Peter Schurmann. Peninsula 360 Press
I’m on a small passenger bus heading through the city of San Pedro Sula, in the north of Honduras, on the first leg of an overnight trip east to cover the stranding of migrants at the border with Guatemala. Outside the window, signs for American fast food chains blur by, one after another, block after block; Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Subway, Burger King, Popeyes. Further down the road, the pattern repeats.
In one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, these cartoonish symbols of U.S. dominance rise above the cityscape – like muezzins festooned in glowing neon calling the faithful to prayer – untouched by the poverty below. Is this what future archaeologists will find as they search for the rubble of American empire, I wonder.
Honduras is facing national elections at the end of this month that could determine the Central American nation’s future trajectory. On the right is Tegucigalpa Mayor Nasry Asfura, “Papi” as he is known, whose National Party has controlled the country since a coup in 2009 overthrew then President Manuel Zelaya. On the left is Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro, who has promised to steer a new course for the troubled nation where, according to statistics, one-in-five residents desires to leave.
Indeed, a look at the headlines reveals a country beset by rising violence, endemic poverty, climate catastrophe, and rampant official corruption, all of it exacerbated by the iron-fisted grip that international drug syndicates maintain over vast sectors of society.
And yet all I can think about is fast food.
The numbers are astonishing. In Tegucigalpa, the concentration of U.S. fast food franchises is among the highest in Latin America. In exchange for job creation these businesses are given tax-free access to local consumers who get to enjoy a heavily processed, nutrient-poor taste of the American Dream.
As Tanya Kerssen writes in her 2013 book,Grabbing Power: The Struggles for Land, Food and Democracy in Northern Honduras,ownership of these franchises is concentrated among a few families with strong ties to U.S. capital, many of whom are known to have backed the 2009 coup. “Honduras thus offers a striking example of how an undemocratic food system mirrors and upholds an undemocratic political system.”
The effects on local health and on food culture more generally in the country are undeniable, with troubling rates of obesity and diabetes,even as local farmers struggle to compete with cheaper U.S. agricultural imports that have flooded the Honduran market.
Many Hondurans will tell you conditions in the country have steadily deteriorated in the decade since the 2009 coup as the ruling National Party has doggedly pursued an extractive model of growth that appears to be lining the pockets of a few while impoverishing the many.
Examples abound, including the Employment and Economic Development Zones , or ZEDEs as they’re known by their Spanish acronym, which in essence transfer administrative and legal control over entire swaths of the country to foreign investors at the expense of land rights, human rights, and political sovereignty.
Surrounding the city of Progresso, about two hours east of San Pedro Sula, is a sea of palm oil plantations, their fronds extending into the distance, blanketing the region in a monocrop almost entirely controlled by one family.
Much has been written about the deleterious effects of palm oil on forests and climate in countries from Africa to Indonesia to South America. In Honduras, these plantations have landed with the brute force of a colonial enterprise, sucking the soil’s vitality while leaving the vast majority to toil in harsh conditions for a pittance. In a decade’s time, these fields will be all but useless, the earth below sapped of its nutrients, with only the residue of years of industrial pesticides left behind.
In Yorito, a municipality about 200km north of the capital, residents recall the arrival of a mining company two years earlier. Armed with guns and machetes, company officials and their guards set up shop in the town center, determined to claim the largely indigenous territory as their own. As this report notes, the negative impacts of mining on poor and marginalized communities across much of Honduras extend into nearly every aspect of life, from physical and environmental health to economic and political representation.
From these and other examples the picture that emerges is one in which the current leadership in Honduras has opted to put the nation up for sale to the highest bidder, embracing a neo-liberal fantasy on the pretext that what’s good for corporate interests is good for the economy, regardless of the cost to local communities and to individual lives.
And they may be right. New figures from the IMF show Honduras’ economy on track to reach between 8-9% growth in 2021, more than double previous projections, despite the severe economic impacts of COVID-19 and hurricanes Eta and Iota the year prior.
These are impressive figures, yet they come as thousands continue to flee the country, individuals like those being left stranded daily along the border with Guatemala. Mothers, fathers, whole families taking what little they own to escape from a country in which they see no future for themselves or their loved ones.
Sitting in the central market in Tegucigalpa, I watch as women toil over vats of boiled beans, stewed meats, and other delicacies. I opt for a baleada, a large hand pressed flour tortilla stuffed with beans, meat, and melted cheese. It is deeply satisfying.
As I eat, I consider the coming elections and the choice confronting Hondurans, and I think, in some ways that it is in essence a choice between the continued reign of the “free” market policies championed by the current government — with all its empty calories — or something else, something hopefully more inclusive, more nourishing. Like the difference between a Big Mac and a baleada.