Tegucigalpa Tegucigalpa is the capital and largest city in Honduras. The political situation in the country has been fraught for years. The golispa or coup against an elected president though supported by the United States and many other countries divided the country sharply and on a continuing basis despite the protests that raged against the country over these actions.
For the more than six years of ACORN’s organizing in Honduras this has often defined the context despite the fact that we were organizing at the grassroots level in our communities and far from the nexus of power and conflict. As the organization has grown in the San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa areas, its impact on local and civic politics has grown accordingly including seeing some of our members elected to city councils, mayors and even Congressional deputies. At the same time every conversation with allies and our leadership is marked with caution over the tenuous political realities in the country. Many outside observers, including the Carter center, questioned the returns in the last presidential election, especially when there was a blackout on news and balloting for more than 30 hours after the opposition appeared to be leading in the race. But, as one expert told me, now that the ruling party has gotten past that election and has a full four-year term, it is more populist and less repressive.
For ACORN, particularly in Tegucigalpa, we have to build bridges to all parties in Congress. On a national level for years we have been campaigning for regulations on remittances in order to lower the costs of these money transfers which are so critical to families with relatives in other countries. Remittances are also a major part of the national GDP of Honduras as well. On the local level support, for projects like the rehabilitation of the state orphanage to a community and recreation center (see yesterday’s blog), the financial commitment of the national government is central.
The organization finds itself walking the political planks, needing to build bridges to all parties while protecting ourselves as nonpartisan. We sat in on a leadership meeting with the key officials and head of the Patriotic Alliance for Honduras. The meeting was a get acquainted session. Leaders outlined our views on remittances and pushed for the continued support for the redevelopment of infrastructure improvements in lower income neighborhoods. Issues involving corruption, the protection of the ballot, and the suspicion our members had for politicians in general were also freely discussed. The only commitment won was that the party leadership would visit the center site and come to meetings in the future with ACORN members to hear their concerns.
No one fell in the deep water, but everyone continued to keep their eyes on the waves.
Tegucigalpa After visiting professors and students in the communications department of UNICAH, the Catholic University of Honduras, where ACORN was seeking a partnership to help develop its social media, radio, and television capacity, we traveled with Tegucigalpa ACORN leaders to inspect a huge project that they were undertaking. We were expecting another meeting with members, but instead we found ourselves making the turn and coming to a halt in front of a huge metal gate that had to be opened for us by a security guard. After parking, we walked single file down the hill through the property with the leaders until we were overlooking a concrete soccer “field” with an ACORN symbol painted on one boundary. Where were we and what was this all about?
The leaders described the situation for us. We were on the grounds of a former orphanage that had been maintained by a department of the national government. Once the orphanage had been dissolved there had been various attempts to redevelop the property to some other uses, but each time NGO’s had tried for a year and then departed. ACORN groups had demanded restoration of the grounds as a community and recreation center, and the government had agreed. We walked through room after room of old classrooms in dilapidated condition from recent years of abandonment in this sprawling compound. Our members had cutback the overgrowth. The rooms had been opened so that we could clean up many of them in recent months.
The officials from the government arrived and walked the grounds with us. They were complimentary. Voices on all sides criticized external NGOs and their here-and-gone performance compared to ACORN’s deep roots and organization in the community. The officials repeated the government’s commitment that they would spend 2 million lempiras or about $450,000 USD on the rehabilitation with the plan to turn over management of the facilities to ACORN once finished.
Right now, the opportunity looked both exciting and overwhelming. ACORN Tegucigalpa organizer Erlyn Perez frankly summed up the members current debate about how ambitious they should be in making plans for this project. He said that some members believed that they should focus on the recreation area and rehabbing the first four rooms to usable fashion and stop there. Others believed we should do even more and push for development of the whole project. The debate was realistic and important. How much can a direct action, multi-issued community organization really take on, before the project consumes and overwhelms the organization itself and its mission?
We next visited a community center elsewhere in the district that our members had prioritized to push for rehab. It was one large room under an open-sided roof. The members had done much of the work. The tile floor was better constructed than any of our homes would have been. Here there was satisfaction and agreement on the measure of the organization’s ambition and its achievement.
The questions being asked by these leaders and members is at the heart of community organizing especially when our work crosses into community development. How will the Tegucigalpa members not let such victories hold within themselves the seeds of future defeat or loss of focus? The fact that the organization recognizes the risks puts them way ahead of many others faced with the same questions.