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El Salvador

Executive Summary

El Salvador’s location and natural attributes make it an attractive investment destination. The macroeconomic context and declining rule of law present some challenges. El Salvador’s economy has registered the lowest levels of growth in the region for many years, with average annual GDP growth of 2.5 percent from 2016 to 2019. After a deep pandemic-related contraction (7.9 percent) in 2020, the Central Bank estimates GDP rebounded to 10.3 percent growth in 2021. The IMF expects the economy to grow 3.2 percent in 2022, with growth rates declining to 2 percent in the medium-term. Economic underperformance is mainly driven by fiscal constraints. Persistent budget deficits and increased government spending – exacerbated by the pandemic – have contributed to a heavy debt burden. With public debt at an estimated 88.5 percent of GDP in 2021, the Government of El Salvador (GOES) has limited capacity for public investment and job creation initiatives. Large financing needs are projected for 2022.

The Bukele administration continues to make efforts to attract foreign investment and has taken measures to reduce cumbersome bureaucracy and improve security conditions. However, the implementation of the reforms has been slow, and laws and regulations are occasionally passed and implemented quickly without consulting with the private sector or assessing the impact on the business climate.

After being announced in June 2021, Bitcoin became a legal tender in El Salvador on September 7, 2021, alongside the U.S. dollar. The Bitcoin Law mandates that all businesses must accept Bitcoin, with limited exceptions for those who do not have the technology to carry out transactions. Prices do not need to be expressed in Bitcoin and the U.S. dollar is the reference currency for accounting purposes. The GOES created a $150 million trust fund managed by El Salvador’s Development Bank to guarantee automatic convertibility and subsidize exchange fees. The rapid implementation caused uncertainty in the investment climate and added costs to businesses.

Government of El Salvador actions have eroded separation of powers and independence of the judiciary over the past year. In May 2021, the Legislative Assembly dismissed the Attorney General and all five justices of the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber and immediately replaced them with officials loyal to President Bukele. Furthermore, in August 2021, the legislature amended the Judicial Career Organic Law to force into retirement judges ages 60 or above and those with at least 30 years of service. The move was justified by the ruling party as an effort to root out corruption in the judiciary from past administrations. A September 2021 ruling from the newly appointed Constitutional Chamber allows for immediate presidential re-election, despite the Constitution prohibiting presidential incumbents from re-election to a consecutive term. Legal analysts believe these measures were unconstitutional and have enabled the Legislative Assembly and the Bukele administration to exert control over the judiciary.

The Legislative Assembly is not required to publish draft legislation and opportunities for public engagement are limited. With the Nuevas Ideas ruling party holding a supermajority, legislation is often passed quickly with minimal analysis and debate in parliamentary committees and plenary sessions, contributing to an overall climate of regulatory uncertainty.

Commonly cited challenges to doing business in El Salvador include the discretionary application of laws and regulations, lengthy and unpredictable permitting procedures, as well as customs delays. El Salvador has lagged its regional peers in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI). The sectors with the largest investment have historically been textiles and retail establishments, though investment in energy has increased in recent years.

The Bukele administration has proposed several large infrastructure projects which could provide opportunities for U.S. investment. Project proposals include enhancing road connectivity and logistics, expanding airport capacity and improving access to water and energy, as well as sanitation. Given limited fiscal capacity for public investment, the Bukele administration has begun pursuing Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) to execute infrastructure projects. In August 2021, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly approved the contract award of the first PPP project to expand the cargo terminal at the international airport.

As a small energy-dependent country with no Atlantic coast, El Salvador heavily relies on trade. It is a member of the Central American Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR); the United States is El Salvador’s top trading partner. Proximity to the U.S. market is a competitive advantage for El Salvador. As most Salvadoran exports travel by land to Guatemalan and Honduran ports, regional integration is crucial for competitiveness. Although El Salvador officially joined the Customs Union established by Guatemala and Honduras in 2018, implementation stalled following the Bukele administration’s decision to prioritize bilateral trade facilitation with Guatemala. In October 2021, however, the GOES announced it would proceed with Customs Union implementation. El Salvador rejoined technical level working group discussions and resumed testing of system interconnectivity.

The Bukele administration has taken initial steps to facilitate trade. In 2019, the government of El Salvador (GOES) relaunched the National Trade Facilitation Committee (NTFC), which produced the first jointly developed private-public action plan to reduce trade barriers. The plan contained 60 strategic measures focused on simplifying procedures, reducing trade costs, and improving connectivity and border infrastructure. Measures were not fully implemented in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, the NTFC revised the action plan to adjust measures under implementation and finalized drafting the national trade facilitation strategy, which will be launched in March 2022. In January 2022, the NFTC met to evaluate progress on the action plan. The NFTC released the action plan for 2022 on February 17th. The 2022 action plan has 29 measures to facilitate cross-border trade and improve road and border infrastructure.

Table 1
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2021 115 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview 
Global Innovation Index 2021 96 of 132 http://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator 
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2020 3,4133 https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/factsheet.html#209 
World Bank GNI per capita 2020 3,630 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD 

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties

El Salvador has bilateral investment treaties in force with Argentina, Belize, BLEU (Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union), Chile, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Republic of Korea, Morocco, the Netherlands, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay. El Salvador is one of the five Central American Common Market countries that have an investment treaty among themselves.

The CAFTA-DR entered into force in 2006 between the United States and El Salvador. CAFTA-DR’s investment chapter provides protection to most categories of investment, including enterprises, debt, concessions, contract, and intellectual property. Under this agreement, U.S. investors enjoy the right to establish, acquire, and operate investments in El Salvador on an equal footing with local investors. Among the rights afforded to U.S. investors are due process protections and the right to receive a fair market value for property in the event of expropriation. Investor rights are protected under CAFTA-DR by an effective, impartial procedure for dispute settlement that is transparent and open to the public.

El Salvador also has free trade agreements (FTAs) with Mexico, Chile, Panama, Colombia, and Taiwan. Although the GOES announced the cancellation of the Taiwan FTA in February 2019, the Supreme Court halted the cancellation in March 2019. The FTA remains in force pending a Supreme Court ruling.

In January 2020, the South Korea-Central America FTA became effective. This FTA includes investment provisions. El Salvador’s FTAs with Mexico, Chile, Dominican Republic, and Panama also include investment provisions. El Salvador continues trade agreement negotiations with Canada, which will likely include investment provisions. The Salvadoran government signed a Partial Scope Agreement (PSA) with Cuba in 2011 and an additional Protocol to the PSA in October 2018. El Salvador and Bolivia signed a PSA in November 2018 that is pending ratification in the Legislative Assembly. A PSA with Ecuador entered into force in 2017.

El Salvador, along with Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama, signed an Association Agreement with the European Union that establishes a Free Trade Area. The agreement entered into force with El Salvador in 2013. On March 1, 2022, El Salvador ratified the Protocol to the Association Agreement to take account of the accession of the Republic of Croatia to the European Union. The United Kingdom-Central America Association Agreement entered into force in January 2021. The agreement ensures continuity of commercial ties following Brexit and provides a framework for cooperation and investment.

El Salvador does not have a bilateral taxation treaty with the United States. El Salvador has one tax agreement with Spain, in effect since 2008.

El Salvador is a signatory of the Central American Mutual Assistance and Technical Cooperation Agreement in Tax and Customs Matters in force since 2012. On October 2018, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly ratified the OECD Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters . The jurisdictions participating in the Convention can be found at:  www.oecd.org/ctp/exchange-of-tax-information/Status_of_convention.pdf

El Salvador became a member of the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes in 2011. The OECD published El Salvador’s Phase 1 peer review report, which demonstrates its commitment to international standards for tax transparency and exchange of information, in 2015. The Phase 2 peer review on implementation of the standards, published in 2016, concluded that El Salvador is “largely compliant.”

El Salvador is not a member of the OECD Inclusive Framework on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting.

In November 2020, El Salvador eliminated the Security Special Contribution on Large Taxpayers (CESC). Enacted in 2015, the CESC levied a five-percent tax on companies whose net income exceeded $500,000 to finance security measures, including the GOES’ Plan Control Territorial (Territorial Control Plan).

In May 2019, the legislature also approved an Authentic Interpretation of the Income Tax Law to clarify that energy distributors may deduct energy losses from the income tax, as energy losses are an unavoidable cost of distribution.  Prior to the authentic interpretation, tax authorities repeatedly imposed back taxes, interest, and penalties for improper deductions. Companies successfully challenged most of the tax assessments but had incurred legal costs and increased financial exposure.

3. Legal Regime

4. Industrial Policies

5. Protection of Property Rights

6. Financial Sector

7. State-Owned Enterprises

El Salvador has successfully liberalized many sectors, though it maintains state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in energy generation and transmission, water supply and sanitation, ports and airports, and the national lottery (see chart below).

SOE 2022 Budgeted Revenue Number of Employees
National Lottery $51,553,600 148
State-run Electricity Company (CEL) $403,309,045 795
Water Authority (ANDA) $255,939,465 4,281
Port Authority (CEPA) $186,895,990 2,551

Although the GOES privatized energy distribution in 1999, it maintains significant energy production facilities through state-owned Rio Lempa Executive Hydroelectric Commission (CEL), a significant producer of hydroelectric and geothermal energy.

In October 2021, El Salvador’s legislature enacted the Creation Law of the Power, Hydrocarbons, and Mines General Directorate. The new General Directorate will be responsible for dictating the national energy policy and proposing amendments to energy legislation and by-laws, as well as implementing the energy policy. The law allows the President of the state-owned power company (CEL) to serve as the Director General of the new entity. The law will enter into force in November 2022. Industry stakeholders are concerned about the potential conflict of interest that would result from CEL making energy policy and participating in the sector as SOE.

The primary water service provider is the National Water and Sewer Administration (ANDA), which provides services to 96.6 percent of urban areas and 77 percent of rural areas in El Salvador.

The Autonomous Executive Port Commission (CEPA) operates both the seaports and the airports. CEL, ANDA, and CEPA Board Chairs hold Minister-level rank and report directly to the President.

The Law on Public Administration Procurement and Contracting (LACAP) covers all procurement of goods and services by all Salvadoran public institutions, including the municipalities. Exceptions to LACAP include: procurement and contracting financed with funds coming from other countries (bilateral agreements) or international bodies; agreements between state institutions; and the contracting of personal services by public institutions under the provisions of the Law on Salaries, Contracts and Day Work. Additionally, LACAP allows government agencies to use the auction system of the Salvadoran Goods and Services Market (BOLPROS) for procurement. Although BOLPROS is intended for use in purchasing standardized goods (e.g., office supplies, cleaning products, and basic grains), the GOES uses BOLPROS to procure a variety of goods and services, including high-value technology equipment and sensitive security equipment. As of October 2021, public procurement using BOLPROS totaled $157.1 million. The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) also support government agencies in the procurement of a wide range of infrastructure projects. Procurement for municipal infrastructure works is governed by the Simplified Procurement Law for Municipal Works in force since November 2021 and centralized in the National Directorate of Municipal works created by the Bukele administration to oversee investment in infrastructure and social projects in municipalities. The GOES has created a dedicated procurement website to publish tenders by government institutions. https://www.comprasal.gob.sv/comprasal_web/ ).

In August 2020, President Bukele signed an executive order allowing the submission of bids for contractual services via email and eliminating bidders’ obligation to register online with the public procurement system (Comprasal), as well as lifting the responsibility of procurement officers to keep a record of companies and individuals who receive tender documents. Transparency advocates and legal experts have noted that the order would decrease potential bidders’ ability to access and compete fairly for government tenders. The order is pending review in the Supreme Court of Justice, but without injunctive effect.

Alba Petroleos is a joint venture between a consortium of mayors from the FMLN party and a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA. As majority PDVSA owned, Alba Petroleos has been subject to Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions since January 2019. Alba Petroleos operates a reduced number of gasoline service stations and businesses in other industries, including energy production, food production, convenience stores, and bus transportation. Alba Petroleos has been surrounded by allegations of mismanagement, corruption, and money laundering. Critics charged that the conglomerate received preferential treatment during FMLN governments and that its commercial practices, including financial reporting, are non-transparent. In May 2019, the Attorney General’s Office initiated an investigation against Alba Petroleos and its affiliates for money laundering. Alba Petroleos’ assets are frozen by court order and some of its gasoline service stations are being managed by the National Council for Asset Administration (CONAB).

8. Responsible Business Conduct

The private sector in El Salvador, including several prominent U.S. companies, has embraced the concept of responsible business conduct (RBC). Many companies donated to COVID-19 relief efforts in 2020. Several local foundations promote RBC practices, entrepreneurial values, and philanthropic initiatives. El Salvador is also a member of international institutions such as Forum Empresa (an alliance of RBC institutions in the Western Hemisphere), AccountAbility (UK), and the InterAmerican Corporate Social Responsibility Network. Businesses have created RBC programs to provide education and training, transportation, lunch programs, and childcare. In addition, RBC programs have included inclusive hiring practices and assistance to communities in areas such as health, education, senior housing, and HIV/AIDS awareness. Organizations monitoring RBC are able to work freely.

Following a reorganization under the Bukele administration, the Legal Secretariat is responsible for developing strategies and actions to promote transparency and accountability of government agencies, as well as fostering citizen participation in government. The watchdog organization Transparency International is represented in-country by the Salvadoran Foundation for Development (FUNDE).

El Salvador does not waive or weaken labor laws, consumer protection, or environmental regulations to attract foreign investment. El Salvador’s ability to enforce domestic laws effectively and fairly is limited by a lack of resources. El Salvador does not allow metal mining activity.

9. Corruption

U.S. companies operating in El Salvador are subject to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).

Corruption can be a challenge to investment in El Salvador. El Salvador ranks 115 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index. While El Salvador has laws, regulations, and penalties to combat corruption, their effectiveness is at times questionable. Soliciting, offering, or accepting a bribe is a criminal act in El Salvador. The Attorney General’s Anticorruption and Anti-Impunity Unit handles allegations of public corruption. The Constitution establishes a Court of Accounts that is charged with investigating public officials and entities and, when necessary, passing such cases to the Attorney General for prosecution. Executive-branch employees are subject to a code of ethics, including administrative enforcement mechanisms, and the government established an Ethics Tribunal in 2006.

In June 2021, El Salvador terminated its 2019 agreement with the organization of American States (OAS) to back the International Commission Against Impunity and Corruption (CICIES). CICIES audited pandemic spending in 2020. After receiving CICIES preliminary findings in November 2021, the Attorney General’s Office began criminal investigations in 17 government agencies for alleged procurement fraud and misuse of public funds. In May 2021, the Legislative Assembly passed the “Law for the Use of Products for Medical Treatments in Exceptional Public Health Situations Caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic” to protect vaccine manufacturers from liability, a precondition for Pfizer to sell vaccines to El Salvador. However, the law’s broad liability shield provisions, including civil and criminal immunity for a wide range of medical product manufacturers and healthcare providers, raised concerns about the future of investigations into fraudulent purchases of medical supplies and PPE. The law was subsequently amended in October 2021 to clarify there is no immunity for acts of corruption, fraud, bribery, theft, counterfeiting or piracy and trafficking of stolen goods. Even though the reforms removed some of the most controversial aspects of the bill, investigations stalled after the Attorney General appointed by the Bukele Administration removed prosecutors working on pandemic-related probe against GOES officials.

Corruption scandals at the federal, legislative, and municipal levels are commonplace and there have been credible allegations of judicial corruption. Three of the past four presidents have been indicted for corruption, a former Attorney General is in prison on corruption-related charges, and a former president of the Legislative Assembly, who also served as president of the investment promotion agency during the prior administration, faces charges for embezzlement, fraud, and money laundering. The former Minister of Defense during two FMLN governments is being prosecuted for providing illicit benefits to gangs in exchange for reducing homicides (an agreement known as the 2012-2014 Truce). In February 2020, the Attorney General’s Office indicted high-ranking members of the ARENA and FMLN parties under charges of conspiracy and electoral fraud for negotiating with gangs for political benefit during the run up to the 2014 presidential elections. In September 2020, the Attorney General’s Office launched a probe against the Director of Penal Centers, the Vice Minister of Justice, and the Chief of the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit for covert dealings with gangs on a homicide reduction in exchange for better prison conditions. Since the appointment of the current Attorney General, the investigation into Bukele administration’s gang pacts has not progressed. U.S Treasury designated the two officials and Bukele’s Chief of Cabinet for financial sanctions in December 2021. The law provides criminal penalties for corruption, but implementation is generally perceived as ineffective. Former President Funes faces criminal charges for embezzlement, money laundering, and misappropriation of public funds. Although there are several pending arrest warrants against Funes, he has fled to Nicaragua and cannot be extradited because he was granted Nicaraguan citizenship. In 2018, former president Elias Antonio (Tony) Saca pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $300 million in public funds. The court sentenced him to 10 years in prison and ordered him to repay $260 million.

The NGO Social Initiative for Democracy stated that officials, particularly in the judicial system, often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Long-standing government practices in El Salvador, including cash payments to officials, shielded budgetary accounts, and diversion of government funds, facilitate corruption and impede accountability.  For example, the accepted practice of ensuring party loyalty through off-the-books cash payments to public officials (i.e., sobresueldos) persisted across five presidential administrations. President Bukele eliminated these cash payments to public officials and the “reserved spending account,” nominally for state intelligence funding. At his direction, in July 2019, the Court of Accounts began auditing reserve spending of the Sanchez Ceren administration. In July 2021, the Attorney General’s Office accused ten former FMLN legislators and former cabinet members who served in the Funes administration (2009-2014), including former President Salvador Sanchez, of money laundering, embezzlement, and illicit enrichment for allegedly receiving sobresueldos from the President’s Office reserved spending account.

El Salvador has an active, free press that reports on corruption. The Illicit Enrichment Law requires appointed and elected officials to declare their assets to the Probity Section. The declarations are not available to the public, and the law only sanctions noncompliance with fines of up to $500. In 2015, the Probity Section of the Supreme Court began investigating allegations of illicit enrichment of public officials. In 2017, Supreme Court Justices ordered its Probity Section to audit legislators and their alternates. In 2019, in observance of the Constitution, the Supreme Court instructed the Probity Section to focus its investigations only on public officials who left office within ten years. In 2020, the Supreme Court issued regulations to standardize the procedures to examine asset declarations of public officials and carry out illicit enrichment investigations, as well as to set clear rules for decision-making. At the end of 2021, the Probity Section had a total of 452 active investigations on illicit enrichment. Between 2015 and 2021, the office completed economic examinations in 58 cases, but the Supreme of Court recommended civil prosecution for illicit enrichment in only 21 of those cases. In an October 2021 interview, the President of the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court indicated that 127 illicit enrichment cases were nearing the end of the 10-year constitutional statute of limitations.

In 2011, El Salvador approved the Law on Access to Public Information. The law provides for the right of access to government information, but authorities have not always effectively implemented the law. The law gives a narrow list of exceptions that outline the grounds for nondisclosure and provide for a reasonably short timeline for the relevant authority to respond, no processing fees, and administrative sanctions for non-compliance. The Bukele administration has weakened the autonomy of the Access to Public Information Agency (IAIP) – charged with ensuring compliance with the law – by reforming IAIP’s regulations to increase the President’s Office control over the appointment of its commissioners. Enacted amendments also add requirements for accessing information, including for the release of restricted information. Civil society organizations claim it is common practice of the Bukele administration to declare information to be reserved (confidential) or deny information without justification and in violation of the law to avoid citizen oversight and accountability.

In 2011, El Salvador joined the Open Government Partnership. The Open Government Partnership promotes government commitments made jointly with civil society on transparency, accountability, citizen participation and use of new technologies ( http://www.opengovpartnership.org/country/el-salvador ).

10. Political and Security Environment

El Salvador’s 12-year civil war ended in 1992. Since then, there has been no political violence aimed at foreign investors.

The crime threat level in El Salvador is critical, with high rates of crime and violence. Most serious crimes in El Salvador are never solved. El Salvador lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases and to deter crime. For more information, visit: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information-Pages/ElSalvador.html

El Salvador has thousands of known gang members from several gangs including Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street (M18). Gang members engage in violence or use deadly force if resisted. These “maras” concentrate on extortion, violent street crime, carjacking, narcotics and arms trafficking, and murder for hire. Extortion is a common crime in El Salvador. U.S. citizens who visit El Salvador for extended periods are at higher risk for extortion demands. Bus companies and distributors often must pay extortion fees to operate within gang territories, and these costs are passed on to customers. The World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness Index reported that costs due to organized crime for businesses in El Salvador are the highest among 141 countries.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

According to the National Directorate of Statistics and Censuses (DIGESTYC), in 2021 El Salvador had a labor force of about 2.9 million people. Female labor force participation remained low at 41.2 percent. Around 70 percent of the workers were employed in the informal sector. The number of people working in the informal sector increased during the pandemic due to high unemployment rates. These workers do not have access to government health and pension benefits, and according to the 2020-2021 Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development report, 63.9 percent of workers the informal sector belong to vulnerable groups, such as women, children, and the rural poor.

http://fusades.org/publicaciones/informe-de-coyuntura-social-2020-2021 

https://www.elsalvador.com/noticias/negocios/trabajo-informal-pocos-incentivos-alejan-salvadorenos-tener-pension/829945/2021/ )

Labor laws require 90 percent of the workforce in plants and in clerical positions be Salvadoran citizens. While Salvadoran labor is regarded as hard-working, general education and professional skill levels are low. According to many large employers, there is a lack of middle management-level talent, which sometimes results in the need to bring in managers from abroad. Employers do not report labor-related difficulties in incorporating technology into their workplaces.

The law provides for the right of most workers to form and join independent unions, to strike, and to bargain collectively. The law also prohibits anti-union discrimination, although it does not require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Military personnel, national police, judges, and high-level public officers may not form or join unions. Workers who are representatives of the employer or in “positions of trust” also may not serve on a union’s board of directors. Only Salvadoran citizens may serve on unions’ executive committees. The labor code also bars individuals from holding membership in more than one trade union.

Unions must meet complex requirements to register, including having a minimum membership of 35 individuals. If the Ministry of Labor (MOL) denies registration, the law prohibits any attempt to organize for up to six months following the denial. Collective bargaining is obligatory only if the union represents most workers.

In 2021, some unions were concerned about the MOL’s delay in approving their organization’s credentials, required to continue operating as a union and to participate in various tripartite consultative committees between government, the private sector, and the unions. Without credentials, unions cannot participate in decision-making within tripartite committees on subjects such as worker social security benefits, minimum wage, housing, and other worker benefits. The members of the unions also lose their immunity from termination by their employers if their unions do not have credentials. As of January 2022, the MOL failed to grant credentials to more than 250 unions before their certifications expired. These unions represent workers in municipal, healthcare, education, and judicial trades, leaving these workers vulnerable to termination by their employers. The unions receiving their credentials quickly were those aligned with the political party of the Nuevas Ideas dominated government.

The law contains cumbersome and complex procedures for conducting a legal strike. The law does not recognize the right to strike for public and municipal employees or for workers in essential services. The law does not specify which services meet this definition, and courts therefore interpret this provision on a case-by-case basis. The law requires that 30 percent of all workers in an enterprise must support a strike for it to be legal and that 51 percent must support the strike before all workers are bound by the decision to strike. Unions may strike only to obtain or modify a collective bargaining agreement or to protect the common professional interests of the workers. They must also engage in negotiation, mediation, and arbitration processes before striking, although many unions often skip or expedite these steps. The law prohibits workers from appealing a government decision declaring a strike illegal.

The government did not effectively enforce the laws on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Penalties remained insufficient to deter violations. Judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. According to union representatives, the government inconsistently enforced labor rights for public workers, maquiladora/textile workers, food manufacturing workers, subcontracted workers in the construction industry, security guards, informal-sector workers, and migrant workers.

Unions functioned independently from the government and political parties, although many generally were aligned with the traditional political parties of ARENA and the FMLN. Workers at times engaged in strikes regardless of whether the strikes met legal requirements.

Employers are free to hire union or non-union labor. Closed shops are illegal. Labor laws are generally in accordance with internationally recognized standards but are not enforced consistently by government authorities. Although El Salvador has improved labor rights since the CAFTA-DR entered into force and the law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, there remains room for better implementation and enforcement.

The MOL is responsible for enforcing the law. The government proved more effective in enforcing the minimum wage law in the formal sector than in the informal sector. Unions reported the ministry failed to enforce the law for subcontracted workers hired for public reconstruction contracts. The government provided its inspectors updated training in both occupational safety and labor standards and conducted thousands of inspections in 2019.

The law sets a maximum normal workweek of 44 hours, limited to no more than six days and to no more than eight hours per day, but allows overtime, which is to be paid at a rate of double the usual hourly wage.  The law mandates that full-time employees receive pay for an eight-hour day of rest in addition to the 44-hour normal workweek. The law provides that employers must pay double time for work on designated annual holidays, a Christmas bonus based on the time of service of the employee, and 15 days of paid annual leave. The law prohibits compulsory overtime. The law states that domestic employees are obligated to work on holidays if their employer makes this request, but they are entitled to double pay in these instances. The government does not adequately enforce these laws.

There is no national minimum wage; the minimum wage is determined by sector. On July 1, 2021, the government announced an increase in the minimum wage by about 20 percent for all industries in the formal sector. This was implemented on August 1, 2021, resulting in a one-month implementation period for industry. The increase had no impact on the majority of workers because most are employed in the informal sector.

El Salvador adopted the Telework Regulation Law in March 2020. The law is applicable in both private and public sectors and requires a written agreement between employer and employee outlining the terms and conditions of the arrangement, including working hours, responsibilities, workload, performance evaluations, reporting and monitoring, and duration of the arrangement, among others. Legislation prescribes employers as responsible for providing the equipment, tools, and programs necessary to perform duties remotely. Employers are subject to the obligations contained in labor laws, while workers are entitled to the same rights as staff working at the employer’s premises, including benefits and freedom of association.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount  
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019 $27,022.64 2019 $27,023 https://data.worldank.org/country/el-salvador
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2020 $2,104.22 2019 $3,413 BEA data available at
https://apps.bea.gov/international/
factsheet/factsheet.cfm?Area=209
 
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 N.A. 2019 N.A. BEA data available at
http://bea.gov/international/direct_
investment_multinational_companies_
comprehensive_data.htm
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 2020  40.9% 2020 N.A,

* Central Bank, El Salvador. In 2018, the Central Bank released GDP estimates using the new national accounts system from 2008 and using 2005 as the base year.

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data (2020)*
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward 10,075 100% Total Outward 3.1 100%
Panama 3,656 36.3% Guatemala 1.6 49.5%
 United States 2,104 20.9% Honduras 0.8 24.3%
Spain 1,339 13.3% Costa Rica 0.5 17.3%
Colombia 833 8.3% Nicaragua 0.3 8.9%
Mexico 670 6.7%      
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.

*Coordinated Direct Investment Survey, International Monetary Fund 

14. Contact for More Information

Aaron Feit
Deputy Economic Counselor
U.S. Embassy San Salvador
Address: Final Blvd. Santa Elena, Antiguo Cuscatlán, La Libertad, El Salvador
Phone: +503 2501-2999
Email: FeitAL@state.gov

To reach the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service (FCS) Office, please email: Office.Sansalvador@trade.gov 

Guatemala

Executive Summary

Guatemala has the largest economy in Central America, with a $ 85.9 billion gross domestic product (GDP) in 2021. The economy grew by an estimated 7.5 percent in 2021 following a 1.5 percent retraction in 2020. Remittances, mostly from the United States, increased by 34.9 percent in 2021 and were equivalent to 17.8 percent of GDP. The United States is Guatemala’s most important economic partner. The Guatemalan government continues to make efforts to enhance competitiveness, promote investment opportunities, and work on legislative reforms aimed at supporting economic growth. More than 200 U.S. and other foreign firms have active investments in Guatemala, benefitting from the U.S. Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). Foreign direct investment (FDI) stock was $21.4 billion in 2021, a 21.9 percent increase over 2020. FDI flows increased by 272.6 percent in 2021 mostly due to the purchase of outstanding shares of a local company by a foreign telecommunications company. Some of the activities that attracted most of the FDI flows in the last three years were information and communications, financial and insurance activities, manufacturing, commerce and vehicle repair, water, electricity, and sanitation services.

Despite steps to improve Guatemala’s investment climate, international companies choosing to invest in Guatemala face significant challenges. Complex laws and regulations, inconsistent judicial decisions, bureaucratic impediments, and corruption continue to impede investment.

Citing Guatemala’s CAFTA-DR obligations, the United States has raised concerns with the Guatemalan government regarding its enforcement of both its labor and environmental laws.

Guatemala’s Climate Change Framework Law established the groundwork for Guatemala’s Low Emission Development Strategy (LEDS) and is designed to align Guatemala’s emissions and development targets with national planning documents in six sectors: energy, transportation, industry, land use, agriculture, and waste management. In November 2020, the Guatemala government endorsed the LEDS as the country’s official strategy for climate change mitigation.

As part of the government’s efforts to promote economic recovery during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Economy (MINECO) began implementing an economic recovery plan in September 2020, which focuses on recovering lost jobs and generating new jobs, attracting new strategic investment, and promoting consumption of Guatemalan goods and services locally and globally.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2021 150 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/
research/cpi/overview
Global Innovation Index 2021 101 of 132 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/
analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2020 USD 789 https://apps.bea.gov/international/
factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita 2020 USD 4,490 https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/
NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

3. Legal Regime

4. Industrial Policies

5. Protection of Property Rights

6. Financial Sector

7. State-Owned Enterprises

Guatemala has three main state-owned enterprises: The National Electricity Institute (INDE) and two state-owned ports, Santo Tomas on the Caribbean coast, and Port Quetzal on the Pacific coast. INDE is a state-owned electricity company responsible for expanding the provision of electricity to rural communities. INDE owns approximately 14 percent of the country’s installed effective generation capacity, and it participates in the wholesale market under the same rules as its competitors. It also provides a subsidy to consumers of up to 88 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per month. Its board of directors comprises representatives from the government, municipalities, business associations, and labor unions. The board of directors appoints the general manager. The Guatemalan President appoints Santo Tomas Ports’ board of directors, and the board of directors appoints the general manager. The Guatemalan President also appoints the president of Port Quetzal’s board, and the president of the board appoints the general manager. The Guatemalan government also appoints the manager of state-owned telephone company GUATEL, which split off from the fixed-line telephone company during the 1998 privatization program. GUATEL’s operations are small, and it continuously fails to generate sufficient revenue to cover expenses. The GUATEL director reports to the Guatemalan President and to the board of directors.

The Guatemalan government currently owns 16 percent of the shares of the Rural Development Bank (Banrural), the second largest bank in Guatemala, and holds 3 out of 10 seats on its board of directors. Banrural is a mixed capital company and operates under the same laws and regulations as other commercial banks.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

There is a general awareness of expectations of standards for responsible business conduct (RBC) on the part of producers and service providers, as well as Guatemalan business chambers. A local organization called the Center for Socially Responsible Business Action (CentraRSE) promotes, advocates, and monitors RBC in Guatemala. They operate freely with multiple partner organizations, ranging from private sector to United Nations entities. CentraRSE currently has over 100 affiliated companies from 20 different sectors that provide employment to over 150,000 individuals. CentraRSE defines RBC as a business culture based on ethical principles, strong law enforcement, and respect for individuals, families, communities, and the environment, which contributes to businesses competitiveness, general welfare, and sustainable development. The Guatemalan government did not have a definition of RBC as of March 2022. Guatemala joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in February 2011 and was designated EITI compliant in March 2014. The EITI board suspended Guatemala in February 2019 for failing to publish the 2016 EITI report and the 2017 annual progress report by the December 31, 2018 deadline. Guatemala published the 2016-2017 EITI report and the 2017 annual progress report in February and March 2019. The EITI board suspended Guatemala again in January 2020 after deciding that Guatemala has made inadequate progress in implementing the 2016 EITI standard. The EITI board requested Guatemala to undertake corrective actions before a second validation related to the requirements started on July 23, 2021. On December 24, 2020, the EITI board postponed the date to start Guatemala’s second validation process to April 1, 2022. Guatemala published the 2018-2020 EITI report in November 2021 but remained suspended as of March 2022.

The State Department has recognized U.S. companies such as McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Denimatrix for corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs in Guatemala that aimed to foster safe and productive workplaces as well as provide health and education programs to workers, their families, and local communities. Communities with low levels of government funding for health, education, and infrastructure generally expect companies to implement CSR practices.

Conflict surrounding certain industrial projects – in particular mining and hydroelectric projects – is frequent, and there have been several cases of violence against protestors in the recent past, including several instances of murder. On October 24, 2021, President Alejandro Giammattei declared a State of Siege in El Estor as dozens of protestors, including environmental defenders, indigenous activists, and outside agitators blocked coal trucks from accessing a nickel mine and clashed with National Police (PNC). Media reported that the government maintained a force of 500 police and military in El Estor during the 30-day State of Siege to carry out patrols, manage vehicle checkpoints, and conduct raids. Indigenous leaders, journalists, and civil society organizations alleged that they faced arbitrary detentions and persecution for participating in anti-mining protests. Lack of clarity over indigenous consultations continues to impact Guatemala’s investment climate. On December 10, 2021, the government declared the successful conclusion of the ILO consultations with those indigenous groups they designated as participants in the consultation process for the nickel mine. The community’s self-determined governance structure, the Ancestral Council of Q’eqchi Peoples, was excluded from the consultations, and critics claimed that the government purposely neglected to include the group.

9. Corruption

Bribery is illegal under Guatemala’s Penal Code. Guatemala scored 25 out of 100 points on Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perception Index, ranking it 150 out of 180 countries globally, and 28 out of 32 countries in the region. The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but the Public Ministry (MP) prosecuted very few government corruption cases.

Investors find corruption pervasive in government procurement, including payment of bribes in exchange for awarding public construction contracts. Investors and importers are frequently frustrated by opaque customs transactions, particularly at ports and borders. The Tax and Customs Authority (SAT) launched a customs modernization program in 2006, which implemented an advanced electronic manifest system and resulted in the removal of many corrupt officials. However, reports of corruption within customs’ processes remain. In 2021, SAT implemented additional customs reforms that route flagged shipments to a dedicated secondary inspection team for resolution, rather than assigning the case to the original inspector. The change eliminates opportunity for an inspector to impose deliberate delays.

From 2006 to 2019, the UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) undertook numerous high-profile official corruption investigations, leading to significant indictments. For example, CICIG unveiled a customs corruption scheme in 2015 that led to the resignations of the former president and vice president. Since then-President Morales terminated CICIG in 2019 and actions by Attorney General Consuelo Porras to impede anti-corruption prosecutors, impunity has increased and poses significant risks for potential new investors.

Guatemala’s Government Procurement Law requires most government purchases over $116,363 to be submitted for public competitive bidding. Since March 2004, Guatemalan government entities are required to use Guatecompras ( https://www.guatecompras.gt/ ), an Internet-based electronic procurement system to track government procurement processes. Guatemalan government entities must also comply with government procurement commitments under CAFTA-DR. In August 2009, the Guatemalan congress approved reforms to the Government Procurement Law, which simplified bidding procedures; eliminated the fee previously charged to receive bidding documents; and provided an additional opportunity for suppliers to raise objections over the bidding process. Despite these reforms, large government procurements are often subject to appeals and injunctions based on claims of irregularities in the bidding process (e.g., documentation issues and lack of transparency). In November 2015, the Guatemalan congress approved additional amendments to the Government Procurement Law that tried to improve the transparency of the procurement processes by barring government contracts for some financers of political campaigns and parties, members of congress, other elected officials, government workers, and their immediate family members. However, there continue to be multiple allegations corruption and nepotism in the procurement process. The 2015 reforms expanded the scope of procurement oversight to include public trust funds and all institutions (including NGOs) executing public funds. The U.S. government continues to advocate for the use of open, fair, and transparent tenders in government procurement as well as procedures that comply with CAFTA-DR obligations, which would allow open participation by U.S. companies.

Guatemala ratified the U.N. Convention against Corruption in November 2006, and the Inter-American Convention against Corruption in July 2001. Guatemala is not a party to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions. In October 2012, the Guatemalan congress approved an anti-corruption law that increased penalties for existing crimes and added new crimes such as illicit enrichment, trafficking in influence, and illegal charging of commissions.

10. Political and Security Environment

According to the National Civil Police (PNC), the murder rate in 2020 dropped 28 percent – from 20.8 per 100,000 to 15 per 100,000, compared to 2019, continuing a downward trend in recent years. The Guatemalan government attributed the general decline in violence to the economic downturn during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, including interdepartmental travel restrictions and the prohibition of most alcohol sales. The murder rate increased to 16.6 per 100,000 in 2021, a 9 percent increase compared to 2020. Rule of law is a challenge and the judicial system is faces significant delays in case processing and inefficiency. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents. Major criminal groups operating in Guatemala are involved in a number of illicit activities, including violent street crime, drug trafficking, kidnaping, extortion, arms trafficking, illegal adoption rings, and environmental crimes. Although security remains a concern, foreigners are not usually singled out as targets of crime.

The political climate in Guatemala, marked by its 36 years of armed conflict, is characterized by periodic civil disturbances. For example, in October 2021, President Alejandro Giammattei declared a State of Siege in El Estor as dozens of protestors, including environmental defenders, indigenous activists, and outside agitators blocked coal trucks from accessing a nickel mine and allegedly clashed with National Police (PNC) forces who attempted to clear the road for mining traffic. Protests and highway roadblocks organized by transportation workers and military veterans have caused disruption and heightened security, impacting general mobility and traffic condition, on a recurring basis in recent years.

In November 2020 civil unrest sparked by congressional approval of the 2021 budget proposal, which added to long-standing grievances. Largely peaceful protests were marred by isolated acts of vandalism and violence, including fire damage to the national congress building, as well as acts of violence by both security forces against some protestors and by some protestors against security forces. The main source of tension among indigenous communities, Guatemalan authorities, and private companies is the lack of prior consultation and alleged environmental damage.

Damage to projects or installations is rare. However, there were instances in October 2018 and January 2019 in which unidentified arsonists burned machinery and other equipment at the site of a hydroelectric construction project near the northern border with Mexico. Additionally, activist groups at times have engaged in blockades to prevent personnel, materials, and equipment from entering or leaving disputed installations.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

According to the 2021 national survey of employment and income, the Guatemalan workforce consists of an estimated 2.1 million individuals employed in the formal sector. Additionally, roughly 5.1 million individuals, or 70.8 percent of the total workforce, work in the informal sector, including some who are too young for formal sector employment. According to the 2017 Survey on Employment and Income, the most recent survey with child labor data available, child labor, particularly in rural areas, remains a serious problem in certain economic activities. The informal economy represented 22 percent of GDP in 2019 according to official data. About 75.7 percent of female workers and 84.9 percent of indigenous workers were employed in the informal sector. Approximately 30 percent of the total labor force is engaged in agricultural work. The availability of a large, unskilled, and inexpensive labor force led many employers, such as construction and agricultural firms, to use labor-intensive production methods. Roughly, 14 percent of the employed workforce is illiterate. In developed urban areas, however, education levels are much higher, and a workforce with the skills necessary to staff a growing service sector emerged. Even so, highly capable technical and managerial workers remain in short supply, with secondary and tertiary education focused on social science careers. The Ministry of Labor issued a regulation in March 2022 that requires recruiters of Guatemalans being employed outside of Guatemala to be registered and to comply with all the requirements related to contracts established in Article 34 of the Labor Code.

No special laws or exemptions from regular labor laws cover export-processing zones. The Ministry of Labor issued a regulation in December 2021 that allows to set different minimum wages for two economic regions of the country starting in 2023. In July 2021, the Constitutional Court revoked the provisional suspension of the Ministry of Labor’s agreement on part-time work, based on ILO Convention 175, which enabled companies to hire workers for six hours or fewer per workday for wages equivalent to the fraction of full time work they complete.

The Labor Code requires that at least 90 percent of employees be Guatemalan, but the requirement does not apply to high-level positions, such as managers and directors. The Labor Code sets out: employer responsibilities regarding working conditions, especially health and safety standards; benefits; severance pay; premium pay for overtime work; minimum wages; and bonuses. Mandatory benefits, bonuses, and employer contributions to the social security system can add up to about 55 percent of an employee’s base pay. However, many workers, especially in the agricultural sector, do not receive the full compensation package mandated in the labor law. All employees are subject to a two-month trial period during which time they may resign or be discharged without any obligation on the part of the employer or employee. For any dismissal after the two-month trial period, the employer must pay unpaid wages for work already performed, proportional bonuses, and proportional vacation time. If an employer dismisses an employee without just cause, the employer must also pay severance equal to one month’s regular pay for each full year of employment. Guatemala does not have unemployment insurance or other social safety net programs for workers laid off for economic reasons.

Guatemala’s Constitution guarantees the right of workers to unionize and to strike, with an exception to the right to strike for security force members and workers employed in hospitals, telecommunications, and other public services considered essential to public safety. Before a strike can be declared, workers and employers must engage in mandatory conciliation and then approve a strike vote by 50 percent plus one worker in the enterprise. If conciliation fails, either party may ask the judge for a ruling on the legality of conducting a strike or lockout. Legal strikes in Guatemala are extremely rare. The Constitution also commits the state to support and protect collective bargaining and holds that international labor conventions ratified by Guatemala establish the minimum labor rights of workers if they offer greater protections than national law. In most cases, labor unions operate independently of the government and employers both by law and in practice. The law requires unions to register with the Ministry of Labor and their leadership must obtain credentials to carry out their functions. Delays in such proceedings are common. The law prohibits anti-union discrimination and employer interference in union activities and requires employers to reinstate workers dismissed for organizing union activities. A combination of inadequate allocation of budget resources for labor rights enforcement to the Ministry of Labor and other relevant state institutions, and inefficient administrative and justice sector processes, act as significant impediments for more effective enforcement of labor laws to protect these workers’ rights. As a result, investigating, prosecuting, and punishing employers who violate these guarantees remain a challenge, particularly the enforcement of labor court orders requiring reinstatement and payment of back wages resulting from dismissal. The rate of unionization in Guatemala is very low.

Both the U.S. government and Guatemalan workers have filed complaints against the Guatemalan government for allegedly failing to adequately enforce its labor laws and protect the rights of workers. In September 2014, the U.S. government convened an arbitration panel alleging that Guatemala had failed to meet its obligations under CAFTA-DR to enforce effectively its labor laws related to freedom of association and collective bargaining and acceptable conditions of work. The panel held a hearing in June 2015 and issued a decision favorable to Guatemala in June 2017. Separately, the Guatemalan government faced an International Labor Organization (ILO) complaint filed by workers in 2012 alleging that the government had failed to comply with ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association. The complaint called for the establishment of an ILO Commission of Inquiry, which is the ILO’s highest level of scrutiny when all other means failed to address issues of concern. In 2013, the Guatemalan government agreed to a roadmap with social partners in an attempt to avoid the establishment of a Commission. The government took some steps to implement its roadmap, including the enactment of legislation in 2017 that restored administrative sanction authority to the labor inspectorate for the first time in 15 years. As part of a tripartite agreement reached at the ILO in November 2017, a National Tripartite Commission on Labor Relations and Freedom of Association was established in February 2018 to monitor and facilitate implementation of the 2013 roadmap. Based in large part on the 2017 tripartite agreement, the ILO Governing Body closed the complaint against Guatemala in November 2018.

14. Contact for More Information

John Szypula
szypulaj@state.gov
Trade and Investment Officer
U.S. Embassy Guatemala
Av. Reforma 7-01 Zona 10, Guatemala
(502) 2326-4000

Honduras

Executive Summary

Honduras contains all the ingredients for a thriving, prosperous economy: strategic location next to U.S. markets with a deep-water port, a rich endowment of natural resources, breathtaking tourist destinations, and hard-working people, including a significant cadre of skilled labor. Despite these advantages, per capita income in Honduras is the third lowest in all Latin America. Investors cite corruption, crime, and poor infrastructure and weak or nonexistent rule of law as the primary reasons that Honduras does not attract more of the private investment it needs to stimulate inclusive economic growth. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), real Honduran GDP grew by 12.5 percent in 2021, a rebound from the devastating effects in 2020 of the COVID-19 pandemic and twin hurricanes Eta and Iota. The IMF predicts the economy will grow by 3.8 percent in 2022.

The 2022 inauguration of Honduras first woman president, Xiomara Castro, marked the beginning of a new era in the country’s political economy. The participation of U.S. Vice President Harris at President Castro’s inauguration exemplified the strong U.S. commitment to Honduras. The two countries have committed to work jointly to address the root causes of migration, including by combating corruption and expanding economic opportunity. Since taking office, the Castro administration has launched initiatives to reduce corruption, improve education and public health, and create jobs.

These laudable efforts have been frustrated by fiscal challenges, including budget planning and debt management. Although the United States and international organizations including the IMF assess Honduras as low risk for debt distress, public messaging from the administration announcing a fiscal crisis roiled international bond markets, driving up the risk premium on Honduran debt. To address these budget shortfalls, the government announced it will utilize its foreign reserves to finance operations, which could put additional inflationary pressure on the economy. To help Honduras implement its social agenda without increasing its debt burden, the United States has begun a debt management technical assistance program with the Ministry of Finance.

In both public and private, the Castro administration emphasizes the need for job creation and private investment in Honduras. The government approved a new law in 2022 to facilitate the development and formalization of Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). The government’s Results-Based Governance system and other anti-corruption efforts are excellent examples of efforts to improve the investment climate. From the perspective of the private sector, however, these efforts have been overshadowed by policy decisions that have dramatically increased the uncertainty of investment returns. Chief among these was the May 2022 approval of a new energy law that threatens power generators with forced sale at a “just price” if they do not reduce their tariffs to the government’s satisfaction. The law provides no guarantee of future payment, stipulates that new energy investment must be majority state-owned, and all but eliminates private trade in energy. As a result of the new law, several private energy companies have discontinued planned projects in Honduras and are exploring investment opportunities in other countries in the region.

The Castro administration also eliminated the special economic zones known as “ZEDEs” by their initials in Spanish. The ZEDEs were broadly unpopular, and viewed by some as a vector for corruption, but their elimination raised concerns in the business community about the government’s commitment to commercial stability and the rule of law.

Another government policy contributing to uncertainty in the investment climate has been the elimination of the legal framework used by most businesses to employ per-hour workers. The law’s repeal fulfilled a Castro campaign promise, responding to criticism by labor unions that temporary work allowed companies to evade their social security obligations and exploit workers. Business representatives note, however, that many industries, including retail, tourism, and food service rely heavily on hourly labor and will be constrained by the new framework. Civil society representatives also point out that the change adversely affects women and students, who relied on hourly work to manage households and school schedules, although union leaders counter that the previous framework allowed employers to target women and young people for economic exploitation, given that their personal circumstances often do not allow them to take on full-time employment.

Many foreign investors in Honduras operate thriving enterprises. At the same time, all investors face challenges including unreliable and expensive electricity, corruption, unpredictable tax application and enforcement, high crime, low education levels, and poor infrastructure. Squatting on private land is an increasingly severe problem in Honduras and anti-squatting laws are poorly enforced. Continued low-level protests and strikes are additional concerns for private investors.

Despite these setbacks, over 200 American companies operate businesses in Honduras. Honduras enjoys preferential market access to the United States under CAFTA-DR, which has allowed for the development of intra-industry trade in textiles and electrical machinery, among other sectors. The proximity to the United States and established supply chain linkages means that opportunities exist to increase nearshoring sourcing to meet U.S. demand for a variety of goods. The White House “Call to Action to Deepen Investment in the Northern Triangle” is designed to coordinate increased U.S. investment in the region, including Honduras. This program, along with others, aims to support sustained and inclusive economic development in Honduras and surrounding countries.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2021 157 of 175 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview 
Global Innovation Index 2021 108 of 132 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator 
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2020 USD 1,111 https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/ 
World Bank GNI per capita 2020 USD 2180 https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD 

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

3. Legal Regime

4. Industrial Policies

5. Protection of Property Rights

6. Financial Sector

7. State-Owned Enterprises

Most state-owned enterprises are in telecommunications, electricity, water utilities, banking, and commercial ports. The main state-owned Honduran telephone company, Hondutel, has private contracts with eight foreign and domestic carriers. The GOH has yet to establish a legal framework for foreign companies to obtain licenses and concessions to provide long distance and international calling. As a result, investors remain unsure if they can become fully independent telecommunication service providers.

The state-owned National Electric Energy Company (ENEE) is the single largest contributor to the country’s fiscal deficit. Due to years of mismanagement and corruption, ENEE loses over $30 million every month and its debt amounts to more than 10 percent of Honduran GDP. With the May 2022 energy law, the government has reversed energy reform legislation that called for the separation of ENEE into three independent units for distribution, transmission, and generation. The law also weakened the electricity regulator and eliminated the independent systems operator. Electricity subsector experts say that dispatch decisions have become much less transparent since the elimination of the systems operator, a disincentive for new investment. The electrical subsector faces serious structural problems, including high electricity system losses, a transmission system in need of upgrades, vulnerability of generation costs to volatile international oil prices, an electricity tariff that does not reflect actual costs, and the high costs of long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs), which have often been awarded directly to companies with political connections instead of via a fair and transparent tendering and procurement process. Many businesses have installed on-site power generation systems to supplement or substitute for power from ENEE due to frequent blackouts and high tariffs.

Honduran law grants municipalities the right to manage water distribution and to grant concessions to private enterprises. Major cities with public-private concessions include San Pedro Sula, Puerto Cortes, and Choloma. The state water authority National Autonomous Aqueduct and Sewer Service (SANAA) manages Tegucigalpa’s water distribution. Persistent water shortages are another constraint on private enterprise in Honduras, especially during the spring dry season. The Honduran National Port Company (ENP) is the state-owned organization that oversees management of the country’s government-operated maritime ports, including Puerto Cortes, La Ceiba, Puerto Castilla, and San Lorenzo. Private companies Central American Port Operators and Maritime Ports of Honduras have 30-year concessions to operate container and bulk shipping facilities at Honduras’ principal port Puerto Cortes.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

Awareness of the importance of Responsible Business Conduct (RBC) is growing among both producers and consumers in Honduras. An increasing number of local and foreign companies operating in Honduras include conduct-related responsibility practices in their business strategies. The Honduran Corporate Social Responsibility Foundation (FUNDAHRSE) has become a strong proponent in its efforts to promote transparency in the business climate and provides the Honduran private sector, particularly small- and medium-sized businesses, with the skills to engage in responsible business practices. FUNDAHRSE’s approximately 110 members can apply for the foundation’s “Corporate Social Responsibility Enterprise” seal for exemplary responsible business conduct involving work in areas related to health, education, environment, codes of ethics, employment relations, and responsible marketing.

RBC related to the environment and outreach to local communities is especially important to the success of investment projects in Honduras. Several major foreign investment projects in Honduras have stalled due to concerns about environmental impact, land rights issues, lack of transparency, and problematic consultative processes with local communities, particularly indigenous communities. Although the International Labor Organization Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples was ratified by the GOH in 1995 and Honduras voted in favor of UN’s Indigenous People’s rights in 2007, there is still much to do in the area. There is still a need for foreign investors to build trust with local communities, while employing international best practices and standards to reduce the risk of conflict and promote sustainable and equitable development.

Examples of international best practices include the following:

Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights Initiative

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

9. Corruption

In February 2022, President Castro fulfilled her campaign promise to request support from the UN for an international anti-corruption commission (CICIH).  A UN Technical Assistance Mission visited Honduras in May 2022 to begin work on the request.  The commission would continue the work started by the OAS Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) which left Honduras in 2020 after the former administration failed to renew its mandate. Though details are still under discussion, the commission would likely fill an investigative and prosecutorial role similar to MACCIH. Its mandate would likely extend beyond the current administration.  Several risks remain; notably, a broad amnesty law passed in February 2022 that would prevent the commission from investigating a significant number of cases, and unclear financing for the commission.

U.S. businesses and citizens report corruption in the public sector and the judiciary is a significant constraint to investment in Honduras.  Historically, corruption has been pervasive in government procurement, issuance of government permits, customs, real estate transactions (particularly land title transfers), performance requirements, and the regulatory system.  Civil society groups are critical of recent legislation granting qualified immunity to government officials and a 2019 law that gave the highly politicized government audit agency a first look at corruption cases.  Congress repealed the latter in 2022.  In 2018, Congress passed a revision of the 1984 penal code that lowered penalties for some corruption offenses. The new code went into effect in June 2020 and was retroactively applied to several high-profile corruption cases resulting in a spate of dismissals and retrials.  In late 2020, the GOH created a new Ministry of Transparency to act as the government’s lead institution in coordinating and implementing efforts to promote transparency and integrity and prevent government corruption. The Castro government further institutionalized the ministry’s anti-corruption mandate, naming it the Ministry of Transparency and the Fight against Corruption. The Castro administration’s Government by Results initiative should pay off in decreased vulnerability to corruption, and the ministers of Health and Economic Development both signed cooperation agreements with the country’s Anticorruption Council.

Honduras’s Rankings on Key Corruption Indicators:

Measure Year Index/Ranking
TI Corruption Index 2021 23/100, 157 of 180
MCC Government Effectiveness FY 2022 -0.12 (35 percent)
MCC Rule of Law FY 2022 -0.42 (10 percent)
MCC Control of Corruption FY 2022 -0.40 (16 percent)

The United States Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) deems it unlawful for a U.S. person, and certain foreign issuers of securities to make corrupt payments to foreign public officials for the purpose of obtaining or retaining business for directing business to any person. The FCPA also applies to foreign firms and persons who take any act in furtherance of such a corrupt payment while in the United States. For more information, see the FCPA Lay-Person’s Guide:  http://www.justice.gov/criminal/fraud/  .

Honduras ratified the UN Anticorruption Convention in December 2005. The UN Convention requires countries to establish criminal penalties for a wide range of acts of corruption. The UN Convention covers a broad range of issues from basic forms of corruption such as bribery and solicitation, embezzlement, trading in influence, and the concealment and laundering of the proceeds of corruption. The UN Convention contains transnational business bribery provisions that are functionally similar to those in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Anti-Bribery Convention.

Honduras ratified the Inter-American Convention against Corruption (OAS Convention) in1998. The OAS Convention establishes a set of preventive measures against corruption; provides for the criminalization of certain acts of corruption, including transnational bribery and illicit enrichment; and contains a series of provisions to strengthen the cooperation between its states’ parties in areas such as mutual legal assistance and technical cooperation.

10. Political and Security Environment

Crime and violence rates remain high and add cost and constraint to investments. Demonstrations occur regularly in Honduras and political uncertainty poses a challenge to ongoing stability.

U.S. citizens should be aware that large public gatherings might become unruly or violent quickly. For more information, consult the Department of State’s latest travel warning:  https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information-Pages/Honduras.html.

Although violent crime remains a persistent problem, Honduras has successfully reduced homicides to less than 40 per 100,000 inhabitants. Cases of violence, extortion, and kidnapping are still relatively common, particularly in urban areas where gang presence is more pervasive. Drug traffickers continue to use Honduras as a transit point for cocaine and other narcotics en route to the United States and Europe, which fuels local turf battles in some areas and injects illicit funds into judicial proceedings and local governance structures to distort justice. The business community historically had been a target for ransom kidnappings, but the number of such kidnappings dropped from 92 in 2013 to 15 in 2021, primarily through the work of the USG-supported Honduran National Police National Anti-Kidnapping Unit. Although violent crime rates are trending downward, corruption and white-collar crime, including money laundering, negatively affect economic prosperity and stability for the business community.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

The Honduran Labor Law prescribes a maximum eight-hour workday, 44-hour workweek, and at least one 24-hour rest period per week. The Labor Code provides for paid national holidays and annual leave. Most employment sectors also receive two one-month bonuses as part of the base salary, known as the 13th and 14th month salary, issued in mid-December and mid-June, respectively. New hires receive a prorated amount based on time-in-service during their first year of employment. The Labor Code requires companies to pay one month’s salary to employees terminated without cause. Companies do not owe severance to employees who resign or are terminated for cause. Employees terminated for cause can contest the basis for the termination in court to claim severance. There are no government-provided unemployment benefits in Honduras, although unemployed individuals may have access to their accumulated pension funds.

As mentioned above, in April 2022, President Castro signed the repeal of the Hourly Employment Law. Labor groups had alleged that some employers used hourly contracts to avoid responsibility for severance, provide employee benefits, and prevent union formation. The repeal did not stipulate the process for transitioning employees from hourly to salaried, but it did prevent the termination of employees.

The Secretariat of Labor and Social Security (SETRASS) is responsible for registering collective bargaining agreements. The Labor Code prohibits the employment of persons under the age of 14. Minors between the ages of 14 and 18 must receive special permission from SETRASS to work. The majority of the violations of the labor-related provisions of the children’s code occur in the agricultural sector and informal economy.

While Honduran labor law closely mirrors International Labor Organization standards, the U.S. Department of Labor has raised serious concerns regarding the effective enforcement of Honduran labor laws. Labor organizations allege the SETRASS fails to enforce labor laws, including laws on the right to form unions, reinstating employees unjustly fired for union activities, child labor, minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health. A 2015 U.S. Department of Labor report provided recommendations to address labor concerns in Honduras and called for a monitoring and action plan (MAP) to improve labor law enforcement in Honduras following a 2012 submission brought under the labor chapter of CAFTA-DR. While the government has made significant progress toward addressing areas of concern, outstanding issues to completing the Honduran government’s obligations under the MAP include resolution of emblematic collective bargaining cases and the enforcement and collection of fines for labor violations.

The U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices describes a number of labor and human rights compliance issues that affect the Honduran labor market: https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/honduras/. These include employers’ anti-union discrimination, refusal to engage in collective bargaining, and employer control of unions.

14. Contact for More Information

Economic Counselor
Scott Hansen
U.S. Embassy
Avenida La Paz  Tegucigalpa, M.D.C.
hansensw@state.gov

Investment Climate Statements
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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future