Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Give this poor country a break

This is the first time I've lived anywhere other than Canada, let alone in a country with such a ferocious reputation for violence that my friends and family are regularly checking in with concerned voices as to whether everything’s fine down here. 
Nothing to worry about, I tell them. And I mean that. Despite the endlessly bleak news about Honduras and a truly formidable murder rate, this country has in fact been a very pleasant place to live these past 10 months. The place needs work, absolutely, but this seemingly global need to portray the country as a random killing zone is both cruelly inaccurate and damaging to the people who live here. 
A worried friend back home recently asked me about this comment from the latest newsletter of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. In Honduras, “violence is the main strategy for solving any problem, whether it’s related to drugs or not,” said MSF spokesman Javier Rio Navarro.
I don't know about you, but that kind of statement conjures in my mind visions of dangerous men everywhere, daggers clenched between their teeth and assault rifles at the ready should there be a need to gun down random strangers. It conjures up a country that is inherently violent, where the norms of civilized society have broken down and no one is safe anymore.
I have tried to square that image of Honduras with my daily experiences here, in which I walk back and forth to work and meet nothing but friendly people also walking to wherever their day-to-day routine is taking them in the moment: To the market to sell tortillas; to their child's school; to the field where they're moving the cows; to their construction job. It doesn't square.
I've even walked the wild streets of Tegucigalpa. And while the city has yet to win me over, nobody my partner and I have come across in our visits there has been looking to do two gringos harm.
Nor were they shooting at each other, having fights, robbing passing strangers, or otherwise wreaking havoc on the social order. They were going about their business. That’s what human beings tend to do most wherever they are in the world, even in the middle of a full-on war.
I've yet to see a problem solved with hand-wringing. But that and a challenging reform of the Honduras police force – badly needed, but not a solution  all on its own -   are pretty much all that’s going on. As far as I can tell, no work is underway to get underneath the scary statistics and figure out who is really at risk and what can be done about it. Simply piling on more headlines to scare off even more of the tourists certainly isn’t any help. 
Here’s my take on who’s really at risk here, based on my reading of the news and the many stories I’ve heard from Hondurans:
  • Anyone associated with the illegal drug industry, where assassination is used to kill off the competition, wreak vengeance, and “send a message” through the murder of family members, loved ones and acquaintances of a narco-traficante on the wrong side of somebody’s list.
  • Poor people who live in the poorest barrios and ride the cheapest buses, which are regularly held up by robbers and gang members who either want to steal what they can in the moment or extort the driver and passengers with a “war tax.”
  • Poor business owners who are extorted by gangs just for trying to make a living in the roughest areas of the big cities where law and order simply don’t exist.
  • Campesinos fighting in the heated Bajo Aguan land dispute.
  • Hondurans engaged in Hatfield-and-McCoy style vendettas over real and perceived wrongs of the past, in which one violent act begets another and another for potentially years.
  • People who get fingered by acquaintances as a known killer, robber or otherwise bad person, and thus become candidates for the kind of street justice that can happen in a country with a troubled police history and a largely ineffective justice system.
  • The unfortunate innocents who occasionally find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time when one of the above-mentioned groups engages in violence and kills them by accident.
That’s a lot of people, for sure. But except for the last category, it’s not a random collection. It still means Honduras has some big problems to get a handle on, but it doesn’t mean that the whole country is a dangerous wasteland that only dare devils and the uninformed would ever spend time in.
That image does such a disservice to the vast majority of pleasant, peaceful, deeply religious Hondurans. It does the country genuine harm by scaring off the aid programs, investors and travellers that are so vital to a brighter future for Honduras.
Don’t believe everything you read. Good people live here, and they need more from the world than condemnation and fear-mongering.


Owen Gray said...

The closest experience I have had to yours, Jody, is spending a short time in Haiti.

The real problem isn't violence -- of which there is more than enough.

It is poverty -- grinding poverty -- which produces its own kind of desperation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jody for sharing your take on what's happening in Honduras. As a Honduran living abroad I'm always worried to hear all this bleak news about my country. We spent five weeks in Honduras this summer with my husband, my four-year-old son and my baby. We had a great time and not once did we feel threatened by anything. In fact, I found Honduras and my home town San Pedro Sula to be safe for tourists. We had a lovely time in Tela, Tegucigalpa, Valle de Angeles, etc.

I agree with Owen, what worries me the most is that we're not making the right investments to get people out of poverty. Honduras needs to provide health care, education, infrastructure, job opportunities and so on to get people out poverty. This would solve half of the problems related to violence in the country.