A friend sent me an article this week that talked about the vast majority of Hondurans living in “abject poverty." It struck me that while it’s true that millions of people here lack worldly goods, secure incomes and money, it’s simplistic and even insulting to portray their lives as one of abject poverty. I don’t know how they manage with so few resources, but they do. There is much to be admired in people who can take a small plot of land and feed themselves and their families, and who keep moving forward despite being constantly beset by new problems. While I’ll certainly never use the phrase “poor but happy” again or romanticize a simple life off the grid, we’re not doing Hondurans any favors by painting everybody here as helpless victims living desperate lives.
That’s not to suggest we should quit paying attention to poverty reduction, or that developed countries should get a free ride on policies and practices that create and support poverty in the countries where they have commercial interests. But slapping an “abject poverty” label on the country really does a disservice to the resilient, resourceful people who have figured out how to live on scant and irregular incomes of US$150 or less a month.
As for murder, that’s a black-and-white issue until you live in a country where there’s no functional justice system. Murder is never a good way to settle scores, of course, but it does become more understandable when you think about families and towns left on their own to manage the crimes committed against them. If somebody killed one of your loved ones, for instance, what would you do if there was almost no chance that the killer would ever be arrested, tried and jailed, even in cases where everyone in town knew who did it? What might a group of subsistence farmers be capable of one night when they finally caught the thief who had been ruining their lives by stealing their cows and commercial crops?
In Canada, our police and courts take such awful decisions out of our hands and permit us to believe that “justice will prevail," with no need to take the law into our own hands. Sure, we complain about court decisions, but in general our justice system serves us quite well. Not in Honduras. The police don’t come when called, and in truth nobody really wants to call them anyway because they’re scary and unpredictable. The “bad guys” don’t get arrested very often. The courts don’t work. The prisoners essentially run the prisons. (And even that starts to make sense when you understand that if it weren't for prisoners finding ways to generate money on the inside, there’d be nobody to feed and clothe them.)
As for whether narco-traficantes are the bad guys here, I’d have to say… it’s complicated. Yes, I suspect the cocaine distribution business (Honduras is essentially the FedEx of the industry) is responsible for much of the staggering murder rate in Honduras, although there are no official numbers. Yes, the business in all likelihood has tremendous influence in the country -- as does any lucrative, job-creating industry anywhere in the world -- and is well-integrated into every level of government and public service. But looking at the issue from a purely economic viewpoint, this country would be sunk without narcos. However you feel about the product they’re moving, they create a lot of jobs.
They've got money -- to eat at restaurants, stay at hotels, shop at the malls, buy medical services and new vehicles, build nice houses. They've got money for all the things that stimulate more economic activity, which is the only thing that ever truly pulls a country out of poverty. They like real estate, and at least in Copán Ruinas are said to be responsible for much of the new construction in town. They apparently love owning dairy cattle and are among the few farmers who can actually afford good care for their cows, assuring a better supply of Honduran-produced milk and beef. They are clearly intelligent people who know how to run a business, because even while the country staggers from one crisis to the next, the cocaine keeps flowing north.
Not enough narcos understand that they could really improve their image by funding more good works in their communities, but I've heard quite a few stories of generous narcos building a new school, paving a road, coming to the rescue of villagers in financial jams. Yes, they lack a sense of proportion in settling scores and really need to get a grip on the violence in their industry, but characterizing them as hateful villains to be eradicated is gross oversimplification.
So. That’s my new world view -- shades of grey as far as the eye can see. Sometimes I long for the days when I was more certain, and question whether I’ll be certain about anything at all by the time I die if this keeps up. But I guess that’s what happens when what you used to “know” collides with what you now know first-hand. It’s complicated. (11/30/13) (photo courtesy AFP)
Note: The author is a former journalist from Canada. She currently lives in the town of Copán Ruinas, Honduras, and volunteers with Cuso International, a Canadian development agency that matches skilled professionals to organizations in developing countries. She writes a blog called A Closer Look.