Tomas Bravo / Courtesy Reuters A riot police officer in Tegucigalpa, November 26, 2013.

Bad Role Models

The Embattled Arrival of Honduras' Model Cities

“The Voice of Zacate Grande” is a community radio station named after the island in southern Honduras from where it broadcasts. Located off a dusty road that winds past modest homes and stunning views of the beautiful Gulf of Fonesca, the station has become a focal point of the local community’s resistance to the ongoing land conflict with Miguel Facusse, the richest man in Honduras and reportedly its largest landowner. On the wall outside the station hangs a portrait of Francisco Morazán, revered by Hondurans for his progressive vision and courageous leadership in the newly independent country more than a century ago. These days his portrait has become a symbol of a new struggle for freedom.

Zacate Grande’s plight seems likely to get worse. In May, the Honduran Supreme Court upheld a law, passed by the National Congress last year, authorizing the creation of so-called Zones for Employment and Economic Development (ZEDEs). Modeled on the charter cities concept designed by Paul Romer, an economics professor at New York University, ZEDEs will be semi-autonomous areas that are free to set up their own laws and enforce them via security forces and a judicial system established by them. In theory, these charter cities are designed to spur widespread economic growth by allowing free enterprise to circumvent the country’s weak political institutions.

In practice, however, ZEDEs seem likely to benefit only Honduras’ existing economic and political elites and foreign investors. The laws allowing ZEDEs have been designed to give

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