Friday, July 10, 2009

At the Table with Arias

Excuse the delay in posting this blog entry, originally scheduled for yesterday, as I had to figure out how enable cookies and JavaScript before I could post it and I’m not good at that sort of thing.

But before getting back to the topic of Honduras, I have some good news: I’ve just been notified that my book was selected by the Returned Peace Corps Association as best PC memoir of 2008. I’m waiting for official word. What a nice surprise! Maybe another frame-able certificate like one I got from the National Indie Excellence Awards. I’ve just come out with slightly revised version of the book, mentioning the latter on the front cover, but I’m not going back through the complicated Amazon system to add the Peace Corps citation. When all is said and done, while recognition very nice, it does not change the book’s actual contents, which have to be read to be understood and appreciated.

Michelleti and Zelaya are supposed to be meeting Arias, and possibly each other, at the latter’s house. That’s a nice informal touch, likely to reduce tensions. In Latin America, visiting a prominent person’s house is not as unusual as it would be in the US. It’s part of the culture of hospitality. As recounted in my book, when I was an observer of the 1990 Nicaraguan presidential elections, we awaited the vote count at Dona Violeta’s house, with Jimmy Carter striding through the front door with other dignitaries. The common humanity of such people comes through in such a setting. However, I heard on the morning news today (Friday) that the two sides are still at loggerheads, that Zelaya insists on returning to Honduras as president and Michelleti insists that he cannot not return. Each reportedly has set forth his position as non-negotiable. Arias is not a magician, but he helped resolve even more contentious matters in Central America in the 1980s, but only over time, and time is precious right now.

A solution in Honduras is urgent, since the country is not only desperately poor, especially with so much in aid and loan funds now cut off, but the situation in the cities seems to be sliding toward greater polarization and even civil war, although many people, especially those outside major cities, are calm, though confused and worried. They are just unsure what to do, in a state of uncertainty, according to my information. I sincerely hope the two rival presidents can come to the point of being willing to look for a solution instead of each trying to defend and advance his position. We shall see.

It does seem that it would be a good idea to have election observers at the next election, in November or whenever it will take place, to assure a fair vote. Honduras has not needed that before, but now it seems called for.

A teacher living on the north coast has sent me the following message, a little ungrammatical with some misspellings and no caps, but understandable. She says everything was tried to keep Zelaya under control as he ran roughshod over the rest of the government, listening only to outside leaders, taking the country toward a bad form of socialism, and allow narco-traffickers free reign, and now the OAS wants to impose him on us again, even when we showed them all the necessary documents for his removal, or words to that effect:

Gracias Barbara por demostrar interes por los hondureƱos y la penosa situacion que estamos viviendo, mi opinion y la de la mayoria de hondureƱos me atrevo a decirlo asi es que era necesario hacer esto con mel zelaya, el estaba cometiendo muchos abusos pasando sobre la ley y ya todos los sectores del pais se lo habian advertido y el no quiso escuchar. que lastima que a nivel internacional no quieran ver los atropeyos de mel contra el pueblo la comision de la oea vino a imponernos el regreso de el y a pesar de que se le entregaron los documentos necesarios a Insulsa han hecho caso omiso. mel nos quiere poner un socialismo mal orientado y eso no esta bien, ademas permitio que otros gobernantes tomen ingerencias en el pais de alli que hoy en dia el narcotrafico aqui es algo comun y esta muy extendido.I also received from a friend a clipping from the Wall St. Journal, showing a photo of a broadly smiling Zelaya with Raul Castro and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, which must not have gone down well with many Hondurans.

Those who defend Zelaya and also Chavez claim they represent the poor, but at least in the case of Zelaya, in a country where an estimated 70% of the population live in poverty, a recent poll (before the current events) showed him with only a 30% approval rating, making it mathematically impossible that the majority of the poor actually supported him. If he were genuinely helping the poorest segments of society, that would be admirable. He did raise the salaries of public servants, which were already higher than in the private sector. I’ve had little sympathy for a substantial proportion of Honduran public servants, whose main task has seemed to be to avoid working and who would periodically go out on prolonged strikes. (I saw the same thing in Cuba—not the strikes, because they are forbidden there—but taking advantage of sick and family leave, staying home from work at any excuse, as well as rampant stealing from state industries.)

Zelaya also raised the minimum wage when I was in Honduras last February to something like $250 per month, as I recall, which allowed PCV allowances to be increased to that level. However, the raise applied only to those actually working for wages. Many of the poor are subsistence farmers working for themselves, earning less than that. And kids under 13, legally too young to work, would not be paid the minimum wage.

I’ve gotten numerous disturbing reports of repression of pro-Zelaya news and commentaries and a TV-radio journalist on the north coast, Gabriel Fino Noriega, was gunned down in a suspected reprisal for a pro-Zelaya stance, though this has not been confirmed. Murders have long enjoyed impunity in Honduras, always making it hard to determine where the blame lies. Reporter Luis Galdamez, who hosts a show on the independent station Radio Globo Honduras, is back on the air after being shut down, but the military told him not to criticize the new government.

See Washington Post article below.

Local Hondurans Closely Following Turmoil at Home
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, July 9, 2009
They are far from the rioting and bloodshed that have thrust their home country into the daily news, but for Hondurans living in the Washington area and beyond, the coup d'etat last week has reached into their lives in ways many hadn't expected.
A waitress in Springfield is afraid to speak openly with her mother by phone. A jeweler who moved here 37 years ago is scrambling to sell his properties there. A construction worker in Falls Church has had trouble sending money to his family back home.

"They couldn't take money out of the banks," said Fredi Ortega, 27, one of hundreds of Hondurans who crowded into RFK Stadium last night to watch their soccer team play the United States in the Concacaf Gold Cup. "If you tried to send money from here, they told you you can't."

Many immigrants leave their countries to escape war, revolutions or economic meltdowns, and many of those who come to the United States become key sources of income for relatives back home. As their homelands stabilize, many start to travel back and forth, send their children home on holidays and even start to invest there. But sometimes the stability melts away overnight.

Last summer when Russia's army invaded Georgia, cutting the country in half, U.S. Georgian families who had sent their children to visit relatives there panicked as borders closed and telephone connections were cut. Last month, Iranian-Americans planning summer vacations in their homeland watched as a disputed election escalated into street clashes and a wave of arrests. Now it is the turn of the 1 million or so Hondurans living in the United States, following the unrest that developed after President Manuel Zelaya was ousted and replaced by Roberto Micheletti.

For the first days after the coup, Hondurans living here said, phone lines were down and they had to rely on news reports to find out what was happening back home. "We were watching CNN," said Orlando Vallecillo, 38, of Herndon. When they finally did reach their families, they heard about the martial law confining people to their homes at night. "No one wants to go there," Vallecillo said. "Those who had plans to go canceled them."

Jessica Mendoza, 21, who moved here three years ago and works as a waitress in Springfield, usually visits a couple of times a year. "But who wants to go to Honduras right now?" she said, adding that she is nervous even talking to people there about the political situation. "My mom said just call to cellphones because they can hear the conversation."

In recent days remittances have resumed, and phone lines are working, but some said the situation is likely to change their long-term connection with the country. "It really affects us because I still have family over there, and I still have properties over there," said Romel Martinez, 55, a jeweler who lives in Long Branch, N.J. "We've really been trying to build something up over there. But I really don't feel like the situation is good anymore for investing."

Now he is trying to sell his beachfront properties. "You feel scared, because you don't want to invest in something that's really a canoe instead of a ship." He said the situation has given many Hondurans pause about returning there to live. "I'm really selling because I don't feel like it's worth it anymore." Most people interviewed at the soccer game said they were against the coup, though some also criticized the ousted president's move to change the constitution, which helped spark it.

But Juan Garcia, 42, a policeman who lives in New York, said he supported the coup and that he has had no trouble reaching family members. "My sister's a nurse and I talk to her every day, and everyone's carrying on business as normal," he said.
Regardless of political opinion, nearly all those interviewed said they were concerned for their country. "No one expected it," said Omar Fuentes of the unrest. Pointing at a particularly energetic group of fans tooting plastic horns, he said the soccer game was a welcome distraction. (Honduras went on to lose 2-0.) "This is an escape from the worries that we have, and this is a way of soothing the pain that we're feeling as Hondurans."

For Martinez, there was even a bright spot to the turmoil at home. His mother might come to visit for the first time in several years. "She stopped coming because of 9/11," he said, "and now she's thinking of coming back because of the situation."

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