|A new bridge installation didn't go so well in Olancho last month; communities will continue to be isolated in the rainy season|
I’ve made the trip to Tegucigalpa, the capital, a couple of times in the last few weeks.
It take about eight and a half hours from Copan Ruinas, with a stop in San Pedro Sula to change buses.
It’s comfortable. Cuso encourages people to use Hedman Alas, a high-end bus line that makes a big deal about security. Airport-style check-ins, with hand baggage checks, a metal detector and a digital snapshot of every passenger. (I’m not sure how that is supposed to increase security, but I smile for the camera.) No stops along the way. And the buses are new, with comfortable seats, and an odd selection of movies. (Coming home on the weekend, I had Furry Vengeance with Brendan Fraser, whose presence is a reliable indicator that a movie will be bad, and The Reunion, a WWE-produced action vehicle for wrestler John Cena.) For a few dollars more, you can even go Ejecutivo Plus - sort of a bus business class.
Eight hours is still a long time. The distance between the two cities, as the crow flies, is about 220 kilometres. But Honduras is mountainous, and the roads follow the valleys where possible.
The total travel distance is actually 435 kms.
The mathematically astute will have realized that means the average speed for the journey, mostly on the country’s main highways, is about 55 km/h.
The long trip to Tegucigalpa is no big deal for me. But for businesses that need to get there or make deliveries, it adds cost and time. For small producers, it’s a big barrier to getting goods and crops to urban markets.
The problem is even worse off the main roads. By official count, Honduras has 14,296 kms of roads. Less than a quarter of them are paved - about 3,200 kms. A Peruvian economist who spoke in Tegus last week, Enrique Cornejo Ramírez, estimated that only 10 per cent of the road network is in fair condition.
The paved roads, with some exceptions, aren’t good: Potholes, washouts, never-ending construction.
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Why are things such a mess? Hondurans point to Hurricane Mitch as a big factor, and it did result in massive damage to roads and wiped out bridges across the country in 1998.
Corruption is a problem. A newspaper story last month reported up to 25 per cent of government spending - including on infrastructure - is lost to various forms of corruption.(Before Canadians get too smug, remember the current Montreal construction corruption scandal.)
And Honduras just doesn’t have enough money. Work has halted on many of the current projects because the government hasn’t paid the companies in a couple of months. Tax loopholes and evasion reduce the money coming into government. (Teachers, for example, are exempted from income tax; companies show paper losses year after year and don’t pay tax.) Spending is routinely over budget. And IMF aid deals limit government borrowing. (Which, at interest rates around 11 per cent, is problematic anyway.)
It’s not just roads. The country’s main port is inefficient and outdated. There’s been talk of an airport for Copan Ruinas - which would make a huge tourism difference - for a decade, with no progress.
And it’s not just transportation. The country’s phone company, Hondutel, is broke. Rural schools are substandard. In San Pedro Sula, with 1.9 million people, the Rotary Club is raising money to build the first public library. It’s been better lately, but for a couple of months power outages were routine in Copan, to the point that a group blockaded the road to Guatemala in protest. (Which seemed to help.)
And I’m writing this offline, because Internet service has been erratic for about 10 days.
This all goes far beyond inconvenience. Imagine trying to run a business, or any economic activity, when electricity is unreliable and transportation dodgy.
Once, it might not have mattered quite as much. Honduran businesses were local, shared the same handicaps and worked around them.
But Honduras, like so many countries has embraced freer trade as a route to more prosperity. Which means its businesses often face competitors operating in places with every infrastructure advantage.
Infrastructure tends to be a boring topic. Until it’s not there.