San Pedro Sula Museum, Media, and More

San Pedro Sula    One of the adventures of organizing and traveling in other countries, especially in other languages, is that no matter how much you plan and discuss the agenda – always be ready for surprises.   Our long day in San Pedro Sula proved all of that in spades.

We began the day visiting a school where ACORN parents in the community had won a number of firsts not just in the barrio, but in the entire city.  We had managed to get internet in the school and all of the children small, green and white portable computers, which was quite amazing on many counts. Reporters and photographers from La Prensa were there to join our celebration with the students and teachers.  During the program it became clear that their next goal was to somehow spread the word, using ACORN’s help, that the ACORN parents and group wanted a bilingual volunteer from Canada, the USA or the United Kingdom, so that the children could learn English.  I thought to myself that it might be easier to fight for potable water in the school we visited in Cholomo than to throw out a net and catch a volunteer teacher, but what do I know.

Our next meeting was fascinating.  We met with the woman who had founded and continued to direct the Museum of Anthropology in the city for the last twenty-five years.  There was a moving exhibit on migrant journeys and struggles side by side with relics from Mayan temples more than a thousand years old.  The problem ACORN had embraced in partnering with the museum was how to get more children and their parents to visit, but before we could really get our arms around that problem, we found ourselves being interviewed by a journalist from Tiempo about the background and plans for ACORN’s expansion in Honduras and Latin America in general.  Once the tape recorder was shut off, she gave us excellent advice on how the Honduran pages of the ACORN International website could be useful in giving wider voice to many being stifled throughout the country.

Later, after a celebration of ACORN’s work and our great allies in government, politics and elsewhere in the city, we grabbed a cup of coffee before heading off to a radio interview.  When we arrived, we found that the radio session was actually a television interview with a nationally respected journalist for 30-minutes.  We were fishes out of water on Maya TV on a show called in English, “the end of the day.”

We breathed a sigh of relief at having survived the multi-lingual experience without damaging ACORN’s work and found there was one more short meeting to go, a meet-and-greet with an old university friend of our organizer, Suyapa Amador.  Arriving we discovered he owned and managed radio and television stations that we learned were not only in Honduras but also in Nicaragua and Peru. Luckily, no cameras were running and no tape recorders had been clicked “on,” so having dinner with the media mogul and former presidential candidate at a Denny’s across from his studio seemed almost a relief after our madcap day.


Beat Goes On But Ecuadorian Economy Reeling

DSCN1351Quito    I had not visited Ecuador for three years. I sat for hours in the sparkling new airport that opened after my last visit or more specifically in the Airport Center across the street from the actual ticket counters, security, gates and airplanes. If modern airports have become shopping malls serviced by airplanes and runways, Quito has essentially built a mall across the walkway from their airport. There’s a patio. There are plenty of chairs and free Wi-Fi. There are many worse places in the wide world to spent hours waiting for a plane.

Walking through the main streets of the city near our hotel not far from the major park and Botanical Garden, everything seemed clean and well-ordered. The coffee shops were active and on the streets people bustled along in well-turned sport coats or high heels and big leather purses. Talking to friends, colleagues, and organizers we had worked with us on campaigns either in the United States or Ecuador or both, a more unsettling picture emerges.

This is not Venezuela where food riots have become almost daily occurrences and political and social unrest is intense, but nonetheless Ecuador at all levels is feeling the pain. One former political activist we knew well from our work on field operations in the last presidential campaign in Ecuador in describing the impact of the falling price of oil, remarked that 60% of the national budget was derived from oil revenues and even as the price moves towards the $50 per barrel that is essentially breakeven in the United States, Ecuador needs the price to hit $60 to $70 because of the extra cost of bringing their crude to the market. An organizer I had worked with at Casa de Maryland, back home now and working at a governmental ministry, told us that this year the budget of her department had been cut from $20 million to $6 million. Needless to say, the impact was devastating and the layoffs severe. She was surprised to still have a job!

Many don’t! An activist we knew, was now living at home. Her brother had lost his job with the state, and her sister in another job had her hours cut in half. An old friend, comrade and former organizer who had worked with us in Florida on our Walmart campaigns a decade ago, told me when he responded to my email and arranged to meet us for breakfast at the hotel that he would do his best to make it because “he was so busy.” When we met, I asked him what kind of jobs he was handling now that were keeping him so busy. “None,” came the surprising answer from my well-connected friend. He was hustling just to keep above water. A job in another country had mysteriously fallen through a week before. When I asked after his father, an elegant and sophisticated gentlemen, whom I admired and knew well and would have thought traveled smoothly in the upper class of the country, I learned he was also now unemployed and in danger of losing his home.

I worried that our members, many of whom depended on the “bono” or basic, cash welfare assistance that President Correa had raised unilaterally in the previous political campaign, might have seen that cutback. The answer from everyone we talked to was, “Not yet,” which was hardly reassuring. Higher oil prices had led to more robust economic projects, expanded public programs and public employment, and increased debt for Ecuador, both externally and internally. Like any bubble of sorts, the country, like Venezuela and smaller states like Louisiana, was caught still standing when the music stopped and everyone raised for a chair.

After the encouraging gains in many Andean countries where recent economic growth in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia had lifted education, citizen wealth, health, and living standards, one gets the sense that this is unraveling in a case study of what globalization gives, it then takes away. We met with two young doctors. They were originally from Honduras, but had trained for seven years in the vaunted Cuban healthcare system. They wanted to practice in rural areas where the need was greatest, but Honduras had no government program to support their work, so then ended up in Ecuador about 4 hours by bus from Quito. I asked them to rank the healthcare systems they knew and how the economic situation was impacting healthcare. Not surprisingly, they said of the three, Cuba was first, Honduras last, and Ecuador in-between. As for the economy, they were still getting paid, so at least that was something they said, but they could already see shortages starting to show up in medicine supplies.

Being forced to root for the price of a barrel of oil to go up just about says it all about the unsustainable economy we have built in the world.