More Central American memories: Honduras in 2005

Viewed from Managua, Honduras seems curiously remote in the centre of the Central American region. For many years it was controlled by an unholy alliance of generals and US agri-businesses. The original “banana republic”, it does not possess the massively popular “eco-tourist” parks and attractions of Costa Rica, nor the volcanoes dominating Nicaragua and El Salvador, nor the colourful indigenous communities of Guatemala nor the commercial, globalised buzz of Panamá. But there are many beautiful, rugged, highland landscapes with pine forests, deep valleys and rivers, as well as the cloud covered mountain peaks along the Caribbean coast. The area around the agro-industrial capital San Pedro Sula is a narrow coastal plain, intensely cultivated: with pineapples and bananas!

Near the Guatemalan border, in a high valley, lies the small town of Copán Ruinas. This place is becoming the biggest magnet for tourists in the country, drawn to the impressive and monumental ruins of the ancient Mayan city. When the Mayan kings ruled the valley there were up to 20,000 people. Now the town has only 6,000 inhabitants.

The coral reefs of the Caribbean lie a few miles from the mainland and emerge in the form of the Bay Islands. These are inhabited by Creole English speaking Afro peoples descended from pirates and slaves; although as tourism has rapidly developed, the islands are being “re-colonized” by Spanish speaking mainlanders in search of employment and by North American tour operators and hoteliers. There are three large islands and several cayes surrounded by magnificent coral outcrops not far below the surface of the water. The area is a diver’s paradise.

Honduras also boasts a highland capital with an impossible name and a frightening airport. We spent two days in Tegucigalpa in September 2003, driving from Managua through the rolling hills to visit the main attractions of this old Spanish mining settlement. But when we booked our trip to Copán and Roatán, we found out that the plane would be landing in Tegucigalpa en route to and from San Salvador.

Thus the first excitement of our summer holiday – and last trip in Central America after three years staying in Managua – was the stopover in Tegucigalpa. The runway is dangerously short and perched on top of a cliff. There are steep hillsides all around the city. The pilot has to swing the aircraft around in a long curving turn just before reaching the runway, which means that the plane is tilting sideways until the very last seconds. It feels as if one wing will hit the ground. Consequently there are not many airlines flying into Teguz (as the town is called by the locals).

After a brief stopover our plane left safely and landed 30 minutes later in San Pedro Sula. From there we took a three hour bus trip to Copán Ruinas, where we stayed for two nights. The little town has a classically Central American rural ambiente with white houses, cobbled streets, a plaza with a church, a town hall and a museum. The men wear big white hats and ride horses. There are numerous places to eat, ranging from smart restaurants to comedores (canteens).

Tourism is the mainstay of the local economy and having spent several hours wandering around the Mayan palace and surroundings it is easy to understand the pull of the place. Not only are the ruins themselves rich with artistic creations in stone, the sense of a living past is extraordinary. We had a good guide who took his time to explain the purposes of the different buildings and temples as well as the meaning of the Mayan messages and the progress of archeological excavations. The trees emerging from the piles of stone add a powerful aura of simultaneous growth and decay. There are also flocks of red macaws cackling in the treetops.

Mayan civilization at Copán declined after the construction achievements of the kings Eighteen Rabbit and Smoke Shell some over 1200 years ago. This story is one of a series of environmental, social and economic disasters described by Jared Diamond in his recent study entitled “Collapse.”[1] Using examples of disappearing or self-destructing societies in places as diverse as Easter Island, old Norse Greenland, Haiti and Rwanda, Diamond examines the factors which contribute to “things falling apart.” In many cases, he argues that collapse results from population pressures, where ”values” (including trade and exchange of ideas) stagnate and natural resources (notably forests) can no longer sustain the people. Copán was one of the emblematic cases of self-destruction; excavations and careful tests of the buried bones reveal the rapid onset of hunger, disease and disruption, which ended with the abandonment of the valley around 820.

Two days was too little to appreciate the beauty of the Copán ruins and the valley. We enjoyed wandering around the town, sampling the comida tipica (local food) and taking photos of rural tranquility in Honduras. But then we had to move on.

We didn’t stop for long in San Pedro Sula. This ugly city suffers badly from the wave of gang violence which has hit many Central American urban slums. Groups of young men, often expelled from Los Angeles and other cities in the US, have formed maras, gangs dealing in drugs, extortion and assorted violent crimes. The most disturbing feature of these gangs is that children and teenagers are often mixed up in the bloodshed.

As holiday reading I had bought along a copy of a new report on the activities of these gangs by the European Commission (EU). In expressing concern about the risks of human rights abuses in attempts by the Honduran authorities to combat and eliminate the maras (which have been involved in the deaths of over 2500 children and young people since 1998), the Commission proposes “to send an advisor with experience in programmes with youths at social risk and in the prevention and rehabilitation of delinquents.”[2] At least it’s a response! Meanwhile, as the daily pictures in the newspapers show, the brutality of the gangs and the ferocity of the police in efforts to put the gang members behind bars (or into their graves), have led to some unpleasant incidents.

The concern about respecting civil liberties and human rights in the face of random violence is an increasingly common denominator in international relations. On the day we arrived at Copán Ruinas, the news was full of the latest bombs on buses and the underground in London. As these horrific forms of terrorism ripple across the planet, the question of avoiding a form of social collapse through repression is on the agenda. Justice and weapons control must be important cornerstones of solutions. But the US government has adopted another approach, continuing to blemish the Caribbean with the scandalous indefinite detainment of suspected terrorists (“non-people”?) at Guantanámo.

Recently, US president George W. Bush appointed John Poindexter as the top national security adviser and anti-terror coordinator. He’s probably the right man for the job, as they know in Honduras. Not only has he been US ambassador to Iraq, he was also ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s at the peak of Ronald Reagan’s crusade against communists in Central America. Poindexter’s legacy in the region is well known, from the powerful military circles in Honduras who shared in the arms build up associated with the “contra war”, to the comrades of the liberation forces (the FMLN and FSLN) in El Salvador and Nicaragua. During the 1980s Honduras was the base for a vast operation designed to prevent the spread of “leftist evil” in the two neighbouring countries and to protect US commercial and agri-business interests. The prevalence of weapons is perhaps the most obvious remnant of this period, although the historical basis for armed citizenry in Central America, like the US, is a phenomenon probably linked to colonial repressive practices and the idea of defending oneself against the dangerous natives.

North American influences on Honduras are particularly evident and persistent in the English speaking zone of the Bay Islands. We flew from San Pedro Sula to Roatán with a brief stopover in La Ceiba on the north coast. On arrival we took a taxi to the main tourist concentration at West End, where we had hired an apartment for a week.

The principal objective of holidaying on this paradise island was to introduce Martin to diving. While Kathrine and I are content to snorkel, he has more serious aquatic ambitions; the coral reefs are a perfect setting for learning how to submerge safely in the open water. So after selecting a suitable dive shop, Martin spent most the week underwater, gaining his certificate and taking some fantastic pictures of the ocean wildlife. He was well-guided by an instructor from Louisana called Roberta Bienvenue (!) and soon became friends with a mixture of British and US diving enthusiasts.

The magic of coloured fish swimming around the walls of coral is an inspiring sight. Divers disappear for as long as they can to maximize their admiration for this branch of evolutionary creativity. But coral is fragile and threatened. Care must be taken to protect the reefs, which means that places like Roatán need good “eco-management.”

We were reminded of the force of nature in the Caribbean again at the end of our holiday. One day we learnt that Hurricane Emily was set to strike Roatán in a mad, destructive swirl from Trinidad westwards. However Honduras was spared when Emily’s path shifted northwards; crashing into the giant resorts around Cancún in Yucatán instead. There and in Copán Ruinas and Roatán, I thought of Shelley’s awesome assessment of creation and collapse in the poem Ozymandias: “Look on my works ye mighty and despair.”

Heading for the open sea to dive around the coral reefs, Roatán

honduras-089

[1] Sub-titled “how societies choose to fail or succeed.” Viking Press, New York (2005).

[2] Honduras – report on human rights and deaths of children. EU, Brussels (May 2005).

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