sleepy town with a charter cities target on its lovely beaches

Model Cities: Neo-Colonialists Seek Submissive Wild For Capitalist Utopia


Neo-colonialism in Honduras: Paul Romer’s Charter Cities movement advocated suspension of sovereignty and democracy in the service of unfettered capitalism. While the enabling legislation was deemed in 2012 by the Honduran Supreme Court as unconstitutional, they recently reinstated it after kicking out the opposing judges in a “technical coup.” While the coup-backed government of Honduras presses the issue forward, resistance members and indigenous and labor organizations continue to fight this libertarian dream on the Coast of Trujillo.

model cities, capitalist utopia
Now articles such as “Who Wants to Buy Honduras?” appear as if the question merited discussion among humanists. Charter City advocates claim they will eradicate poverty, but throw out not only a constitutional rewrite, but the whole idea of the country itself: starting over with them in control. Image by Peter Oumanski from The New York Times.

Charter Cities: Transnationals Seek Capitalist Utopia in Honduras

The Grand Plan: Start talking up a plan to help poor people become wealthy, fronted by a flashy Stanford-New York University economist who throws around terms like endogenous growth theory and investment in human capital. Highlight a poor, crime-ridden tropical backwater in an underdeveloped country that one day might sport skyscrapers and millions of inhabitants. Land stipulated, with nothing but a charter as the basis of this urban prosperity conglomeration, establishing laws and rules for new citizens administered by “benevolent” foreigners, no longer held back by corrupted legal and democratic pretentions of their home country.

This experiment used to be called colonialism, while more recent political mores have outmoded the term, the practice has been rehabilitated and marketed with a new name, and a lofty purpose: eradicating poverty.

On the Theme of Banana Republics

Take the case of Honduras, the land that O. Henry, while hiding out from a US charge of bank embezzelment, dubbed “Banana Republic” in the 1904 novel, Cabbages and Kings. A “servile dictatorship,” a commercial enterprise run for private profit, ruled by a plutocracy who exploit its people and natural resources by means of a politico-military oligarchy. A land where the precursors to Dole and Chiquita dominated railroads and ports, the latter (then called United Fruit) nicknamed El Pulpo (the Octopus) violently interfered in national politics.

sleepy town on the bahiaRussian emigre and US banana tycoon Samuel Zemurray in 1910 hired “General” Lee Christmas to head a band of mercenary soldiers from New Orleans, to effect a coup d’état in Honduras and install deposed president Manuel Bonilla to head a government that granted Zemurray (and everyone else who could “pay” for it) land and low taxes. A gringo libertarian dream come true for Sam the Banana Man, who went on to become a pillar of the (US) community, supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, even donated to “left-wing” entities such as The Nation Magazine.

How interesting that the history of dominance and hegemony tends to repeat itself, where international capital and the military might of nations (namely, again, the USofA), helped by the deployment of local agents of the plutocracy to make it happen. Have we mentioned Paul Romer’s “radical” vision of “Charter Cities” for somnolent Trujillo, on the edge of the Honduran Miskitu Coast? Where Garifuna communities populate the beaches, and the Caribbean tides wash slowly over the brown sands edged with coconut palms and towering jungled mountains, a few years after a coup unseated a democratically elected president? What an idea…

Love and Coup d’Etat, American-Style

In 2009, national and international entities decided to arrest and deport democratically-elected President Mel Zelaya on some trumped up charges. Seems Mr. Zelaya, from the landed gentry himself, fell victim to antiquated notions of raising the minimum wage for laborers, subsidizing meals for children and seniors, maintaining a state-owned telecommunications company and even possibly repurposing a US military base into an international airport to replace the treacherous Toncontín in the capital, Tegucigalpa. His last straw was a non-binding straw poll enquiring whether to call for an assembly to rewrite the hegemonic constitution (the kind of thing Paul Romer talks about doing) and he found himself in pajamas at a Costa Rican airport.

Now articles such as “Who Wants to Buy Honduras?” appear as if the question merited discussion among humanists. Written by a too-cool-for-real-school gringo working for hipster-media like NPR and the “Paper of Record” New York Times, adopts the “desperately poor farmers” dialectic, but throws out not only a constitutional rewrite, but the whole idea of the country itself: starting over.

Economists and their journalistic aherents fail to mention installed unelected presidents carrying out the corporatocratic dictum of African Palm Oil Magnate Miguel Facussé near Trujillo taking subsistence land from people (by force, without compensation) in the name of creating “low-carbon” agrofuels while paying “subsistence wages.” Those few lempiras a day might buy a plate of rice and beans and an apartment shared by four families in an overcrowded hovel with nowhere to walk and no city services and scant security. Or do the charters plan for first world wages and living standards along with the rules and regulations?

What about the absence of the rule of law where drug traffickers have carved out landing strips in the Moskitia Jungle and taken over entire towns, while US military bases nearby look the other way or worse, shoot innocent pregnant civilians in the name of a fighting a war on drugs? Who will enforce order and safety in these zones of “Liberty” with no democratic process and citizen involvement in decisionmaking? Furthermore, what about the case of the Canadian Porn King buying communal Garifuna land illegally for luxury beach communities and a cruise ship terminal called, without the benefit of irony, Banana Coast? Who will protect the indigenous and campesino land rights as well as enforce labor, health and environmental standards on freewheeling corporations?

Do these well-renumerated “idealists” ever get out of their houses and see what’s happening on the ground? Do they care to? Seems not.

Economist Paul Romer, Libertarian Matchmaker to the Masses

The hero of this story is “brilliant” economist Paul Romer and his “radical” idea that “Charter Cities” could negate the impact of local governments by creating a Special Development Zone on foreign land using foreign labor and resources, but would be governed by the legal and political system of “rich countries.” Other vaunted scribes propound the idea as a way to end poverty (for some). From the Germanic prince Henry the Lion carving out a chartered “merchant’s mecca” for Lübeck on the lawless Baltic Coast. According to our “politically incorrect” friend at The Atlantic, in less than a century, with exemptions from customs and duties, Lübeck went from a backwater to the most prosperous town in northern Europe. “In medieval urban history there is hardly another example of a success so sudden and so brilliant,” wrote the historian Philippe Dollinger.

a vision of charter cities like Hong Kong, throughout the world
China’s signing away Hong Kong to the British subsequently vastly reduced world poverty, says Paul Romer. Photograph: Alex Hofford/EPA in the Guardian

Hong Kong Everywhere.  Romer wants us to consider the case of Hong Kong, make that 100 of them, where the poor people of, say Madagascar, give up their sovereignity and democratic rights to General Motors and Microsoft, overseen by policy experts from Washington, in exchange for making poor people rich.

It should be noted that when Madagascar’s President Ravalomanana opened the gates to Mr. Romer’s corporate chartering, citizens interested in national sovereignty and democracy quickly overthrew him. Interesting that in Honduras the process happened in reverse, with President Zelaya removed in favor of the pliable Pepe Lobo Sosa, making Honduran territory safe for international chartering. With several US military bases as well as private security forces, significant repressive capabilities have already been demonstrated in the Bajo Aguan region to enforce land and liberty rights for the corporations over the populace.

Our friend at The Atlantic is not shy to point out,

To Romer, the fact that Hong Kong was a colonial experiment, imposed upon a humiliated China by means of a treaty signed aboard a British warship, is not just an embarrassing detail. On the contrary, British rule was central to the city’s success in persuading capitalists of all stripes to flock to it.

Didn’t it take 156 years for Hong Kong to give up their British colonial status to bring “prosperity” to the Chinese people?

sleepy town with a charter cities target on its lovely beaches

Dancing Punta: Trujillo Rests on the Palm-Fringed Bahia, Defiant

How many of the destitute masses became rich when Mr. Zemurray created his “Banana Towns”? Himself and a few others, and the people of Honduras continue to live in houses cobbled together with zinc sheeting, cardboard and mud, subject to the whims of any industrialist who comes by waving international finance capital, backed up by government officials or soldiers who render their fates unto the Great Mystery. When two US firms signed an accord with the Honduran government to institute charter cities in the territory, the Honduran people were not consulted.

Future Cities Development Corporation, founded by Patri Friedman, grandson of another neoliberal-libertarian economist Milton Friedman, already displayed his penchant for authoritarian governance over democracy in a Cato Institute essay in 2009. The founder of PayPal and FaceBook investor, Peter Thiel, a Charter Cities adherent, has also written in Cato Unbound that democracy and “liberty” are not compatible. They clearly yearn for the wild land of the bananas, where they could raise an industrial utopia, without trouble from local “savages” interested in land and labor rights, tax collectors, environmental regulators: True Love, Liberty.

Mr. Romer, Mr. Friedman and their Future Cities, will face the reality of wild Trujillo. William Walker, the filibuster who briefly took over Nicaragua in the name of gringo liberty was shot here and rests unsaluted in the town cemetery. The organized and much oppressed political resistance from the 2009 coup, together with indigenous and campesino organizations, backed by a few members of the US Congress, will not countenance this gambit for neo-colonial hegemony in the name of “prosperity.” The peaceful civil disobedience has resulted in a multitude of murders and disppearances, including numerous journalists attempting to tell the story without the New York Times’s US propaganda-double-speak. Expect the conflict to continue.

“Hong Kong in Honduras,” The Economist

Sebastian Mallaby: “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty,” The Atlantic

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