A balancing act on a tightrope

Hal Quinn December 21 1981

A balancing act on a tightrope

Hal Quinn December 21 1981

A balancing act on a tightrope


Hal Quinn

She lies on a bare black vinyl mattress in a metal crib. The sidebars are capped by a wire mesh dome, secured by a padlock. Her head is shaved. A dirty black dress covers most of her as she lies sucking her fingers. She cannot see or hear; she growls if touched. Sometimes she bites herself. Her rages over the past five of her nine years have been contained by her tiny metal prison. In this dismal one-bytwo-metre room of San Felipe Asilo de Invalidos in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, she is not alone.

Below the open window at the end of her world, an elderly woman lies facing the ceiling, grappling with insanity. In the corner, a tiny woman curled in the fetal position rocks on her bed. In the crib beside her is an infant, horribly thin arms fluttering, her teeth protruding from her skull. In this country of almost four million, the second poorest in the Americas (after Haiti), there is no other place for them.

Beyond the lawn of the asilo (institution) past the invalids and lunatics sitting in the sun, through the wire fence, across the wide avenue choked with taxis and buses, just down the slope toward the city centre are the mansions protected from the adjacent reality by high wrought-iron fences and Doberman pinscher guard dogs. On the corner, at the Estro Armónico Restau-

rante, the Belgian chef prepares sauces for char-broiled filets.

Tegucigalpa (population 445,100) reflects at every turn the natural beauty and glaring social inequities that have embroiled the neighboring countries of El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala and render Central America a tragic flash point. Conquered by the Spanish conquistadores for her Mayan silver and gold, Honduras is still the object of exploitation. Yet amid the Central American ferment of the past decade, Honduras has remained relatively calm. The U.S.-supported military regime that ruled the country (until last month when the first presidential elections in 10 years were held) had been less repressive than the rightist Somoza regime overthrown in Nicaragua. The Honduran wealth is spread amongst more families than the handful controlling El Salvador, where leftist guerrillas still strike from an everchanging front. But the social problems and injustices are no less chronic.

The taxi jolts along the narrow potholed street, past pastel storefronts, spray-painted graffiti, LIBERTAD PARA LOS PRESOS POLITICOS (FREEDOM FOR POLITICAL PRISONERS), the radio blares the punk rock ¿She's a very kinky girl. §The taxi has no meter— the tariff is up for barter, as is the young prostitute

in the front seat, summoned by the driver when the gringos climbed in the back. Like the girls that work outside the luxury hotels, she is just slightly older than the barefoot urchins who beg by day and sleep briefly in doorways at night. She is handsome like the other girls her age, not yet worn down like the women vending cassette tapes in the central mall, “¿Quiere Sony?,“ or oranges from a pushcart. A day’s hawking will buy a few tortillas.

The taxi stalls in traffic in front of the pale blue, turreted presidential palace in the city centre. Young soldiers, 15 or 16 years of age, feign attention as they casually shift the weight of their submachine-guns. Many of them, perhaps these two, were pressed into service, for the Honduran army has been known to station trucks in front of cinemas, grabbing the young men for an unceremonious induction as they leave with their dates. They will serve on the Nicaraguan border or in the refugee camps assisting El Salvadoran soldiers in hauling refugees back across the border. They may patrol hotel lobbies in groups of four in camouflage fatigues or stand in front of the palace.

Living in the shadow of this strong military presence is accepted as a way of life for most Hondurans. Following 18 years of virtually uninterrupted military rule, few now expect a lessening of the armed presence. Pressured by the Carter administration and prompted by a U.S. promise to double aid to more than $60 million in the current fiscal year and provide some $10.7 million in military assistance, the ruling junta held elections last year to reactivate the long-suspended National Assembly and

to set the stage for last month’s presidential elections. But there were few illusions that the election of centrist Liberal candidate Dr. Roberto Suazo Cordova (Maclean's, Dec. 14, 1981) would bring about the badly needed social and economic reforms. “All three parties in the elections had to agree to consult a board of generals on policy matters, if elected,” said one government official. “If the new government tries anything that the military doesn’t like, suddenly there will be a skirmish on the Nicaraguan or El Salvadoran border, and the constitution will be suspended,” he explained.

But the United States, wary of avoiding the problems brought about by its tardy involvement in Nicaragua and El Salvador, has staked a strong claim in Honduras and is attempting to avoid popular unrest by coaxing the country into social and economic change. The general election is viewed as a test of the moderate approach to political reform in Central America favored by the Reagan administration. The need for reform is obvious to even the most casual observer. The iron grip of the Honduran generals has been effective—and corrupt. “It doesn’t take much to realize that a lieutenant-colonel can’t buy a $250,000 home and a $60,000 Mercedes on a salary of $1,500 per month,” said one foreign aid official.

Land reform is perhaps the most pressing need, rhetorically addressed by the ruling bodies during the past 18 years. But there is little popular hope that the elections will bring change. Honduras is a true “banana republic”— giant U.S. banana growers control the bulk of the fertile Sula and Aguan valleys, while a small number of powerful Honduran cattle ranchers own most of the balance of the rich, arable land. Despite the inequities, protests are few

and quickly muted since the memory of atrocities that befell a group of peasant protesters a few years ago is still vivid in the minds of most. During a 1975 hunger march, as the peasants headed to Tegucigalpa from the headquarters of the National Peasants Union in Juticalpa, they were attacked by gunmen reportedly in the employ of a wealthy landowner. Five people were killed. “Peasant friends told me that another nine, including two Americans, a Spaniard and a Canadian priest, were kidnapped,” recalls Pierre Pelletier, a volunteer social worker from Longueuil, Que. “I am told the hostages were taken to a farm and put down a well while still alive. The gunmen poured lime down the well, then blew it up.”

The battered Datsun taxi is climbing past the central armory, away from the city cradled in a circle of mountains. “These shacks on the mountainside barely cling,” Pelletier explains. “In May, when the rains started, two slipped off and came down on the next one. Twenty people died.” As the road bends around a cliff, Pelletier points to the shacks, seemingly sitting on top of

each other. “From that ridge, through the valley to here, 45,000 people live. They have nothing and they give everything.”

On the other side of the city, past the Choluteca River, where peasant women wash their clothes downstream from the bridge from which passers-by toss bags of refuse, beyond the modern teachers’ college and shopping malls, a buxom woman is warmly greeted by the office workers at Aldeas-SOS administrative headquarters. Sister Pauline Armstrong from Saulnierville, N.S., came to Honduras 15 years ago. Dressed in a flowered blouse and brown slacks, she states proudly, “This is my home.” The organization for which she works is the home, too, for more than 1,500 orphaned and abandoned children.

The Honduran branch of the SOS Kinderdorff (the relief organization headquartered in Vienna) was begun in 1966 when Sister Maria Rosa convinced businessmen in Tegucigalpa to assist her in relieving the suffering of the children in jails. At the time, if parents convicted of crimes had no relatives to care for their children, the whole family went off to the squalid cells. From the 26 children freed from the cells 15 years ago, the Sociedad de Amigos de los NiñosAldeas SOS now has four villages where youngsters share houses with substitute parents.

“Many of the children come to us when the mother dies in childbirth,” Sister Armstrong explains. “For the poor Hondurans, a girl has no selfworth, and she is seen that way if she doesn’t have a baby by age 14. She is often undernourished. Most likely the girl cannot produce milk, and the baby is fed rice water—what is left after the rice is cooked. Many of them die, of course.” Across the hard red-earth playing field of the Kennedy Village, the largest SOS village in the world, the retarded children are being fed by smiling, patient young girls, orphans themselves. Some of the windows of the concrete-block row huts have been boarded over, the panes victims of children’s uncomprehending frustration.

Another taxi, once a shiny Lincoln Brougham, now a tired brush-painted yellow, heads back to the city. On the crowded streetcorners, the barefoot urchins come into view. Armstrong sighs: “We say if you come with us we will give you a home, food, an education. But they say, ‘Can we roam the streets?’ They take their freedom. Maybe in a few generations it will be different.”

The taxi clunks. A Mercedes 380 SL passes with its air-conditioned passengers; the radio blares the government slogan proclaiming uniqueness in Central America, Honduras es diferente. “Welcome to the land of peace and love.”