Fire in the Mercado, Usury at Los Bancos

Tegucigalpa    Within minutes of hitting central Tegucigalpa we were on our way to a series of markets directly across the picturesque but fetid river running alongside the capitol not far from the original palace.  ACORN Honduras in Tegucigalpa had been working with stall vendors over the last month who had asked for help after a sudden fire overnight had wiped out the public market where they had been selling for many years.  More than a hundred had been displaced.

Signs of the fire were still everywhere, even though the space was bustling with activity where the shopkeepers were hammering, sawing, and constructing rough plywood type structures and shelving to hold their wares.  Next door another market had also been damaged and the bent steel and twisted sheeting was still being cleaned up and wheelbarrowed away.  The small merchants we met with under a blue tarp (the common cloth of disasters large and small) felt some satisfaction at the fact that a recent meeting with the Mayor had gotten the cleanup moving next door.  

What the merchants had on the agenda for discussion with us was their problem with banks.  They weren’t the only problem, but they were the boulders in the road to recovery.  To restock would cost each of them about $6000 USD.  They were worried of course that under their tarps their customers would diminish with the heat until some semblance of order was restored or the new building was long on the way.  Many of them had existing bank loans at 19% which they couldn’t pay and had been given some limited (and expensive!) forbearance for three months, but in trying to refinance to restock the same banks were now saying they wanted 28%, and they all wanted it now.  A look around made it clear that repayment was impossible.  Dilcia Zavala, ACORN’s organizer, said there was a law that mandated forbearance for up to a year after disasters, but even meetings with the Mayor and Governor had not seemed to convince the banks to relent from their harsh terms.

These banks were not local moneylenders.  Talking to the small vendors the names sometimes sounded local like Banco Pro Creidito, but that bank was German.  HSBC and Citi both were involved and have visible offices in central Tegucigalpa.  This was big business and a 28% it was usurious.

We had research to do, but clearly the only hope that these women had to not end up as sharecroppers in the square for international banks the rest of their lives was if they had some leverage.  The only leverage seemed to be to force the government to give the law enough teeth to buy some time so that they could survive in the marketplace long enough to get on their feet, even though they might be shackled later with 28% interest.

They call this disaster profiteering for a reason!

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