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Honduras: Under the Horses Feet or Images of Garifuna Life

By Isis Libertad

It was summer 2005, the year of the last general elections. We went along to see the parade; the high spot of the Fair that Tela celebrates every year.

We travelled to Tela from our Garifuna town ten minutes away, with the kids. Roads were closed and full of people in festive gear, a mixed crowd of Mestizos and Garifuna crowded the main square. We bumped into so many friends! I think most people from our village must have been there. Everyone new everyone: cheers, greetings, broad smiles. The intense humid heat mixed with the lowd music coming from the speakers made a powerful cocktail in the bright Sunday afternoon. We held tight onto the hands of the two younger girls and struggled to find a good spot on the pavement to see the parade.

Along came the floats with beautiful girls dancing Punta- a Garifuna rhythm- or posing, waving and smiling to Mexican music; floats reproducing jungle scenes, boats...; floats advertising cell phone companies and other businesses. The crowds cheered and greeted friends, relatives, acquaintances taking part in the parade. A group of French Canadian comedians based in Tela participated with giant puppets and Comedia del Arte masks. Then, to close the first part came that year’s Queen of Tela, just crowned at the fair: a black beauty from San Juan, one of the neighbouring Garifuna villages; quite remarkable since despite the racial mix in Tela, prejudice against the black community is still endemic. In Honduras, with a population of about 8 million people, 90% of the population is Mestizo, of Indian-European descent. The Garifuna are one of six ethnic groups in the country. There are approximately 100,000 Garifunas, living along the Atlantic Coast in 46 villages; they are descendants of African slaves and Carib Indians. Though they maintain their traditional ways of life, many of them are forced to emigrate to the US due to lack of opportunities and their culture is endangered.

I left the family and went in search of a cash point to get money for refreshments, before the second part featuring the horse parade.
There was a special thrill about this, everyone commented on one of the riders. Many people who didn’t usually attend Tela’s fair had come specially to see him; a man who was running for president for the Liberal Party at the next elections. ‘A man of the people’, his name was Manuel Zelaya, better known to all as Mel.

Not surprisingly I couldn’t find a cash machine that worked. This Sunday was the culminating day of a two week fair and cash machines were exhausted.

I went to look for my friends at their pretty beach hotel, Cesar Mariscos, but they were out. So my only option was to go into Pasteleria Valerie, one of the shops on the main Commerce Street and speak to the owner promising that next day I would come without fault to pay for the juices and pastries I needed to make our family outing complete. I went back to take my place on the pavement next to the family.

The horse parade was starting. The animals, mostly Peruvian horses renowned for their grace, mains platted in styles as intricate as their step, were a thrilling spectacle. Then the crowd roared when a particularly beautiful specimen appeared, a white horse with its main loose as a stylish fringe, swaying to the compass of its rhythmic, frisk step, jumping, sidestepping. The rider was no less charismatic than the horse, a ‘ranchero’ with a powerful figure and an elegant broad bream hat. But what most caught my attention was the vital smile under an imposing black moustache. This was Mel. He beamed, smiling to the crowds that cheered.

I will never forget that image, the most memorable of the whole parade, nor will my son forget it. At ten, from that moment he became a fervent Zelayista, stating he would vote for Mel.
General elections came six months later and sure enough Mel won the elections. He was such a contrast to the previous nationalist president Ricardo Maduro with his slight figure in a grey suit and his Spanish, Evita Peron modelled wife.

As with every new president, there were new hopes and as with every president there were shattered dreams after a few years. All the calamities of centuries of corruption and exploitation were blamed on one single man.

The Port of Tela is a sleepy town on the Honduran Atlantic Coast. There are landmarks from the golden era of the United Fruit Companies: Villas Telamar Hotel, originally built to house Fruit Company workers; the derelict Tela Railroad building, and the broken jetty. The railway line fallen into disuse, crosses the centre of the town, a dormant reminder of Honduras history.

In the outskirts of Tela is the botanical park of Lancetilla house to spectacular giant species of bamboo. Lancetilla’s founder was Sam Zemurray, an American entrepreneur of Russian descent who carried the first banana to the US, and created the multimillion businesses which provided work for many Hondurans and made few billionaires abroad.

Sam Zemurray carried bananas and Honduran politicians across the Atlantic, in fact he carried Manuel Bonilla from the US back into the Honduran presidency in 1912 and got many land and tax concessions for the American companies, in return. That move got rid of President Francisco Bertrand, who intended to make the fruit companies pay taxes and serve national interests.

One wanders how much has changed in the 21st century, as private enterprise and American companies still play a main role in Honduran political life.

As I write, Hondurans are fighting in the streets; there have been at least eight people dead by police or army bullets. There are many arrests and people unaccounted for. At every peaceful demonstration or rally police has used tear gas bombs indiscriminately, and violated spaces such as the National University which they stormed with tear gas bombs and water cannons, beating up students and the maximum university authorities. And the department of Danli along the Nicaraguan border, where the ousted president supporters have concentrated, is living through uninterrupted curfew, with the army making it very difficult for humanitarian aid to reach the area.
Tenths of thousands of people from all over the country marched for one week to converge at the two main Honduran cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, on Tuesday 11 August. Curiously the coup leaders managed to put off an OAE (Organisation of American States) commission due to arrive to Honduras on the same day. The country has been under curfew almost uninterruptedly for the forty days plus since the coup.

The crisis was caused by the violent ousting of president Manuel Zelaya, who was taken out of his bed at gun point and thrown out of the country on June 28 this year, is tearing the country apart: on one side those who want the democratically elected president back, the poor majority; and on the other, those who support the coup leaders and the private enterprise who financed it. The excuse of the military backed coup was the proposition by Zelaya to hold a referendum to consult with the people on whether an article of the constitution that impedes any president to serve more than one four year term in office, should be amended. The entire world has condemned the action against president Zelaya an unacceptable military coup.

Women’s groups who were demonstrating outside congress one year ago, demanding the Zelaya administration fairer treatment and more dignified working conditions are now at the forefront of the resistance against the 28 June coup, campaigning for Zelaya’s return. This proves the natural law that everything has a front and a reverse, as the much abused seamstresses who make fashion garments for the world from Honduras factories, know well.

The United States has always had a strong influence in Honduras where the local currency, the Lempira, hasn’t fluctuated one cent over the years, remaining at a rate of 18.98 Lempira to one US dollar.

It was from Honduras that the US backed Contra movement against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua was launched in the 80s, a sinister era of much repression throughout the whole of Central America. One gets the feeling that the US could do much more to help solve Honduras present crisis since they have always treated it as its own back yard, but they are being cautious, there are multiple implications, too many facets to a conflict which seems to amalgamate all the explosive issues boiling inside Latin America. And President Obama has a new ‘non intervention’ policy.

There are many ironies: those who have always been against US interference in Latin America, are now crying for exactly that interference, one wanders whether the US would be as laid back if the situation was the reverse. Why in this new era of ‘non intervention’ the US is planning to establish military bases in Colombia while it refuses to wholeheartedly help a conflict which threatens with destabilising the whole Central American region? Like it or not they have the power to help.

Three years after Manuel Zelaya came to power; inflation is rising and threatening to swallow the country. As usual, the poor, the great majority of the population, are the ones who are finding it each day more difficult to feed, cloth, educate their families; street violence in the major cities has spiralled out of control.

Foreign companies, owning local factories known as ‘maquilas’, are still exploiting their workers to an inhuman extent. Congress refuses to address issues like repetitive stress syndrome that has maimed many factory workers, or to pass any laws that force employers to compensate for these injuries or any other injury arising at the place of work. It refuses to pass laws that impose normal working hours and fair pay. Congress refuses to pass any law in favour of workers and against employer’s interest’s full stop.
Perhaps this is because Congress belongs to the same business men who own the factories; as it belonged to the Fruit companies who got away with exactly the very same abuse almost two centuries ago. It is interesting to note that Roberto Micheletti, the current Honduran ‘interim’ president, was until the coup, the head of Congress (a post that he held for 25 years) he put himself forward as a candidate for the presidential elections with very poor results.
Perhaps it is because Honduras is such a small, pretty country that it makes people want to put it in their pocket, as a convenient handkerchief.

How come in a country like Honduras which possesses a beautiful Caribbean coast with mountains and rivers that run into the Atlantic Ocean every couple of miles; a Pacific Coast; important Mayan sacred sites; a soil that produces some of the best tobacco and coffee in the world, some of the best rum, is so poor? How come in a country with a wealthy cultural heritage; with beautiful strong and courageous people, the majority of the population goes hungry, and has to suffer unacceptable working conditions and poor education; life with no guarantees.

How can we break the stigma of corruption and exploitation? How can we go forward? No one wants a totalitarian regime, but the rule of private enterprise is as totalitarian and brutal as they come; only that it has a pretty Colgate smile on the front cover.
Whether Mel Zelaya is the answer to Honduras problems I’m not sure. His supporters know that his return marks only the beginning of a long road, but he has become a symbol that has made the Honduran people wake up and dream that they can write a new chapter in their own history.

Whatever one’s political tendencies are, common sense tells us that in a country where over 60% of the population live below the poverty line; a country which is considered, with Haiti, the poorest nation on the Western Hemisphere, social reform of some sort is essential.The question is whether that change can be made without upsetting multinational companies and the ten families who run the country.