A recent trip to Honduras was an eye-opening experience. One doesn’t even have to be on the ground for the abject poverty to be obvious. Landing at Tegucigalpa, the capital city, one cannot help but notice that much of the city consists of shanties. The airport, which was recently totally renovated, is the equivalent of a regional airport in America, at best; certainly not what you would expect from a city of over one million inhabitants.
Once on the ground the poverty is all around you. Except for a few small pockets of prosperity, it’s like continuously driving through the worst part of any American city. In fact, poverty in America pales in comparison to what you see in Honduras.
As we drove to a small school for the blind then an orphanage and later to a little community in which we were building a modest, one-room dwelling, I was overwhelmed by one nagging question: Why? Why are these people still poor?
The answer is complicated but one facet of it became obvious. And it’s a common denominator in every poor country in the world. Corruption. One of our translators gave me the run-down. Most everyone, he says, in all levels of Honduran government is corrupt. When the local police need some extra cash they pull you over on trumped up charges and you must pay to get out of it. When politicians campaign they pay people to vote. Literally. Voter turnout is relatively high in Honduras and no wonder when you leave the polling place with a fist full of lempiras (the local currency).
According to the CIA World Factbook, government salaries in Honduras are nearly equivalent to total tax collections. In other words, of the money taken from the people, very little comes back to them in the form of government services. The roads are a disaster. Power lines are strewn across telephone poles like so much spaghetti. Razor wire lines the tops of fences where the wealthy reside. There are armed guards at nearly every business. Want to buy some screws or a hammer at the hardware store? There’s an armed guard to meet you. Same for convenience stores, grocery stores and the like.
There is no middle class. Only those in government or those who have figured out how to game the system live in relative luxury.
Mission trips like ours aren’t intended to solve the big picture of poverty in Honduras. They’re designed only to help the few who can be touched one group at a time. But the United States has not only the ability but an obligation to use its economic power to effect change. Half of Honduras’s economic activity is directly tied to the U.S. We are a major trading partner. We can and should demand more of their government.
We don’t hesitate to send our military into regions of perceived injustice yet we continue to feed corrupt machines around the world with American dollars. We are prosperous as a nation because of freedom but it’s not just freedom from tyranny.
We are relatively free of corruption. Sure, we have corrupt people in our governments but our system demands their prosecution. It’s not simply a way of life as it is in Honduras and Mexico and most of the third world.
But we shouldn’t be fooled into believing that prosperity equals happiness. In spite of all the poverty, Hondurans seem more content than us. In fact, while the U.S. ranks 41 in the world in percentage of suicides Honduras ranks 104.
Maybe they need to be making a mission trip to America.