By Louis Hellwig

In February I went on a Global Exchange Reality Tour to Honduras. Honduras is a very poor country; it ranks 44th among 47 Western Hemisphere countries in per capita Gross Domestic Product. It is a democracy with two major parties and six and a half million people. I’m a retired UNI professor who has visited many developing countries.

Our purpose was to meet with activists in communities around this small country to learn first hand their major problems and efforts to improve their quality of life. My first impression in Tegucigalpa was the presence of guns. Small businesses often have an armed guard who doesn’t appear to be well-trained. A very small corner store might have floor-to-ceiling bars enclosing everything but the walk-in space and part of the counter. I did not need to be told not to walk outside at night. Our first visit was to a center that had been formed to gather information on the disappeared. Individuals involved in these death squads are now in the upper levels of government. Our then-ambassador, now our Director of National Intelligence, was fully informed about such activities. Now they are working to prevent abuse and torture in police stations and prisons, especially during the initial arrest. Youth gangs are on the rise and youths are at risk. We next visited a farmworker organization. A major problem is in getting a legal title to occupied land even when there is uncontested ownership. Such documentation is necessary to obtain loans. Some micro-finance is available. About 400,000 families are landless even though their constitution authorizes giving land to the landless.

Big agricultural firms get tax holidays. Their fear is that CAFTA and genetic-modified crops will destroy traditional agriculture. We met with a medical doctor who treats the poor plus victims of police treatment and exposure to heavy metals from mining operations. The day before our visit he was publicly demonstrating against the sale of alcohol to youth. This is supported by the major media (advertising revenue) and unopposed by the Catholic Church. He has received many death threats. We then traveled to one such surface mining community. Both surface and ground water are polluted. The company is fulfilling its obligations by transporting in clean water, but using trucks that are also used to haul cyanide-treated water (for leeching gold). It promises to leave this site, but without plans to do obligated remedial clean-up. Our next stop was a mountain community that had been subjected to wide-spread clearcutting of its native, diverse forest. The land is now covered with pine trees and sugar cane in flatter areas.

The community is assuming all responsibility for its future: holding workshops with invited outside speakers, establishing nursery projects to grow fruit and broadleaf trees and patrolling for fires during the hot and dry months. They questioned who the World Bank was helping by financing huge logging projects. Two indigenous organizations were visited. The Maya organization has taken non-violent, confrontational actions to get the government’s attention to their poverty and related needs. This has included taking over sawmills, chaining themselves to public buildings in Tegucigalpa and destroying a Columbus statue also in Tegucigalpa. They are very concerned about the privatization of education and the health system.

A day later we visited three men from their communities who were being held in prison on trumped-up charges (the Attorney General has found no reason to hold them). The Spanish government has put pressure on the Honduran government to release them. The corner of the large cell was covered with colorful cards from Amnesty International supporters. The other organization represented the black Garifuna of the North Coast. This long band of sandy beaches is an ideal vacation area. Wealthy Honduran investors are planning a half-dozen five-star resorts on the most desirable segment. The problem is that this is Garifuna land.

Four of their members have been killed and others sometimes can’t stay in their homes at night for security reasons. The local police can’t be trusted. Honduran lawyers who would like to represent them can’t because doing so would effectively end their careers. Our last visit was with a remarkable HIV-AIDS center in San Pedro. One building housed the medical clinic and another food and school supplies for families needing assistance. The third contained donated machines run by former maquiladora workers that manufactured baby clothes. These workers had been illegally tested for HIV, found to be positive and fired. This community worked to increase awareness in schools and even talked to sex workers.

Our last breakfast was in a restaurant in a small commercial cluster on a major highway. It was no longer open for dinner because there were too many shootings there after the work day. Western tourists, I believed (and hoped), were a protected class. We might be potential investors. I was very impressed with the level of political awareness among the people we talked to. They know their politicians and are not easily impressed nor discouraged. They recognize that their interests are not those of the wealthier or more powerful, but they have kept their dignity.

From our perspective private economic initiative is something to be welcomed, but from theirs it’s what are they trying to take from me? International institutions push the down-sizing of government as a necessary condition for loans. What the people of Honduras need is a government that respects the rights of all of its people.