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New Honduran leader's promises lack specifics to help poor

Now that the curtain has fallen on a controversial post-coup election in Honduras, one outcome is obvious: The Central American country's elite and military have clobbered left-leaning populists into submission and smashed their reform project to bits.

The day after the Nov. 29 election, the National Resistance Front Against the Coup announced it would neither recognize nor talk to conservative President-elect Porfirio Lobo Sosa, and maintain a state of "permanent mobilization" to press for a constituent assembly.

Whether the activists can effectively keep up that level of defiance, after five months of mobilization while being hit over the head, is questionable. But one thing is sure: The 40-plus grass roots organizations under the front's umbrella — teachers' unions, peasant groups, indigenous organizations, students, a sprinkle of small-business owners — aren't going to go away.

Chusma, as upper-class Latin Americans like to call them when other people get organized. The rabble, the mob. But even if you are of the school of thought that too much democracy is bad for health and business, it's hard to deny one fact: Chusma power is on the rise everywhere in the continent.

The stellar political rise of the indigenous majorities in Ecuador and Bolivia over the past 20 years is widely known. For the first time in 500 years, they succeeded in placing their leader of choice in the presidential palace (in Bolivia, they just reconfirmed Evo Morales in his post, giving the ethnic Aymara 63 percent of the vote).

Less known is the fact that part of the recent economic success of Brazil is based on the inclusion of labor unions, slum dwellers and landless peasant movements. And Honduras, for that matter, has rarely witnessed such widespread restlessness and mobilization since the days of independence nearly two centuries ago.

Honduras is now what Venezuela used to be in the 1990s: a country falling apart at the seams. Street protests are actually just the tip of a much bigger challenge that Lobo will have to cope with when he assumes the presidency Jan. 27. One-third of the population must scrape by on $2 a day or less, while seeing the state mainly in the shape of a gun barrel pointed at them.

Not surprisingly, parliamentary democracy looks like an empty shell for most citizens. According to the latest Latinobarómetro poll, 80 percent of Hondurans surveyed in 2008 believed that government works exclusively for powerful people. Not surprisingly, 63 percent said they didn't care if they had a nondemocratic government, as long as it solves their economic problems.

Lobo, the offspring of land-owning oligarchs with a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Miami, apparently got the message. He made the grand promise of governing with "social justice," and to improve education and health care.

But when it comes to specifics, Lobo's proposals are a mixed bag for the poor majority. He promises no new taxes for low-income Hondurans (Lobo hasn't talked about enforcing taxation for high-income Hondurans or corporations). He says he will set up a program to provide public hospitals with medication (he hasn't said what he'll do with the hundreds of Cuban doctors who are the only health care providers in many backwater areas). He wants to encourage single moms to send their children to school by paying them $44 a month (he hasn't said how he would pay for it).

As far as inclusion goes, Lobo started on the wrong foot. His first, much-touted summit for a 28-year national plan looked more like a gathering of the same good-old-boy club that has been running the country forever.

Even though Lobo had offered "participation of all sectors of Honduran society," he didn't lose a word about the chusma remaining outside.

• • •

From a troubled country to one where everything seems to be going right: Brazil is — literally — building bridges to neighboring markets, and at dizzying speed.

In the latest example, the leaders of Brazil and Guyana inaugurated the Takatu Bridge. While a comparatively small project, it connects the two countries and fills a strategic gap of the highway linking Manaus in central Brazil with the Atlantic port of Georgetown.

Most of the stretch from the Brazilian border to the capital of Guyana still is a dirt road, but if a Brazilian-financed plan comes through, it should become a full-fledged highway in a matter of a few years. In combination with a deepwater port in Georgetown, this highway will have implications for Caribbean agriculture and U.S. exports to the Caribbean, a British observer suggests.

David Jessop, director of the London-based Caribbean Council, believes that within a decade or two, the agriculture and industrial powerhouse in South America will displace a good number of traditional Caribbean trade partners.

• • •

Talking about ports: Last month, I reported about plans by Dubai-based DPW to build and operate a container port at Mariel in Cuba. Since then, news broke that the Dubai state conglomerate to which DPW belongs has problems paying its debt.

Even so, the $300 million deal seems on track, as far as the Dubai partners are concerned. A close observer of the Mariel project suggests Dubai's financial problems were already factored in when officials were in Cuba for negotiations last month.

The Mariel project is one of the few that has escaped the chopping block in a review of DPW projects a few months back.

• • •

Way under the radar screen, Cuba is slowly turning into a global business player.

Get this: In early November, CubaPetróleo became a shareholder in an exploratory oil field in Angola. Parlaying Cuba's long-standing political, military and medical assistance to the African country into dollars and oil, the Cuban state company acquired a 5 percent stake in the Cabinda Onshore South block.

Although the Angolan engagement is small and a long shot, it points to Cuban efforts of leveraging longtime political partnerships with developing countries to diversify its energy supply.

Cuba is also increasing economic ties with Algeria, another long-time political ally and major oil producer in Africa. Algeria has become the biggest supplier of jet fuel to Cuba over the past few years. The island currently depends on Venezuela for more than half its energy needs.

Johannes Werner is editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News, a monthly newsletter, and Cuba Standard, a Web site featuring real-time news about the Cuban economy. He can be reached at jwerner@cubatradenews.com.

New Honduran leader's promises lack specifics to help poor 12/19/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 18, 2009 10:53pm]
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