Meet the Hondurans trying to forge their own American dream

Andrew Buncombe
Students at the Technological University of Honduras say many people are leaving the country because they see no future: Andrew Buncombe

Five days a week, Nasarette Alonzo works as a teller in a bank in San Pedro Sula. Every evening, and sometimes at weekends too, she comes to the Technological University of Honduras, where she studies international relations.

I live with my mother. She does not work, says Alonzo, smartly dressed in a crimson red blouse, and wearing hooped earrings. My mother helped me pay for high school, but I’m paying for this. She has told me to continue these studies and see if I can obtain a masters.

As thousands of Hondurans, young and old, pour out of the country in search of a better life in the US, the 28-year-old is among those their plight largely unremarked upon working for a better life here. When the caravans of migrants started gathering last year, and large numbers took to the roads, convinced they had little to lose, Alonzo was not among them.

“It made me feel sad, because a lot of people think this country is not good,” she says. “But if you are in this country, you can make the effort to make it great.”

Alonzo and her fellow students are not starry-eyed about Honduras’s fortunes. In recent months, the Central American nation of 10 million people has emerged as one of the battlegrounds in the migrant crisis that Donald Trump has seized on in blunt and frequently racist terms, in rhetoric and behaviour designed to thrill and energise some of his supporters. In 2018, the equivalent of 80 Hondurans a day 28,894 were deported from the US.

In repeated interviews, people in Honduras say the main factor in forcing people to head north was a lack of decent opportunities, especially for young people. Numerous people insist they would rather stay if there were jobs, less violence, and if corruption allegedly reaching to the highest levels of government was not rampant.

The Technological University of Honduras (UTH), a private, nonprofit institution that has 11 campuses across the country, was established in 1987 by Roger D Valladares, as a means to provide education to middle-class and working-class students.

With the state providing only the most basic education, and with the children of the wealthiest families studying either abroad or in expensive private colleges, he came up with an idea that allowed young people to work, and study in their spare time. Some are employed in administrative tasks at the campuses. Bachelor degree courses are designed to be completed in four years, though the average student takes around six-and-a-half years. Tuition costs $1,250 a year.

Valladares’ son, Roger Enrique Valladares, UTH’s executive vice president, talks passionately about creating opportunities for young people. His father, he says, was from a very poor background, and after establishing himself in the world of banking he was inspired to help others.

Honduras, says Valladares, is not lacking in problems. The fact that narcotrafficking routes to supply the US market run through the country is one of them. Corruption is another.

“You can’t live with your eyes closed,” he says. You see so much corruption in our country. You look at Guatemala and El Salvador, and it’s the same problem.

Yet he sees huge potential for tourism, foreign investment, trade if people were given a chance. “When you see our students work, you can see in them there is that desire,” he says. We are America. There is an American dream here too.

Oscar Ramirez, 25, is studying marketing and says the government of President Juan Orlando Hernandez ought to do more to help smaller local business. He said even registering a company costs as much as $600.

Meanwhile, Hernandez, a conservative and an ally of the US, seeks to attract foreign investment by offering tax breaks to companies that set up in specially created free trade zones. He says this only helps those able to get jobs with the larger companies, which many say requires connections or influence.

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“The government is making changes, but we need the answer right now,” he says. Our young people, and the entrepreneurs with the good ideas, are going to go to the other countries. The opportunities are better there.

He said the government needs to act more quickly and invest in education. Earlier this year, legislators voted down proposals by Hernandez, whose brother has been charged in New York with narcotrafficking, to privatise health and education services. Court documents unsealed in the US revealed Hernández had himself once been the subject of an investigation by the US federal drug enforcement agency.

In June, security forces fired teargas and live bullets, as teachers and doctors marched to demand the resignation of Hernandez, against a backdrop of a decade of neglect of healthcare and education, since the coup that forced out Manuel Zelaya, the left-leaning president.

The Guardian reported spending on education and culture had dropped from around 33 per cent of the government budget to around 20 per cent in the past 10 years. At the same time, spending on security and defence increased from around 13 per cent of the budget to 15 per cent.

“If you give an education to a kid, you can change their lives,” says Ramirez, who works around 40 hours in an administrative job at UTH and studies for 25 hours. “If they don’t have education, they take the option to go to the US.”

In one of San Pedro Sula’s many high-end coffee shops, where people pass the time chatting or tapping away on laptops as if they were in London, Seattle or Tokyo, Eduardo Facusse claims Honduras’s main challenge is that the economy, which grew at 3.5 per cent in 2018, is not expanding fast enough to meet the demand. He says as many as 100,000 people are entering the workplace each year who could not find a job.

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The official unemployment rate stands at 6 per cent, while the Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, ranks Honduras as the world’s 15th most unequal nation. Outside of Africa, only Brazil, Colombia and Panama are worse. Remittances from Hondurans overseas amounted to $4.75bn in 2018, around 20 per cent of GDP.

Facusse, a businessman, investor and critic of the current administration, says the government of Hernandez is pro-big business but does little to encourage smaller players, which is where he believes more people could be employed.

“There is a total imbalance between how we’re growing and the jobs we’re creating,” he says. As a result, tens of thousands are leaving every year.

The other side of this is the political instability. Investment is related to stability, not necessarily economic stability but political stability, he says. We had a coup in 2009, and then an election in 2017 that was totally fraudulent. The government has no credibility. The other problem is that there is rampant corruption.

The president’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.

However, Alberto Chedrani, a member of congress from the ruling National Party, defends both the president and his government’s policies.

He claims it is difficult to attract the foreign investment required to create new jobs because members of the opposition party were harming the country’s reputation by encouraging people to join the caravans and migrate to the US. He denies that the alleged actions of the president’s brother have had a detrimental impact on the country’s image.

We need to care about our image as a country. The president is only one person and he’s doing his best, he says. Right now, we have a lot of students graduating from college but we don’t have employment. If we have a bad image, the companies will not invest.

Sometimes, changing mindsets can be as important for creating employment as changing economic policies.

Christian Forno, who says he is from a wealthy background, spent six years studying in the US, including a stint at culinary school in Florida. He could have chosen to remain but decided to return. He says he was inspired both by the fact “Honduras is virgin territory” for entrepreneurs, and because he wanted to help.

Among his businesses is a pizza restaurant, Forno, located in San Pedro Sula, where he employs people in need of a break. Many of them had no experience in the food industry, so he taught them himself. Honduras was held back, he says, by corruption and the government’s failure to invest in its people.

I chose to come back. There are so many opportunities to try and improve people’s lives, he says.

In Forno, Minor Batriez is using a large wooden paddle to load the oven with pizzas, and then remove them when they are bubbling and crisp. Two years ago, he tried to enter the US with a friend, only to be caught and deported. When the caravans started forming last year, he was not tempted to join.

“It’s too risky,” he says with a grin. But people don’t have jobs. Not all people have the opportunity that I do.

Additional reporting: Paulo Cerrato in San Pedro Sula​

Read the first part in the Beyond the Border series here: Honduras: Inside ground zero of the Central American migrant crisis​

Read the second part in the Beyond the Border series here: Honduras: Where climate change and mass migration have created a village of women

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