Sunday, January 14, 2018

Observations on Honduras’ current political situation

To begin, much of what is happening goes back to the 2009 coup and removal of then president Mel Zelaya. Zelaya, who had very, very close ties to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, attempted in a non-legal fashion to run for president a second time, which was unconstitutional. The country, fearing a dictatorship, organized a coup and removed him from office. Zelaya continues to maintain a strong following, especially in the southern, rural areas of the country and among teachers. Although he is prohibited from running for reelection, he continued and continues to attempt to return to power, first through having his wife run for president and currently, by joining forces with presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla as the face and voice of the new Alianza Party.

Honduras is a country with multiple political parties. (at this time there exist 9 political parties) Because of this, the winning party often does not actually represent the majority of its citizens, because when votes are divided 9 ways, the winning party may only represent 30% or less of the votes. Seeing this weakness, a new party was formed called the Alianza. As it’s name suggest, it is an alliance between the pre-existing Libre party represented by ex-president Zelaya and his wife and the pre-existing PINU party represented by TV host Salvador Nasralla. The Alliance is officially represented by Nasralla.

The elected president replacing Zelaya, was Perfidio Lobo. By most accounts he was not good for Honduras. With close ties to the drug cartels and apparently little interest in governing Honduras, most of the foreign investors, including many of the large textile companies who employed large numbers of Hondurans, left the country in search of countries with more stable governments. The negative effect on Honduras’ economic well-being was devastating.

In November of 2013, Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party won election. Looking at world statistics and from the viewpoint of a foreigner living in Honduras, he has been a president whose policies and actions have been good for Honduras. In four years he has reduced the murder rate per capita, has worked to control the massive drug cartel/gang problem, has encouraged foreign investment, has greatly improved the infrastructure of Honduras, has brought Honduras’ public schools to a higher educational level when compared with the rest of the world, and has worked closely with the USA in many areas, including the war on drugs. As a foreigner, I have seen the positive results of his presidency. A much safer country, a growing middle class, a growing economy, a reduction in government and police corruption and a rising interest in Honduras from foreign investors who are beginning to see some signs of a return to stability. However, this is not to say that his administration has not suffered severe issues, such as the theft of millions of lempiras from the country’s already less than adequate social security fund.

As I have spoken with many people about the situation, most agree that Juan Orlando has been a good president. What has fueled the anger we are seeing in this year’s election is that Orlando, through a Supreme Court decision which most of the country felt was done illegally or at best underhandedly, changed the Constitution to allow a president to run for a second and possibly indefinite term. The outcome is the same thing ex-president Zelaya tried to do through brute force and the majority of the population feel that the change made to the Constitution was not done correctly nor reflects the will of the People. Some of what we are seeing now, is a backlash against Orlando because of this.

That brings us to this year’s election. (Fortunately, Honduras did invite observers from the EU and the OAS to come in October to begin observing the electoral process.) On November 26, Hondurans went to the polling booths.   

As the votes came in, the Alianza was initially ahead, then the National party after a technical problem began to marginally pull ahead. By the following day both parties claimed victory. Immediately, the Alianza party accused the National party of voter fraud, meddling in the voting and tabulation process, irregularities and party control of the voting process. That began a lawful 30 day review process of any allegation of fraud brought to the TSE. This is the only reason that no winner was announced immediately.

Without waiting for the TSE under the supervision of EU and OAS observers to review the allegations or to recount the large number of votes that had been challenged, the Alianza supporters took to the streets in protest fueled and encouraged by both Nasralla and Zalaya, who, already having made the decision that they had been cheated, demanded their candidate be made the winner. The National party felt they too had won, and from there everything began to go downhill, naturally.

What began as emotional and heartfelt protest by supporters of the Alianza party, within hours turned to rioting, burning and looting of public and private property, including the closure of public thoroughfares which greatly impacted all of the Honduran people and the economy. The rampant rioting and looting brought a national curfew into effect which helped reduce the violence. Within a few days, the curfew was lifted and there began several days of peace, although fraught with tension.

Both EU and OAS issued statements saying that although there were “irregularities” found in the voting process, no fraud was actually found. The EU’s statement was much more accepting of the election results, but encouraged reform, while the OAS, although apparently unable to actually find fraudulent behavior, went so far as to reject the election outcome based on the irregularities and recommended a new election be held. This did not happen and probably won’t for a variety of reasons, not least being that the constitution of Honduras, as I understand it, does not allow for a run-off election.

After almost 3 weeks, the TSE officially declared Juan Orlando the winner. This immediately restarted the protest and outrage, except this time even more violently. For four days the rioting, burning and looting went almost completely unchecked, especially in San Pedro Sula. The US Embassy issued a “hold in place, hunker down” statement to all US citizens living in Honduras. Finally, the Honduran military and National Police force were brought in to restore law and order. Of course, and unfortunately, there were clashes between protesters and law enforcement personnel resulting in death and injuries on both sides.

On Friday the 22 of December, the US Embassy issued a statement recognizing Orlando as president while at the same time, encouraging the country to refrain from further violence, to engage in a robust debate on electoral reforms and for both parties to work together to restore unity to the country. Following this statement, Nasralla conceded defeat, withdrew from his party, although publicly stating that he "believed the USA had sided with Orlando because he is more closely aligned with them". He then recanted his withdrawel and as of this date claims that he will hold his own presidential inauguration in San Pedro Sula the same day as President Orlando has his inauguration in Tegucigalpa. It will be interesting to see if he actually does this as the legal or illegal ramifications of this would be profound. (Following the US’s recognition of Orlando, most of the other world leaders have followed suit.)

It is difficult to say what the final response of Nasralla and Zelaya will be. In my opinion, they have only two realistic options to choose from. (a) To continue to incite civil disobedience and unrest, possibly leading to civil war, or (b) to concede defeat gracefully and to look towards a new opportunity in 4 years. Next week should be very interesting.

The following opinions are mine. 

I do NOT claim to be unbiased or neutral in my opinions of what has taken place. As a foreigner I am unable to vote. However, as a foreign investor, I certainly have a vested interest in the outcome.  

Let me begin by saying that, although my world view falls solidly on the conservative, capitalistic side of the fence, I am not an Orlando supporter as such. I do support the conservative direction in which he has steered the country economically and applaud the advances he has made in reducing crime and murder rates in the past 4 years. Nasralla may have made a decent president, but his political leanings and choice of political partner makes me very wary of him, and here I am speaking from the perspective of a foreign investor and property owner.

I will however, comment on what I have observed this past month.

First and foremost, I am absolutely for freedom of speech and expression. I have observed many peaceful protest here in Honduras and the police have always helped the protesters by directing traffic and giving them space to protest freely. I have never, myself, seen any oppression of free speech. However, when the recent protest turned to raw greed, vandalism, looting, rioting and destruction, not only did I lose my respect for the civil rights “process”, but also for the opposition leaders who openly encouraged and incited their supporters to continue the violence and rampaging. In contrast, the National party and it’s supporters were quiet, orderly and non-confrontational.

In my opinion, in a democracy, which Honduras is, civil rights do not extend to harming other’s bodies, or to infringe on their right to engage in commerce, or the destruction of property, public or private. It is true that protest often become violent as passions are high, and it’s a recognized and documented fact that when this happens, it almost always leads to looting.  Although some see violence as the only way for poor people to be heard, I encourage these people to read history, where peaceful protest by poor and oppressed people, has changed the course of nations.

In my opinion it was wrong to begin rioting before the electoral review process had been completed, or to begin at all for that matter. There is nothing romantic about violence and bloodshed. There is nothing beautiful in the death of a young person who probably doesn’t even know what he or she is actually fighting for. More often than not, that death is for nothing more than a politician’s desire to be in power. and not really for the perceived cause.

Division and strife is the number one weapon being used at this time. It’s evident in the streets, but it is also evident in conversations, in families, in local churches and even to some degree among the foreign community here. Everyone has an opinion including myself, and of course that opinion is the just one, the correct one. In the end, the vote was a mere 1.5% difference. It’s George Bush and Al Gore all over again except thankfully they don’t have hanging chads here. Half the population feels cheated while the other half feels they got what they voted for.

When discussing the election, I have often expressed the importance that in a business sense, (and probably in a political sense too) it is never wise to bite the hand that feeds you. (The Alianza has already expressed a much lesser willingness to work with the USA than the National party has shown, including the promise to remove our army base near Comayagua.) Not only is the USA Honduras' number one trade partner, but there are an estimated 250,000 legal and 450,000 illegal Hondurans living and working within the USA who each year send millions and millions of US dollars back to Honduras to support their families, which also hugely benefits Honduras’ economy. This does not take into account the millions of dollars the USA gives to Honduras each year to fight the war against drugs and for social programs. Nor the thousands of teams that arrive here each year bringing medical brigades and other types of donations from clothes to support for children's homes. Should these enormous flows of funds and services be restricted or eliminated completely, it would deal a nearly crushing blow to Honduras' already fragile economy.  Considering this, it seems to me that it would be wise to work with, rather than against your best customer. (There does seem to exist here a real lack of understanding of the economic impact the election may have on the country's economy. As a matter of fact, the inability to understand and analyze world history and current global events seems to play heavily into the population's failure to view this election in the economic light it I feel it deserves.)

Speaking of education, in my conversations with many people here, it seems that most do not actually realize that Venezuela's economy has been bankrupted at the hands of it's own government (Venezuela is a big supporter of the Alianza)  nor that around the world the majority of socialist countries are struggling under the weight of inadequately funded social programs even as aggregate taxes and unemployment soar. Here, the average working class Honduran currently pays little to no personal income or property tax. The government's main source of revenue are corporate taxes, income tax on the wealthy and a national sales tax on the purchase of goods and services. Taking all this into consideration, it seems unrealistic to expect that a third world country such as Honduras, could actually create enough wealth to pay for all the services expected of socialism, without a solid economic base which can only be provided through strong international trade and foreign investment, which depends on a stable government that sees the value in creating and maintaining these relationships long-term.

So can anything good come from this? Absolutely.

It’s obvious that the people of Honduras want a change from the status quo of politics. The same wave of change that carried Trump into office is what brought Honduras to this point. They want a government that is less corrupt, that cares about Honduras as a country first and foremost.  People want change and the current administration would be wise to hear them.

I have been saying for several years that, as Americans we have a crystal ball with which to gaze into Honduras' future. That crystal ball is the United States of America. Although the gap is closing rapidly due to technology, in general Honduras is 30 - 40 years behind the US in standard of living, infrastructure development and use of technology and information. Most streets are unpaved, water and sewer treatment plants are almost non-existent. Eighties music is still popular here. Conservative churches are still struggling to deal with issues the American church dealt with long ago, etc. However, I believe that all of this set to change, and rapidly. I also believe that the youth are on the brink of a cultural revolution, just like we experienced in the sixties.  No, I don’t think Honduras will have a “hippie” generation, but the youth here are tired of seeing no opportunities unless you are born rich or can get to the US. There is a growing middle class here that are being educated. (Ah, here we come back to education as bringing enlightenment) These are bright kids, graduating as engineers, technicians, nurses, and lawyers….with nowhere to practice. How frustrating that must be for them. So look out Honduras. I only hope that a sufficiently honorable cause will be presented to these young people. One that will catch their attention and light the fire of passion, and not some cause that ultimately they will be disillusioned by when all they fought and died for doesn’t bring the change they so ardently hoped for.

I hope that this election will cause the current government to realize that it is in their best interest to bring the change the people want. I hope that they will recognize the urgency to rid the country of the gangs that control much of the larger cities. I hope they will bring economic reform through an anti-corruption agenda so that foreign investors will feel safe in bringing much needed jobs to Honduras. I hope the US sees the importance of helping the strategic ally we have in Honduras by encouraging and rewarding foreign investment through tax incentives and other methods. 

Honduras needs jobs. 

I believe with all my heart that jobs solve most of society’s problems, at least those that are not spiritually or emotionally rooted. When people are working, providing for their families with their own hands and seeing the rewards of hard work demonstrated through better living standards, people are more content and less likely to cause trouble or turn to crime. Honduras has an incredible workforce, just waiting for opportunity. My constant refrain to people who want to help Honduras is this. “Please stop bringing free things which only reduces a society to a dependent welfare state void of honor and self-respect, and instead bring jobs which allows the person to purchase for themselves the things they need, while at the same time benefiting the overall economy of the country”. This is what Honduras wants.

This is a great country and one I have grown to love. I pray that this nation will honorably face the future united, and that the world will see all that Honduras really has to offer. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Prosperity: the Documentary

Several days ago I received an invitation to watch a new documentary online at no cost. When I saw the title of the documentary I have to admit, I was skeptical. "Prosperity" My first thought was that it was some get rich quick scheme. Second thought was a TV evangelist urging me to become a Christian so I could become, miraculously, a multi-millionaire. After reading the overview, my third thought was that it was made by a liberal shouting the same old rhetoric against corporate greed and climate change as he flits around the world in his private jet.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out it was none of the above!

In Prosperity, Pedram Shojai demonstrates an approach to money, personal and global responsibility and success in one of the most balanced and thoughtful ways I have seen. If you click this link, it will take you to his website, where at least for now, you can register to not only view the documentary free, but also watch a number of insightful interviews. I highly recommend taking the time to view this film.

In his side interview with Patrick Gentempo, as well as in the film itself, Shojai talks a lot about one's "philosophy" of life, money and purpose. As I processed what I was hearing, I began to realize that I actually do have a philosophy about this. As a matter of fact, every single person in the world does whether they know it or not! My philosophy will look different than yours, and that's not only okay, but it's also good. My purpose in blogging on this is not to convert you to my philosophy, but rather to encourage you to think about and define your own philosophy in order to analyze it to see if it is healthy, responsible, sustainable and that the way you are living actually reflects what you "say" you believe.

I have always been an entrepreneur and a networker. My first business, at age 7, was a lemonade stand. This is where I first leaned that net sales does not equal net profit. At age 10 I created a joint venture with two of my best friends. We formed a bicycle repair shop where we were the sole customers. Sadly, and not unexpectedly, it failed. Lesson learned. A business must have a customer base.  In 1983 I entered the world of interstate transportation; my life's goal from the age of 3. My first interstate trucking job was as a private contractor for Affiliated Van Lines, Lawton, OK driving a moving truck I leased from them. Those first couple years I have never worked so hard for so little. But WOW, I didn't care!

I was finally living what I had long dreamed of and so impatiently waited for.

I was having a blast. Let me tell you, trucking was fun in the '80s. I had few bills, no real home to speak of and as I crisscrossed the USA I was a free spirit. Eventually, reality set in and I began to realize that making a profit is actually an integral part of running and maintaining a self-sustaining business, no matter how much fun I was having. 

Fast forward 2,000,000 miles and 28 years

I still loved trucking. I still loved business. Not nearly the same fun it used to be, but I still loved the challenge of surviving and prospering in an ever changing market. However, over the previous years my philosophy regarding the purpose of business, what success looked like and how all this affected my life had continued to change. Success began to look less like gross income and more like time at home. Charity and mission, not only financial but in time spent, became a part of my business plan. What I didn't realize is that through all these years and experiences my philosophy was being developed, and in-fact still is.

Eventually, all this prompted our move to Honduras. 

So here we are, 5 years later. Still in Honduras, still an entrepreneur and my "philosophy" is still slowly growing and changing and adapting to fit a new world view and new experiences. 

If you are like me, your own philosophy has probably been a fluid journey of change as new events impact your life, new technology is made available and new ideas and opportunity present themselves. Or, maybe your philosophy has never changed or you've never spent anytime considering it.  

Here are a couple of thoughts, posed as questions, that have an effect on our philosophy
  • How do you view money and it's purpose and value in your life?
  • Do you see wealth as the end result or as a means to an end? If so, to what end?
  • Do you see your personal responsibility as being only to yourself, or does it extend to your your family? your neighbors? your community? your country? your planet?
  • How and in what do you invest your dollars, your time and your emotions?
  • Do you believe that you can actually make a difference in the world?
  • Do your actions actually match your values?

How you answer these questions, in part, defines your philosophy

The last question I posed has actually been my focus this past year. I have worked through the others and have defined my philosophy regarding those, but as I critically analyzed my actions versus my professed beliefs, there seemed to be a fairly large disconnect. Oops!

Belief;  an employer should treat his employees well, not only financially, but the "whole" person. 
Living it out:
Within the Spanish Institute of Honduras we employ between 15 and 20 people. Two years ago we began to review our "actions" versus our "beliefs" with regard to our employees. Because our employees do not fall under the full-time or permanent employee status, there are not many laws that govern us. As many employers do here, we could have taken full advantage of this to satisfy our own greed. It's an all too common practice. We have always paid our teachers a just wage, but as we reviewed our philosophy versus our actions, we realized that we were failing to care for the whole person. Recognizing this, we implemented 4 weeks of paid vacation a year to ensure our employees have time to rest and spend quality time with family. We now provide a private counseling session once per quarter (and in cases of emergency) for each of our teachers. Through a pastor friend we began a half hour devotional time for them twice a month. Job stability is an important factor, so recently we invested a considerable sum in developing an online class platform to enhance and fill out the work schedule, In January, cost of living raises will go into effect. 

I say all this to say that as we work to live out our philosophy it often comes at a cost to us. If making money to make money so we could buy more stuff was our only goal, well I guess we'd be running a sweat shop, wringing every cent of profit out of each poor soul. Because that is not our philosophy, the rewards we receive are gratifying and in line with our beliefs. Knowing we are doing our part to bring work to a country that desperately needs jobs while fulfilling our responsibility to care for others outside of the family boundaries, not only brings personal satisfaction, but also brings long-term financial rewards, a by-product, full circle, self sustaining process that if properly reinvested continues to grow and prosper. (This same philosophy applies to our clients and providers as well)

Currently, I'm working on a new business model that even further puts action to our philosophy. I'm excited about the future and the opportunities I see to expand our sphere of influence and world impact. We really are working hard to make sure that our actions match our philosophy, because if they don't, then I would propose to you that our actions are a more accurate reflection of what our philosophy really is. 

The film, Prosperity, points out that there are now many, many ways that you and I can live out our philosophy that 20 years ago may not have been available. Are you concerned about greenhouse gases? Hybrid cars and solar energy is now available to you. Do you abhor unfair labor practices? Buy products from companies that do not use low paid, foreign labor. Does corporate greed turn you off? Choose a mutual fund that does not invest in that type of company. Do you believe that chemical fertilizers are bad for your body? Buy organic. Big banking is bad? Choose from any number of small niche banks or locally owned community banks. Sure, all these choices may affect your bottom-line, but then again, is it really all about the money?

We have more opportunities then ever before to live out our philosophy!

Let's do it!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Does walking away really mean no looking back?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and with Hurricane Irma gaining strength, threatening a direct hit on the East Coast, I've found myself struggling against the urge to be drawn back into something I have walked away from; commercial disaster relief work.

I entered the very lucrative, good old boys club of natural disaster relief cleanup in 2005. It wasn't an easy club to join after Katrina as so many, many people were vying for membership. Many who tried didn't make it and went broke waiting. Fortune, however, smiled on me when the second wealthiest man in Mississippi took me under his wing, eventually giving me responsibility for over half of Harrison County. Contracts with other large FEMA contractors followed and my family and I ended up spending seven months in Mississippi.

Over the years, I have worked many hurricanes, ice storms, tornadoes and floods. One of the last storms I worked was Irene where I oversaw the entire debris clean up and disposal for the State of Rhode Island, start to finish. Hurricane Sandy actually delayed our departure for Honduras.

Tornado damage in Springfield, MA

I love disaster relief work

I really do. The adventure, the camaraderie with my crews, the thankfulness of the people we are helping, and yes....the money, all added up to something that really fit me. 

Good Times, Good Memories

But now I've chosen a new path, a new adventure, a new life.

When we moved to Honduras, we didn't know we'd end up staying here. The "plan" was to return to the USA after six months to a year. Then we decided to stay permanently. This required a new plan. The "new plan" was for me to still continue working storms to finance our life here. However, the weather patterns have been pretty quiet for the last 4 years. So, rather than starve, we came up with a "new, new plan". This time it included starting several businesses here in Honduras, but still continuing with disaster relief. Now that plan no longer seems viable. Now I have responsibilities that require me to be here in-country, including a 3 year old child who cannot legally leave Honduras. We have chosen a new life course and with it a new plan and it really leaves no room for a life in the USA, and that includes disaster relief work. Typical of life, all the old plans no longer work.

If you have read between the lines I wrote about my storm career, you will deduce that;  
  • I'm proud of whatever success I achieved 
  • Some of my personal identity is still wrapped up in my past achievements 
  • It's hard for me to let go of that part of my past for those reasons
  • That because of the current situation there exists a conflict of interest going on in me that leaves me unsettled in my current choice
  • That this is affecting my contentment
(I believe that all of this applies to anyone who reflects on or is pulled by the past. We all use terms like; If only I had known, I wish I had done that instead of this, did I make the right choice, what if, maybe I should have....and many others that show that we are undecided if the choices we made are correct or that the past retains a strong pull on us.) 

Through our language school, the Spanish Institute of Honduras, I have watched hundreds of missionaries go through this same struggle. Leaving your life behind and starting fresh is not an easy thing, even if the new life is as good, satisfying or even better than the old one. Some let go, some never do. Sometimes a memory, a smell, a song or an event will trigger the desire to go back. (This struggle may apply to any change in lifestyle, location or career.)

Here are several things I've learned that help me
  • Plans change all the time as life happens. 
  • Once a decision is made, let it stand. If at all possible, don't second guess yourself.
  • Often there is no right or wrong answer to your choice. It's just that, a choice.
  • The future is unknowable, therefore the outcome of any decision is unknowable.
  • It's not always about the money.
  • Contentment comes from letting go of the past and living in the now.
  • It's okay to go back, there is no shame or failure in it. It's just another choice.
  • Hind sight is always 20/20
  • Never say never

For the Christian believer, these feelings can be doubly difficult

We are all aware of the verse found in Luke 9:62. "Jesus replies, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God".  Wow, unfit for service? Really? Talk abut a guilt trip if we sometimes find ourselves wanting the old life. So, here's a couple of questions. Does that mean every decision we make should never allow for regrets or second thoughts? Is it okay to say, "Gosh, I wish I had ordered the double bacon cheeseburger instead of the grilled chicken." Or, "Man, sometimes I really miss my old job." Or, "Did God really call me to Honduras"

So here's my take

Jesus was talking about being a disciple, a follower of him. As a believer there should never exist the question, "Did I do the right thing by choosing to believe in Christ and follow him?" But what about all the other choices we make as frail, finite and flawed human beings? Are we allowed to wonder what if... or to sometimes miss the things we've left behind? Are we allowed to make incorrect, misinformed or faulty choices? My answer is absolutely Yes, because that is part of being human.

There is truth to the plow thing, however. I've never plowed before, but I've driven a lot of miles and I can absolutely assure you that it's hard to stay on the road if you're trying to look behind yourself all the time. A quick look in the rear view mirror is wise and prudent, but not a prolonged, head over the shoulder look. That WILL lead to disaster. If what's behind you is really that worthwhile, better to turn the vehicle around and go back.

  • Love the past and enjoy it, but...
  • Too much time spent looking back or doubting your choice will derail the present and make you ineffective and unhappy 
  • Be content with the choice you made unless you are truly unhappy with it. If that's the case...
  • Be willing to admit you may have made a bad choice and take steps to correct it and...
  • You don't need to justify it to anyone, at least not to me
  • Remember that only eternity is forever
  • Enjoy your past successes but...
  • Focus on the future with all it's unlimited possibilities...
  • Because Today will be Tomorrow's past!

The future is where it's at, baby!