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Belen Fernandez, Please Come Debate Us

February 22, 2013

I want to be as charitable as I can to Al Jazeera, and Belen Fernandez, who wrote an impetuous rant against the “charter city” movement in Honduras. If she wants to have a reasoned debate about the ideas animating these projects, I’m willing to hear her out. Please contact me and we can arrange a public discussion. Ms. Fernandez, if you are reading this, here are some points from your article that might make for a thoughtful kaffeeklatch:

  • “Charter Cities: Neoliberal Viagra” Look, priapic snark may win solidarity from people who already agree with you, but let’s really deliberate and leave this claptrap to the next episode of Girls. 
  • “blantantly colonial charter city project in Honduras” Now this is a strong assertion. I can see how Paul Romer’s original version, which involved the participation of another sovereign and funding one of the top culinary schools in the world, may have led you to this judgment. You would not be the first to arrive at that conclusion. Still, if you had followed the developments closely, you would have known that the Hondurans rejected that model long ago in favor of something that would allay fears of giving up sovereignty.
  • “The gist of the project is the creation of free-market enclaves on Honduran territory that are unaccountable to national laws…” This isn’t correct at all. For one, the model cities that the Honduras proposed would still be under Honduran criminal law. Where they would depart from the rest of Honduras would be in commercial and civil matters. But, and this is important, whatever commercial laws were established for a model city would have to be approved by the democratically elected legislature.
  • “disingenuously suggests that Honduras is not already one big free-market enclave in the sweatshop tradition” What are you asserting here? That Honduras has a free market? The Index of Economic Freedom is a very reliable indicator for how much a of free market any country supports. You will see that Honduras currently qualifies as “mostly unfree” and is ranked 96th out of 177 countries. On top of that, and sadly, Honduras can be a very dangerous place. San Pedro Sula has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Oppression comes in many forms, sometimes from dictators, sometimes from violent criminals, and sometimes from disaggregated bands of drug lords masquerading as quasi sovereigns (a problem greatly exacerbated by the–ahem!–very unfree US drug war). Such conditions imply the opposite of freedom, and irrespective of what the Honduran state does, many human rights violations.
  •  “if Lobo really wanted to promote a democratic image of Honduras, he might refrain from presiding over an illegitimate regime” Given that the New York Times, the White House, and the United Nations also called Manuel Zelaya’s ouster a coup d’etat, I understand why you might leap to that claim as well. But it would help to examine the facts with greater care. In 1982, after years of military rule, Honduras established a constitution with certain sacred articles that would prevent the rise of a dictator. One of these articles imposes strict term limits on any presidency.  According to Article 239 of the Honduran constitution: “No citizen who has already served as head of the Executive Branch can be President or Vice-President. Whoever violates this law or proposes its reform [emphasis added], as well as those that support such violation directly or indirectly, will immediately cease in their functions and will be unable to hold any public office for a period of 10 years.” When Zelaya called for a national assembly to eliminate this article, he violated the constitution in a way that the people of Honduras are very sensitive to and thereby stripped himself of power. They have a phrase for this temptation: continuisimo. The very same Supreme Court that overruled the legislature on the first model city proposal ordered Zelaya’s arrest for disobeying the court orders requiring him to obey the constitution. The democratically elected legislature voted 123 to 5 to remove him from office. Since this event in 2009, there have been open elections where the people of Honduras have spoken. It’s time the media elsewhere in the world see the coup narrative as misguided at best or simply way off track.
  •  “the splicing of national territory into enclaves governed by international investors – who by definition are concerned with maximising profit rather than human rights” Crony capitalism destroys freedom. We are in agreement on that. But the motivation behind the model city reforms are specifically meant to protect human rights and to provide the grounds for all Hondurans to flourish. Start from the assumption that the people involved share the same ends as you: they want to see a better future for Honduras. If the disagreement is about the means, about the way to ensure greater protection of human rights, then let’s have that debate. Since you only seem to tear down and criticize in your article, I know what you’re against, but not what you’re for. Please let’s discuss history and why some countries have developed and why others haven’t.

Ms. Fernandez makes many other bald and unsupported assertions in the article, which I am happy to take up with her if she so chooses.

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  6. March 5, 2013 1:19 am

    Great post! Anytime I see the word “neoliberal” in the title or at the beginning of an article, I always think back to Noam Chomsky’s words:

    In recent years, the imposed regime is commonly called “neoliberalism.” It is not a very good term: The socioeconomic regime is not new, and it is not liberal, at least as the concept was understood by classical liberals.

    Then I sit back and smugly read the rest of whatever it is I’m reading, knowing full well that the writing in question is most likely arguing from false assumptions.

  7. March 1, 2013 3:59 pm

    Very well stated, Mike. We’ll see if Belen Fernandez is able/willing to have a civil, reasoned discussion.

  8. February 24, 2013 12:22 am

    You’re far too charitable. Nice takedown.

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