Indifference and Hondurans
Originally published on 29 Jan 2020
This week on Facebook, in addition to enjoying peoples’ vacation photos and nature photos, I have been following the impeachment and also noticing posts about Holocaust Remembrance Day.
One of the Holocaust posts reminded us of a ship full of Jewish refugees who were turned away at the U.S. port of entry and who ended up back in Germany. What level of complicity did ordinary U.S. citizens of the time share in allowing this to happen? Did they even know? The U.S. did not enter the war until December of 1941, well after people here were aware that Hitler’s Reich was actively oppressing Jews and others, and Roosevelt didn’t go to war in 1941 to save Jewish people from death camps any more than Lincoln went to war in 1861 to stop slavery. I am afraid that there was a general indifference to the what was being done to different-looking people far away.
My question is about where this type of indifference resides in today’s populace, and more specifically in my own heart. Am I indifferent to the effects of genocide and centuries of awful treatment on Native people in the U.S.? Am I indifferent to the effects of poverty, addiction, lack of health care, and class warfare on millions of poor people in U.S. cities and rural areas? Am I indifferent to what is being done to the Uighir people in western China? And what about the people I don’t even know about? Can I be indifferent through ignorance?
I might be occasionally aware of injustices that are happening on a grand scale, but that awareness can be overwhelming, and so I shrink from any responsibility or action, and my complicity continues. It is hard to care enough about something that is far away and not personal. It is also hard to care about everything all at once. I choose what I care about and what I have to let go. I think humans are wired for personal relationships on a small scale. A problem is that “the news” is impersonal and large scale, and it leaves me feeling powerless, overwhelmed, and defeated.
For the past few years we have been hearing in the news about Central American migrants. Children in cages. Children being used by their parents to gain entry and seek asylum in the U.S. Caravans of people walking through Mexico. This “news” is alarming for people on both sides of the issue. It is also numbing, impersonal, and overwhelming.
In my recent trip to Honduras, I thought about the importance of specific and personal relationships to jar me out of my indifference and ignorance.
With regard to the question of “why don’t people just come legally?” I met a man who is married to U.S. citizen and has three children with her. It has been several years, thousands of dollars, and a literal mountain of documents, and he was recently told that although he finally has qualified for a green card, there are a limited number of spots and he would have to enter a lottery of other similarly qualified people (by the way, this week Trump’s Supreme Court upheld the “means test” for green card applications, making it even harder for legal immigration). This is a family that is being forced to live in Honduras in order to stay together. His is not the only story I heard of “legal immigration” being unnecessarily stalled or complicated or costly or impossible.
“Why are they leaving?” is another question. The answer is complicated. One answer is extreme poverty. I spoke on the phone to the grandson of one of my Honduran friends. He was in Atlanta, struggling to find work and send money back to Honduras from the U.S. If he still lived in his village, during the coffee harvest season (2–3 months) he could pick coffee to earn money. A good coffee picker could earn 100 to 150 Lempiras per day, which is $4-$6. When there is no coffee harvest, there is no paid work at all in his village. If you own some land and have your own coffee, things are not much better. The coffee prices have been hovering between very low and extremely low for the last ten years. In 2019, after the expenses for picking, processing, and fertilizing were taken into account, many coffee farmers lost money or barely broke even on their crop.
“If poverty in the rural areas is so bad, why don’t they move to the cities and get jobs?” I spoke with friends in Honduras who have done just that. One worked for a while at a “maquiladora” factory. These are factories set up in special economic zones which allow the employers to avoid some Honduran labor laws. The North Coast on Honduras is littered with the zones, and garment makers from the U.S., Taiwan, and Korea have come to Honduras to assemble clothing for the world market. The workers are paid little, and worked very long hours, often without adequate bathroom breaks. Repetitive stress injuries are common. When there is a push to complete orders, people are required to stay late. Workers are fired and black-balled for small offenses, and they are expressly prohibited from organizing. This system functions because these workers have nowhere else to go. If our immigration rules were different, it would put pressure on these “race to the bottom” employers to improve pay or conditions, but instead our government colludes with them and we enjoy garment prices that are similar to what we used to pay in the 1980's.
Another friend works in a call center in a city in Honduras. The bosses of this call center are in Florida, and they contract with the U.S. government to give technical support to “Obamaphone” recipients. Basically people who are on assistance call up when their government-issued phone runs out of minutes. My friend can’t really do much because usually it is their own fault and they just need to buy more minutes. Since she can’t help, she gets yelled at and verbally abused by many callers. People are also mad that she has an accent. Her work environment means that she has to keep calls short, but can’t hang up on the callers. It is an impossible situation made worse by substandard software. In addition, like in the maquiladoras, workers are often fired for minor violations of policy, which helps keep everyone in line. This is a “good job” that she has because she can speak English, but even so, the pay is well-below US minimum wage. She is also studying to be an electrical/mechanical engineer. But when she completes her studies, the likelihood of finding a decent job in her field in Honduras is low. There are many over-educated Hondurans looking for jobs.
The cities in Honduras are not a very good solution to rural poverty for another reason. There are gangs (that started in the USA) that have become entrenched in the major cities. These gangs have territories where anyone who has any sort of business is obliged to pay protection money. Cabs, buses, corner stores, anyone. The gangs are watching, and if you are receiving an income, they want their cut. The gangs will threaten death to you and your family if you don’t pay. These are not idle threats. It has an extremely stifling effect on the economic life of a city. The gangs operate with impunity because the police of Honduras are underpaid and assumed to be corrupt. The corruption goes all the way to the top. Mayors, congress people, and the president are all assumed to be skimming what they can from their “public service.” The USA helped create this situation. First, there are decades of US policy which has favored authoritarians in Central America who protect US corporate interests (mining, bananas, etc). Second, our policies of supporting dictators in wars in the 80’s and 90’s created a mass exodus, which led to millions of poor Central Americans in poor neighborhoods of the US, who formed gangs for self-protection. Then, since 2000, our policy has been to immediately deport anyone of questionable status who commits a crime. Now we wonder why Los Angeles gangs control all of the major cities of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Also, any chance that Honduras might have once had of building an economy based on tourism has been destroyed by the growth of these violent gangs.
Poverty, fear, and lack of opportunities drive many people to try to leave Honduras. We spoke with one woman who broke down crying because her daughter had left with her granddaughter to try to make it to the USA. Her daughter is a teacher and had been teaching at the woman’s kindergarten. Now she hasn’t heard from her daughter and she doesn’t know who will help teach in the kindergarten. We learned that people pay thousands of dollars to “coyotes” who sometimes end up robbing them and leaving them in the desert. It is terrifying for everyone involved. We didn’t have any words to console this woman.
Once people make it to the USA, their life is not all set up for them. To be undocumented in the USA is to be part of a permanent underclass without any rights. Undocumented workers are underpaid and exploited. The fact that employers can hire them under the table means that it has the effect of driving down wages and working conditions for everyone in the USA. If there were a pathway for legal immigration and citizenship for all of these people, it would force employers to pay people at least minimum wage and meet basic safety standards, but as long as USA employers have a fearful, captive, cheap labor force, they won’t need to pay more or improve conditions.
One of the ironies of our policy towards Honduras, is that our free trade agenda over the past 25 years has undermined many of the things that Honduran people used to do to earn a living. Basic grains like corn, beans, and rice are cheaper to buy on the international market than produce in the labor intensive way that has been the practice for thousands of years in Central America. Aside from the maquiladoras, the clothing and shoe-making artisanal industry has essentially disappeared — driven out by give-away surplus clothing and shoes from the USA. Free trade, without protections for the environment and workers, has been a disaster.
The icing on the cake is climate change. The average rural Honduran has a minimal carbon footprint. They have no car, do not heat or cool their house, and grow much of their own food. Yet the impacts of climate change (caused largely by the developed world) are being felt right now in rural Honduras. Droughts and floods are more common and worse than they used to be. Pests and diseases are also made worse by the warming temperatures. Harvest times and cycles are off.
The end result is a violent country with entrenched poverty and corruption. There are low wages and low prices for agricultural goods. International companies take advantage of the low labor costs to make clothes, grow shrimp (which also destroys mangroves), mine for minerals, cut timber, and purchase cheap agricultural produce and coffee. Our immigration policies, our trade policies, our environmental policies, and our military policies have contributed to the reality that the people of Central America are a massive, captive, terrorized, underpaid labor force. We each benefit from this and we are each complicit in the continued devastation of the beautiful country that is Honduras.
Despite all of this, the people I met in Honduras are generous, loving, and hard-working. The antidote to overwhelm and the tendency towards indifference is to find ways to connect to individual people. This makes it real. Just listening to stories is an act of solidarity. Then taking individual action might be the next step. Then joining in collective action could be a further step.
Get to know real people from Central America. Go beyond the news. Pay a fair price for your coffee. Think twice before giving clothing and shoes to Goodwill. Avoid eating farmed shrimp. Avoid palm oil. Elect politicians who favor a path to citizenship and who push for the right kind of aid to Central American countries. Stop climate change!