Hurricane ‘Mob’
Roatanians React to Increase in Energy Prices by Paralyzing the Entire Island for three days. Two Cruise Ships Cancel their Visit.

November 1st, 2008
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private]

Protesters prepare their weapons for a confrontation with the police.

Protesters prepare their weapons for a confrontation with the police.

The greatest damage to Roatan’s 2008 Cruise Ship season didn’t come from a meteorological event or a world financial crisis, but from the island’s own residents.

The protests were predictable. Last time RECO tried to pass a fuel surcharge increase in 2004, rioters took over the streets as well. There was no reason to expect things would be any different when RECO hiked the fuel surcharge from Lps. 0.88 Lps/KW to Lps. 1.92/KW in September and again to Lps. 3.89/KW in October. The entire energy price hike went from 3.84/KW to 7.01/KW, an increase of 82%.

Things happened as they usually do: Nobody did their jobs like they were supposed to. RECO failed to convincingly communicate the increased fuel surcharge and timed it during the hottest time of the year; municipal government failed to anticipate the reaction of the island community to the fuel increase; Patronato presidents lost control of the community which elected them; disgruntled masses assumed that authorities wouldn’t listen unless they took over the streets; Municipal police were absent from key barricades and confrontation points; Preventiva police let the mob rule the streets of the entire island; businesses continued to sell alcohol to protesters.

As a consequence of this, two cruise ships were cancelled and damage to Roatan’s economy acquired an international context. Norwegian Pearl, on its first scheduled visit to the island, and Carnival Valor were cancelled.

According to Romeo Silvestri, vice-president of the CANATURH-BI, authorities tried to tell the cruise lines that the unscheduled cancellation of the Roatan stop was “weather related.” But anybody with internet access knew the gravity of the situation of an island under siege. The US embassy in Tegucigalpa and the US State Department posted travel warnings regarding travel to Roatan and “possible anti-American sentiment.” The warning read: “The Embassy received a report of a threat of violence directed towards an American trying to pass through a checkpoint. The Embassy strongly recommends U.S. citizens to remain in their homes and not try to pass roadblocks, as there have been incidents of violence in the past. U.S. citizens should avoid travel in affected areas.”

The mixture of drunk and angry youth and lack of police presence indeed produced confrontations and violence. A vehicle trying to cross a barricade in Flowers Bay was tipped over. Five tourists walking the 11 kilometers from West End to Roatan Airport to make their flight home were assaulted and robbed. Christian Vogel, a German investor, was attacked by three demonstrators as he tried to deny them access to use his French Harbour property for a barricade. “I was hit in the head and kicked,” said Vogel, who went to police for help but says that he received no help.

Martin Gunterson described an episode in Los Fuertes on a Roatan chat group: “A crowd of about 50 closed in around us, I was pushed off the motorcycle, which fell to the ground, and was tossed around for a bit with my arms pinned behind me. There was significant anger…” Gunterson remained unfazed by the confrontation, however, and put it in perspective: “I do not feel that the island is unsafe for normal visitor activities.”

During the three days of disturbances only one arrest was made, and it wasn’t even a demonstrator. Don Goin, an American developer, was arrested after he tried to go through a barricade with his vehicle and, according to police officials, injured two demonstrators.

“We hadn’t done anything because we hoped that there would be a peaceful resolution to this conflict,” said Hector Rodriguez, National Chief of Tourist Police sent to the island by Minister of Tourism. On October 14 a chartered flight brought in 80 police officers from Tegucigalpa. As Galaxy Wave, Roatan’s only passenger ferry to the mainland, went for repair in La Ceiba, the only way of getting to the island was via air. A cold front in the Bay of Honduras dropped buckets of rain during the three day protests, causing mudslides all over the island.

Authorities knew about the October 13 protest, but failed to anticipate and prepare for what could happen. Fliers had been distributed in neighborhoods calling for a demonstration in front of RECO. “Leaders are elected to be pro-active, not reactive, to anticipate problems before they happen,” said Shawn Hyde.

“Where are the police? We have a lack of enforcement,” asked Bonnie Jackson, a manager of Texaco gas station in Los Fuertes. While enforcing might lead to confrontations with the protestors, at least the presence of police would have reassured citizens and business owners that someone could intervene if things got out of hand.

Local government and police authorities seemed to be caught by surprise. “We’ve had three groups of Municipal Police: one at cruise ship dock, one by the triangulo and one by the airport,” said Mayor Jackson. Mayor Jackson stated that Municipal Police was in Los Fuertes through the riots. The reality, however, was quite different, as no Municipal police were present on October 14 and 15, at the height of the protests when mobs ruled the streets and citizens were left to fend for themselves.

“I’d seen them [Municipal Police] here on Monday, but not on Tuesday or Wednesday,” said Cruz, owner of the Los Fuertes Sub Brand Boutique, who with another five Los Fuertes families provided free meals to the protesters.

According to Joe Solomon, Chief of the Roatan Municipal Police, his force stayed protecting the Municipal building as rumors of the protesters taking the building spread. Municipal Police who’s motto is “to protect and serve,” was busy listening to rumors and protecting municipal property. “They [protesters] didn’t let us pass,” said Chief Solomon, about the police’s efforts to reach Los Fuertes.

Price of bringing Municipal police to areas where confrontations were taking place would have been politically risky. Roatan’s Mayor Jackson is running for reelection and he cannot afford to alienate the Spanish voters that he has courted for the past three years. Conceivably, all the good sentiment Mayor Jackson has gained through paving of streets in working class neighborhoods could be erased in one go if he were perceived to be confrontational with the protesters. “It’s a political year and no one wants to step on any toes,” said Bonnie Jackson, a family relative of Mayor Jackson. Mayor Jackson not only did not anticipate the disturbances, prepare for them, he left Roatanins to fen for themselves.

Taking political advantage of the riots were lesser known political figures running for internal mayoral elections on November 18. Will Mejilla, a Liberal party candidate, Victor Rivera and Hernan Acosta, both National party candidates, all took part in agitating the protesters.

While Tourist Police Chief Rodriguez assured that sales of alcohol had been suspended by mid day on October 15, no one seemed to have told the owner of Texaco station. Just a few hundred feet away from barricades, Texaco in Los Fuertes did little sales in petrol but made up some of that by selling liters of Rum, from morning until 5pm. Protesters were drinking alcohol all day long and smoking marijuana in public. Mob mentality took over the streets.

A barricade in Los Fuertes cut the island in two halves.

A barricade in Los Fuertes cut the island in two halves.

Road blocks from Punta Gorda to Flowers Bay paralyzed the island, creating a problem for everyone trying to make a living on the island. Los Fuertes had a “Columbus Day party” that lasted three days and cost the island economy $450,000 a day, an estimate by Honduran Tourism ministry. The island was cut into two halves and at the barricade in Los Fuertes it was impossible to even walk through the barricades on foot.

The protesters treated everyone with the same disregard, preventing movement of government officials, preachers, and employees on their way to work. Because a majority of the island teachers were involved and leading the protests, no classes in public schools were held for two days. School children on their way to private schools were turned back at the barricades as well.

As the protesters didn’t allow the government officials to move their vehicles across the barricades, many people began using dories and water transport as an alternative way of getting from place to place. Even Bay Islands Governor Arlie Thompson had to use his boat to commute from his Jonesville home to Brick Bay’s Island Shipping where talks with protesters were conducted.

The most notorious barricade spanned the main road just east of RECO’s entrance. A barbed wire spanned the entire road and no one was allowed to cross it.

As the island was paralyzed, 19 protest leaders chosen ad-hoc from amongst the crowd of people gathered in front of RECO were receiving a three-day intensive seminar on small power plant operation and energy pricing. Amongst the 19 delegates there were waiters and workers, such as Erick Minzeth, 34, a waiter from Pura Vida restaurant, who has seen his bill jump from Lps. 1,580 to Lps. 2,997. Though movement leadership came from National Teachers Union, the fact that the delegates had equal positions and no president, no one with a decisive voice, only complicated matters further, particularly decision making.

When asked, none of the delegates were aware of the Lps. 9.5/KW prices paid by consumers on Utila and the Lps. 9.08/KW paid on Guanaja. On October 26, Guanajans marched in a peaceful march of protest at the BELCO’s Lps. 4.70/KW fuel adjustment. While Utilans and Guanjans have taken the increases grudgingly but without resorting to blockades, Roatanians’ reaction was quite different.

A power vacuum of leadership at the community level has caused Patronato leaders to loose control to a group of more radical, inexperienced-in-talks leaders. “In Honduras this is the only way that the authorities would talk to us,” said Mayra Nofio, a schoolteacher and another member of the committee, attempting to explain why a path of talk first, demonstrate later was not followed. What became painfully obvious that the delegates had no experience in leadership, and even less in energy production or accounting. “The numbers are confusing to us let alone to the people [we represent]. We need to give them concrete answers,” said Idalgo Acosta, a delegate and vice-president of the AMORSA taxi drivers association.

“We are pacifists,” explained Leonel Amaya, a member of LAFOM (Federacion of Magisterial Organizations), a Honduran teachers union. Amaya explained that the Patronatos presidents and Rosa Danelia Hendrix, in particular, failed to communicate to the people the raising of the fuel surcharge, an increase she has known about and agreed to. “We feel we were sold out by the patronatos,” said Amaya.

Hendrix, who led the street barricades in 2006, was constantly mentioned during the discussion and picked as a scapegoat. Hendrix stayed home during the riots and didn’t appear for the discussions at RECO to defend herself, quoting safety concern.

While a document dated to August 12 states that Patronatos agreed to the fuel adjustment increase, Hendrix denied agreeing to a price increase of 7.34, “I only agreed to a just increase, not so drastic,” said Hendrix. Hendrix is careful not to condemn the committee members, and says that she “doesn’t know what motivated the protesters” in de-facto sidelining patronatos. The “ideology” was the chief difference between what the 19 delegates and what patronato leadership was offering. “I am not a communist. I am a social-democrat,” said Hendrix.

“Who represents you is not our problem. It is you who have to elect good representatives,” said Isais Aguillar of ENEE energy commission, whose presence was demanded by the 19 delegates to discuss the fuel adjustment. But for three days the protesters problem became every islanders’ problem.

“It is the poorest people that are suffering the most. They [RECO] should have spread the increase over several months,” said Samuel Santos, a French Harbour resident. Many protesters and the Roatan public in general see RECO as an oppressive, mysterious device responsible for exploitation of the poor, no matter who is in charge of the company. The protesters didn’t like the old RECO board, didn’t like Clint Bodden-a local RECO manager, didn’t like Punta Cana- a Dominican power company winning the bid for RECO purchase, and now don’t like its new America owner. “The Gringos come here and they conduct themselves as if they are gods,” one of the protesters screamed over the loudspeaker.

“We knew this was coming,” said Richard Warren, RECO president, who knew that the Roatan energy consumers would not take the rise in their energy costs sitting down. While energy consumers on Utila, Guanaja and even La Ceiba have seen their energy costs rise as high as Lps. 9.4/KW, Roatan consumers have not seen their prices rise for the past four years. Fuel adjustment has not increased on Roatan since 2004 and basic cost has not been increased since 1996.

According to Richard Warren, ENEE advised RECO to do the fuel adjustment increase all at one time. Warren disregarded the advice thinking that it would be easier for consumers to bear if the increase was done in two increases. Warren estimates the delay in increasing prices in one go cost RECO $800,000 and that delaying the increase for another month will cost $400,000.

Ironically, even when the fuel surcharge will reach its maximum, Warren doesn’t expect RECO to be profitable. “We still need the government to approve the rate increase,” said Warren. While Warren and Kelcy Warren had experience in energy supply in US, they had no experience in doing business in a third world country. Now they do.

August and September proved to be particularly hot months and usage of electricity drastically increased amongst almost all consumers. Refrigerators, fans and air conditioning units worked overtime, but few realized the connection of temperature, consumption and rise in fuel adjustment. RECO failed to explain this correlation, let alone avoid it with timing of the adjustment hikes. “I see few improvements, and management problems remain the biggest issue. They just have more money to spend,” said Charles George, owner of a private electrical company.

After the dust of mid October settled, the protesters managed to get a reduction of one Lempira per kilowatt-hour in their bill, a cost to RECO, according to its president of $400,000.

An angry protestor walks through the street at Los Fuertes.

An angry protestor walks through the street at Los Fuertes.

The low consumers will receive a one-time subsidy of Lps. 500,000 from the Central Government due to be approved by Congress. Another Lps. 1 million will come from Zolitur and yet another $100,000 from the Kelcy Warren fund for the low consumers. The poor mainland Honduras will be subsidizing its richest department.

Confrontational behavior between protesters and RECO management has not come down and only the falling world fuel prices could potentially control tempers in the next few months. “I have received death threats. Its getting personal,” said Mathew Harper, a naturalized Honduran citizen and a manager at RECO. Harper has filed charges with public prosecutor’s office concerned with numerous threatening text messages he has received.

The conflict exposed an underlying conflict between the haves and the have-nots of the island. The difference in ideology, not just economics, has caused the discontent with the escalated energy costs to boil over. [/private]

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