The Republic of Honduras and Japan are celebrating their 80th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year. Honduras has an advantageous geopolitical position facing both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, and expects future development in untapped underground resources. We talked with the Honduran Ambassador to Japan Marlene Villela de Talbott about topics such as the history and culture of this country which started from Columbus’s discovery as well as current economic projects going on.
Motoya Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. We have also talked at Shoheijuku school. This time I was finally able to get you to come to Big Talk.
Talbott I deeply appreciate the opportunity to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Motoya When people think of Honduras, many know that it is located in Central America. However, there are many Japanese people who do not know the exact location or what kind of country it is. Can you tell us a little about Honduras?
Talbott Of course. Honduras is surrounded by Guatemala on the west, El Salvador on the southwest and Nicaragua on the southeast. It shares borders with Belize, Cuba, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Mexico, and Colombia in the Caribbean Sea. Honduras is about one-third the size of Japan with about 8.1 million people. The capital is Tegucigalpa, the national language is Spanish. Significant moments in history include Columbus’ arrival in Honduras on his 4th voyage overseas in 1502. The Aztec, Mayan and Incan civilizations flourished in what is present day Mexico, Central America and Peru respectively. Central America was prosperous as a route between North America and South America. However, these empires and civilizations were destroyed when the Spaniards came in the 16th century. Spain appointed viceroys to represent the king and queen ruled over a vice-kingdom named Nueva España which covered a vast area of land from Mexico to Central and South America. This vice-kingdom was separated into administrative divisions in order to efficiently manage this vast land. The land covering present day Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rice was grouped into the General Captain of Guatemala, which was ruled by the viceroy of Guatemala. These five countries were provinces during the Captain General period and in 1821, these five provinces simultaneously became independent countries peacefully without any bloodshed.
Motoya Were the five provinces in the Captaincy General of Guatemala separated by ethnic group?
Talbott They were not divided by ethnic group. They were divided into five provinces due to administrative reasons.
Motoya Europeans and the native people created a mixed-race people. I have heard that a majority of the people in this area are mixed-race. Is this true?
Talbott In Honduras, over 90% of the people are Natives, Spaniards, English, Arabs, and African. The rest are native people of around nine ethnic groups. Only 1% of the people are pure European.
Motoya Is it true that there is no concept of ethnic groups in Central America?
Talbott There are various ethnic groups in Central America but the territorial division is of five counties, which are not divided by ethnicity.
Motoya Is Catholicism the national religion because of the Spanish origins?
Talbott Catholicism used to be the national religion but nowadays all religions are permitted in Honduras. In the late 15th century, Queen Isabella I of Castile and the King Ferdinand II of Aragon created the Kingdom of Spain. In 1492, they took control of Granada and drove all the Muslims out of Europe and the pope proclaimed them Catholic Monarchs. These Spaniards brought over Catholicism and the Spanish language to the American continent.
Motoya In the case of Japan, the Jesuit Francisco Xavier came here in 1549 to carry out Catholic missionary work. I think this was a strategy by the Europeans to come over for religious purposes and then colonize the land. Was this the same in Central America?
Talbott The Jesuits were also active in both North and South America. The driving force behind colonization was more militaristic than religious.
Motoya There was a battle for supremacy involving the colonies held by Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, England and France which continued for dozens of years. Spain and Portugal battled in South America while countries such as England and France battled in North America.
Talbott That is correct. There were a lot of countries mixed together fighting each other. Roatan Island which is now a part of Honduras used to be a British territory for a long period of time. Therefore, many of the residents there speak English. There is a history of British pirates using this island as a base to attack Spanish trading ships.
Motoya It is extremely interesting how this history of conflict still exists today in the language and culture. Spain gained territories and then England followed them. Later, the 13 British colonies gained their independence through the American Revolutionary War. The USA continued to invade the Native American territory in their expansion west and annexed Hawaii in 1898. In the same year, the USA took colonial authority over the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico from Spain and became a protectorate over Cuba following the Spanish-American War. The USA gained control of the North American area on the Pacific coast in place of Spain.
Talbott The USA also purchased Louisiana from France in 1803, Florida from Spain in 1819 and Alaska from Russia in 1867.
Motoya The USA expanded using militaristic force and money. As part of this expansion, the USA went to the Far East in 1853 when their black ships landed in Japan. Up until then, most Catholic missionaries carried out activities in Kyushu. The USA started contact in the eastern city of Edo (currently Tokyo). The Urakami Cathedral in Kyushu’s Nagasaki is considered to be the head of the Catholic Church in Japan. Coincidentally, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima was strategic because Hiroshima had a naval port. But why was an atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki? I think that the Protestant USA may have been aiming for the head of the Catholic Church in Japan when dropping the atomic bomb here. During the finals days of WWII when it looked like Germany was going to be defeated, it was clear that the Soviet Union, becoming a militaristic power with the help of the USA, will activate in spreading Communism around the world after WWII. This led to the increased possibility of World War III breaking out between the USA and the Soviet Union. From the USA’s perspective, it was necessary to preemptively intimidate the Soviet Union to suppress the spread of Communism around the world and change World War III into a Cold War. This was what the USA thought justified dropping the atomic bombs. It was necessary to create the image of a just cause with the good guys being the USA dropping the atomic bomb on the villains being Japan. Therefore, Japan was portrayed as the villain after WWII inside Japan and overseas in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and the War Guilt Information Program.
Talbott As a diplomat my job is to prevent war and I am absolutely against the use of nuclear weapons. Using nuclear weapons is against humanity, and must be banned.
Motoya There are no people who want to have wars. However, there may be some inevitable factors which lead to war. Any country would tell lies and carry out a massacre similar to dropping the atomic bomb for their own national interests. I am not one-sidedly criticizing the USA. The USA created the monster which is the Soviet Union through providing military assistance with the mentality that the enemy of enemy is our friend. The USA took responsibility and dropped the atomic bomb on Japan to prevent a Communism-fueled World War III which would have been the most tragic war the world has seen as well as to carry out duties to its own people. This was an extremely unfortunate event for Japan and all of the victims, but if the USA had not dropped the atomic bombs, Japan may have faced a more tragic situation. After carefully looking at the sequence of events from the final days of WWII to the end of the war, Japanese people should open their eyes and discover what really happened.
Talbott I believe people need to know the history of their country, and to accept it and learn its lessons.
Motoya Changing subjects, can you tell me a bit about yourself?
Talbott I come from a middle class family in which my grandfather was a member of Congress, my father was a lawyer and my mother ran her own company. My ancestors are originally Basques who are known for having extremely strong personalities.
Motoya I have heard Basques are hard-working and talented. You have had solid genes passed down to you.
Talbott Thank you. My father was a corporate lawyer but he originally wanted to be a diplomat. Therefore, he wanted me to be a lawyer and a diplomat. My grandfather told me to become president (laughs).
Motoya You have the ability to do it (laughs). Where did you study?
Talbott Honduras. I studied international law in order to become a diplomat. I have passed the test and acquired a trial lawyer license which holds counsel qualifications in addition to a solicitor’s license.
Motoya I heard that you were a former Miss Honduras.
Talbott I was Miss Honduras to the International Beauty Pageant in Japan and Miss World in London. I came to Japan in 1977 as the Honduras representative. I saw a kabuki play and went to department stores in Nihombashi.
Motoya That’s interesting.
Talbott I started working as a diplomat in Washington D.C. and I was an ambassador for eight years in Taiwan before becoming the ambassador to Japan in 2010.
Motoya I’m sure you know the former president Lee Teng-hui. He and I are very good friends.
Talbott Of course I know him. Honduras is maintaining good relations with both Japan and Taiwan.
Motoya By the way, I know Honduras is a presidential government, but how long is the president’s term?
Talbott The term is four years and presidents are only allowed one term.
Motoya If a president is elected once, can they be elected again after leaving a space in between terms?
Talbott The constitution prohibits being elected for a second time so this is impossible. However, this is currently being debated. President Hernandez was just inaugurated in January of last year.
Motoya South Korea’s president has a five year term and just like Honduras, the presidency is limited to only one term. There are numerous cases of presidents cutting their remaining years short due to reasons such as being arrested or committing suicide after their presidency.
Talbott In Honduras there are three Vice Presidents who are chosen by election.
Motoya The Vice Presidents carry out the duties of the Prime Minister.
Talbott There is a significant development project currently underway in Honduras. Honduras faces both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean which is an extremely advantageous position from a geopolitical standpoint.
Motoya Honduras does not need to use the Panama Canal.
Talbott That is correct. There are two large ports on the Caribbean Sea and one large port on the Pacific Ocean. Honduras is aiming to become an economically focused country like Singapore and Hong Kong using this geopolitical superiority. Therefore, Honduras is establishing special economic zones which are given a substantial right to self-government. We are also looking for investment from countries such as Japan in other projects such as expanding the three ports and airport as well as constructing a highway which connects Central America with North America.
Motoya I have heard there are plans to construct a hub airport in El Salvador. Will this become competition for Honduras?
Talbott El Salvador and Honduras belong to the Central America Integration System so we are advancing these projects in cooperation with each other. This System also includes Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Belize and the Dominican Republic.
Motoya In December of this year, the expansion construction of the Panama Canal will be completed. Large ships carrying (LNG: liquefied natural gas) will be able to pass through the canal which should lead to a sudden increase in economic efficiency. In addition, Nicaragua is constructing a canal with the help of Hong Kong businesses which is scheduled to be completed in 2019. However, regardless of the current oil surplus trend, OPEC countries such as Saudi Arabia are not decreasing oil production and the price of oil is dropping. Shale Oil in the USA can be profitable when barrels sell at $100/barrel but the current price of around $50/barrel has caused significant losses. The actions of Saudi Arabia are obviously to put Shale out of business as well as take Russia out of the oil producing market. There also seems to be an impact on ISIL which sell oil from oil fields on their land for funds. If Shale Oil goes bankrupt, users of these two canals should decrease and the income from tolls to pass through the canals should rapidly decline. By the way, what is the state of underground resources in Honduras?
Talbott We have discovered there is oil in Honduras with an investigation first carried out by a Japan company and then investigations carried out by energy companies in England and the Netherlands based on the results of the Japanese investigation. Further investigations are necessary to find out details such as oil deposits. In addition to oil, Honduras also has natural resources, many of which are untapped. These resources may be realized in the future.
Motoya Your future looks bright.
Talbott Honduras is currently putting efforts into coffee as an export. Coffee is the number one crop exported from Honduras.
Motoya Is Honduras known for their bananas?
Talbott That is correct. In the past, bananas were an important commodity with Honduras growing one-third of the world’s bananas. However, things have changed. One-third of Honduras which is in a tropical climate close to the Equator has a mountainous topography exceeding an altitude of 2,400 meters. This climate is perfect for growing coffee. Grades of Arabica coffee beans are determined based on the altitude of the land on which they are grown with those grown on land 1,200 meters or more being the highest grade. This coffee tastes very good. Honduras has also started growing melons which are scheduled to be exported to Japan in the near future. In addition, shrimp and lobster farming has become successful. Presently, the amount of trade with Japan is at 4 billion yen worth of exports and 7 billion yen worth of imports but we would like to see these numbers increase.
Motoya The tropical climate combined with the large amount of cool weather regions is good for tourism.
Talbott The Maya Archaeological Park of Copan, which is registered as a World Heritage Site, is one of the most famous tourist locations. You can see a variety of Mayan architecture there. Moreover, there has been an increase in the number of resort hotels on Roatan Island which we talked about earlier. People come here from all over the world to enjoy scuba diving and the beach.
Motoya I would love to see the Maya Site of Copan.
Talbott Honduras is divided into 18 administrative units known as departments. Coffee is grown in 16 of the departments. Regions at an altitude of 1,000-1,500 meters have spring weather all year round and are very comfortable places to live. Even the capital of Tegucigalpa has an altitude of around 1,000 meters. The capital is about a 2-hour flight from the USA so you can visit Honduras from Japan with ease.
Motoya I would like to visit Honduras one day.
Talbott Please do. For you, when you come to Honduras, I will accompany and make all the arrangements. This is also the 80th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Honduras. President Hernandez plans on coming to Japan this year to celebrate this in addition to present projects. It would be great if the APA Group could plan some event at this time.
Motoya That sounds like a good idea. Let’s brainstorm some ideas and make it happen. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
Talbott I would like the youth of Japan to look at other countries and learn their culture and characteristics. Japan is a country of near-perfection in every aspect. I would like the youth of Japan to experience the fact that other countries are completely different from this perfection.
Motoya Japanese people do not know how perfect their country appears to other countries. Japanese people with anti-Japan beliefs look down on Japan and think it is the worst country in the world. No matter how many times I tell these people that Japan is not the worst country in the world, they do not listen. These people tend to listen more to what foreigners have to say. Will you be joining us at Shoheijuku school for a chat again?
Talbott I would be delighted to.
Motoya I appreciate you taking time to do this interview.
Marlene Villela de Talbott
Born in 1955 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Earned her bachelor’s degree from the National Autonomous University of Honduras’ Law Department and master’s degree from National Chengchi University in Taipei. After serving in various positions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Honduras, she was the ambassador to Taiwan from Honduras from 2002 to 2010. She has served in her current position since 2010.