Who Wants to Buy Honduras?
Shortly after the 2009 coup that overthrew Manuel Zelaya, Honduras’s newly elected president, Porfirio Lobo, asked his aides to think big, really big. How could Honduras, the original banana republic, reform a political and economic system that kept nearly two-thirds of its people in grim poverty?
One young aide, Octavio Rubén Sánchez Barrientos, had no idea how to undo the entrenched power networks. Honduras’s economy is dominated by a handful of wealthy families; two American conglomerates, Dole and Chiquita, have controlled its agricultural exports; and desperately poor farmers barely eke out subsistence wages. Then a friend showed him a video lecture of the economist Paul Romer, which got Sánchez thinking of a ridiculously big idea: What if Honduras just started all over again?
Romer, in a series of papers in the 1980s, fundamentally changed the way economists think about the role of technology in economic growth. Since then, he has studied why some countries stay poor even when they have access to the same technology as wealthier ones. He eventually realized something that seems obvious to any nonacademic, that poor countries are saddled with laws and, crucially, customs that prevent new ideas from taking shape. He concluded that if they want to be rich, poor countries need to somehow undo their invidious systems (corruption, oppression of minorities, bureaucracy) and create an environment more conducive to business. Or they could just start from scratch.