have been known to just spray a place with gunfire to get the one gang leader they were looking for. (Thankfully, these types of killings were few and far between. And now seem to have abated completely.)

When threats seem to come to journalist for their political comments, it is often because the journalist is looking into a local political leader who is in the hip pocket of a local narco. So the threat is not based on liberal v. conservative views but rather on the potential damage to a lucrative financial arrangement between a crooked politician and a drug dealer. And then, the murder is handled by the narco, not the politician. (Think of the Mexico situation, where — according to reports — a corrupt mayor handed over 43 students to the local narco.)

Politics has little to do with the threat. It is all about the money and the power.

Complaints by a local media outlet of the overreaching power of the national government are an annoyance, but not one that would lead to the killing of a journalist.

Will we ever know why Paz and most of the other murdered journalists were killed? I doubt it.

Again, because of the poor quality of criminal investigation in the country, we may never be able to get to the whole story about these murders. And if the funding and support for the special investigative units is cut — as many in the US opposed to the current Honduran government argue — we may never know.

The threats to the funding of training and vetting of honest police and prosecutors comes from the very people who scream the loudest about the poor system of justice in Honduras. If the U.S., Colombia and the EU withdraw their funding and training, there is little hope for full and fair investigations and prosecutions of murders.

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Filed under Central America, Corruption, Honduras, Killings

UPDATE: How about the Central American elections?

So far the US media seem to be covering the elections going on in Thailand — largely because of the violence taking place in that Asian country.

But closer to home there are two elections that can have a more dramatic and immediate impact.

El Salvador and Costa Rica are holding elections Sunday, Feb. 2. The results could mean a lot to U.S. security and economics.

Costa Rica

Reuters: Scandals, inequality loom large as Costa Rica votes for new leader

Costa Rica has been one of the most stable and successful countries in Central America. The democratic process is deeply ingrained in the Ticos.

Unfortunately, the country has not been able to avoid the problems other countries in the area are facing: corruption, drug trafficking and a weakened economy. And so the voters are faced with some serious issues and choices.

But what does that mean for the United States? (After all to the American media nothing is important unless it affects the USA.)

Exports from the United States in 2012 amounted to $7.2 billion dollars, most of that trade was in petroleum and electronics.

Imports were about $12 billion, mostly electronics and agriculture goods.

And, yep, that means there is about a $5 billion trade deficit with Costa Rica. Still, the best way to close that gap is to help make sure Costa Rica advances economically. If the Costa Ricans have more money, they can buy more goods and services from the USA as well as other countries and everyone benefits.

El Salvador

Reuters: Ex-rebel faces gang-fighting conservative in El Salvador vote

Unfortunately for El Salvador it got caught up the violence and civil wars of the 1980s. For some in the United States there was a red under every bed in Central America. And for others the U.S. policy was nothing but offering support for every two-bit dictator that would search out and destroy the reds.

A lot has changed since then. Democracy has taken hold. But, unfortunately, too many people on the left and right still live in the 1980s and are looking at the elections as just another phase of the Cold War, albeit 25 years later.

The violence that wracks El Salvador no is no longer communist-back rebels or right-wing death squads but rather plain old fashioned gangs and thugs. But, due to corruption and weak government institutions, the gang violence has gotten out of hand. Innocent bystanders are caught in the crossfire as gangs fight each other for domination of neighborhoods.

Journalists and human rights advocates are threatened by the gangs.

And the people are fed up with the violence.

At the same time the global economic downturn has hit the Salvadorans hard.

One candidate promises to end the violence. Another — the incumbent — promises to keep the social welfare programs he instituted in place. Both issues have a lot of appeal.

Going into the election, no one candidate has a majority in the polls. Chances are there will be a run off next month.

What does that mean to the United States?

To start with the most deadly gangs in the country are the MS 13 and Barrio 18, made up of Salvadorans deported from the United States. The gangs are multi-national enterprises — they operate in Honduras and Guatemala as well as the United States and Mexico. Besides running their own human trafficking, protection and extortion rackets, they cooperate with the Colombian drug operators and the Mexican cartels.

These gangs are a destabilizing the region through their violence and corruption. And — just to stress the point again — operate in the United States and help smuggle drugs and people into the USA.

U.S. exports to El Salvador come to about $3 billion. In that amount about $300 million each is earned in textiles, petroleum and chemicals.

Imports from El Salvador are $2.5 billion, mostly in apparel and electronics.

That means the U.S. carries a positive trade balance with El Salvador.

It does not take a lot of math or hard thinking to realize that if El Salvador can beat the problems of violence and develop economically, the people will buy more goods and services from the United States.

The question facing the people in El Salvador is what direction will they go: More spending on security or on social programs. From the rhetoric coming out of the country, there appears to be little room for both.

For American journalists, the results of these two elections should be of concern. If the power of the governments change hands, new policies that could affect U.S. security, drug policy and economic well-being might be put in place.

If the governments remain in the hands of the current ruling parties, then the issues of corruption, violence and economic issues will have to be dealt with by parties that have not been successful in addressing those issues. That is not to say that a renewal of power to a ruling party does not mean changes cannot happen. We are seeing dramatic actions being taken in Honduras to address corruption and violence even though the Nationalist Party was returned to the power of the presidency.

In just a few months, there will have been major elections in three of the five Central American countries. The changes — or lack there of — have an impact on the United States in trade and social stability.

It would be nice if just a little more attention was being paid to the region before the xenophobes go crazy over the influx of immigrants and before those who have not left the 1980s start their rants and raves to the press and U.S. Congress about either the rising red tide of Chavismo/Castro-ism or right-wing death squads.

And just covering the elections is not enough. It would be nice to show the American people why it is important to pay attention to Central America (or Asia or Africa or Europe). In journalism, that is called providing context.

And context is something that has been sorely missing from most international reports in most news organizations.

UPDATE Feb. 3, 9:14am Central America Time

The New York Times decided to cover the elections as the voting took place. (El Salvador and Costa Rica Hold Presidential Elections.)

It was done by one their correspondents — instead of lifting and AP or Reuters’ feed. And it even provided context on the issues the voters in El Salvador and Costa Rica were facing.

It was a very well-done piece. Anyone who cares about the issues of Latin America — especially democracy and security — would enjoy the piece and feel he/she was being properly informed.

All that was missing was why the rest of America should care.

 

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Filed under Central America, International News Coverage, Story Ideas, Trade

Pot, meet kettle. Russian media question Honduran elections

It really is funny to see a Russian operation raise questions about the fairness of any election. (Four years after coup: Will Honduran elections be fair?)

And the reporter picked one of the least objective sources for the basis of the article. Opinions are fine if identified as such, but there was absolutely no effort at balance in this “news” story from Honduras.

 

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Filed under Central America, Honduras, International News Coverage