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Literature and Ideas

The Cities of Gods

The Mayans lived in citystates. One of the greatest was Copán: at the height of its power (under the rule of consecutive priest-kings whose honorific, hieroglyphic names are said to translate to Smoke-Jaguar and Eighteen-Rabbit, for animals, like kings, were considered closer to the gods than men), more than 20,000 people lived within its bounds and its monumental architecture of zigguratish staircase-pyramids, central temples, limestone palaces, statuesque steles and even a ballgame arena had been laid down. It was a civilisation at least as sophisticated as those created by, say, the ancient Egyptians or Babylonians in the Old World.

Most of us may have heard that the Mayans practised human sacrifice, too, although they almost certainly didn’t do it as often as later Christian chroniclers and crusaders (the likes of Diego de Landa) would have us believe: most of the time they just ritually bloodlet as a sign of piety or else offered hunted game to the gods. These rituals had social meanings that may never be fully recovered, but the small Central American country of Honduras, where the ruins of Copán can be found, does still practise bloodletting in its own haphazard way: it has the highest murder rate in the world. Well, no, but it did hold that unhappy record until the most recent figures were collated by the UNODC,1 when the neighbouring and even smaller state of El Salvador registered more murders per capita. Much of this violence is related to the international drug trade, the caravans of cocaine, and that which isn’t directly related is, nonetheless, often funded by it. It’s estimated that around 80% of the cocaine entering the United States of America first passes through Honduran territory, mostly via air and sea routes alongside the densely forested and sparsely populated Mosquito Coast. In turn, one out of every ten Hondurans now lives in the USA (and street gangs like MS-13, which now hold power in Central America, first formed on the Californian coast before their members were, one by one, deported home). Unemployment, poverty and economic inequality rates are all unusually high,2 even for Latin America, so, for many, the only foreseeable route to security remains smuggling either themselves or narcotics out of the country.

Stele depicting ajaw 18-Rabbit.
Image by Arian Zwegers.

The most recent Honduran general election was held at the end of last year. Salvador Nasralla — a firebrand who, not entirely unlike a certain well-known gringo, made a name for himself first as a businessman and TV presenter — put tackling corruption as the principal issue of his campaign. He lost at the ballot box, but in murky (probably fraudulent) circumstances, and international observers have ruled the results void; protests broke out, streets were blocked, cooking pots hit and a small number of people even died, but the conservative incumbent, Juan Orlando Hernández, remains in power.

So if Honduras isn’t quite a failed state, I can’t imagine anyone would label it a success story either. Paul Romer, American academic and former Chief Economist of the World Bank, has a solution: he argues that developing countries should trade some of their sovereignty in return for better governance. Put another way, the “host country” (to use a euphemism current in the literature) should invite other, wealthier nations and corporations to set up shop on underutilised land, passing over the power to set tax rates, to educate and to ensure the health of workers, to enforce the law and to set up border controls at entry and exit points. So everything that might ordinarily be expected of a government, and an elected one at that, short of defence spending and rewriting the rules on first-degree murder. The Honduran government (the one that lost the election but won power) agrees with Professor Romer and has established Zonas de Empleo y Desarrollo Económico after overcoming initial stumbling blocks such as the Supreme Court’s ruling the original plans unconstitutional.

If this sounds a little too much like old-fashioned imperialism, advocates of ciudades modelo (or “charter cities”, Romer’s preferred term) go to great lengths to dispel any such dispiriting notions. Professor Tom Bell, one such proselytiser, does just that, however, he somewhat undermines his own case by claiming, at one point, that the new cities will have much the same benefits as the old colonies without risking the sort of social tensions provoked by having foreign flags flying. Libertarians love the concept of creating lots of these experimental cities, as though start-up companies, and letting them flourish or fail as the market dictates, because it seems so ideologically pure, but this is contentious stuff, since Honduras was, after all, the original “banana republic”: short-story writer O. Henry coined the term in his collection Cabbages and Kings, summoning in a phrase the dominance of US megacorps like the United Fruit Company and the mercenary armies, like those commanded by General Lee Christmas, that helped to install business-friendly, military-led regimes. More recently, American troops were stationed on Honduran territory during the Cold War when President Reagan gave orders to smuggle arms, greenbacks and ammunition across the border with Nicaragua to bolster opposition rebels there. Today American DEA agents are fighting — and steadily losing — the War on Drugs. So Hondurans are aware that their autonomy is not absolute; only the powerful can harbour that illusion for long. The question remains how much of it they are happy to hand over.

Romer’s goal is to reproduce the wealth-generating capacities of post-imperial outposts like Singapore and Hong Kong, where foreign investors have felt comfortable with the sorts of institutions and regulatory regimes that they already recognised: homesteads away from home. Latin America, like mainland Europe, has traditionally employed civil law, a system where legal rules are codified in detail and judges merely interpret and make use of those texts they are given. This system was developed by strong, centralising leaders, such as the Roman and French Emperors Justinian and Napoleon, who did not want to hand the judiciary power that could be used to challenge their own rule. The Anglo-American world, however, uses common law, where cases are decided on the basis of past precedent and judges have the authority to innovate when that precedent does not exist. Romer argues that if the Honduran government allows the construction of cities that could rule themselves under common law, it would then become easier for international businesses to establish themselves there, and thereby to improve the nation’s economic outlook. This must be true, but if most of the proceeds do not ultimately reach the impoverished population beyond the city walls, those people may not be so willing to cede their democratic rights simply for the sake of pampering plutocrats.

A gurning, power-posing Salvador Nasralla with an indigenous supporter.

J.G. Ballard was born in Shanghai, in the gated enclaves created by British and American traders (with the help of some gunboat diplomacy); the Chinese retained sovereignty, but it was understood that the merchants, and their families, would be free to organise their own affairs with little interference from the natives. The expats lived lives of comfortable seclusion. Profiting from and building the economy, but, business aside, keeping themselves to themselves, they were, in a way, multiculturalists avant la lettre: just look at the old street names, like Keswick Road and Amherst Avenue, typical of Anglo suburbia. And all was well until the Japanese invaded and captured the city in Ballard’s youth, in large-scale skirmishes that prefigured the Second World War. Anarchy was suddenly unloosed and a once privileged existence became a scramble for survival. All of this is recounted in his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (later made into a mushier movie by Stephen Spielberg). You don’t have to be a Freudian (or a Jesuit) to realise that childhood leaves its marks on later life, and Ballard was marked more than most. The one big idea of his writing career was that safety and security, entitlements and concessions can all be lost — and fast.

If you want to understand the architecture of the future, read Ballard. Modern Shanghai, a sprawling city of slums astride skyscrapers, is just as much, to venture a metaphor, a seething stew as it was when he was a boy. Globalisation ain’t anything new. Mumbai, Nairobi, Lagos, Manila, São Paulo, Mexico City and so on: these are all places where the rich have retreated and the rest live in the long shadow cast by their absence. Where one sudden shock could jolt them together. Dubai is a more extreme example, emerging out of the sand as a fashionable hotspot in a matter of decades, though not without the help of gangs of cheap (or chattel) labour imported from South Asia. Citystates — which amount to anthropic anthills — are becoming more common in order to keep up with an ever more competitive world. Even wealthier nations are seeing their inhabitants retreat behind gates and plate-glass: some of the more salubrious areas of London (which is itself a city isolated from the rest of Britain by, among other things, its frenetic procreation of pecuniary fortunes) recently established their own private police force as crime rates rise and government funding contracts. So read Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, a twinset of novels each set in a closed community of dissipated elites on the Mediterranean coast, if you want a more dystopic take on what this courageous new world of citystates could be like.

Copán had collapsed long before the Spanish arrived armed with swords and smallpox. Nobody knows quite why, but invasion, the spread of disease and the costs of an unsustainably growing population probably all played a part. Honduras today feels, too, like a nation on the edge. Between the narcotraficantes and the capitalists are the people and the, often corrupt, politicians who are forced to make hard choices in pretty unfavourable conditions. Paul Romer talks a lot about choice and voluntary contracts, but such agreements can never really be free from coercion so long as the proposing party is much more powerful than the other: what starts as economic expediency can soon become or be seen as exploitation. At what price will the golden goose lay her eggs?


  1. See here for the full data.
  2. According to the World Politics Review, Honduras is the most economically unequal country in Latin America; 43% of the population is said to live in “extreme poverty”.

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