The U.S. is continuing to play political hardball with Honduras. And the Central American country’s tourism industry has had enough of a situation they feel the United States has all wrong.
At risk is a faltering tourism industry and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in aid as the two countries bicker over the legalities of the country’s removal of President Manuel Zelaya earlier this summer.
The Hondurans say the move was in strict adherence to the country’s constitution, whereas the U.S. government insists the move was a coup. To make matters worse, the U.S. has issued a Travel Advisory against travel to the country, which is heavily dependent on tourism as well as aid from the United States.
“The U.S. government calling for a travel advisory is incorrect and unfair to the people of Honduras. They didn’t do anything wrong and are being punished by the Obama Administration for an exercise in democracy,” said Eugene Albert, owner/developer of Infinity Bay Spa and Beach Resort on the Honduran island of Roatan, who is an American citizen living and working in Honduras. “The Obama administration is asking the Honduran government to go against their own constitution to reinstate [Zelaya].”
“This was all done legally and with due process with the constitution of the country,” insists David Schwartz, Managing Principal of The Management Consortium, a Miami-based developer in the process of creating the Aquarius Roatan Beach Resort and Marina, an 86-acre mixed use project.
Albert said the move had squelched tourism from the United States, even as cruise ship companies continue to allow ships to visit Roatan, the central hub of Honduran tourism. The Canadian government has also refused issuing a Travel Advisory on visiting Roatan.
In a nutshell, the Zelaya situation was prompted by the leader’s desire to call for a referendum to change the country’s constitution. According to people interviewed for this story, the country’s constitution can be reformed in several ways except for some specific clauses. One of those clauses is that a president may only serve a single four-year term.
Zelaya attempted to change that constitutional article in what some are deeming a Chavez-like power grab. Chavez is the leader of Venezuela, a socialist country that many view as being anti-democratic.
He attempted this by saying he was doing a survey of 1,200 people to their opinion of the matter, but it quickly because obvious to Congress and the courts that this was going to be a referendum – a poll of the entire citizenry. Something that Zelaya is not empowered to do.
The country’s attorney general cried foul, as did the Honduran Supreme Court – even as ballot boxes were flown in from Venezuela for this vote. “He blatantly called for a referendum to establish reelections or lengthening his period in office,” said Elias Lizardo, a developer with RLD.
According to Lizardo, the Supreme Court met and agreed the president was in flagrant violation of a court order to not hold this vote and was therefore no longer president of Honduras.
The day before the illegal referendum was to take place, Zelaya ordered the miltary to distribute the ballot boxes. The General said no because it’s illegal as per the Supreme Court, and he was subsequently fired. Congress said you can’t fire him.
“This was not a military coup. The police didn’t have the jurisdiction to remove him. It was up to the armed forces to execute the arrest warrant,” said Lizardo, who noted that, up until that time, the military had proven to be extremely loyal to Zelaya since he, among other things, had doubled their budget. “The military simply refused to take an illegal order.”
Meanwhile, Roatan tourism is suffering. The Aquarius project temporarily stopped, but is back on track. But even so, its developers are worried their negotiations with a major U.S. brand will falter because of what those close to the situation consider U.S. ‘meddling.’
“This directly affects tourism. With our project we stopped, took a deep breath and then the Board recommitted to the project. We are budgeted and moving ahead even though we’re going a little slower,” said Schwartz.
Even with all that’s going on, some are hopeful for the future of visitor arrivals from the United States. Albert said he sees tourism as a whole picking back up. And numbers from nearby countries such as Guatemala are remaining steady.
“We feel the world jumped on board too quick and got the facts and no one wants to eat crow and say the Honduran government followed the constitution. Honduras would have been fine if CNN stayed out of it. In this situation Honduras was guilty until proven innocent and it put a damper on tourism,” said Albert. “We are pretty tough and surviving. The people are great people here and don’t deserve what we gave them.”
The outside world is like 95 percent in seeing this as a military coup. In Honduras it is the other way around, where only 5 percent see it that way. We only have Taiwan, Japan, Columbia and Israel on our side at this point. The facts are, this is an example of the checks and balances system working,” said Lizardo.