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.




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