The hidden factor that brought down Zelaya

How the U.S. economic meltdown helped create a crisis in Honduras. By Fernando Carrera Castro The coup d’état in Honduras has received due international attention for its political implications — and its potential to erode democracy across Latin America. Unfortunately, that’s only half the story. Equally important are the economic factors that both catalyzed discontent ...

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How the U.S. economic meltdown helped create a crisis in Honduras.

By Fernando Carrera Castro


How the U.S. economic meltdown helped create a crisis in Honduras.

By Fernando Carrera Castro

The coup d’état in Honduras has received due international attention for its political implications — and its potential to erode democracy across Latin America. Unfortunately, that’s only half the story. Equally important are the economic factors that both catalyzed discontent and could now exacerbate the country’s internal crisis.

Honduras is the most open economy of Central America and the one that most depends on its relationship with the United States. Exports to the United States accounted for almost a quarter of Honduras’s GDP in 2007 (the second highest in Central America, after Nicaragua), according to figures collected by the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies. Remittances from migrants amounted to 21 percent of GDP in 2008 and are expected to remain about the same this year. Meanwhile, U.S. direct investment in Honduras is among the highest in Central America. All told, Honduras’s links to the U.S. economy represented close to 60 percent of the country’s GDP in 2007.

Such a remarkable dependence was a blessing from 2003 to early 2008, while markets were booming and U.S. consumption was at an all-time high. But it turned out to be a major problem with the first signs of economic downturn, and since the last quarter of 2008, the situation has become a nightmare. The impact on exports, foreign direct investment, and tourism has resonated across Honduras. Businesses have gone belly up, consumer expenditure is down, unemployment and poverty are rising, and the government’s coffers are running dry.

The downturn might have played well for ousted President Manuel Zelaya’s increasingly populist rhetoric. But it also presented Zelaya with an awkward reality: Despite his nationalist rhetoric, Honduras would desperately need help from the United States and the international community to keep his government afloat. Calculations made in the early months of 2009 indicated that a fifth of the fiscal budget was expected to be financed with international loans and donations. By June, with the worsening economic situation and fallen fiscal revenue, this figure might have reached 35 percent. It is clear, then, that the government was not going to be able to pay its employees’ salaries this year without external financial support. And this was the situation before the coup.

The current political crisis can only make matters worse (if such a situation is even possible). Any Honduran government will depend on the international community’s financial support to survive in the coming year. The poorest citizens in Honduras, with one of the highest malnutrition and infant mortality rates in Latin America, might even need international humanitarian assistance if things continue on their current path.

Given this daunting situation, it is rather impressive that anyone wants to be president of Honduras at all. But if you are not poor, and your future is not threatened by the current economic crisis, you might find the presidency a very attractive job. One could ask Manuel Zelaya and Roberto Micheletti about that.

Fernando Carrera Castro is executive director of the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (
Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales)
.

Photo: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images

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