The Republic of Honduras is implementing economic growth and sustainable development policies backed by political stability. It has many sightseeing attractions, including Maya ruins and the world’s second-largest coral reef. Toshio Motoya spoke with Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary H.E. Mr. Héctor Alejandro Palma Cerna about the nation-building vision, expressway plan across the isthmus, public-private development plan, policy to make Honduras a major sightseeing destination, and other topics.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. You also spoke at the Shoheijuku school in November 2017, where I learned that Japan and Honduras have built a good relationship since 1935. It was also the first time I heard about the profound ties between a university in Honduras and Kanazawa University (in my home prefecture of Ishikawa). Going forward, Japanese people must become interested in Honduras so Japan and Honduras can build an even closer relationship, and so Japan can somehow contribute to Honduras’ nation building. I invited you here to tell us about the current situation in Honduras, its future vision, and other information.
(C) Thank you very much for this opportunity. As you say, Japan and Honduras have had relations for over 80 years, and Japan is an important partner for our development. Fourteen months have already passed since my appointment to Japan in November 2017. I have received kind assistance from yourself and many other Japanese people during this time.
(M) The October 2017 issue of Apple Town, this magazine, included an interview with Mr. Carlos Onan Mendoza Tovar, charge d’affaires ad interim of the Embassy of the Republic of Honduras in Japan at that time. He talked about the “dry canal” (distribution corridor) concept. Honduras, in Central America, has ports on both its Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean sides. He said you are building a dry canal that is an expressway connecting ports on the two bodies of water as a distribution route rather like the Panama Canal. For instance, the United States uses the Panama Canal to transport shale gas from the East Coast, but it will probably utilize this new expressway instead. Has it been completed?
(C) It will be soon. Rather than competing with the Panama Canal, we see this expressway as something that will complement it. When the dry canal is finished, it will enable transportation from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean – roughly 350 kilometers – in around three to four hours each way.
(M) I’ve visited the Panama Canal, and it took a long time to get there by road in Central America. The expressway will definitely be very beneficial if it can cut this time down. I heard that expansion work on the Panama Canal finished two years ago, and that three times the freight can now be transported through it. With the dry canal, distribution capabilities should be expanded by a fair degree.
(C) Yes, that’s right.
(M) Political stability is the most essential thing for a nation’s development. Japan had a different prime minister every year up until recently, but Shinzo Abe has held the office for six years now and the country is quite stable. What is the political situation like in Honduras today?
(C) President Juan Orlando Hernández was re-elected in the November 2017 election and is currently in his second term, so the political circumstances are extremely stable.
(M) How long is the presidential term of office?
(C) Four years, and the president can be re-elected only one time. This is the same as the U.S. It used to be one term, but in 2015 the Supreme Court ruled that re-election was possible in Honduras according to the Constitution, allowing our president to be re-elected.
(M) With a one-term system, the president tries fervently to enjoy these benefits right away. With two terms, he or she will probably make great efforts to govern for the people and win re-election. I think changing to two terms was the right thing to do.
(C) Four years is also too short to do major projects. Two terms are ideal for fulfilling campaign promises, as well.
(M) I think Honduras’ location in Central America means your relationship with the U.S. is closely connected to national development. Japan is an American ally and member of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. What are relations like between Honduras and the U.S.?
(C) Very friendly and good, in politics and economics alike. Honduras is also closely connected to the U.S. on national security and defense as well as the fight against organized crime.
(M) China is extremely interested in Central America. I believe a Chinese investor planned to build a new canal in Nicaragua. How did that end up?
(C) I don’t know the details, but I haven’t heard anything about it recently.
(M) Panama broke off relations with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with China in June 2017. The Dominican Republic did the same thing in May 2018 and El Salvador in August. I suspect that receiving funds from China requires nations to shut out Taiwan.
(C) It seems to be that way.
(M) It doesn’t seem fair to put such heavy-handed pressure on small nations in this way.
(M) You spoke about the initiative by Kanazawa University and a university in Honduras. What does this involve, specifically?
(C) They are collaborating closely, mainly in anthropological and historical research. Kanazawa University has signed a cooperation agreement with the Institute of Anthropology and History of Honduras, a government institution charged among other things with the protection and research of archaeological heritage sites, and is currently strengthening relations with the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH). This has led many researchers and students to travel to Honduras. Kanazawa University has opened an office for research on Copán, a UNESCO World Heritage Site from the Maya civilization. Copán is also a famous sightseeing attraction. These ruins are from the Copán dynasty of the Maya civilization, and were ruled by 16 generations of kings starting in the 5th century. It is famous for its ball court; the advanced level of cultural and artistic details; and the hieroglyphic stairway, which is one of the longest known written texts from the Maya civilization.
(M) One of the world’s foremost civilizations was in Central America. Honduras has a tropical climate. Was Copán located on a cooler highland?
(C) No, there are no highlands or tall mountains in Honduras. We do have a tropical climate, but civilization developed in the valleys, which are not too hot. The tallest mountain in Honduras is Mount Celaque, with a height of 2,850 meters.
(M) What are the main industries?
(C) Agriculture remains one of the main sources of income, and our traditional crops include coffee, cacao, corn, beans, rice, and vegetables. We farm cattle and pork, and profit from coasts with abundant fish and seafood. Shrimp and tilapia are also farmed as well. The forestry industry is also vigorous, and industry is developing at a quicker pace in the textile field as well as some electronics, automotive parts, and other types of factories in the past few years.
(M) Is coffee the biggest export?
(C) Timber used to be our top product, mostly exported to the Caribbean region. Fine-grade woods are also transported to the U.S. and Europe. But now coffee has taken over as number one, followed by bananas and shrimp.
(M) Mr. Mendoza Tovar said that Tegucigalpa, the capital, means “Silver Mountain,” and that large amounts of gold and silver were produced in the past. He also said the Spanish took all of it back to Europe during the colonial period.
(C) Yes, but silver is still an important mineral resource.
(M) Do you produce coal, oil, or shale gas?
(C) We are searching for oil, but none has been discovered so far.
(M) The U.S. can now produce shale gas and shale oil, which has transformed the global situation and removed the American dependence on the Middle East. Today I think it wants to sell shale gas and oil to other countries. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) adjusts production to maintain oil prices, but of course some countries go ahead and sell it at lower prices. Others must cut distribution costs to win in this market. Considering that, I think Honduras’ dry canal will be very significant. How about also building a pipeline along the expressway? Distribution networks are being developed around the world, and everyone wants cheaper routes.
(C) I agree.
(M) What is Honduras’ current vision for nation building?
(C) I think we will make more progress with the economy and sustainable development, with a strong focus on reducing poverty and inequality.
(M) That means job creation is an important issue. School education is required for that purpose. Education boosts the level of workers and makes it easier to attract factories and other facilities. Without a good educational system, people will lose their jobs and end up migrating to other countries.
(C) That’s right. Right now, our first effort is a public-private development plan drafted by the government that lasts until 2020. Infrastructure investments are being received from the private sector as well. The national government is also coming up with ways to support industry, such as increasing the technical education that is available. We are also implementing trade promotion measures, including a free trade agreement (FTA) that came into effect with South Korea in 2018, and investing in sustainable energy with an eye to the future. Efforts are also being made for English-language education in schools.
(M) Your basic language is Spanish, is that right? About how many citizens speak English?
(C) I don’t know the exact percentage, but people say Honduras is the most bilingual country in Central America. Deliberations are underway on including learning the English language as part of all public education.
(M) In a peaceful world, more people will travel overseas because they want to view things they have never seen before. Wages are rising in Japan’s nearby countries, such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The number of foreign tourists to Japan is increasing rapidly, resulting in a greater need for English speakers. APA Group will welcome 340 new employees next April, 40% of whom can provide customer service in English. In general there are many inbound tourists from China and other Asian countries, but European and North American guests are the majority at Tokyo APA Hotels in particular. APA Hotel also has 39 hotels in North America, mainly in Canada, so I think one reason is our name recognition in that area. Based on this trend of more European and North American customers and fewer Asian ones, we plan to switch the main language of signs in APA Hotels to English, with Japanese, Chinese and Korean information included as well. This is because Japanese and Chinese people can read some English, but very few European or North American citizens can read Japanese.
(C) Honduras is also making multilingual efforts in the tourism field. For instance, guided tours are available at Copán in English, Spanish, and French, and very soon in Japanese as well. Japanese classes have also started at UNAH.
(M) I think more Japanese tourists will visit Honduras, so it will be important to have Japanese-speaking guides. Japanese people want to travel to different countries, but they consider conditions such as guides that can speak Japanese, public order, infectious disease, punctual transportation, and climate. When is the best season to go to Honduras?
(C) The climate is pleasant all year, so any time is good. We have abundant nature such as forests and oceans, delicious food, and diverse cultures. Public order is also stable, evidenced by our academic exchange with Kanazawa University, the presence of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) volunteers, and many investment projects from Japanese companies.
(M) Are there any nice resorts?
(C) Roatán island is a beach resort that draws scuba diving fans from across the world. Nearby is the world’s second-largest coral reef after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
(M) Coral dies when the ocean temperature rises too high, so that must mean Honduras has a suitable water temperature.
(C) Yes, the warm, clear water is apparently good for coral.
(M) How do you get from Japan to Honduras?
(C) There are no direct flights, so you can travel directly to Mexico City and then transfer to Honduras. You can also go through American cities.
(M) I transferred in Dubai when I went to the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics.
(C) That’s another possible route.
(M) I definitely want to go to Honduras! From what you say, I think there is definite potential for it to be a major tourism destination.
(C) Yes, since there are direct flights from the U.S., Spain, and other European countries. We also hope for more tourists to come.
(M) Are there any railways from the U.S. to South America through Central America?
(C) No, there aren’t.
(M) Boats must be more efficient for transport.
(C) I think so. Major tourist cruise lines stop in Honduras every week. Our tourism promotion concept includes the media. There are many articles saying Honduras is dangerous, but that isn’t true. The national government is working to decrease crime, and the results have even been described as “miraculous” by a high official in the American government.
(M) You’ve been ambassador to Japan for 14 months now. What is your impression of Japan?
(C) I think Japan is a fascinating country with traditions that reflect its different cultural moments and influences. I feel like the history from hundreds of years ago still has influence on things like music, literature, and painting. I am also deeply impressed that Japanese people co-exist with nature in a harmonious, unified way. The four seasons are deeply rooted in daily life, such as admiring cherry blossoms in the spring, finding ways to cool off in the hot summer, and enjoying autumn foliage and winter snow. It also seems like Japanese people are making great efforts to learn how to live with the many disasters that occur. Thanks to the support of the Japanese government and particularly JICA, Honduras is learning a lot from Japanese prevention, mitigation, and resilience, since we are a country highly vulnerable to hurricanes and climate change.
(M) Are there any earthquakes in Honduras?
(C) Major earthquakes sometimes hit Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador, our neighbors, but the tremors in Honduras are not big enough to cause any casualties or major damage.
(M) Has Honduras declared its support for China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative?
(C) No, we have not.
(M) I think that’s correct. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad cancelled all OBOR-related projects, which are also being reconsidered in Pakistan and the Maldives. China lends money for OBOR building, but its low credit means the interest rates on these funds are extremely high.
(C) Chinese funding seems to come with many conditions.
(M) I think there are many difficulties ahead for the OBOR. Countries should carry out economic development while solving various issues, without depending on Chinese funding. Honduras has a population of about nine million people, so there are several possible development scenarios. One way could be to first use your low wages as a competitive edge to become an industrial nation. China became the “world’s factory” using its low-priced labor by farmers as the driving force in economic development. However, wages are rising in recent years and production bases are being moved to Vietnam, Myanmar, and other locations with cheaper manpower. Honduras should rapidly expand its industries that can use this labor during the phase when wages are low.
(C) I agree.
(M) Countries develop if they have clear nation-building visions. Based on its high level of education from the Edo Period, Japan encouraged new industry during the Meiji Period. It became a powerful nation that waged war to free colonies across the world. Japan lost World War II, but thanks to it there are no more colonies and we live in a world of racial equality. I hope Honduras will also develop with a clear vision on nation building, and Japan will cooperate to that end.
(C) Thank you.
(M) Relations with neighbors and the region are also important. China keeps criticizing Japan about the fictitious Nanjing Massacre, which is fabricated history. Xi Jinping abolished the presidential term limit and is embarking on a course of expansion to gain global hegemony.
(C) We must cautiously observe the situation in the South China Sea, which is one facet of this.
(M) Yes, we must protect ourselves in this situation. I think that applies to both Japan and Honduras. Japan should revise its constitution to become capable of independent self-defense. I hope Honduras will educate people who are proficient at Japanese to build a foundation for more Japanese tourists to visit and more Japanese companies to expand there. We should enhance the good relationship with Japan, both economically and culturally. I definitely hope to meet with Hernández when I go to Honduras.
(C) Of course, I will make sure a meeting is arranged.
(M) At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(C) Things are changing at an unbelievable speed in the modern era, so it’s important to take another look at history and traditions and recognize their power. They must also keep up with technological innovation trends. I hope that young people will fully perceive the past and adapt to the future.
(M) I agree. Thank you for joining me today.
(C) Thank you.
Date of dialogue: December 19, 2018
Héctor Alejandro Palma Cerna
Ambassador Héctor Alejandro Palma Cerna was appointed ambassador of Honduras to Japan in July 2017, and presented his credentials to Emperor Akihito on December 21, 2017. Prior to this post he served as representative of his country to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations from 2015 to 2017, where he was elected vice-president of the council representing Latin America and the Caribbean. He also served as ambassador of Honduras to UNESCO from 2010 to 2015, and as chief of staff of the Ministry of Governance and Justice (Interior) of his country.