EspañolI came to Honduras to fix Honduras. Much like many white, bleeding-heart progressives who do nonprofit work aboard, I knew what was wrong with the developing world, and what was needed to fix it: countries like Honduras were trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and societal degeneration that began with the crimes committed by former colonial powers; the United Fruit companies and Standard Oils of the world had plundered and pillaged their less fortunate neighbors to the south; and the effects of those historical ills still lingered today.
It was in this context that I first learned of the concept of “free cities” (the ZEDEs). My initial response was to cry foul — as many socialist-leaning commentators and political thinkers did and continue to do. The concept of a city run not by the sovereign state where it is located, but by some outside actor(s) — be they sovereign or private — is nothing but a Trojan Horse for a modern wave of colonial influence, so the thinking goes. “Neocolonialism” is the term that is most often used, with the implication that opening the doors to this sort of foreign influence would surely spur societal degeneration yet again.
Critics of the free cities (also known as startup cities) claim that Honduras has stood on its own two feet for decades now, and opening the doors to foreign influence will bring a dramatic halt to the progress that has been made. The question I ask is, what progress?
I have lived and worked in the most violent and insecure parts of Honduras for nearly a year now. I interact daily with some of the most impoverished members of Honduran society, both young and old. The country is plagued by violence, corruption, inefficiency, and complacency.
Yet the most common criticisms of the concept of free cities are that they will bring about undue influence of wealthy individuals and corporations, drastically restrict democratic expression, exploit the labor of the average Honduran, create massive income inequality, and fail to provide protection for basic human and civil rights, among many others. What these critics fail to realize is that this list of potential pitfalls is a strikingly accurate description of the status quo.
Honduran citizens are slaughtered in the streets at a sickening rate, while the perpetrators of the crimes operate with virtual impunity. And describing the Honduran political system as a “democracy” is disrespectful to the term. Politicians at all levels represent the political machines they are a part of — and the money that fuels them — not their fellow countrymen. The voice of the average Honduran falls completely silent on the ears of the political process.
Worst of all, most Hondurans now seem to view their country through a purely fatalist lens. They have become resigned to a state of mediocrity as the only reality possible. However, this perception is not a result of a limit on what is possible; rather, this pessimism is born from a lack of experience. Life in Honduras is the only reality most Hondurans have ever known.
So why not give a new reality a chance? Why not open the country, or at least a tiny slice of it, to large-scale investment? Foreign companies are among the few stable institutions in Honduras capable of providing regular employment. Why not experiment with a new system of political representation? The current system clearly does not represent the needs and wants of the population at large. Further, why not train, equip, and deploy a new law enforcement force? The current one clearly isn’t doing its job.
I certainly remain a skeptic of the concept of free or startup cities. Plenty of doubts still remain in my mind. But let’s be honest, it’s not going to get any worse. And in light of the successes of places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai, the ceiling seems a lot higher than what we have now.
It’s easy to criticize the plans of others. It takes courage to present an idea for positive change, and even more to put it to work.