14 Problems Hondurans Face Today
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
This is the first is a series of three articles (second, third) written about Honduras from my recent visit.
With the crisis at the border and the growing political controversy swirling around migrants—many from Central America—arriving at the U.S. Mexico border seeking asylum and otherwise crossing into the country without visas, I went to Honduras to see what they are fleeing.
While there, I spoke with Kurt Ver Beek, co-founder and president of the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras, where he has lived for 30 years. He notes that many issues that “push” people from Honduras and “pull” them to the U.S. have not changed much in the past five years. He attributes the recent surge largely to President Trump’s messaging.
Mr. Trump has been lobbying for construction of a wall and has been threatening to close the border completely. At the same time, he complains how easy it is to get into the U.S. and how the asylum process guarantees every applicant a hearing. In other words, Ver Beek says, Mr. Trump is essentially saying you better come to the U.S. now while you still can. And Hondurans are paying attention.
This should not distract, however, from the fact that there are life-threatening problems that residents of Honduras struggle with daily. Here’s a list of 14:
Violence: Honduras reached a point of having the highest murder rate in the world. In 2011, there were 87 per 100,000 people. While the rate has dropped about in half, it remains at seven times the U.S. rate of 6.2 per 100,000. Rother Corea, the manager of manufacturing for Tegu, explained that “everyone has been assaulted. Safety is the first thing people are missing.”
Crime: Apart from violent crime, people in Honduras must deal with the risk of property crime, making it more expensive to own and maintain property from cars to businesses.
Poverty: Crime is in part an outgrowth of extreme poverty. Ver Beek’s team says about 60% of the country lives on less than $2 per day, the World Bank’s threshold for extreme poverty (actually set at $1.90, the threshold is frequently rounded).
Corruption: Ver Beek says there is reason for him to believe that corruption is declining, despite the perception to the contrary. One reason, as corruption falls, reporting it becomes easier, whether for citizens or for the news media. As a result, many people likely perceive corruption to be increasing.
Unemployment: It is no figment of the imagination. Everyone I spoke to complained that there are no good jobs. Hundreds of people line up to interview for minimum wage openings when there is one. Ricardo Molina, an industrial engineer for Tegu, says he has friends with college degrees who have been out of work for two years.
Age discrimination. People over 40 consistently complain that companies openly discriminate on the basis of age, refusing even to interview candidates over 35. One taxi driver told me he’d been let go from his banking job at 42 because the bank wanted to get a “fresh face.”
Lack of clean water: Water.org suggests that more than 600,000 people in Honduras lack access to clean water. Let’s be clear about what that means. Hondurans won’t drink the water that comes out of the tap anywhere in the country. Everyone must buy purified water or boil tap water. Some lack access even to unsafe tap water.
Food insecurity: In one neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, I asked if there were people who lacked enough to eat. The consensus of the three women who live there was clear: more people lack enough food than have enough to eat.
Land title issues: The government entity that issues land titles, the Instituto de la Propiedad, has a young and bleak history. Created at the beginning of this century to bring clarity to land ownership, to shift from a personal property model to a real property model. In 2014, the agency issued only a few thousand titles during the year and 100% had flaws. In a future article in this series, we’ll explore how the agency flipped the script and has increased the number of titles issued while reducing the error rate to zero. Still, a backlog of title work represents a challenge that works almost like a tax on the country, slowing economic growth.
Brain drain: Almost everyone who can leave, does. The desire to leave isn’t limited to people at the lower end of the economic spectrum. The collective psyche of the country is such that everyone seems to be considering emigrating. Spain is the second most popular destination after the United States. Everyone who leaves takes a bit of the country’s limited supply of hope with them.
Poor health care: The infant mortality rate in Honduras is among the lower half of countries in the world at three-times the rate of the United States, which at 5.8 pre 1,000 live births isn’t great. (We’re just below Bosnia and Herzegovina.) The standard setters are Iceland, Japan and Monaco at about two deaths per 1,000 births, eight times better than Honduras.
Education: The number of children who should be in school but are not peaked in 2015 at 224,000, dropping to 192,000 in 2017, the most recent year for this data. Girls are more likely than boys to be in school in Honduras. More than 45% of children who should be attending high school in the country are not.
Drug trafficking: Largely because of the geography between narcotics producers in South America and their target markets in the United States, Honduras has become home to a major industry of drug trafficking. In the port city of San Pedro Sula, with more manufacturing jobs than any other city, crime is still rampant because of the influence of the drug traffickers.
Climate change: As a further element of context for this struggling country, it is worth noting that residents have begun to recognize the impact of climate change. Traditional rainy seasons are failing to show up. My visit, during the middle of the monsoon season, saw no rain in four days. Residents are also seeing more severe storms.
The desperation of the people is palpable. The first person I spoke with in Honduras, a taxi driver who would only give his first name, William, said he’d been deported from the United states for the second time just three weeks ago. He was jailed for 40 days before being put on a plane bound for Honduras.
The jail time seems to have had the intended effect. Despite having purchased a three-for-one deal for $6,500 from a coyote who agreed to take him to the border up to three times, William doubts he’ll return to try again. Note that his coyote did not agree to help him cross the U.S. border, only to get to it.
Getting through Mexico is tricky. Mexican citizens may be less enamored of migrants than Americans. Some Hondurans reported being beaten as they attempted to cross the country. Without a visa, Central Americans are routinely pulled from buses by authorities to prevent them from making their way to the border.
William noted the dangers of crossing Mexico are scary. A friend of his attempted to cross Mexico last year but contracted tuberculosis along the way and returned to Honduras. He died last week. Tuberculosis remains the leading cause of death among infectious diseases globally.
Lester Maldonado, works in shipping at Tegu, a toy manufacturer created with the mission to employ Hondurans. DEVIN THORPE
Lester Maldonado, who works in shipping at Tegu, nearly died on his attempt to migrate. He hired a coyote to help him cross the border but two in the group who had promised to pay the required $5,000, left without paying. The coyote locked the remaining members of the group in a house and kept them prisoner for two weeks trying to extort more money from each of them, before relenting.
Upon crossing the border by foot, Maldonado, who was just barely 18 at the time, was exhausted by the walk through the Arizona desert. He asked for the group to stop while he rested. The coyote assured him, and a Mexican national who was similarly exhausted, that they should sit and rest and that he’d come back for them.
After five or six hours, he says, they realized the coyote was not coming back. Left for dead in the desert, they walked for five days. Over the five days, Maldonado slowly shifted his mindset from hoping to avoid detection by border patrol to hoping to be caught. His hopes were realized.
After nine months in detention and four hearings in 2014, his appeal for asylum was rejected and was deported back to Honduras. He has a factory job that allows him to work in air conditioning. He loves the work and is treated as a professional. Still, his monthly earnings of about $300 don’t allow him to save anything for the future. He still struggles to survive.
In the next two articles in this series, we’ll look more closely at the work of the Association for a More Just Society founded by Kurt Ver Beek and at Tegu, a toy manufacturer created specifically to create jobs in Tegucigalpa. We’ll examine the impact of these social entrepreneurs and the opportunities for others to address the challenges in Honduras.
Building a wall or closing the border shouldn’t be the only options available to us.
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