Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Juan Orlando Hernández Visits Asia

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández traveled to Asia last week to further joint development agreements.  He returned with many wishes of goodwill, but few concrete commitments.

His trip took him to South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.  During the trip, Hernandez promoted Honduras as a gateway for Asian commerce with all of Central America.

The first stop on the tour was South Korea. There he signed a memo of understanding with the port of Busan, to develop commerce between Busan and ports in Honduras.  The agreement anticipates cooperation in port management and development with the goal of increasing shipping between Honduran ports and Busan. In a meeting with the Busan Chamber of Commerce Hernandez spoke of the investment opportunities in Honduras and his goal of making Honduras the shipping logistical center of the Americas.

What Honduran ports? The Honduran press was vague about this, but there is every reason to think the main target is Honduras' port facilities on the Pacific Coast, where the country has a small coastal access via the Gulf of Fonseca.

Hernández also signed an agreement with the Korean government to supply Honduras with electric cars and establish a network of charging stations for them. To do this, Korea also agreed it would have to improve the electricity supply and distribution network in Honduras.

Wrapping up his achievements, Hernandez asked the World Taekwando Federation (WTF) in Korea to send taekwando teachers to Honduras to train Honduran children in schools, and in public parks and government buildings.  He asked that this program be funded through the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), and that the WTF do this as part of its Taekwando Peace Corps.  He is quoted as saying
“Violence is one of the serious social problems facing Latin American countries, and I think taekwondo is the most effective tool to solve the issue".
Hernandez had previous contact with the WTF while President of the Honduran Congress, when he attended a dinner in Korea to honor then-president Porfirio Lobo Sosa, who holds a 3rd Kukkiwon Dan certificate.

While in South Korea, Hernández also took delivery of the long-awaited ZEDE feasibility study, completed by KOICA. Alert readers may recall that one of the identified target areas for development as a ZEDE is the Honduran Pacific port of Amapala, on El Tigre Island in the Gulf of Fonseca. Nonetheless, reporting on the Korean leg of Hernández' trip does not mention ZEDE development.

In the next stop on his trip, in Japan, Hernandez sought further cooperation between the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Honduras.  He received assurances that Japan would fund $135 million in renovations to two existing hydroelectric projects, Rio Lindo and Cañaveral, to raise them to 60 megawatts output.

He also asked JICA to supply Honduras with teachers of art and sports to train Honduran children in schools and public places as part of his vision of how to deal with juvenile delinquency, complementing his endorsement of Taekwondo while in South Korea.

In addition, Hernandez requested that JICA fund the construction of a bridge from the city of Amapala, on El Tigre island, to the mainland. This might be characterized as Honduras' own Bridge to Nowhere: the entire municipality of Amapala, which includes the islands in the Gulf of Fonseca, has a population reported to be around 11,000.

So why the interest in a bridge there?

The bridge is cornerstone infrastructure needed for Hernandez's vision of ZEDEs in southern Honduras. The Rough Guide to Honduras evocatively describes the town of Amapala, located on Isla del Tigre, as "once the country’s major Pacific port and now a decaying relic of the nineteenth century". What Hernández envisions is making Amapala a major port again, with other people putting up the development capital.

Moving on to Taiwan, Hernández signed an agreement to promote mutual trade and investment. He made presentations to a group of businessmen and met with the Taiwanese government to pitch Honduras as Taiwan's way of getting more Taiwanese goods into Central America by exploiting Honduras's membership in CAFTA.

What did not come out of the Asian trip was any announcement of a group of investors prepared to take on development of the ZEDE opportunity. Nonetheless, the echoes of that initiative were there in the background, as they have been on most of Hernández' foreign presentations.

For example, earlier this month a Honduran commission traveled to Mexico to secure funding to complete two more segments of another infrastructure project that would be necessary to support Hernandez's ZEDE vision, the so called "dry canal": a four lane highway from Honduras's Pacific Coast to its Caribbean coast. 

The two road segments, already under construction by Mexican firm CAABSA and totaling a length of 54 km., need a further $30 million to be completed. A third segment of 46 km. is being built by a Brazilian firm, funded by a loan from the Brazilian Development Bank.  The whole of this roadway is supposed to be completed in 2017 and is necessary to make ZEDE developments along Honduras's Pacific coast economically feasible.

No reports exist in Honduran press relating the results of the Mexican trip. But combined with Hernández' pursuit of Japanese government funding for the bridge to Amapala, the mission of the Mexican trip shows that developing the Amapala port remains the focus of the Hernández government. Whether it will attract the foreign investment required, as a ZEDE or otherwise, remains to be seen.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Empty Words

In an announcement devoid of any real content, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez went on national television and announced he was creating the "Sistema Integral Contral la Impunidad (Integrated System Against Impunity)".  However, what that Integrated System is, or will consist of, was left unsaid and is perhaps, unimagined.

In his announcement that he would create an Integrated System, Hernandez issued a call for dialogue, inviting any and all of civil society to sit down with him, Congress, and the Public Prosecutor's office and discuss what this Integrated System should be.  Hernandez called for civil society to :
"join our fight for the dignity and transparency and equal application of justice...the changes that we've been making are deep and irreversibly transform our nation.  I assure you we will not back off from these changes."

Note that civil society is invited to join his fight, not specify the terms of it.  This announcement is meant to be a palliative for the Torchlight Marchers to try and bring them under control, not to further their goals.  Hernandez, through his adviser Ebal Diaz has already made clear his contempt for the marchers
"They don't believe in God, they don't respect anyone and they are inclined to sow chaos"

But as any reader of the previous entry in this blog knows, Ebal Diaz just makes things like this up.

So its not really a proposal, just a call for a meaningless dialog.  Hernandez didn't announce any concrete goals of the Integrated System, nor what its purpose or organization should be.  In fact, all he proposed was a name, without content, so not really so much of announcement.  He would have been better served to come before the Honduran populace with a concrete suggestion as a starting point for discussions, but its pretty clear from listening to Ebal Diaz that the discussions are more about convincing Hondurans to join his fight, not letting them propose how to win their own fight. 

After all, he could stop the Torchlight Marches, stop the hunger strikes in a minute by asking the UN publicly for  an International Commission Against Impunity, like that the UN subvents for Guatemala.  He won't.

That's why this is an empty proposal, and the Torchlight Marches will continue.


Ebal Diaz: "We Didn't Invent the Numbers"-- Except He Did

In a previous post, we quoted Ebal Diaz, an adviser to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez as saying the CICIG (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala), a UN backed commission formed to combat corruption in Guatemala, was ineffective.

He used this argument to turn aside the request of the Torchlight Marchers that Honduras ask for a similar International Commission Against Impunity (known as CICIH , its initials in Spanish).

The problem is, nothing he said is true.

Diaz is quoted as having said:
"The case of Guatemala,  How long did it take Guatemala to create the structure?  At least 7 years.  How much did it cost Guatemala? $150 million dollars.  How many cases did it resolve? Four."

A little bit later in the same article he said:
"Is this an alternative for the country?  There are the numbers; they're not something we invented.  So the Honduran people need justice...When?  In three years?  In 5 years? or now?  We're looking for solutions now by strengthening our [government] institutions."

Except the numbers do seem to be invented.  None of his statements are even remotely true.

Lets start with the easiest claim to debunk, the money.

Diaz claims the CICIG has cost Guatemala $150 million.  We're not sure where he got that number, but in fact, the CICIG has cost Guatemala nothing.  Its budget of $20 million annually is paid by a diverse international community, including the United States, Spain, the Netherlands, and several Scandinavian countries.  As the CICIG told the press in March of this year, It has not asked for or received any economic support from the government of Guatemala.

The only form of support it receives from the Guatemalan government is the assignment of members of the National Police for the purpose of security and investigation.  Even if you count their salaries as a cost of the CICIG, the amount would would be less than $2 million for a full eight years of support, based on online sources for National Police salaries in Guatemala.

Then there's the matter of timeline.

Diaz claimed it took Guatemala seven years to create the structure for the CICIG. In fact, the CICIG was created out of an agreement between the Government of Guatemala and the United Nations signed in December 2006 and ratified by the Guatemalan Congress in August 2007.  It took legal effect in September 2007.  Its first year of actual operation was 2008.  Thus, it has been in existence for eight years after a process that at most one could say took a little more than a year to initiate.

And then there is Diaz' claim that the CICIG has been ineffective.

The CICIG annual reports document that from the beginning, it has been extremely productive.  By the end of its first year of existence, it had hired 109 people from 24 different countries, 73% of its projected personnel.  It had negotiated its budgetary support through 2009 from 13 separate countries, and launched 15 investigations of high level corruption, including opening prosecution on two of those cases.  Some cases it investigated along with the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor's office, and some it investigated on its own.

Investigating cases wasn't the only thing the CICIG did. In the first year it also analyzed Guatemalan law and identified bottlenecks leading to a paralysis of the Guatemalan legal system.  It trained investigators in financial crimes.  It established a number of agreements with different parts of the Guatemalan government for bilateral cooperation.  It began recommending legislative changes to enhance accountability.

By the end of its second year of operation, the CICIG had opened 39 investigations.  The Public Prosecutor's office had set up the Special Prosecutor's office within its own structure so the CICIG and Ministerio Publico of Guatemala could cooperate on investigations and prosecutions.  By the third year they had reached a staff of 196 from 23 nations, ironically, including Honduras. It had opened 56 investigations from about 1800 cases presented to it, and closed a further 189 cases.

I could continue but the record is exhaustive and speaks of many accomplishments.

As the WOLA report on the CICIG notes, by 2013 the CICIG had investigated more than 150 cases on its own, and joined with the Public Prosecutor's office in investigating a further 50 cases.  WOLA notes that the Guatemalan Congress is the only group that has been slow to adopt CICIG suggestions, with it only passing 4 of 15 suggested legal code changes.

Diaz's allegation that the CICIG has only prosecuted four cases is especially disingenuous.

The CICIG website lists more than 20 cases in which they participated that resulted in convictions. The CICIG was set up to cooperate with the Public Prosecutor's office and support their investigations and prosecution wherever and whenever that was possible.  It was only when the Public Prosecutor's office refused to investigate or take up a case that the CICIG was authorized to proceed on its own.

To discredit the Torchlight Marchers and their demand for a similar commission for Honduras, Ebal Diaz made up his facts and fed them to the Honduran press, hoping that no one in Honduras would fact check him.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Ebal Diaz: "We've already contained the corruption"

Large Torchlight Marches (Marchas de las Antorchas) have been going on every night in different cities in Honduras for at least the last three weeks.

Participants have called for three things: an end to impunity, the establishment of an International Commission against Impunity, and the resignation of Juan Orlando Hernández, President of Honduras, due to corruption in his election campaign.

The Partido Nacional has admitted that the election of Hernández was funded in part by resources diverted from the IHSS. Nonetheless, both the party, and the government it controls, are against Honduras calling for an International Commission against Impunity.

That's the word from Ebal Diaz, a Honduran presidential advisor.

These commissions, organized by the UN, have been effective in other countries where they've been formed, such as Guatemala.

Honduras doesn't need one because, according to Diaz, "We've already contained the corruption." 

Diaz goes further, calling the Guatemala commission ineffective. He relates that it has cost $150 million over its seven year life, and successfully brought and prosecuted only four cases of corruption or impunity. 

Diaz said:
"Is this an alternative for the country?  There are the numbers; they're not something we invented.  So the Honduran people need justice...When?  In three years?  In 5 years? or now?  We're looking for solutions now by strengthening our [government] institutions."

Diaz suggests the government might accelerate its pace of cleaning up corruption and implementing training.

These actions, however, do nothing to capture and prosecute those who perpetrated the crimes, something Diaz fails to address.

The recent Congressional Commission which reviewed a series of corruption cases involving the IHSS, INPREMA, and the IP, and the assassinations of notable government officials like Alfredo Landaverde, was relatively useless.

It served only to confirm what everyone already knows: the Public Prosecutor's office is barely investigating these cases of corruption and impunity, some of which have stretched on for more than seven years in the investigative state. While it might eventually bring charges against those immediately responsible, it likely will not pursue those who planned and directed the crimes. From that perspective, then, even with the "numbers" Diaz cites, a commission like that in Guatemala would be an improvement.

The level of corruption and impunity in Honduras is hard to believe. In fact, even as the Congressional report was being released, the lead on the congressional committee, Mario Perez, was being identified in the Honduran press as a drug trafficker, based on Honduran government documents from 2012.

Impunity reigns in Honduras not because the Public Prosecutor's office is incapable of pursing these crimes. It has been endlessly trained under US and European foreign aid programs in investigation and prosecution of organized crime. 

To pursue these crimes is neither politically expedient, nor good for a prosecutor's longevity.  No government program will address either of these risks.

The previous Prosecutor against corruption, Roberto Ramirez Aldana, who had headed the IHSS investigation from the start, recently took an extended leave to assume a government post as Honduras's Ambassador to UNESCO.  He did so because the Honduran Military Intelligence agency informed him of credible death threats against him and suggested he leave the country.

One of the trails of corruption leads directly to the currently ruling Partido Nacional. But the current Public Prosecutor, Oscar Chinchilla, was appointed by that party, while Juan Orlando Hernandez was the President of Congress, during the presidential term of Porfirio Lobo Sosa.  Chinchilla sets the priorities for the office. He's focusing the department on corruption during José Manuel Zelaya's term as president, largely ignoring more recent corruption that can be linked to his own party.

Arturo Corrales, Honduras' Foreign Minister, has said Honduras will not ask for an International Commission against Corruption from the UN.

Rigoberto Chang Castillo, currently Minister of Justice, the Interior, and Decentralization, went further: he made up a criterion for when such a commission is necessary: "Only when there's a high degree of ingovernability". Chang Castillo claims that "Honduras isn't worthy" of such a designation.  These kinds of commissions, he continued,
"uniquely can be asked for by the government of the Republic when the country is in a state of ingovernability and there is no confidence in the institutions of the State....This is requested when the Judicial system has collapsed."

The irony is, Chang Castillo precisely describes the Honduras that the Torchlight Marchers see.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

"If" Makes All the Difference: Hernández on the Corruption Scandal

Honduras president: graft-linked companies helped fund my campaign

That's how Reuters titled their story, datelined Tegucigalpa today.

Which would be an incredible step forward in taking responsibility for the corruption scandal that has led to torchlit protests uniting supporters of two of the opposition parties in Honduras.

Unfortunately, the story appears to be slightly less than the headline promises. The basic points it reports are easy to summarize:
Facing a wave of protests calling for his resignation, Honduran President Juan Hernandez said on Wednesday that his 2013 presidential campaign took money from companies linked to one of the worst corruption scandals in the country's history.
But he said he and his National Party were unaware of where the money came from and hoped that an investigation would find and punish those responsible for breaking any laws.
...
Hernandez said the probe found 3 million lempiras (about $148,000) in campaign financing was tied to those companies, without giving more details. 
 

That would be considerably less funding channeled to the campaign than the $90 million that sources other than the PN have reported went to the party's coffers.

And while Hernández begrudgingly admitted some funds came to his campaign from the companies set up to loot the IHSS, he insisted he personally had nothing to do with it:
Hernandez told reporters that "me, myself, Juan Orlando, I have nothing to do" with the scandal.

Needless to say,  leaders of the protests against JOH were not placated. Salvador Nasralla of the Partido Anti-Corrupción underlined that corruption is corruption, saying:
"It's like saying that a thief who steals a little is less guilty than one who steals a lot".

The Honduran press, meanwhile, took quite a different tack in its coverage, leaving a much more ambiguous impression about what the president has or has not admitted.

El Heraldo's article was headlined "JOH: Partido Nacional should return funds to the IHSS", but the statement attributed to Hernández is conditional:
Hernández insisted that if it were proven that businesses connected to the embezzlement at IHSS issued checks in favor of the Partido Nacional, the funds should be returned...

That "if" disappeared in the Reuters story. But it, and similar hedged language, is all over Honduran reporting.

JOH, while seeming to call for his party to admit guilt, actually used the opportunity to undermine one of his political rivals, ex-mayor of Tegucigalpa Ricardo Alvarez, stating
"I am not the president of the party, but this was my suggestion more than eight months ago; I said that once the Fiscalía and the Judicial branch demonstrate that those resources came from something unseemly, the Partido Nacional is under an obligation to return those resources.

The head of the Partido Nacional who, this passage implies, did not take JOH's good advice, while unnamed in this article is Alvarez, who would have been likely to be the strongest candidate for president from the PN, before the Supreme Court decision allowing re-election.

In reporting by La Prensa, Hernández is quoted as explicitly saying "some of the checks were in the period when Ricardo Alvarez was president of the Party", continuing
"I don't know right now if he has given his statement or not, but everyone has to give a statement, everyone has to give his version and afterward, the court has to make its
finding".

It is no accident that El Heraldo ended its article with Hernández' response to a question about re-election:
In regard to my electoral participation, it seems to me that I should leave space for all political actors, but if they are in agreement, I have no problem in participating.

El Tiempo, reporting the response almost word for word as El Heraldo, added "Nonetheless, [Hernández] said that he had not spoken of re-election".

So-- no admission of guilt at all, contrary to what Reuters reported, is found in the Honduran coverage.  La Prensa de Honduras actually headlined its story  "I have nothing to do with the corruption of the Seguro": Juan Orlando Hernández.

Curiously absent from the Reuters story is what Hernández had to say about those protesting about the scandal. In Tiempo he is quoted as saying
"Why have the people come out? just like me, I was angered when I realized the depth of the problem, of the avarice of the human being who could act at the moment of being an administrator"..."I am certain that the majority of the people, like all of us, are angry about what has happened and many people legitimately come out and march, but also there are people who come out and march because they do not want other cases to be known ..."

So in JOH's view, he is on the side of the just protesters, while some others are nefariously participating in protests to prevent the disclosure of their own corruption, or for other, undisclosed, purposes, as El Heraldo quotes him saying
"It could be that some would like to use this movement for other purposes..."

And in case the innuendo is lost on readers, Proceso Digital ran its story under the headline Marchas tienen un componente legítimo pero tambíen intereses oscuros: Presidente Hernández. Where other Honduran media stopped quoting JOH's comments on the protests after he expressed his support for the "legitimate" outrage (in which he included himself), in Proceso Digital the statement took a more disturbing turn:
"but there is another group that is asking that I should not be in the government ever since I took office, the people that were against extradition, it is all one sequence, these are different sentiments, these are people that want to stop the fight against organized crime.

For JOH, protests against generalized "corruption" are fine, because he has nothing to do with it. But when the call is for him to step down-- well, that's quite another thing: you must be on the side of organized crime.

Reuters reported the part of Hernández statements that speaks to the over-arching narrative being constructed about corruption and protest in Central America, in which Guatemala and Honduras are merged. But each country has its own issues, and what gets left out from original coverage is where we find the traces of real politics.

It may be reassuring to suggest that the president of Honduras has admitted his party did something wrong, and has directed it be corrected. But that doesn't seem to actually be what has happened; holding himself above the fray, Juan Orlando Hernández minimized the depth of corruption, and managed to use the opportunity to continue to undermine political rivals within and outside his own party.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Protests, Claims of Conspiracy Against Juan Orlando Hernández

Juan Orlando Hernández, elected President of Honduras in November 2013 with about 37% of the popular vote, has ruled as if he had an electoral mandate.

For the last couple of weeks, however, things have been a little rougher in JOH's Honduras. Rough enough that English language media have taken notice.  

The International Business Times covered the story with a headline "Juan Orlando Hernandez Resignation Scandal", summarizing the issues concisely:
Hondurans demanded the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernandez Wednesday during demonstrations across the violence plagued capital city of Tegucigalpa. Protesters outside the National Congress questioned Hernandez's involvement in a social security scam involving some of the nation's most influential businesspeople and politicians...
The Honduran Institute of Social Security funding scam allegedly involved officials transferring large sums of money from the nation's federal coffers to the ruling National Party during the 2013 presidential elections.

The Tico Times adds that the Partido Nacional is accused

of having accepted approximately $90 million from IHSS to finance Hernández’s campaign in 2013, a cut of more than $300 million in diverted funds from the IHSS.

The investigation of corruption at the IHSS is ongoing. What has been alleged, citing the Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción, is that funds were paid to false-front businesses that provided no services. Some of these businesses then wrote checks to the central committee of the Partido Nacional, which used the proceeds to fund the presidential campaign, according to Salvador Nasralla, leader of the Partido Anti-Corrupción.

The allegation that a large part of the money diverted financed Hernández' presidential campaign has fueled demands that he step down.

Which leads to the strangest part of this story: the pushback, which has tried to recast this all as plotting to undermine the president, even to carry out a military coup.

As the IHSS scandal was unfolding Marvin Ponce, a former member of the Honduran Congress, and current advisor to the president, claimed that there was a "conspiracy" to spread rumors about JOH involving the US government:
I am glimpsing a dangerous thing. There is a high profile TV company in the country that has had meetings in the Department of State and with the Department of Justice. They have initiated a very strong campaign against the president. What we are seeing is that there is a campaign through two routes, David Romero [a prominent Honduran broadcaster] with accusations, and on the other side a strong strategy by other powerful sectors of the country to force him to yield and to avoid his seeking re-election."

Ponce's claims of US involvement are, to be charitable, questionable. They would require us to credit that preventing presidential re-election (recently authorized by the Honduran Supreme Court) is more important to US foreign policy than supporting a government doing precisely what the US calls for in security, immigration, and economic policy.

But even these claims do not hold a candle to other rumors about supposed plotting against JOH.

These came from Hugo Maldonado, the current head of Honduras' Human Rights Commission, who claimed that political opponents of the Honduran president were conspiring to remove him in a coup d'etat.

The ex-head of the Honduran Armed Forces, Romeo Vasquez Velasquez-- who actually was responsible for the execution of the 2009 Honduran coup-- denied the charge vigorously, and colorfully:
He shouldn't go making things up, unless my wife and I alone are going to carry out a coup d'Etat. I'm not in the Armed Forces-- who am I supposed to commit a coup with?

That wasn't the only reporting that waded into dubious waters.

The Honduran paper La Tribuna published an article-- really more like a political speech by a very enthusiastic supporter of the Partido Nacional-- on May 14. In between boasting about the strength of the PN and of JOH, it sketches out a supposed plot fueled by methamphetamine use, backdated to March, in which political advisors to José Manuel Zelaya supposedly outlined a campaign to undermine Hernández, amazingly, through public protests in May about corruption.

The conspiracy allegedly involved David Romero, and Salvador Nasralla of the Partido Anti-Corrupción as well, thus tidily blackening the reputations of all three.

The one thing in this lurid story that has some truth to it is that both PAC and LIBRE are calling for JOH to resign due to the IHSS scandal.

Meanwhile, the Tico Times estimated 5000 people took part in the latest march in Tegucigalpa, a night-time torchlit rally that was supported by both LIBRE and the Partido Anti-Corrupción.

Investigations of the IHSS continue; and for his part, JOH is trying to stay above the fray, while his party launches counter-accusations, smearing opponents and suing Salvador Nasralla for "defamation".

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Trading Commodities for Chicken Progress

The United States Department of Agriculture, under its "Food for Progress" program, is donating agricultural products worth $17 million to the Honduran Ministry of Cattle and Agriculture (Secretaria de Agricultura y Ganadería, SAG in Spanish).

According to a USDA press release, SAG is supposed to sell these products (yellow corn and soybean meal) in commodities markets, then use the proceeds
to implement projects aimed at improving agricultural productivity, enhancing farmers' access to information and market skills, building government capacity, and strengthening local, regional and international trade in agricultural products. 

The USDA press release later adds:
The projects supported by this new agreement will focus on the creation of jobs and income opportunities for some of Honduras' most vulnerable citizens. The beneficiaries will include small farmers, as well as small businesses and producer organizations, particularly those that support rural women and youth. 

John Donaghy's blog post triggered our interest in this story. He wondered who in Honduras would be buying these agricultural products, which are not used in local cooking practices, and asked
Why doesn’t the US just sell the food and give the money to Honduras?...how will this yellow corn sale really help hungry Hondurans? 

Donaghy relayed remarks made in response to his question by a skeptic who doubted these commodity donations would be particularly beneficial for the Honduran poor, but more likely would benefit agribusiness interests. Donaghy responded:
I think you are probably right. Yellow corn and soybean meal are cattle feed. But who owns most of the cattle here in Honduras and may buy the feed? A few rich large land owners who use their land for cattle grazing - which not only takes away some of the best flat land but also is environmentally poor in its misuse of hills. Again, the poor suffer.

We had a similar reaction when we read the story; "improving agricultural productivity, enhancing farmers' access to information and market skills, building government capacity, and strengthening local, regional and international trade in agricultural products" all seems to us to be about Honduran agribusiness interests; how do we get from there to helping the "most vulnerable citizens... rural women and youth"?

Part of the problem in addressing this question is that we have very little real information about what programs will be supported by this new agreement.

There is no real reporting from Honduras; news media simply seem to be reprinting the press release in Spanish. El Tiempo provides a hint of what the substance of the Honduran proposal might be:
the USDA will use the earnings produced through the sales of yellow maize and soy meal in the nation of North America over 42 months for the execution of projects in 8 departments of the national [Honduran] territory.  
 An article in El Economista instead says that the agreement
intends for Honduras to obtain income through the resale of these products in order to finance a project of improvements in agricultural productivity and access by agriculturalists to the market.

Who's right? And how exactly could this new agreement help "vulnerable" (poor) Hondurans?

Under the "Food For Progress" program, the USDA maintains a list of "priority" countries and solicits proposals from governments and NGOs.  Honduras has not received support under this program since 2012. We only have the USDA press release and program website to judge what the Honduran Government might have proposed to do this time.

The "Food For Progress"  website says
Food for Progress has two principal objectives: to improve agricultural productivity and to expand trade of agricultural products

and describes having supported projects around the world that
have trained farmers in animal and plant health, improved farming methods, developed road and utility systems, established producer cooperatives, provided microcredit, and developed agricultural value chains.

The website also provides a link to the legal regulations that govern the program. These make it clear that the US donates commodities (so Tiempo got it wrong when it said the USDA will be selling commodities for the benefit of Honduras).

The foreign party to an agreement in the program can either directly use the US commodities offered, or resell them and use the proceeds for specific projects. That seems to be what the Honduran agreement is about: to sell commodities donated by the US.

While we still have no idea where the detail came from, the coverage by Tiempo could be right in saying that eight departments of Honduras will see specific projects implemented using the proceeds from sales of commodities. The program regulations provide an outline of what is needed in a proposal, so we know Honduras had to provide specific information including:
the targeted geographic area, anticipated beneficiaries, and methods that the applicant would use to choose such beneficiaries, including obtaining and considering statistics on poverty levels, food deficits, and any other required items...

Previous projects supported in Honduras are listed in the "Food for Progress" website. They might help us understand USDA's specific goals in its donations for Honduras.

In addition to the Honduran government (about whose past projects we have found only generalities), previous participants have included CARE, Finca, and TechnoServe. That gives us an opportunity to see what kinds of projects Food for Progress has supported under other agreements.

Finca's Honduras projects are in microfinance, including agricultural loans. A study of Finca's loans to Honduran rural women reported mixed results: women were able to improve food security, but not to significantly change their economic condition due to what the author identified as an "entrenched socioeconomic hierarchy".

CARE also is involved in microfinance in Honduras. Its website links to a report on Honduras and Guatemala that describes efforts to encourage small holder farmers to produce high value cash crops for export (in this case, papayas). Decades-long research on the effects of conversion to high value export crops in Honduras, from anthropologists such as Susan Stonich, stresses the environmental and social costs that follow.

It is with TechnoServe, the third NGO with past projects in Honduras funded through Food for Progress, that it becomes clearest that the goal of the USDA in Honduras, overall, is to integrate people who would have been subsistence farmers into production for international commodity markets.

TechnoServe describes its goals as supporting agribusiness development and entrepreneurial enterprises. Its website highlight efforts to increase Honduran producers' participation in coffee and cacao production, and features positive coverage of palm oil production in Honduras. All three of these agricultural commodities are the focus of critical academic studies that raise question about integration in international markets.

The route from the Food for Progress program's objectives to the stated outcome of improving life for the "most vulnerable" in Honduras requires a belief in the transformative potential for the rural poor of becoming part of international markets. As anthropologists, we think past history suggests skepticism is in order.

That leaves us with one last question, the one we started with: who benefits from the sale of the commodities donated by USDA?

The "Food for Progress" website says commodities donated by the USDA are to be "sold on the local market".

And indeed, the USDA website describes Honduras as a growing market for agricultural exports purchased from the US:
Honduras is among the fastest-growing markets in the Central American region, accounting for $613.4 million in U.S. agricultural exports in FY 2014. Top U.S. exports include corn, wheat, and soybean meal.

Corn and soy meal, the commodities donated by the USDA under the Food for Progress program, are important primarily for agribusiness, as John Donaghy's blog post inferred. But the beneficiaries are not so much cattle as chickens.

A 2003 FAO study noted growing imports of yellow maize in Honduras to be used for burgeoning chicken feedlots that took chicken from an expensive luxury to a staple for those residents of Honduran cities with sufficient cash income. A 2005 report on food security from the UN World Food Programme stated that yellow maize was imported primarily for feed concentrates for chicken and pigs. Soy cake was mentioned as poultry feed in the 2003 report. A US soy industry website reported on advising about use of soy meal in poultry and livestock feed in Honduras in 2014.

So we can probably assume the commodities provided by the USDA will be sold in Honduras to animal feedlots. Chickens, the main focus, are consumed in Honduras, but chicken is also exported, with a sharp rise starting around 2005. In 2014, it was reported that Honduran chicken was nearing approval for export to the US.

And that concludes the great circle of using US agricultural surplus to encourage Hondurans to produce agricultural products to be sold to external markets-- including the US.

Honduran farmers benefit, in theory, by being more firmly embedded in a world agricultural economy. Whether you think this will be effective in alleviating poverty probably depends on how you understand the complicated web of environmental, social, and economic forces involved.

Our skepticism comes from the history of Honduras' "entrenched socioeconomic hierarchy" maintaining and deepening inequality, leaving producers with the risks that come with environmental degradation, vulnerability of monocrops to plagues, and shifts in world prices, while letting those who control the means of export minimize their risk by setting prices to purchase from producers based on world markets, leaving people who could fulfill at least some of their subsistence needs by farming dependent on internal markets subject to shortages and price manipulation.

But if all goes well with the commodities sales, at least Honduras might have more chicken. The poultry producers argue this will improve nutrition and food security. At least for those who can afford to buy it...