American University
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Homeland, colony, state or company? Disputing territoriality in Honduran "startup city" development

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posted on 2023-08-04, 11:55 authored by Beth Geglia

Special economic zones (SEZs) have proliferated with remarkable speed in the last forty years, reflecting their vital role in the process of global economic neoliberalization. Increasingly privatized and increasingly urban, SEZ regimes have merged with urban real estate development to produce “new city” projects around the globe. In Honduras since the 2009 military coup, Honduran policymakers have partnered with conservative US political advisors, economists, and libertarian venture capitalists from the global “startup city” movement to develop Economic Development and Employment Zones (ZEDEs)—a special jurisdiction with unprecedented judicial, legislative, and economic autonomy. Startup city proponents saw the 2013 ZEDE Law as an opportunity to build “free private cities,” “charter cities,” and other iterations of libertarian utopian fantasies, while opponents in Honduras saw the ZEDE model as a colonial violation of national sovereignty. This dissertation investigates ZEDE development in Honduras from 2014- 2021, with a focus on the 2014-2017 period, through a “vertical slice” approach. This approach involved 54 oral history and other interviews, archival research, and twenty months of participant observation to examine the process of ZEDE development through the narratives of startup city tech libertarians, Honduran planners and policymakers, and local agriculturalists and fishing families in the southern municipality of Amapala. This dissertation argues that ZEDEs can be understood as a capitalist class strategy of territorial flexibilization that enables new modes of colonialism by outsourcing governance to private and foreign actors. It first describes the implications of the ZEDE model for Honduran territory through analysis of the ZEDE law, the political and ideological project of actors in the startup city movement, and the existing configurations of power and territory in Zacate Grande, Amapala. I identify varying—at times divergent and at times overlapping—imaginaries and discourses of ZEDEs as different actors speak to different audiences in the process of promoting and resisting the ZEDE model. While startup city promotors were the first to invest in actual ZEDE projects, their discourses of experimentation proved to be a liability to pro-ZEDE Hondurans, who stressed territorial cohesion, best practices, order, rule of law, and large infrastructure development over tech-utopian fantasies. Despite settler colonial fantasies of startup city investors, ZEDEs do not fall on blank-slate territory. An ethnographic account of the territorial defense movement in Zacate Grande uses the decades-long land conflict as a lens through which to understand actually existing territory in Honduras pre-ZEDEs, processes of accumulation and dispossession, and the territorial subjectivities that produce acquiescence, resistance, and other reactions to the ZEDE idea. Finally, as the private startup city model begins to gain traction around the world, I offer lessons learned from the Zacate Grande territorial defense movement—the concepts of patrimony, rootedness, and resource citizenship—as potential counterforces to global territorial flexibilization projects.





Degree Awarded: Ph.D. Anthropology. American University


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