ESTA ES SU CASA--AUGUST 2009
My City in Ruins
What a mess! If I smiled at the coup in Honduras, world reaction was hysterical. Suddenly, Honduran “democracy” had been violated, the “legitimately elected” president must be immediately “reinstated” to his “rightful position.” It’s like Honduras was Athens and Mel Zelaya our Pericles. News to me. This is the first time I remember human rights activists so respectful of Honduran institutions rather than demanding their immediate and radical reform.
Nobody’s smiling now.
I’ve been trying for years to get some attention for Honduras. Finally everybody notices us, and world opinion is unanimous: Honduras is a joke. We’re a throwback, an anomaly, a banana republic in the 21st century, a toxic backwater. We’re Sarah Palin.
Coup, shmoo, they lanced a boil! Now they’re telling us we have to put the pus back in its sac. But I guess even when your president is behaving like Captain Queeg--”Cuarta Urna, Cuarta Urna, that’s the ticket”--Micheletti’s little mutiny is an affront; you can’t just bundle the President up and cart him off to Costa Rica in his Spiderman pajamas and not expect to pay a price. And oh man, we are paying a price! The country is split like a watermelon dropped off the roof. And lookit, the coup was to stop Mel from electing himself president-for-life, but Micheletti has been in Congress 30 years, a diputado-for-life.
I am physically sick with fear at my country in ruins, though, like the father in “Life Is Beautiful,” I assure my son Chemo that it’s all a game, so he does not see how scared I really am. Most offended are countries that already have a “president-for-life,” like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who was orchestrating Mel’s deconstruction of whatever bits of democracy Honduras did have. He is playing for keeps, but he is frustrated, too, even falling back to his default position: the CIA is behind the coup.
Oh, I hate this! I swear I cannot talk politics in these updates! I didn’t come here to be CNN. I’m just here because some first-century rabbi said sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor and then come follow me. Now I’m so confused. Just because every year since then has been numbered from his birth, that doesn’t necessarily mean he was right, does it? But where is his love? Where is his love of neighbor? Where is his love of enemies? Where is his shrinking from self-interest? I need you more than ever. My little robbery, the murder of Dr. Nelson--these local events have jumped up to a national scale. That is, if you can find them in the news anymore. When Michael Jackson died, Honduras was buried. Judging by the news coverage, Jesus is so over; the millennia will now be numbered BeforeMJ and AfterMJ....
Anyone who writes me, I try to agree with, and that’s because I’d rather have a friend than a fight. Let’s not even talk about the news media here--newspapers, TV, radio. Sold! A fog of disinformation thicker than soup. I thought I was misinformed till I saw the coverage you’re getting, including one account that referred to “ousted President Manuel Zelda.” Oy vay! I created my own fantasy world bigger than Battlestar Galactica, imagining that my friend in the State Department, Robert Schwartz, was forwarding my frantic pleas for help directly to Hillary Clinton. But, you know what, she did more for us than anyone else when she got Mel Zelaya and Roberto Micheletti, the “interim” president, to agree to talks moderated by Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias, president of Costa Rica. Of course, they didn’t even sit down together--damn that macho culture!--handing over the negotiations to “commissions” they formed, but it gave us a little hope, enough to sleep some nights, looking at our children, like Chemo, wondering if they’d ever forgive us for our “principles.”
Speaking of principals, that was the gut-wrencher for us parents: no classes. This burned my blisters. Holding kids hostage. The teachers unions--a Hydra with six heads--declared a national strike till Mel be restored. This is so ironic. We lost fifty days last year with strikes when the unions HATED Mel because thousands of teachers were unpaid. He threatened to fire them all two or three times They wanted him OUT then; now they want him back. The media are reporting helatious pay-offs to “persuade” the unions to see Mel’s point of view. I believe everything and nothing at this point. Whatever, the unions demand full compliance. In Las Vegas, where the teachers, God bless ‘em, have often quietly ignored national strikes, they’re scared to resist this “perfect storm.” Nevertheless, classes did resume here after two weeks, and they are trying to keep going, despite intense pressure to shut down. Everybody’s got a union--except kids. If we lose this school year with 4 months still to go, well, in Chemo’s case, it’ll just be about the 10th year of school he’s lost in his lifetime, since he never went to school till I adopted him.
When Mel attempted a re-entry a week after the coup with a plane and pilot borrowed from Hugo Chavez, the crowd at the airport was a powder-keg, pro and con, and Mel urged his partisans, “Please practice what I have always preached: non-violence.” (Gag me!) When he couldn’t land--the airstrip was dotted with army vehicles--he eventually buzzed off to Nicaragua, though not before at least one young protester was shot dead., Now he’s trying to Che his way back in, inciting violence and revolution, reminding us of our “constitutional right” to insurrection against an “usurper” government. That’ll work, teachers with yardsticks (and rocks) vs. the Army. Meanwhile, the “new” government is daily finding more evidence of Mel’s corruption, including unsealing indictments from a Florida court of a shake-down scheme for cellular phone rights involving millions of dollars in bribes; all the names were cronies of Mel. Mel’s chief of staff practically emptied the vaults at the national bank the day after the coup--40 million Lempiras--to spread the wealth around among any likely defectors. They caught that on tape! Then they noticed that no drug planes had been crashing since Mel left; these little prop planes, mostly from Venezuela--Hugo Chavez again!--were crashing at the rate of about one a week, overloaded with drugs or cash, leading to calculations that for every one that crashed--and I saw one myself, still smoldering, right by the side of the road when I last went to San Pedro Sula before the present crisis--at least a dozen were getting through, sailing the trade winds from south to north and right into your neighborhood. Now, such corruption could no doubt be found with any Honduran president--including the present one! (After all, SOMEBODY is paying for the tens of thousands of white tee-shirts that the marchers for “Peace and Democracy” are wearing. And I just found out that Micheletti owns all the Burger Kings in Honduras.) It’s just that this time the “authorities” have the leisure of unimpeded investigation.
On Friday, June 24, Mel thought he was Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, as he stepped into Honduras across the Nicaragua border. More like Sid Caesar in a pratfall--or Frank Burns in that “MASH” episode, taunting Hawkeye: “See, I can step in, I can step out, nyaah, nyaah.” The poor guy, he just wants to see his family, who have been under watch ever since his ouster. He supposed the Army would run to embrace him as their Fearless Leader, but the troops just stayed put. In fact, they even stepped back some 50 yards, under orders to avoid any confrontation. Some rumors say their loyalty is also being purchased at a pretty price. It is a special disgrace to test the conscience of a soldier. Even John the Baptist was gentle: “Just don’t scare people, and be content with your pay.” Both “presidents” have much to answer for.
Oscar Arias presented a beautiful Peace Plan of 12 points (sort of a 12-step recovery program for those drunk on power), and the world is praying for its acceptance. It would return Mel to the presidency but with his...wings clipped. The same Head of State, but in a smaller hat. As of this writing, Mel’s border pantomime continues; now he’s talking about forming “militias” and hiding in the hills to plan raids like Tom Sawyer’s Gang. He’s managed to insult Hillary Clinton, who wants to see him in Washington: “If she wants to talk to me, she can send someone here.” Used to be when someone offends a lady, you’d punch them in the nose. Let’s see if Obama in his “mom jeans” steps up to the plate. Meanwhile, the State Department is upping the pressure on Micheletti, cutting millions in aid, shutting down the U.S. military base here, and revoking diplomatic visas. Micheletti says, “That’s fine, we’re not going to Disney World anyway.” (I’m paraphrasing.) As my friend Elvis says, “Like talking to a rock.” Yet, Obama’s celebrated “cool” may save the day--nothing extreme, just playing out the line till the big fish bites. I hope it’s soon.
When Norman Mailer searched for a metaphor to describe the Vietnam war, he turned to the strongest language he could find: “We are burning the body of Christ in Vietnam.” Today, may I say, Honduras is crucified between two thieves. Pray for our rising.
There are signs of hope. As poet Anne Sexton once wrote, “I eat it like bread.”
Our neighbor Marito returned after nine months in San Felipe Hospital in Tegucigalpa, recovering from some weird stroke that turned his muscles to jelly. His homecoming--along with his mother Ana, who stayed with him the entire time--was treated like a re-brith. He still does physical therapy, but it is a miracle to see him walking and talking like a kid again.
We celebrated the “regular” birthdays I guess you could call them of little Miguel Angel and his big brother Juan Jose, sons of Maricela and Juan Blas. Their birthdays fall in the same week, so one year we celebrate one, the next year the other. So far, they have not gone on strike protesting a “birthday-cake gap.”
Everyday on my way to Jacinto’s store to get the day’s “menu” for our spaghetti dinners, I pass the house of one of the poorest ladies in town, Ines, who’s taking care of two tiny grandkids, Jefferson and Helen. I thought they were twins for the longest time. They’re not even siblings! Anyway, I get them a little treat at Jacinto’s every day--a juice, some rolls, a bag of chips, cookies--and drop it off as I walk back. Very soon we are going to give them a birthday party, another twofer, OK? but one of Carolina’s enormous cakes is bigger than both of them.
When Pablo Medina, 50, suddenly died--and he died during an operation in El Progreso, another sign of how fortunate Chemo was to get world-class doctors for his open-heart surgery--we of course were stunned and saddened. But his funeral gave our community an opportunity to gather as one, forgetting any divisions between “Melistas” and “Michelettistas.” Pablo was the sweetest guy, just as humble as milk; a delegado (lay minister), he dedicated his life to the education of the poorest of the poor, the remnants of Indian tribes scattered in the mountains. One of his friends called him the “Apostle to the Poor.” That’s a title even his namesake, the apostle St. Paul, would have coveted.
When I heard that Mel’s partisans were blocking access to hospitals in Tegucigalpa--that’s a winning tactic, huh? sacrificing the sick on the altar of your arrogance--I called Ron Roll of Helping Hands because I knew another Brigada of heart surgeons was supposed to be in town, and he had urged Chemo and me to come for a little show-and-tell. I guess even these protesters’ conscience was pricked, because, said Ron, “Oh, it’s nothing, we just walked right in.” So I said to Chemo, “We’re going to Tegus!” I figured if these wonderful doctors and nurses could brave the crisis, leaving behind their own families, their own children, in the United States, to come for the poor kids of Honduras, we could be brave, too. Lord knows, I would never endanger Chemo, but it seemed somehow reasonable. He’d miss school, but we had to go.
And we went, Monday, July 27, our first venture into the belly of the beast since the crisis began. It was an ugly arriving--burning tires, hateful graffiti, crowds of marchers, streets blocked. I thought, O my God, what have I done? We entrusted ourselves to our favorite taxi driver, Roberto, who always meets the bus from Victoria; it took him an hour and a half (for a trip that usually takes twenty minutes), but he got us to the Nanking Hotel, weaving his way through every back street and cut-off and alley to Angelica’s waiting arms by her candy stand in front of the Hotel. I gave Roberto more than twice what he asked for, acknowledging that no one else would have risked so much for us.
When I called Elio and Mema, another blessed surprise. They invited us to the Catholic Women’s League meeting that evening at the Maya Hotel, just a few blocks from the Nanking. These monthly meetings are open to the public, and they get the best speakers around, this time Jorge Prado from Guatemala. His theme, tempered for the times, was reconciliation and it had us all in tears--even Chemo, who, incredibly, paid attention to every word, and clapped along with the songs (and made short work of the snacks provided as well!). He had all these very proper ladies--and their husbands--holding hands, holding shoulders, and praying deep for peace, our eyes closed and hearts poured out.
You see? There was the love we were looking for. And it primed the pump for the next day, when we went to Seguros Hospital to meet the Brigada. You know what? There IS a union for kids, and his name is Ron Roll. In his unique and altogether lovable blend of English and Spanish, Ron bursts out as soon as he sees Chemo. “Chemo! [mis-pronounced like chemo-therapy] Estás great, honey!” His wife Alba was even more excited, she grabbed everyone around and told them, “This is Chemo [she’s native Honduran, so “Shay-mo”], he was one of our first.” And you know, it struck me--he WAS a pioneer, the very first Brigada back in September. And what’s more, I realized just how special was Ron and Alba’s love; you see, Ron had told us to come about 2 in the afternoon, after the surgeons were finished for the day. Well, back in September, Chemo’s operation did not start till 2, and he was the very last child operated on. I’m thinking he was a very special add-on, as it were, thanks to Ron’s persistence. I wanted to call Ron “Honey,” too! And Dr. Karla, Chemo’s original doctor, gave him his checkup, including a fresh echocardiogram. There’s the love! There’s the kind of love that will save this country yet. And to highlight its gift even more, at least 6 other brigadas (for plastic surgery, cleft palates, burn victims, ear problems, etc.) that come every year have canceled their annual visits, thanks to the dancing monkey in a mustache (Mel) and the “Gorilla” (Micheletti), whose only surgical skills are cutting themselves a bigger piece of the pie.
I mentioned to Alba that it looks like Chemo’s sister Goya (or Rosa), 22, has the same heart ailment as Chemo, but there are no brigadas for adults; she says, “Wait right here.” She comes back with Dr. Christian (!) Gilbert, from Memphis. He says they are returning in November, and “We’ll fit her in.” Can you believe it? Matching scars!
In fact, Rosa (let me just call her Rosa from now on) was our next stop, because we had been telling Chemo’s mother Rufina for months that we would come for her birthday July 30--and we would pick up Rosa and brother Marcos on the way, in Tocoa.
On the way? Omigod! It took us eleven hours on the “express” bus, just to get to Rosa’s, where we spent the night. It’s a big, comfortable bus, but even so, I’m surprised we didn’t meet the Space Shuttle coming the other way. It’s convenient because it’s one bus all the way, and all on paved highways, but that means it’s the long way, cutting a big half-circle from Tegucigalpa and around the country, passing through virtually every major city. And that was the fear--would there be marchers blocking the roads? There were blockages, but it was for construction, though the running joke was, at every sudden stop, “Oh, no, it’s a strike!” That got old real fast....
Rosa looks sick, that sort of “traviata” look, flushed and fatal. I think in her we can see what Chemo might have looked like if he had reached her age without his operation. She was scheduled for an echocardiogram a couple times already--at a clinic two hours away in La Ceiba--but the doctor, apparently the only cardiologist within a thousand square miles, could not get there from San Pedro Sula due to strikes and marches, and he only comes on Saturdays. Do you see, dear friends, how maybe having two competing presidents is not necessarily our biggest concern here, even though it’s got the rest of the world throwing hissy fits?
The next day, Thursday, July 30, we all went to Bonito Oriental for Rufina’s birthday, that is, Chemo, his sister Rosa and her 16-month old baby Tonio, and Chemo’s little brother Marcos. Now, Marcos is still taller than Chemo, but Chemo is catching up. Since his operation, Chemo has grown a lot. Once a head taller, Marcos, 12, is just an inch or so beyond Chemo, about to turn 15.
Fidel, Rufina’s husband, was waiting for us in town. First thing we did was buy a birthday cake, and Fidel even got us a ride to the house. Now, in previous visits, we had to climb a mountain for an hour and a half to reach our destination; but they’ve moved! They live on the flat earth now, just outside of town. It’s a lovely little house, of solid concrete block, right by the river, breezy, shady, and lots of water pressure. (I took a shower--outside, mind you--that I never wanted to end.) But it doesn’t have lights--yet. Fidel’s patron, Don Cruz, 91 years old, basically got his sons to build it for them, and it’s his home, too. Two of the sons dropped by, and they are very loyal to dad. I gave Fidel some cash to expedite the installation of the electricity. But it really wasn’t much of a problem, except for going to bed at 7:30....
Rufina enjoyed her party, though she had to cook her own birthday dinner, with Rosa’s help, and Marcos and Chemo played in the river. I chatted with Don Cruz; this guy has personally lived through about half of Honduras’s history, so I asked him about the present crisis. He starts, “When I was about 14, in 1932”--Good night nurse! the man’s a Wikipedia!--”all I remember is war...and now we’re there again.” Will this ancient Moses ever get to the Promised Land?
Let’s back up. Before Chemo and I started this country-crossing crusade, there was just enough time to keep another promise I had made, to Pablito and Chepito, to visit their dad Leon again, still serving time in the Yoro Penitentiary, a year and a half after hacking at Nazario with a machete in a drunken brawl. So we went, with Irene their mom, on a Saturday. Leon seems more “at home” now, as if maybe he is actually a little reformed. He did not harp on his innocence and the injustice of it all. (Though it surely is unjust--Madoff will be out before Leon, wanna bet?) He and Irene snuck off for a conjugal visit, at least I assume it was conjugal, since they came back so fast--a conversation would have lasted longer. And then appeared the boys’ true motive for the trip; Leon gave each of them a weighted fishing net that the prisoners make to sell. It’s sad to think he bribes his own kids, though I have to say the distance between dad and sons has been good for the boys. And of course, I gave him money, more than he even asked for. I had to do that, too. You know, think of Jesus Christ, the original Half-Blood Prince--a villain to some, a sacrifice for all--so who am I to call a man a prisoner, just because he’s in a jail?
I’ll tell you who SHOULD be in jail, Levi Selly, and I don’t even know him! But I was checking my banking online one day and I saw that ol’ Levi had transferred himself almost a thousand dollars of my money! Identity theft! Can you believe it? My sister Barb always warned me, if you’re on wireless, anyone (anyone with a heart of stone) can access all your stuff. After about five hours on the phone, most of it on hold, passed from one “associate” to another till I made it all the way into the Deathly Hallows, I actually got the money back. How about that! I got a bailout! I just hope Levi Selly gave his ill-gotten gains to the poor of Honduras, because that’s where my money--which is mostly YOUR money--is supposed to go. I apologize for almost losing your donations.
I’ve had to pause my reading of the Interlinear Greek New Testament. I lost the book! I left it at a bus stop in Tocoa. Now, who’s gonna read it? I was up to Ephesians. I had just 300 more pages to go. But don’t worry, I’ve already ordered another one from Amazon.com, and it’s “New!” Even more Greek! Even more Interlinear! I guess I’ll have to internalize it till then.
Well, Rosa just got her echo--she needs a pace-maker! There was that scary word again that marked Chemo’s first report, “severa.” severe. In her case, a severe dilation of the valvular ring “mitral,” which I’ll have to look up. She looked a little scared when I told her it meant surgery, but it’s a heck of a lot easier than Chemo’s full open-heart excavation, right? I will share the results with Dr. Christian Gilbert from the Brigada, and see what he says. I don’t think any of the kids got pace-makers...he’ll have to pick one up at Radio Shack, I guess!
Rosa headed back to Tocoa, along with her husband Tonio and Marcos, who had come along to La Ceiba, and Chemo and I are on a bus to Progreso. We’ll keep a-goin’ till we finally get back home to Las Vegas....
But wherever we are, I know where the love is now--wherever YOU are.