UK Delegation gains new insights into Guatemala & Honduras
A little bit of BGIPU history was made when a Parliamentary delegation from our Parliament visited Guatemala and Honduras in the second week of November. We had not sent a delegation to Guatemala since 2006 and Honduras had never had a visit from the BGIPU. A mixed group of two Peers and four MPs – three Conservative and three Labour – made its first stop in Guatemala City, with Lord Foulkes and Lord McColl visiting a public hospital in the capital city, whilst the rest of the party were en route. Later, when we united as a whole group, we were taken to the former Spanish colonial capital Antigua, west of Guatemala City and briefed by our superb and well briefed Ambassador Sarah Dickson, on the political and economic climate in the country.
Bilateral trade with the UK is modest – amounting to about £39m in goods and services imported in 2013 as against £61 million exported to the UK – mainly coffee, sugar and bananas and other food products. The economy is mooted to grow by a modest 3.4% in the next year. Notwithstanding that, the country is beset by the problem of a shrinking tax base caused by a huge “informal” (or black) economy and intermittent natural disasters, most recently a severe draught in August 2014. Furthermore, as a direct result of poor tax revenues, public investment in infrastructure (and indeed public services like schools and hospitals generally), is meagre at just 3% of GDP. Poverty and gross inequality has recently driven so many families in Guatemala to send their children north as unaccompanied minors to seek access to the United States via Mexico. Guatemala (population estimated at c.15 million), has a number of deep seated societal problems, in common with many other Central American countries:
The Spanish imperial legacy which has given rise to stark and rigid social and economic inequalities with the worrying statistic that it is the only country in Latin America where the very poorest have grown poorer in the last ten years, with endemic crime and corruption across society as a whole, poor human rights (especially for indigenous peoples) and the persistent collateral damage of being at the heart of the “drugs route” between South America and the United States and Mexico.
Guatemala has also struggled with the historical legacy of a 36-year long civil war (1960-96), which arguably claimed more lives than any other comparable conflict anywhere in Latin America. The murder rate remains huge – with 5200 homicides in 2013 – the 5th worst in the world – and human rights abuses appear seemingly not to be improving and are perhaps even worsening for key groups such as women, trades unionists and journalists. Much of the violence arises to from land disputes as landowners disregard the ancient rights of indigenous tribes and resort to draconian methods to clear the land for farming or mining. Consequently, there is a paucity of faith and trust in democracy, government and political structures.
Our meetings with Ministers and Members of Congress demonstrated that they were aware of the country’s problems but we didn’t discern any clear plan to tackle them. Even the trade unions representatives were reluctant to put their faith in the political system and there seemed to be little cohesion between the Executive (Presidency), Congress and the Judiciary, as the key branches of Government.
The delegation raised the tricky ongoing border dispute with Belize, which is now heading for the International Court of Justice for judgement. One bright spot in our visit was our meeting with the Fedcocagua (or Coffee Traders Collective Body), with heart warming and inspirational stories of how small farming collectives in rural Guatemala had succeeded against the odds of beating the powerful (and sometimes ruthless) coffee company oligopolies and making a decent living by their endeavours.
We then flew to Tegucipalpa, the capital of Honduras, a country of 8 million people and the unenviable record as the murder capital of the world with approximately 79 murders per 100,000 people last year. The original “banana republic”, a term first coined in 1905, Honduras shares many of Guatemala’s problems – amongst them the inability to afford to properly fight the “narco” war on drugs and the blight of casual violence and life being cheap – to the extent that judicial immunity for even horrific crimes of violence is commonplace and there is a perception of widespread police corruption and collaboration with organised crime gangs.
Two thirds of Hondurans live in poverty and the economy would sink without $3.2 billion of remittances sent from the US by the Honduran diaspora – 20% of the economy. This was brought home to the delegation with a jolt, when our planned visit to a male prison outside the capital was abandoned at the last moment due to the inability of the authorities to guarantee that we would all emerge from this particular penal institution alive! The scars of a 2009 coup d’état in which the military removed the Left-leaning former President Manuel Zelaya are still apparent and provoke a great deal of angst and controversy (as we witnessed at a mixed breakfast with legislators in the Congress!) despite recent clean and fair elections last year. We met an interesting array of stakeholders – Government Ministers, the human rights commission, national university officials, chamber of commerce, charities and NGOs and senior leaders in Congress.
What are the reasons for optimism (if any)? Honduras is a beautiful country and is trying hard to develop a viable renewable energy sector and seeking to catch up with Costa Rica as a tourist destination – with the Bay Islands off the country’s northern Caribbean coast, being a popular spot for US and now Italian cruise liners. The country’s President, Juan Orlando Hernandez, with a fresh mandate from November 2013, seems popular and is trying hard to tackle major problems like the country’s deficit and security and stability and corruption and was meeting President Obama in Washington the week of our visit. Overall, our visit to Central America was fascinating, hectic and perhaps a little depressing – with the rhetoric and willingness to conquer each country’s ills scarcely matched by the means or political courage to do so. Progress in so many areas is non existent or at the very least slow. It sometimes felt that the tasks ahead for legislators and Ministers seemed just insurmountable I personally hope that things might be better when we next visit these benighted states at the heart of Central America.