Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The First Ever Presidential Visit to La Union

It was a day of interesting images, ideas, and opinions. Pepe Lobo came to town today, marking it the first time a serving President of Honduras has visited La Union. Instead of beginning my workday at 9:00AM, the town anxiously awaited outside my front door, and there was no way I would let this culturally fascinating event slip through my fingers. And so I ventured out in search of images.

Two hours prior to the President’s arrival, the town was already flooded with villagers from the La Union municipality to the neighboring Iguala, Lepaera, and San Rafael municipalities. Hundreds of people had arrived to receive bonos, essentially 10,000 Lempira ($530) handouts, an annual bailout program for farming families. Others had come to simply see what was going on. However, many of the people I spoke to leading up to the President’s visit were not excited for his arrival.

It was tremendous how little interest there was in seeing and listening to the President speak. Certainly, much of this disinterest came from members of the Liberal party (Pepe Lobo is a Nationalist,) but I would imagine that Presidential visits to La Union is a once in a lifetime thing. More often than not, the reason was that many people did not want to be lured into the sweet-sounding promises being offered only to continue waiting to see them unrealized.

Besides people flooding the streets, a huge dark-green covered truck carrying soldiers unloaded itself outside the municipal office and took to the streets with huge automatic rifles. Of course the police had made their presence clear, but I had never seen, nor will I ever see again the military roll through these streets. Believe it or not, the General of the Armed Forces (the equivalent of a Petraeus) wandered about preparing for the President’s arrival.

I walked around some more, more buses and pickups arrived bringing people from neighboring aldeas. I ran into Ever, Vida Abundante’s radio host and perhaps future pastor-to-be, and little did I know he would be leading the presidential ceremony. Because I did not know he was busy in his preparation, I had him try to convince a soldier to let me pose in a picture with him. No dice.

The clock neared eleven, the hour of the President’s arrival, so I took our new gringo, Carlitos, and walked to the soccer field where the President would be landing in his helicopter. I took a seat on a bench on the side of the soccer field and some kids approached me who I quickly recognized from one day when I had bathed in the Las Playas river. A few other local friends of mine arrived, and looking around me, I noticed much of the village had shown up to greet the President. As kids attempted to continue their soccer game, a soldier stood inches away watching the kids play as he held tight to his automatic weapon. I enjoyed this sight. Soon after the military men took to the field (who were comically ordered to clean the field of garbage) along with other pistol packing secret service, a light came flying towards us.

The first helicopter to arrive unloaded some congressmen, the mayor greeted them, and everyone awaited the second, more important helicopter. Before it showed, the military threw a yellow smoking flare on the ground to signal to the second helicopter where it should land. As I stood there snapping photos of the arriving helicopter, we were all blown away by the strong gusts of wind it created, blowing dirt and dust from the soccer field into our faces.

When the dust settled, out popped Pepe Lobo, Samuel Reyes (Vice President, also La Union native,) the Minister of Education, and last but not least the Ambassador of Taiwan. The entourage, being escorted by senior military officials, began greeting the villagers, exclaiming how great the mountain climate was, as several journalists began snapping photos. Carlitos and I were invited to pose with the President, but I politely declined due to the fact that this was a day for the villagers, and not for outsider gringos. I had barely lived here a year, while the rest of the villagers had spent their entire lives awaiting political help from Tegucigalpa.

Slowly, the politicians made their way to a four SUV motorcade which headed towards a makeshift stage set up in front of the mayor’s house on the steps of the computer center. The people who had gathered at the soccer field followed suit and formed a long procession. The President stopped at the Vice President’s house, a few doors down from Manuel and Mirsa’s pulperia, before continuing with the motorcade.

The ceremony began. Young students from the bilingual school led the national anthem, an anthem only known by two-thirds of the population. Ever valiantly emceed the event. He introduced the Catholic pastor, elegantly dressed in religious wardrobe, who shared a few words asking the President for money to finish constructing a monumental tower. Pastor Wilson, dressed handsomely, shared brief words with the President and community members. The mayor, Don Miguel Reyes, followed and welcomed each visitor. The mayor of Iguala also shared his appreciation of the visit. The Minister of Education gave a talk on the importance of milk, as a mother standing to my right nursed her two-year-old with a plastic bottle of Coca-Cola (to me, a very interesting symbol of Americanism.) Samuel Reyes, one of the three national Vice Presidents, made a few remarks and presented a symbolic street lamp to Don Miguel to represent the 150 street lamps that would be installed throughout the municipality.

Somewhere in the midst of speech giving and political promises, the Ambassador of Taiwan arose, bowed, and proceeded to the podium to deliver a Spanish speech in an Asian accent (think puebro [pueblo]). He was introduced as the Ambassador of China-Taiwan, a highly interesting remark that showed Honduras’ alliance with Chinese expansionism. Also interesting was the fact that the Ambassador received the greatest applause of the day when he joked that they ought to move his embassy to the beautiful mountain climate of La Union. His sheer presence at the event was highly unusual and curious.

Finally, Pepe Lobo approached the podium, but before continuing remembered a small dish of candy purposefully put on the table to give out to a few front-row kids. It was surreal to watch the President deliver his address. Certainly, I did not feel I was in the presence of some powerful leader, for essentially Honduras is like Tennessee attempting to become a nation with its own national government and military, there’s just not enough resources to do it well. The scale of the country relative to many large developed countries makes watching politics, nationalism, the economy, public education, very interesting. I often wonder how effective it is to have all these tiny Central American countries, or whether it would make more sense for a reunited Central American Republic/Federation as it once was.

To close the ceremony, a young girl delivered a letter to the President asking for games and school supplies for her kindergarten. An older bilingual school student, delivered a poem on matricide and socioeconomic issues. When all was finished and details were shared on the distribution of the bonos, my gringo posse left for lunch. It was 2:00PM and we had yet to eat so we headed for the comedor. After we had ordered our food, we heard the helicopter taking off and decided to head to the soccer field which was very close to where we were eating. The blades twirled around and lifted the helicopter off the ground.

Tilting forwards, the helicopter quickly approached Mike and I bringing a trail of wind behind the giant hunk of metal. Mike says he claimed he saw Samuel Reyes waving to him through the window. Despite the oncoming collision, we both just stood their as the copter passed a few feet over our heads on its way out of La Union, beginning to snake it’s way through mountain crevices. To think, these high level politicians pausing for a second in La Union to put a band-aid on rural poverty leaving with the image of gringos as their last sight in La Union; gringos, who contrary to these senior politicians are seeking sustainable change by staying put on the ground for an indefinite amount of time, instead of seeking a quick fix.



Monday, October 11, 2010

UMF State-Side

You have heard many posts on the work of Union MicroFinanza (UMF) in Honduras. But, what does UMF do in the US? What are its day to day operations and how does it coordinate with the team in Honduras?

In the US, UMF is supported by a broad network of dedicated supporters. These supporters give their time, finances and expertise to progress the work of the organization. From lawyers, to businessmen, to pastors, and professors, these people are part of a strong foundation that continues to build resources so that UMF can create prosperity for the farmers in Honduras. UMF employees in the US work with these people daily to coordinate their efforts into success on the ground in Honduras.

One of the main tasks of UMF employees in the US is the marketing of Honduran coffee. As many of you know, UMF purchases this coffee from its farmers at above fair trade value, ships it to the US and then works to find a market for it. All proceeds from the coffee then go back to the organization to fund microloans and the agricultural training that UMF provides. UMF believes that to break the cycle of poverty and create a cycle of prosperity, it is vitally important to open new markets for our farmers.

The coffee effort has been growing steadily and surely. From churches to farmers markets, to restaurants, roasters and businesses, the coffee is finding consumers that love the taste of the coffee and the message it stands for.

With many of the groups and individuals that are a part of the organization, UMF also coordinates trips to Honduras. This gives people a chance to see first hand the farmers they are support and how the coffee they drink is produced. Trips are an important piece of what UMF does because it connects those in the states directly with the people and work in Honduras. No amount of pictures, presentations and explaining can make up for a trip to Honduras. All who go are profoundly changed. Employees in the US spend time coordinating these trips.

Well there is a small glimpse of UMF in the states. Thank you to all who have been part of the journey and welcome those of you who are newcomers.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Rushing Good Things

There once was a wise young man, who said “You can’t rush a good thing.” Many who read this blog post will recognize those famous words and wonder how this fine young chap is getting along working for General Mills in Memphis, Tennessee. While I hope he is doing well, I can’t help but remember these words and how well they relate to our current story, here in La Union.

We set out more than one year ago to bring microfinance to La Union. In the process, we’ve pushed farmers to grow crops organically, we’ve encouraged vegetable growers to sell goods in a local farmer’s market, we’ve dealt with American and Honduran governments who had yet seen a holistic approach to rural third-world economic development, we’ve empowered local leaders and sought out new ones, we’ve challenged traditional farming methods, we’ve attempted to become masters of law, accounting, marketing, microfinance, and continue to strive for sustained change. The change we seek will increase incomes, here in La Union.

There have been organizations here before us. Many of them have failed and as a result created tremendous distrust throughout the aldeas; from the women of Gualciras to the men of Chimisal. We want to be the first organization with a sustained presence, and we want to help people, regardless of what church they belong to, regardless of what political party they vote for. I am fully aware we are shooting for new and different, better and bolder, here in La Union.

I don’t expect farmers to change their ways overnight, I don’t expect the Honduran government to allow us to stomp over decades of tradition, and I don’t expect that self-sustainable microfinance operated and directed by Hondurans will be up and running tomorrow. However, many people have responded positively to our efforts. Speaking this morning with Patrick, Mike, Gilberto, and Martir, it is clear we have come a long way; there are still miles to go. The change we seek is to improve living conditions, to make La Union’s residents healthier, more educated, and more confident that better things are attainable for themselves and their children. BUT, like the friend I met the first time I came down to this mountain municipality said, you can’t rush a good thing. To amend his quote, I would say that while you can’t rush a good thing, you mustn’t wait too long and hope for change through inaction. Slowly, change will come to the people, here in La Union.

Daniel Schwartz

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Beans Part I (aka. The Harvest is Here)

The highlight of my day today was beans. I was sitting on the porch taking care of a few things when Martir came up on the motorcycle, with a bunch of bean plants slung over his shoulder. Turns out these weren’t just any beans, though; we had our normal payment and training meeting in Chimisal today, and they were beans given to us by Dolores Rodriguez of Chimisal.

These were the beans from her family’s frijolar (bean field). She had harvested these beans earlier this week, beans which were grown only thanks to a loan from UMF. She was so excited about her harvest, she sent Martir and Gilberto home with as many beans as they could carry as a way to say ‘thanks’ to UMF.

So, from Dolores of Chimisal, thanks to everybody who has helped UMF make this happen. Until next time, adios.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Should I Put Honduran Coffee in My Gas Tank?

(by the dawns early light, what so proudly we hailed) (Zingerman's Loading Dock)

This is the Mazda MX6. Do not be deceived by her small appearance and customary looks, inside she is beaming with personality. Let's take a look. A model office, coffee delivery system, wardrobe, and gym, her capabilities are unfathomable. During this particular road trip she carried 300 lbs of green coffee in the trunk, 100 lbs or regular and ground in the back seat, office supplies, tennis rackets, and clothes for 10 days. Starting out in Macomb County (Northeast Detroit), at 4:00am on a Monday, we traveled for 10 days to Muskegon, Saugatuck, back to Muskegon, Holland, Ann Arbor and finally back to Macomb. Great times! The mx6 is fortunate enough to have never driven in the winter. However, coming this December, I think she will have to eat some flakes. Send a prayer her way if you think of it. She is getting a little puttsie. The thought crossed my mind to brew a little microloan coffee and put it in the gas tank. Something tells me that this was very early morning delirium and probably wouldn't work as well as I think.

(The Office) (Green Coffee Delivery)

Well, her is my advice to you this morning as you are headed off to wherever. Listen to "On the Road Again" by Willie Nelson and sip on a hot cup of some delicious Honduran Microloan Coffee. If you don't have some, you really should consider it. Order at Who knows the famous Mazda MX6 may show up at your door, if your lucky.