Meeting a Honduran presidential candidate

We met our first Honduran campaigning politician on the weekend, likely the first of many given the nature of the process here.
He was Miguel Pastor, the guy in the picture above. (Though that's not Copan.)
We were heading to the square and he was walking along in front of a jeep with a bunch of followers. You could tell right away he was a politician - there is now a common look of big, healthy guys with nice haircuts and studiedly casual clothes. (Pastor and his guys had on blue-checked long-sleeved shirts, despite the heat. Blue is the National party colour.) There was even a younger guy who reminded me of Dave Basi walking along behind, whispering instructions to others in the group. (The candidates are still mostly guys, though Xiomara Zelaya, the wife of ex-president Manuel Zelaya who was deposed in the 2009 coup, is running for the new Libre Party.)
I thought it was a candidate for mayor, but people were taking pictures, which seemed over-the-top for a small-town mayor. So we concluded that it was someone bigger, though it took until the paper Monday reported that Pastor been on a weekend tour of the region that we figured out who he was.
Pastor quickly pegged me as a gringo and shifted his attention. But given Jody's tan and multi-ethnic look, he clapped her on the shoulder and gave her the full politician smile.
The next election isn't until November 2013. But the two main parties have member votes to chose their presidential candidates this fall, and that involves a long process that resembles a full election campaign.
Several people have characterized the political calendar in the same way. The president and Congress are elected to four-year terms. It's always a new president, because there's a one-term limit to avoid the rise of dictators.
The first year is spent complaining about the mess left by the old guys; the second year on announcing plans, followed by some ritual firings of ministers; the third and fourth years are devoted to campaigning for the next leadership races and the next election.
It doesn't leave much time for governing.
But then the BC Liberals launched their attack ads on John Cummins 20 months before the next election, and the first Dix ads even before that. The federal Conservatives have launched attack ads on Bob Rae already, with the next election likely three years away. That doesn't leave much time for governing either. (Which seems a serious error the BC Liberals are making, one that rates a separate post.)
I have no idea what the issues are here. The candidates all talk about corruption and crime, but it's pretty fuzzy so far, at least to me.
But they've got the politician style down cold.

Plant, Reid, Falcon and me on BC Rail scandal, with credit to John Van Dongen

John Van Dongen has accomplished something at least one very useful thing in reviving a discussion of the many unanswered questions in the BC Rail scandal.
Former AG Geoff Plant offers a useful perspective here. (The dissenting comment is mine.)
Finance Minister Kevin Falcon contradicts Plant here, saying every single Liberal MLA was "appalled" by the $6-million deal that ensured guilty pleas from Dave Basi and Bobby Virk.
Ian Reid argues Van Dongen is absolutely right in a blog post here.
And I refer you to two columns I wrote arguing the smell of the scandal lingers and questions remain, here and here.


I added another comment on Geoff Plant's post, responding to his argument that paying the $6 million in legal fees was not an inducement to get the guilty pleas because they were already in place.

"Sorry, but the hairs are being split too finely. If there were genuine guilty pleas arranged in negotiations with the special prosecutor in place, then there was no need to break the policy on indemnities. The guilty pleas would have been secured, the trial ended and the taxpayers could have recovered at least some of the $6 million.
If they weren't in place, then the $6 million was indeed a prior inducement because it came before the guilty pleas were actually secured."

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Five thoughts on Van Dongen's leap

First, I don't buy the criticism John Van Dongen is just trying to keep a job in politics and thinks he would lose as a Liberal in his riding. My experience had been that he is an ethical person and I accept his explanation for sitting as a Conservative at face value. (That doesn't mean that he's right, of course.)
Second, the Liberal strategists' decision to have Rich Coleman stop just short of suggesting Van Dongen is emotionally and mentally unstable and hint at dark things to come out in the months ahead was sleazy and destructive. Criticize him for not staying to seek change in the party, or accuse him of betraying the people who elected a Liberal MLA. But don't launch a personal attack on someone you worked beside for 16 years. I can't imagine other Liberals were happy with the lack of decency.
In the same way, attacking Van Dongen for living with - and setting the pay - of his constituency assistant looked bad. The Liberals, apparently, considered it fine as long as he was with them, but a potential scandal once he wasn't. It smells of hypocrisy. (Van Dongen was anticipating the attack and had legal opinions saying he had done nothing wrong.)
Third, in the same vein, how can it have seemed a wise idea to keep Christy Clark unavailable for 24 hours? She's the premier, a senior MLA quits and challenges her government's integrity and she can't be found.
Fourth, I'd like to know more about Liberal constituency assistants, the hiring practices, rates of pay and who sets them. Van Dongen's assistant and partner is paid $78,000, a lot of money. The appearance of conflict of interest in setting the pay, at taxpayer's expense, for the person you live with, is obvious. So is the conflict in managing job performance.
What are other Liberal CAs paid? Who sets the amount, and what are the hiring practices to ensure the best candidates are in the jobs? (The NDP CAs are covered by a collective agreement; the last time I checked the top pay was about $47,000.)
It's time to lift the secrecy around MLA spending.
And fifth, Kevin Falcon's comments in The Tyee were a noteworthy contrast to Coleman's over-the-top attack.
"I can't say it's a total surprise to be honest," said Falcon. "John's been indicating he's been upset about a few issues for a long time."
"I like John, I respected John, I still do," Falcon said. "That's obviously a decision he's made after some thought and he'll have to live with the consequences good or bad."
Those sound like the comments of a person who might see a leadership change, and rebuilding job, in the near future for the Liberals.

Conflicting stories on Canada and Honduran police problems

Canada made the news in Honduras again this week, in a confusing kind of way, after a visit by junior foreign affairs minister Diane Ablonczy.
The Honduras Weekly, an English-language online newspaper, had a headline that said �Canada Will Help Honduras Reform Security System.�
That would be a big commitment. Honduras Weekly said Ablonczy had agreed to name a Canadian expert to to a five-person Commission for Public Security Reform. The commission�s focus would be on cleaning up corruption in the police and justice system, and is expected to result in a major re-org and purge in the police forces. Its work will be controversial and difficult.
And potentially important. Corruption, gangs and the drug transport business have made life woefully insecure for Hondurans, which has the highest murder rate in the world, and are a major barrier to economic and social progress of any kind.
But La Prensa said Ablonczy, while offering generalities about helping improve security in the region, had refused to confirm Canada would name an expert to the commission.
And the Foreign Affairs Department new release on the visit offered no help, only one of those made-up quotes so beloved of the people who work for government communications shops. �Canada reiterates its support for the Honduran reconciliation efforts and reaffirms its commitment to assist the Government of Honduras in meeting serious security challenges,� Ablonczy allegedly said.
The confusion is unfortunate. The Honduran government has named three members - a former university head, a sociologist and a former interior minister. The government hopes Canada and Chile will add members to take an independent view. And delays would undermine the commission�s credibility, already viewed skeptically by Hondurans.
It was also interesting that the visit, and the issues, got no coverage in Canada, as far as I can tell.
That�s not a criticism. When I edited newspapers, I wasn�t likely to use scarce space for a report on Honduran security. Online news means space isn�t an issue, but reporting time still is. But it does indicate how little the world matters to Canadians, unless there is an earthquake or war or big sports event.
Footnote: Ablonczyy confirmed Canada will provide $130,000 this year to assist women victims of violence, the second highest cause of death for women between 14 and 40 here after AIDS. Canada will also provide $200,000 to help implement the recommendations of the Honduran Truth and Reconciliation Commission report into the 2009 coup that removed then-president Manuel Zelaya from power.

If a government can't even provide licence plates....

I�d noticed a lot of cars driving around without licence plates, but figured it was just another aspect of the casual approach to laws in Honduras.
I�m reading the papers each morning to improve my Spanish and learn about the country. (Though I�ve started to skip the murder stores; it was just getting too grisly day after day.)
And La Prensa just reported that some 330,000 cars and motorcycles are driving around without licence plates - almost 25 per cent of the total number of vehicles.
Because the government doesn�t have licence plates to hand out.
No new car licence plates have been available since last May. In La Ceiba, they ran out of motorcycle plates in late 2010.
The government, responsible for security and economic policy and all those important things, can�t get organized to have licence plates for people who need them.
The result is a huge hassle for drivers. Crimes don�t seem to get solved here - one report suggested a two-per-cent closure rate for murders, certainly it's less than one in 10. But there are a lot of police roadblocks to check your papers. (We learned last week that photocopies of our passports - even signed and certified by the Canadian embassy - weren�t good enough at a roadside stop. Police sent us on our way with a warning, but it was a tense few minutes for us, and everyone else in the van who feared a long wait.)
So drivers have to schlep down to the licensing office and get papers that give them the right to drive without plates.
That�s an ordeal, according to the paper. You need to get there before 7 a.m. to have any chance of getting the paperwork processed. One guy quoted in the paper had gone four times, unsuccessfully, in one week. And there are only three offices for the country, so some people have to drive for hours just to get there. It would be a three-hour trek for anyone in Copan Ruinas.
Once they�re at the centre, staff take their paperwork and drivers wait outside for hours while it�s reviewed �minuciosamente,� one of those words that is clear even if you don�t speak Spanish.
It gets worse. The permits were good for 30 days. Drivers had to keep going back each month. The government extended them to 59 days recently.
And it�s not just a headache for drivers. In the largely unlikely event witnesses decide to report a crime, they have no way of identifying the car to police.
So why can�t the government get the plates? Despite a two-page spread on the topic (La Prensa, like all the papers here, is a tab), that was never actually explained.
The man in charge said the problem has been around since 2008. The government has placed an emergency order for 150,000 pairs of plates and hopes to have them in six weeks, but that�s less than half the number needed.
He implied, sort of, that getting the plates was complicated because the government wanted to make sure there was no corruption involved in the process. But the 150,000 plates was still a direct-award contract, without competitive bids. (That's a subject for another post.)
And that still doesn�t offer any explanation for why the government can�t get its act together to issue a tender call.
I�m not criticizing the newspapers. My experiences as a stranger in a strange land has left me wondering if Canadian newspapers leave the same kind of holes, which I was able to fill in on my own.
For example, no report I�ve seen has offered any sort of real explanation for why ousted cabinet minister Harry Bloy was given a Vancouver Province reporter�s questions about a private school sent to Advanced Education Minister Naomi Yamamoto. What was he supposed to do with the document?
Or, for that matter, why managers and board of BC Rail, a Crown corporation, paid $297,000 to Liberal uber-insider Patrick Kinsella for advice on dealing with the government, instead of just talking to the minister responsible.
Both stories would baffle a Honduran newly arrived in British Columbia.
And as a newcomer, I�m not leaping to criticize the Honduran government.
But this country has a lot of problems. If the people in charge can�t figure out how to buy licence plates, it�s hard to see how they�ll solve the tougher ones.
And if citizens are stuck wasting vast amounts of time in a bureaucratic swamp, it�s one more drag on an already weak economy.
Me, I'll stick to walking.

Footnote: The photo of drivers trying to get temporary permits for their vehicles is from La Prensa.

Why didn't the defence department buy these subs?

West Edmonton Mall is selling its fleet of submarines, an opportunity that the Canadian Navy has somehow failed to seize. After all, the four submarines are cheaper than the British castoffs the navy bought, which have provided total failures.
And they apparently work.
Unlike the British subs.

And look at the pictures? Which would you buy?

'Even Jesus had a line in the sand'

Jody Paterson left the regular Monday morning devotional at her Honduran workplace not quite so enthused about the warmth and sharing.

"I get that faith brings comfort to people living in difficult times. Hondurans need God because life here on Earth is cruel and harsh for so many of them, and if you couldn't believe that things were going to improve in the afterlife you'd probably go crazy.
But maybe a little more crazy is in order right about now. All of this violence isn't God's will, it's just what happens when the rule of law is completely negated, the tentacles of the massive cocaine industry seep into all facets of life, and a government is too weak and compromised to act. Violence has been normalized in Honduras, and it seems to me that accepting that as God's will is virtually a guarantee that nothing will improve for people here."

You can, and should, read the post here.

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Killer bees and a Honduran business development workshop

I�ve done a lot of business analysis exercises over the years, but never one where African killer bees showed up on the list of threats and opportunities.
I just spent two days in a Cuso International workshop for producers in Honduras, bringing together about 30 people to help them take a look at their businesses and what they can do to make them stronger.
On one level, it was familiar after years as a manager. It�s important to sit down and analyze your operations and the external factors, current and future, and come up with plans to do better.
On another, it was wildly different.
Most obviously, because everything was in Spanish. We did an early get-to-know-each-other exercise which included drawing a symbol for yourself. People did trees and suns and hearts and birds and the like. I did a question mark, because, I told them, I listened to the presentations and kept thinking �Que? Que? Que?� (Jody Paterson, my partner, drew herself leaping off a cliff. Her post on the workshop is here.)
But the challenges were also very different. The workshop - tallers they�re called here - included a few people from local NGOs, but mostly primary producers. There were several intense, darkly tanned coffee growers, some cocoa producers, furniture makers, fruit and vegetable growers and some women in a tiny honey business.
The program combined instruction with a lot of group work, with people joining others in the same field to study their businesses and do the standard SWOT analysis - strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Except here it�s a FODA analysis - fuerzas, opportunidades, debilidades y amenazas. They were seriously committed; we went from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. the first day, and started the sessions at 7 a.m. the next day, because we were running behind schedule.
The theory was that, using the analysis and considering the �value chain,� they would come up with action plans to strengthen their businesses and get to work on them.
It was effective, and fascinating. A few things leapt out.
First, they mostly weren�t as sophisticated in their analysis as a comparable group of Canadian business people. I spent time with the vegetable growers as they did their FODA analysis, and there wasn�t a lot of talk about new markets and pricing strategies and branding.
But that was realistic. If you�re growing tomatoes in a region with limited transportation and few restaurants or even supermarkets, then branding strategies are just silly. You�re selling a commodity. You could find the nicest tomatoes and charge a small premium, but organic isn�t a niche.
That was another difference. In a similar Canadian exercise, based on my newspaper experience, people would have come up with grand strategies for new products and brand extensions and multiple platforms. They would have produced a plan that sounded oh-so-clever, but was actually completely unrealistic, designed to please their masters, not produce a stronger business.
The Honduran producers weren�t so delusional. Some of the action plans won�t work out, but they were pragmatic.
Second, the producers had a sound assessment of their businesses� positions, and what needed to happen. The coffee growers knew they needed to improve living conditions for workers, or they wouldn�t have enough of them, so their plan included better housing and food. (They also raised interesting questions about organic and fair trade certifications. These are family operations, but if their kids help with the picking they lose their fair trade certification. And more broadly, work harvesting coffee by kids keeps a lot of families out of desperate poverty. Is it really �fair� to cut them out of that work without any alternative? A school-aged boy can make $15 a day picking coffee, three times the wage for an unskilled labourer and as much as a bank teller. For a poor family, that�s a huge benefit.)
The rambutan growers knew they needed to come up with products based on the fruit. (I�d never heard of it, but rambutan is a cool-looking Asian fruit that is, according to Jody, like a lychee without the disgusting floral flavours.) Their plan included exploring wine and marmalade products, though the concept of opening export markets seemed remote.
Third, the barriers to success were often, by North American standards, small. A way of getting goods to buyers - as simple as an available truck, or car in the case of the honey producers - came up on several lists.
And fourth, the importance of the support of NGOs was overwhelming. The action plans included investments in processing equipment to add value, or technical improvements to increase crop productivity. They looked to NGOs to support those efforts.
Some argue aid encourages dependency. But North American agricultural producers benefit from a huge amount of aid - university agriculture departments doing research, government ministries providing experts and funding and marketing support (and in the case of marketing boards, protection against competition).
That doesn�t exist in Honduras. There�s no money. Agencies supported with foreign money provide the technical and financial support Canadian producers take for granted.
The vegetable producers dragged me into the group photo and made me sign the official pledge to deliver on their action plan.
I�ll let you know how it went in six months.
Footnote: And I hope the African killer bees don�t wreck the honey business. They killed two children here last week, when the eight-year-old brother of one ill-advisedly threw a rock at a hive in a tree. We are not in Kansas anymore, as Dorothy would say.

Christy Clark decides to be more like Gordon Campbell

Lively read from Harvey Oberfeld on the controversy over Christy Clark's refusal to take questions from the media at a Vancouver photo op, and new communications director Sara MacIntyre's snark-laden on-camera exchange with reporters over the question ban. (Snark-laden on both sides.)
The control-freak approach to avoiding questions from journalists or unscripted exchanges with the public is popular these days. Stephen Harper - for whom MacIntyre did similar work - is a big fan. And he is also prime minister, which might lead some to think it's not a bad tactic.
Not so good for democracy though. Though it's fair to question our performance, reporters play an important role in asking questions that the public might want answered. No one anointed the media as public representatives, but it's part of the checks and accountability of our system and not lightly to be abandoned. (And, theoretically, if the news media ask all the wrong questions people will quit paying attention to them. Which, in fairness, I note they are.)
The alternative is politicians spouting scripted platitudes and talking points.
It's an odd approach for Clark to choose. Her record in government wasn't impressive, but Clark's leadership campaign was based in part on her abilities as a politician, which had been highly rated. Her radio background and personable nature were supposed to make her an effective communicator, able to perform well in challenging situations.
Turning her into a politician like Gordon Campbell or Stephen Harper, sticking to stiffly scripted set pieces in staged settings, tosses away what was claimed as a major political asset.
The increasing distance between politicians and the people they represent, which looks much like dislike, is also damaging for democracy.
As premier, Glen Clark, like those before him, was scrummed regularly by reporters. When the legislature was sitting - a less rare event in those days - the Press Gallery pack could usually count on one or two chances a day to pose questions. Clark also wandered the legislature lawn, talking, sometimes arguing, with people.
Campbell ended all that. He wouldn't stop for questions in the hall, no matter how pressing the issues.
Instead, he introduced what the press gallery types called secret scrums. Reporters were summoned to the premier's office infrequently and waited for Campbell to emerge from an inner office and stand in front of flags and take questions. At any moment he could wave a cheery thanks and bolt away, avoiding tough topics. Campbell also wasn't one for walkabouts, since RCMP officers accompanied him for security. (Though it's hard to imagine Clark having much less need for security by the end of his time as premier.)
Of course, Campbell won three elections, so maybe the tactics work politically.
But at the same time, voter contempt for, or at least disinterest in, politics and politicians, seems to be rising.
Winning elections at the expense of a diminished democracy seems a bad trade for any responsible politician.

Footnote: In the video, MacIntyre claims that there was no release from the premier's office saying the premier would be available.
That wasn't true. Journalist Jeremy Hainsworth notes the Office of the Premier did issue an advisory at 5:34 p.m. on March 13 that said "The event will be held indoors, and photo and interview opportunities will be held after the Premier's address on the trade show floor."
Which suggests level of disorganization in the premier's office, perhaps the result of too many highly paid people rushing around each thinking he or she is in charge.
MacIntyre's testy and inaccurate response also suggests a certain panic. I did a weekly piece for Shaw TV on B.C, politics and policy and frequently had MacIntyre on, when she was the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation rep, to offer commentary. She was excellent, prepared and poised on camera and offering useful perspective. Not at all like in the unfortunate clip.

The importance - and potential corruption - of microcredit

I spent the last two days at a workshop for small producers, mostly agricultural, in Honduras. (I'll write something in the next day or two; it was interesting, even as I drowned in a 13-hour day of Spanish immersion.)
But a key issue was access to capital, even in tiny amounts. Doug Saunders' microcredit piece in the Globe today offers a useful perspective.

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Great news, my partner said. I'm going along with a church group doing a water project to see how it works, and you can come.
CASM, the Honduran agency Jody is working for, was helping the group with the logistics. She thought it would be good to see the work, and maybe there would be a communications piece in it.
So at 8 a.m. Saturday we walked up to the Hotel Puente Maya, met a bunch of Texans and hopped in the back of a pickup truck. We dropped about half a dozen of them - and six or seven boxes of medical supplies - at the clinic in Santa Rita de Copan, where they were offering free care to all comers. (They had medical skills; it wasn't totally random.) It was market day in Santa Rita, and teens from the local school were on hand to help with the clinic, which is on the attractive, well-planted square. I practised my Spanish with a happily drunk old guy; in fact, my Spanish seems particularly well-suited to genially inebriated people.
Then back in the truck, and probably 90 minutes of steady climbing, on dirt roads, high into the mountains.
At considerable speed. Merlin, Jody's boss, was driving and he has the skills and commitment of one of those Finnish WRC rally drivers. (That is, for non-motor sport fans, high praise.)
We crossed streams, had stunning views, passed tiny houses and small towns and ended up at La Cumbre, way up in the mountains, a community of houses strung along dirt roads and trails. Up one of the trails through a coffee plantation - they are great looking plants, dense bushy, dark green foliage - and we came to the project.
Which was a hole in the ground, a medium-size hole in the ground at this point. The community water system had a reservoir higher up, but it wasn't large enough. The good people of the First Christian Church in Tyler, Texas, were here to fund and help build a second reservoir to ensure the community didn't run out of water when things got dry. The two tanks and the village would be connected with piping when it's done.
The reservoir was being dug into the hillside. It was to be a circle, about 20 feet across and four or five feet deep. That meant though, because of the slope, that the wall would be about five feet tall on the downhill side and 15 feet tall on the uphill side.
Some people from the community had been working on it. It was probably two feet deep. The Texans - a mixed group, from maybe early 30s to nearing 70, I'd guess - grabbed shovels and pickaxes and started moving dirt. There was one wheelbarrow and a narrow dirt ramp to get it out of the hole. (The kind of useful thing I would have forgotten to leave.)
So we dug too, of course. It would be remarkably lame to watch a bunch of Americans and Hondurans digging a community water project.
It was hard. The views were great, and we were high enough in the hills that it wasn't roasting hot. (Which is one reason it's such good coffee country.) But wielding a short, heavy pickaxe and trying to heave dirt out of a hole isn't easy.
The Hondurans were the strongest. They do this kind of work. But some of those Texans were real workhorses. One guy just settled into part of the hole and worked his way steadily downward.
I held my own, though I started too fast and then faded a little. And my one run at pushing the hugely heavy wheelbarrow out of the hole convinced me that perhaps that was best left to others.
A woman from the community and two young girls brought us lunch - tortillas, refried beans, spaghetti and scrambled eggs - and by the time we called it a day the hole was pretty impressive - another two feet deep, I'd say. We moved way more dirt than I thought we would, though I noticed people got quieter as the day wore on.
The Texans were taking Sunday off, but figured the hole would be dug by the end of Monday and pouring the concrete - also a hand-mix, wheelbarrow operation - would be next.
I was impressed with those people. They worked with varying amounts of strength and dedication, and occasionally seemed a little irked with each other, but they made a big dent in the reservoir, stayed in good spirits, joked with the Hondurans and welcomed a couple of Canadians hanging around. They held a bunch of fundraising events to get enough money for the supplies and worked with a religious organization in the U.S. that links volunteers and projects.
And they were impressively realistic, perhaps because some of them had been doing this kind of thing regularly for about 20 years. Some projects worked great, they said, some only got partly done, one or two had not really turned out. But they showed up, accepted whatever living conditions were at hand, worked hard during their stay and left having accomplished what they could.
Outreach, they call it, and the First Christian Church in Tyler has had a longstanding commitment to use 10 per cent of the money that comes in to help others, in their community or anywhere they see a need they can fill.
I even liked the church motto - Unity in matters of faith, diversity in matters of opinion, in all things love.
It was a good day.

Cracks in the Central American drug war front

It's been a big news week in Honduras. Joe Biden was in town.
And what everybody wanted to talk about was the war on drugs. Some wanted to talk about giving up on it.
The U.S. vice-president flew into Tegucigalpa for meetings with Honduran President Porfiro Lobo and the heads of Central American countries. (Well, not actually into Tegucigalpa. The U.S. Air Force has a big base without about 500 troops in Comayagua - the city where the prison burned - and Biden landed there. I don't blame him. The Tegucigalpa airport, with hills around, offers one the the world's scarier landings, including a sharp turn 45 seconds before touchdown. It's not a bad metaphor for arriving in Honduras.)
The war on drugs looks a total botch-up from North America, as I've argued in the past. Wasted money, increased gang activity and petty crime, higher prison costs and zero success. Only a fool keeps doing something when, decade after decade, it's not just ineffective but destructive.
That's nothing compared to the view from the countries that are on the front lines of the war on drugs.
For them, it's a real war, not a catchy political slogan. The drug war in Mexico - fought largely at the behest of the U.S. - has claimed about 50,000 lives in six years - civilians, police, justice officials, traffickers, tourists. The U.S. lost one-tenth that many troops in the Iraq war and people were unhappy
Honduras, largely due to fights over the drug transport business, had the highest murder rate in the world last year, at almost per nine per 10,000 people. About 60 per cent of murders - 4,400 last year - were linked to the drug trade.
The U.S. has been chipping in some cash - about $361 million to Central America since 2008, La Prensa reports.
But every year in that period, more people died, more drugs moved and crime and corruption increased.
None of that should be surprising. A UN study estimated the North American cocaine market at $38 billion in 2008. The U.S. says 79 per cent of South American cocaine lands in Honduras on its way to North American consumers.
Honduras total GDP is about $15 billion. The chance to make money handling and shipping a high-value product is hugely attractive. The need to fight anyone who gets in the way - other drug shippers, or police - is part of business.
It is, La Prensa, noted in an editorial before Biden arrived, simply a principle of capitalism - that where there is demand, in this case North America, there will be supply. The money, in a poor country, is irresistible even if the risks are great, for the drug shipment kingpins and the people who can earn a few hundred dollars carrying loads from Copan over the hills and into Guatemala. That much, surely, has been established over the years.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina came to the summit promoting an end to the war drugs. Legalize drugs, says the former army general, including the transhipment. Tax and regulate and arrest those who who operate outside the rules. Let the U.S. work harder at reducing demand with treatment, education and innovative approaches. (That's one of the criticisms here, that the U.S. is asking other countries to tackle supply, at great cost, while doing nothing to reduce demand. Hard to argue given the record and, for example, the lack of available treatment options, in Canada.)
Reaction was mixed, but the leaders of Costa Rica and Honduras said the proposals should be discussed.
The alternatives all look grim. Escalating the war on drugs, as in Mexico, means more deaths, more violence and, likely, more corruption. The Honduras Weekly reported that the head of the Honduras' National Council Against Drug Trafficking warned drug trafficking groups are funding candidates to consolidate their power in next year's national elections. A Liberal party presidential hopeful said there are already "narco-congressman and narco-mayors."
In Washington this week, Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of U.S. southern military command, said the U.S. expects "the military in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador will continue to play an important role in domestic security in coming years." That too makes many people nervous in countries were democracy is a fragile thing.
Biden flew home after photo ops and meetings pledging that the U.S. would not waver in its war on drugs, despite its utter failure. (OK, he didn't say that last part.) Central American leaders seemed onside, for now.
And it's hard, given the state of U.S. politics, to imagine any intelligent, evidence-based discussion of drug policies.
But Guatemala's position on legalization, the willingness of some other countries to consider a new approach and the horrific toll being taken may signal that change is coming. Painfully slowly, but coming.

Note: Cartoon from La Prensa.

Government, union both to blame for the school mess

There has been a remarkable amount of vitriol from those who blame the current educational mess on the Liberal government or the B.C. Teachers' Federation.
The reality is they are both to blame. They have proven incapable of real collective bargaining for decades. Both now appear to like the irresponsibility of sham negotiations, a battle for public support with accompanying posturing and a legislated contract.
And, as I noted in this column a year ago, both have had at more than five years to accept sensible proposals that would have created the possibility of effective bargaining.

Both sides to blame for coming teachers' strike

March 25, 2011

We're heading toward another teachers' strike in B.C., and parents and taxpayers should be angry at the government and the B.C. Teachers Federation.
The bargaining relationship - or non-bargaining relationship - between the union and the government is needlessly destructive.
Worse, the parties - the BCTF, the school employers bargaining association and government - seem incapable of taking the basic steps to fix it...

This is all especially discouraging because the parties have been offered two different approaches that could avoid a pointless deadlock.
Vince Ready, asked to look into a 2006 dispute, recommended a new bargaining approach for this round.
Both parties should establish their objectives eight months before the contract expires, he wrote. That would have been last Sept. 30.
A facilitator/mediator - either agreed to by both parties, or appointed by the labour minister - should then immediately begin to meet with them in negotiating sessions, and where helpful make recommendations. A senior government representative should be at the table. And the parties should develop an agreed on statement of facts about the current situation - cost of compensation and benefits, recruitment issues and the rest.
Don Wright, who reviewed bargaining in 2004, recommended another approach. If negotiations failed, he said, a third party should conciliate. If that didn't work, union and employers would submit their best offers and the conciliator would pick one to form the new collective agreement.
Instead, the negotiations are heading down the same pointless path...

It's not too late. The parties could adopt Ready's approach and start realistic talks. The government could stick with its no net pay increase mandate. The union could win a commitment to cut class sizes and provide more preparation time. They could bargain.

Bulging classrooms, Canadian jobs, and a $17 watch on the installment plan: Honduras by the newspapers

I'm reading the Honduran newspapers every day - either El Tiempo or La Prensa - to work on my Spanish and learn about the country. Some days, I'm not sure how well either effort is going.
It's tough to read when at least one word per paragraph sends me to the Spanish-English dictionary, which often doesn't really help.
And understanding the country is a work in progress. El Tiempo had a story today about parents in San Pedro Sula protesting because there were 93 kids in a Grade 2 class.
That's extreme, even by Honduran standards, although in rural schools wild overcrowding is the norm. In conversations, teachers and parents have described schools in pueblitas with 70 students in four or five grades, one teacher who may or may not show up and few supplies.
But San Pedro Sula is the big city, and the parents were mad.
But the story still left me baffled, even after my fallback of finding it online and running it through Google Translate.
The reason there are 93 children in the class is that two teachers haven't shown up for work since school resumed last month, so classes are doubled up. One has "personal problems," the story quoted a parent. The other one, a vice-principal, is inexplicably absent. The principal said the teacher had said "not even Porfiro Lobo (the Honduran president) could make me go there." (My translation.)
The principal wants another teacher assigned to the school. But the story was unclear on why the Grade 2 teacher wouldn't go to work, or whether she was getting paid or what the heck was going on. (I have been wondering whether Canadian news stories would be equally baffling if I didn't have my own knowledge to fill in the blanks in reporting.)
The teachers' unions, with 60,000 members, are a big political force. (And the BCTF is a strong supporter.)
I don't know enough yet to have any informed judgments. I do know that parents I've spoken to are fed up with job actions that have meant students have missed more than half the promised 200 instructional days some years, that anyone who can choses a private school and that the public system is poorly managed.
And I expect to find out more in the months and weeks ahead.
Canada also made today's El Tiempo, one of a few references since I've been reading. (One was an entertainment brief on a plan by one of the Falling Wallenda family to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls. The other was an advance on the Canada-Hondura World Cup qualifier in June; if Canada wins (unlikely) I'll be staying off the streets for a few days.)
Today the story is about the lineup of Hondurans applying for jobs in Maple Leaf meat-packing plants in Canada. The jobs are part of the rapidly expanding temporary working program that lets companies bring in foreign workers to do jobs Canadians won't, or at least won't for the salaries the companies want to pay. (It has always seemed a contradiction. Business groups argue the market should set wage rates, except when they would have to pay more. Then they want to bring in desperate workers from low-wage countries.)
But it's important here. There are up to 200 jobs for people willing to cut up hogs and cattle. If you're under 35, have a secondary education - roughly our high school - some English, three years of physical work, good physical condition and no criminal record or past illegal immigration, then you can apply and Maple Leaf's representatives will make the selections. If you're good in the first year, you might be able to bring your family for the second.
The newspaper quoted two applicants. A 25-year-old single mom is ready to leave her daughter behind after two years of unemployment. A 27-year-old chartered accountant who has been looking for work for a year figures processing meat might offer a good chance to work in Canada. The newspaper photo, at the top of the post, showed a long line of the first of nine days of receiving applications.
The pay is good by Honduran standards - $1,921 a month, $443 a week. Live frugally, and you can send a lot of money home to help family here.
Which people do. About 19 per cent of Hondura's GDP is remittances from people working abroad, legally or illegally. Without that money, the GDP per capita would drop from $4,200 to $3,400 - a huge blow. The U.S. anti-immigrant rhetoric could mean economic disaster here.
Finally, I was amazed by 14 pages of ads from Key Mart, a big and opportunistically named retailer. Most stores sell on time here. When we bought our $125 dresser, we had the chance to make two or three payments, for a price.
But KM, as its logo reads, takes the idea to a new level. It advertised, for example, a backpack for $10.75, and offered to let you make 12 payments of 90 cents each. A $17 Casio watch could be yours today for the promise to make 12 payments of 96 cents. (The store sells much expensive stuff too.)
What was striking is that these were offers for people considered good credit risks. You can imagine how poor people are who don't qualify and can only dream of being able to afford a new Sarten frying pan that would cost 68 cents a month.
I won't buy a paper tomorrow. I've too much still to figure out from today's edition.

Krueger's attack on courts a dangerous smear

Maybe Liberal MLA Kevin Krueger should try to be an elected representative in Honduras. His lack of understanding of the importance an independent judicial system might play better here.

I keep being amazed by synchronicities between Canada and Honduras. This time, it's on justice.

Krueger, in a rambling 30-minute speech supposedly on the budget in the legislature this week, launched a sleazy attack on judges and the judicial system.

MLAs, like anyone else, have the right to opinions, no matter how uninformed.

But when they speak in the legislature, their remarks should have some foundation in fact, and they should have some evidence for their claims.

Krueger called it �outrageous� that child-luring charges against a man were stayed in provincial court because of a 27-month delay in bringing the case to trial - more than twice the time the Supreme Court of Canada said constitutes an unreasonable delay that violates the accused�s right to a fair trial.

�We all know what happened,� Krueger said. �We had a judge recently saying that he let an accused child offender leave his courtroom, and he made political statements about this being because the government is not funding them properly. That is horrendous. I would rather have a guy shake me down on the street for money than let an accused child offender walk, with the prospect that he might offend other children. I was absolutely appalled. It's outrageous.�

What�s outrageous is Krueger�s allegation that the decision was not based on the law, but on politics.

If he has any evidence, a single shred of evidence, he has an obligation to file a complaint with the judicial counsel of B.C., which investigates wrongdoing.

If he doesn�t, if this was simply a smear, and he has an equally great obligation to apologize for such damage to the judge and damage to the court system. (And Premier Christy Clark has a duty to remove an MLA who behaves so badly from the Liberal caucus.)

It is outrageous the charges were stayed because of the long delays. It�s outrageous the alleged victim and family spent 27 months without resolution and that the charge, not proven, will hang forever over the accused.

And it's outrageous B.C. courts lack the resources to deal with cases expeditiously, and that police forces face the same critical problems.

The key officer involved in the case, whose clever online investigation led to the charges, warned more cases will be dismissed because police don�t have the resources to handle complex online sex offence cases. It took police investigators 14 months to complete a full report to prosecutors in this case.

"You need more people," Det. Mike MacFarlane told CTV News. Though perhaps Krueger would argue that the officer also is lobying and doesn�t care enough about bring sex offenders to justice.

Krueger went on. He accused judges of �politicking from the bench.� They should �stop whining about how many judges there are,� he said.

While there many good judges, Krueger said, �There are some real bad apples. If you've been doing your reading,� he told the opposition. �you'll know about those and some of the outrageous things that they have said and done.�

�We have some real problem people on the bench,� he added.

Again, no examples. If Kruger knows about �real bad apples� and �outrageous� actions by judges, he should file complaints and cite cases. If not, he should apologize.

Improvements to the justice system are needed, and the stakeholders have been far too slow to make them. Delays are unacceptable and legal costs mean the system is impossible to access for most Canadians.

But Krueger�s drive-by smear - until he provides evidence to support his allegations - is irresponsible. And, as he should know, unfair, since judges allow their decisions to stand undefended and don�t take part in public arguments with politicians or interest groups. If their decisions are seen to be wrong, they can be appealed.

We rely on an independent justice system to protect us from oppression by the state. It�s not a theoretical issue. The former NDP government would have bullied Carrier Lumber out of its rights without the courts to enforce the law; the Liberal government was checked in attempts to break the law in dealing with teachers and health care workers and the children's representative.

Which leads, finally, back to Honduras, where politicians unhappy with Supreme Court decisions that rejected some of their laws as unconstitutional violations of citizens� rights are musing about curbing the courts� power.

The Canadian justice system is far from perfect. But when politicians start attacking it, without any evidence, and argue they, not an independent judiciary, should determine the limits of citizens� rights and guilt and innocence, we should be alarmed.

There are already too many countries where citizens fear arbitrary actions by the state, or powerful forces, with no protection from the courts.

Footnote: Krueger urged support for Court Watch and public vigilance over the courts. The Canadian organization of that name is focused on concerns about actions by government child-protection authorities, but the notion that citizens should be better informed about the work of the courts is sound. Call the government and ask when the court is sitting in your community and spend a morning watching.

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