Saturday, December 10, 2005

Politics, Development, and CAFTA

As the title might lead you to believe, I intend to write a bit more than your average news post in this one. I feel I ought to, because the last post I wrote about CAFTA was done with basic ideas but incomplete information. I feel like now I have a better idea how it might affect myself and this country and that got me thinking about some other things. But first, some background information of events during the last few days.

On the 6th, I had a mandatory ´reconnect´ meeting with my fellow training group volunteers in a conference center type place in the mountains near Tegucigalpa. We were up right next to Parque Nacional La Tigra, which seemed really nice and I would love to go back to some day. The reconnect meeting was mainly to share info with the PAM staff on how things have been going, and also to provide feedback on how they can improve training for the next group based on our suggestions. In the next two days, December 7-8, another event took place in the same location called Project Workshop in which another whole PAM training group was there (they have been working for about a year now instead of just four months) and we all discussed our work, ideas, contacts, etc. Two groups of business volunteers were there as well and on the last day we also spent some time talking with them about how we can collaborate with each other on projects.

Around the middle of the second day, a Honduran lady named Jackeline Foglia, a diplomat of some type, showed up to talk to us about what exactly went down during the CAFTA negotiations and what kinds of things would be most relavent to us. She was very good at English and had a sharp sense of American as well as Honduran culture, which lent her observations and opinions on the treaty a substantial amount of credibility. Here are a couple of the things I said before about CAFTA that were incomplete or erroneous:

I thought the country would be flooded with cheap American food products (especially grains) with tariffs gone, which would wreak economic havoc on the campesinos. Jackeline explained to us that, first of all, each item that needed to be was negotiated specifically, with the representatives of Honduras having to make concessions on certain items (like, for example, rice) that were less important to its economy, but sticking it out to the very last on others (like corn) in which they absolutely could not open up to competition because of its economic and cultural importance. So, in short, corn coming from the states is still taxed. So are many basic foods and some other products that are the most vital to Honduras´s economy. Also, the majority of trade goods between the US and Honduras were already untaxed. We had pretty free trade before and made it more free while setting specific regulations on certain important items.

I also said something along the lines that environmental and labor standards would take a hit. This is not exactly true either, according to Jackeline. The country, as per its part of the agreement in the treaty, will now be forced to abide by the labor and environmental standards it has on the books (and while labor laws still aren´t the greatest, its actual environmental standards are extremely strict). The problem at this moment is, there isn´t hardly any enforcement of those standards. The government can´t afford to. The companies can´t afford to suddenly start adopting those standards either, especially the environmental ones, so they will be given a certain period of time to gradually bring themselves up to speed.

The idea that big american corporate interests pushed this treaty through has a flaw as well. Trade with Honduras accounts for less than either .01% or .1% of the United States economy (I forget which it is, but both those numbers are small.) In the very best case scenario, that might triple. It still isn´t hardly even a blip on our radar. Honduras, on the other hand, depends heavily on the United States to buy the stuff they produce and to invest in their businesses. Their economy in fact would be screwed without us. I´m not saying this is a good thing, but that´s how it is right now. Therefore, they have much more to gain.

Some things still make me uneasy. If Honduras is unable or unwilling to really force adoption of its existing environmental and labor standards, then what? The government is not going to magically become competent and effective enough to do this kind of thing with the signing of the treaty. Supposedly they will be punished if they don´t comply, but I don´t think anybody really wants to do that. Furthermore, the people or organizations that will have to monitor corporations and the system for doing so sounded kind of dodgy to me. Jackeline talked about corporations self-monitoring under the pressure of public opinion and I must admit we snickered at her.

As part of an upcoming strategy to take advantage of the treaty and keep Honduras from getting more left behind by the rest of the world, and helped by the recent debt condonation, there is supposedly a plan in the works to start immediately investing that extra money in some of the most needed areas, including communications (mostly telephone lines) and other necessities of infrastructure, education and technical training, and advanced technology. The timeline for all these improvements, and the point at which the changes of the treaty will supposedly have reached their maximum effect on the country, is 16 years. But in my opinion this is making some extremely optimistic assumptions about the functionality of the government to carry out the steps. For one, I just don´t see how these plans can be realized on a timeline like 16 years when almost the entire government switches every four years. That´s the way the system is here. Government entities (like COHDEFOR, for instance, which is in charge of protected areas) usually fire almost everybody if the ruling political party changes after an election. This is going to happen this year because their was a big swing in power from the Nacionalistas to Liberales with the elections that just took place. I guess I just feel like some basic, vital changes must take place within the government if it is to take advantage of the coming changes, and not be taken advantage OF. Based on past history it is hard to buy this.

So ok, a few more facts and a lot more speculations. How might this affect me? There is in development what Jackeline referred to as ¨La estrategia para la reducciòn de la pobreza¨ which means a strategy to reduce poverty. Some of the extra money from the debt condonation is going to be invested in this and I think it will include such things as better rural health centers and education, better rural communications and infrastructure, and a lot of pushing on the small farmers to increase their technical knowledge and add value to their products. I asked Jackeline if there was included any kind of emphasis on sustainable/organic farming or diversification, and she said yes, so that is good. But there will unavoidably be a move toward urbanization and an economy based more on services than goods, which is where the most developed countries in the world are right now.

Is this bad? In the unplanned, immediate short term, it causes social problems in cities and is hard on small producers. They can´t compete in the global market just selling potatoes anymore. You have to invent a new flavor of potato chips, market it successfully, run your business, etc etc which are things that are, lamentably, far out of reach for the average campesino both economically and culturally. I feel like the most important areas of change in rural areas will be education about new techniques and products in agriculture and a move away from traditional practices so that every square foot of land is as productive as possible in a sustainable way. Another key point is communication. They need to be in active contact with the outside world and its changes. And finally, most important of all in my opinion, is organization. One small organic coffee producer has nothing, nothing whatsoever to offer the world market. 50 small to medium sized organic coffee producers, among which are a few people that have some professional skills, and can make contacts and help them market their product, can find a very nice niche indeed. The spirit and awareness of the power of cooperatives in my area can, I feel, help immensely.

I feel like I finally have a better idea ¨where things are going¨ in terms of development here (well, idealistically anyhow) which helps me think about what needs to be done in order to get there. No doubt I will continue to revise these ideas throughout my service, but the CAFTA talk was really a breakthrough moment for me. Besides the economic concerns, I also got to musing about something that has always bothered me a bit about development in the world and which many other people simply don´t seem to notice. This is what I perceive as a loss of culture associated with growing up to be bigger, faster, richer, and more competetive. In other words, more like the U.S. The more TVs they have here, the more cards and CEOs and malls, the more they will be inundated with our culture. It´s more powerful and insidious than any overt hostilities, that´s for sure. It´s just hard to know what the right thing to do is - help a culture attain the same kinds of things we have, and in the process assimilate themselves into our ideas, or simply leave them alone to their own problems? Which is less moral?

It brings to mind the example of native americans in the United States. I feel fairly confident that the persistent poverty and social problems on reservations are propagated by the ¨island¨ situation that native americans are in, encouraged to dependency and inadequacy by excluding them from the society all around them. But, then, what should we DO? Any decision we make will have to be done, to some extent, parternalistically by us because we´re the only ones with the power to do anything. Maybe they want their native culture and ways. Maybe they just want to have the same opportunities and difficulties as us. Maybe, like everyone else in the world, they´re not exactly sure what they want. Nobody really does, after all.

Getting this abstract usually reminds me of how little such high-minded ideas really mean to me. Real human contacts with people and my own personal interests are more important than that crap. So here I am, enjoying the hell out of myself, learning more than I ever have in my life (the most important reason why the experience has been so fun) and once in awhile (but not too often) questioning myself.


I just got off a bus from Tegucigalpa a couple hours ago. I´m going to go visit another volunteer in this town (San Lorenzo, which is just west of Choluteca) and attend the wedding of a good friend from my site this evening. Tomorow I travel back north, past Teguc, to go to the third and final of this series of coffee training events in La Fe. I´ll be heading back to my site finally the 17th or so of December, around which time I hope to have another update written here (maybe just some basic news stuff). Hope everyone is having a great Christmas. :)



At 7:05 AM, Blogger Slice/Chris said...

Im learning so much from your observations. It definitely has me thinking. Thanks for sharing your experiences. It would be exciting to visit some time and experience it myself, even if it were only briefly. Keep up the good work Gabe



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