The Roatan Blame Game
In the blame game following the two October and November riots, there has been plenty of finger pointing but little understanding of the root causes of the civil discontent. Let me clarify who are not the biggest culprits: it is not the central government, not Punta Cana energy company, not Hugo Chaves, not the world financial crisis. For riots, social tensions and endangering the cruise ship season, Roatanians have no one to blame, but themselves. It is they who have created what the island is today and hold a key to its future.
As long as everyone was making money, everything was great. Only a few months ago pats on the backs of government officials and dreams of a semi-autonomous Bay Islands abounded. Simultaneously, however, cracks in the foundations of the increasingly polarized island society were growing wider and wider.
The roots of today’s problems lie in greed and shortsightedness. Greed of the developers bringing cheap, unskilled, uneducated labor from Honduras’ mainland and expecting them to disappear once they finish their job or are fired. The shortsighted of some government officials and developers who throw their hands in the air lamenting the uncontrolled migration from the mainland are maximizing their profits by causing this migration themselves.
For years, blaming Spanish migrant workers has become a favorite pastime in meetings of local government, business community and foreigners. Many Ladinos have been portrayed as the chief trash throwers, as resistant to speaking English, and as uneducated robbers and thieves. The hard to swallow fact is that a fair percentage of the island-born population doesn’t behave much different. For islanders and many Americans, it has always been easier to scapegoat the mainlanders than to look inside at one’s own faults.
While islanders and foreigners have looked at Ladino migrants with growing contempt, the Ladinos living on Roatan have developed a growing sense of victimhood–a feeling that both foreigners and rich islanders are exploiting them.
In response to 2006 protests against an all islander-controlled RECO board, the board broke down and gave in to mostly Spanish patronato demands of keeping the fuel surcharge intact. For over two years the inability to confront the issues of RECO sustainability and to protect the company’s rights set a precedent and exposed the inability of islanders to deal with pressing issues that were bound to hit a crisis point.
In the first October riots, local government officials empowered and legitimized the mob by swearing practically randomly chosen representatives in and treating them as a legitimately representative group of citizens. The authorities should have required the community to conduct emergency elections for new patronato presidents and only then deal with such elected representatives.
The disturbances have brought to the surface and united several groups: leftist teachers unable to pay their RECO bill; poor, aspiring politicians looking to show their leadership skills; aggressive youths and plain thugs. Images and sound bytes of Mel Zelaya standing arm-in-arm with Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega have resonated with people around Honduras. The confrontation with “oppressors who exploit the poor” message has struck a cord with a majority of Hondurans. For those seeking to find an example of class struggle and struggle against worker exploitation in Honduras, Roatan offers the best example.
Amongst the island’s 70,000 residents and investors there are one billionaire, several dozen of millionaires and tens of thousands of people living at or below poverty line. All that on an island only 40 miles long and a mile-and-a-half wide.
The disturbances on Roatan have received little or no coverage from the mainland Honduras press. Thus, most mainland Hondurans and many government officials do not fully understand the gravity of the situation that the Bay Islands are facing. The protesters feel that they are victorious and are already speaking of other “targets” for future protests.
At this point in time, what is most sad and dangerous is that no one has come out with a viable solution from this crisis. There is no plan of action, other than pie in the sky ideas of bringing private, armed security forces to the island. Band-aid solutions, a piece of paper signed by the president and not RECO, is delaying the inevitable-another blow-out. [/private]