Minting a coin worth the equivalent of one-quarter of one cent

The Hondurans central bank has put out a tender call for 140 million coins, in four denominations.
Which I find puzzling. Coins are little used here. Prices are almost all rounded to the nearest lempira, with each one worth about five cents Canadian. In the big city, supermarkets sometimes give coins and on rare occasions I've received them here.
More puzzling are the denominations.
The bank wants 60 million coins in denominations of 50 and 20 centavos - roughly 2.5 cents and a penny in Canadian currency. Maybe those would be useful (though not based on my experience).
But it also wants 80 million coins of 10 and five centavos - about one-half and one-quarter cent Canadian.
All in, the coin production will likely cost something like $1.5 million.
And unless I'm missing something - which is not uncommon in my new home - it seems an odd way to spend money, especially for the low-value coins.

When a home is worth the risk of disaster

La Prensa

Tough choices. Let squatters build wood shanties on the banks of flood-prone rivers, even though they might die in the rainy season. Or push them on to Lord knows where.
In El Progreso about 100 families have settled on the banks of the Pelo River, cobbling together wood houses and planting gardens, La Prensa reported. It�s a common practice across Honduras, as people without money look for a free place to live., often on the banks of rivers and streams that could flow their banks.
The El Progreso families are building on deadly land. In 1989, Hurricane Mitch caused floods that swept 200 homes on the same site - and several people - into the muddy, raging river.
Mitch and the 2009 coup seem to be defining moments for Honduras. The country is usually touched by several hurricanes a year, mostly in the coastal regions. But Hurricane Mitch was ferocious and, critically, its progress stalled over Honduras, bringing days of rain - 18 inches in one day in one city - and damaging winds. Some 6,500 people were killed, about 20 per cent of the population was left homeless and 70 to 80 per cent of the transportation infrastructure destroyed. The president of the day estimated it knocked out 50 years worth of progress in a week. And it seems burned in many Hondurans� minds as both a turning point for the country and a reminder of the its vulnerability to disaster.
CODEM, the municipal disaster planning agency, wants the squatters gone. Officials say even in normal rains they�re in danger, from flooding and collapsing river banks that will bring their houses down. Even prevention efforts, liked deepening the river channel, could destroy the houses.
Fine, say the families. Where will we go?
Maria Angela Guerrero told La Prensa she and her family settled on the river back because they ha nowhere to live and no money for rent.
"All of us here are aware of the danger we run in winter,� she said. �If the mayor wants to evicts us he will have to relocate us in a safe place," she said.
The World Bank says 18 per cent of Hondurans live on less $1.40 a day. Rent is impossible, so throwing up a shack - of wood, or corrugated tin or, with luck, adobe - is the only option. Some landowners don�t seem to mind. Other people, like the river community, choose public land. (There is a whole separate post to be done on land occupations across the country by organized campesino protests.)
The houses are often grim looking, without electricity or water. Life inside would be dark and dismal, with little real shelter in bad weather and no protection from insects.
But any house - even one that might get swept away when the river rises - is better than none. 

Stranger in a strange land



They do look like TV people

I was good at understanding how things worked in Canada, or thought I was.
In Honduras, I often feel like a visitor from another planet. I do a blog for volunteers in Honduras, and for anyone interested in development issues, mostly aggregating content. That involves scanning the news sources and blogs and websites.
Today, Front Line Defenders, a credible Irish human rights group, had a post about Donny Reyes, an activist for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) rights in Honduras. That's dangerous. At least 60 people in the community have been murdered in the last two years. Reyes has already suffered some brutal repercussions for his efforts.
Last month Reyes was tracked from his Tegicugalpa home by a man on a motorcycle, who he says was trying to kill him. He went to a rights organization, and they made an official complaint to the police so he could be escorted to a safe place. (He's already been granted protection, but it hasn't resulted in action.) The rights organization arranged a meeting the next day with police and a lawyer in the National State Security Agency. But 30 minutes before the meeting, the Human Rights Unit of the state security agency called and said they couldn't send anyone, because there was no gas for their official cars.
The rights organization offered to buy gas, but the unit said that would be unethical.
Five days later, Front Line Defenders reports, the Under Secretary of State wrote saying she was unhappy with the events.
"Firstly I want to tell how how sorry I am for this impasse which developed and which absolutely should never be allowed to happen again. I was out of the country at the time and was not notified of the problem which was caused by the fact that the garage which supplies petrol to the National Security Agency refused to give any more petrol because they had not been paid, a problem which is being resolved at this moment. However I acknowledge that this is not a valid reason for failing to deal with such a serious issue.
"I believe that your case was not adequately dealt with by the staff in my office and I have in the past left instructions that in these situations they can use the car which has been assigned for my personal use. We are taking all necessary steps to remedy this situation and I urge you to contact this office to reschedule the meeting as soon as possible."
It's fair to be skeptical about the explanation. But, based on seven months here, it's also possible that there was no gas. (OK, probably not.)
 The private contractor that provides dialysis turned away patients this week, because the government hasn't paid its bills. Roadwork halted across the country last week, because contractors hadn't seen government cheques in five months. (In neighbouring El Salvador, the government has announced it doesn't have the cash to issue tax refund cheques, hardly an incentive to pay taxes.)
It's a land of weird stories. 
Today, Nicaraguan police reported finding $7 million in smuggled cash hidden in six vans that were supposed to be carrying a Mexican TV crew with varying explanations of what they were to report on. They had cameras and satellite dishes and some of the vans had TV station logos. But come on. What TV stations sends six vans and 18 people 1,600 kilometres to cover a story? 
The vans and the money had passed through Honduras. Nobody in this country, or on the border, apparently considered the convoy of TV trucks suspicious.

Scanners come to Bodega Gloria



I had to walk home in the rain last week, because technology�s tentacles had reached Copan Ruinas.
I buy fruit and vegetables in the town market, a two-storey structure open to the sky, or sometimes from the people who park trucks full of fruit or other goods outside. (Though not from the guy with the live chickens in the back of his pickup, with a chicken wire lid to block escapes.) 
And Bodega Gloria is my main store for staples. It�s as close as we come to a supermarket. 
There�s no real rival. Commercial Cruz Bueso is almost as large, but sells clothes and cowboy hats and foam mattresses along with food staples.
Commercial Victoria was a contender, but it�s gone in a new direction, with stock that seem bought off late-night infomercials. There is actually an inflatable sled for sale, and hand warmers, those little chemical packets that generate heat while you wait to kill ducks. The temperature has never dipped below 20 degrees since we�ve been here.
Bodega Gloria is not big. Three aisles. One with cleaning stuff. One mostly cookies and candies, and pasta. The middle aisle has chips and such, non-refrigerated milk, oil and capers and other essentials and a spotty alcohol section. (The boast �Mexico�s best selling box wine� does not guarantee drinkability, even at $4 a litre.) In the back, there�s a big floor freezer full of unwrapped chicken parts and wall coolers with packaged meats and cheese and, sometimes, yoghurt. Gloria, if there is such a person, has added a meat counter in the last month. The chorizo is great.
Until last week, the process was simple. You picked your stuff, and one of the keen young staff tallied it up on a cheap calculator. You handed the money over, and the clerk took it to the woman who ruled the cash. She looked up from her newspaper or cellphone, made the correct change and it was counted, then passed to you. On good days, she smiled at you, in a Mona Lisa kind of way.
It wasn�t brilliantly efficient. Sometimes, a small woman from a pueblo in the hills would be buying vast amounts of staples, and need a hand-written receipt - factura - either because she was buying for the community, or her own pulperia. 
But it worked, sort of. There was a problem with inventory management. Any time yoghurt is in the coolers, I buy three containers, because it can mysteriously disappear for weeks. The pop cooler can be full of Diet Cokes one day, and sit empty and rusting for two weeks. I�m used to hoarding.
The registers
A couple of months ago, Gloria installed a couple of counters with cash registers and barcode scanners, but no one has used them until now. But one day last week, the bodega was closed for inventory. The next day, hesitant cashiers were scanning my half-dozen purchases, most of which weren�t in the system. It took so long I ended up walking home in the afternoon rain, which arrives about 2:30 these days.
It�s been almost a week, and I�m not sure how the experiment is going. When the two cashiers are busy - fairly often give the campesino bulk buying - you dump your stuff on a vacant counter, the calculator comes out and you hand over the cash. That seems to undermine inventory control.
Retailing, like everything else, is different in Honduras. When I lived in Montreal, I was amazed that every block in the older neighbourhoods had one or two depanneurs - marginal, small grocery-variety stores that served maybe 40 families in the adjacent three-story walk-up apartments with their outside iron stairways.
But pulperias, the Honduran equivalent, are way more common. Sometimes three in a block, set up in what would have been the front room of the house. A somewhat cynical long-term expat said that ,if nothing else, the pulperias let families get goods at wholesale price for their relatives. And if there is no other work, making a few dollars a day selling chips and coffee and plantains to the people on the block is worthwhile, especially as people with little money tend to buy just enough for the next meal. (The same is true for restaurants. In the next block, there were four places selling balleadas and chicken and basic meals. Another one opened this week.)
All things considered, I prefer Honduras shopping to a North American mall full of stuff I don�t want, in stores that look the same. (Though the big cities here have quite lavish malls, with the same overpriced brands.)
Not always, of course, Our electric toothbrush conked out, probably the victim of the erratic power supply here. Finding a replacement anywhere within three hours is unlikely. And I�m still baffled that in our hunt for small household appliances we walked past the tiny sign for Zapateria�s Faby - Faby�s Shoestore - a dozen times before someone told us the store had actually moved into selling household goods, motorcycles and more several years ago, but never changed the name or the sign.
I don�t know how the new registers are going to work out at Bodega Gloria. But if it means they�ll run out of yoghurt less often, I�m rooting for them.

Filling garbage bags with gasoline - what could go wrong?


Canadian cross-border shopper filling garbage bags with gas.
I worry sometimes that my blog posts are too critical of Honduras, especially given how meagre my understanding of what's going on, and why.
But things do leap out at you. Last month, we were at a great wedding in a nearby town. As we came back to our hotel after a wander through the relative urbanity of Santa Rosa de Copan, we smelled gas. The gas station across the street was getting a shipment for its underground tanks. The gasoline came in a couple of plastic totes in the back of a pickup truck. An open trough - it looked like a section of eavestroughing - was carrying a little river of gas from the truck to the pipe leading to the tank.
Service station gas delivery, Honduran-style
What could possibly go wrong? Sure, a half-ton carrying enough gas to generate a massive fireball in the event of a fender bender is worrying. And an open stream of gas in a busy parking lot might seem risky. But they had signs. (The same parking lot, I note, where a driver cut the corner and ran over the side of my foot with no apparent concern.)
So I was pleased to see this story on the Times Colonist website, about a British Columbia driver spotted saving money on gas in Bellingham. His strategy included filling garbage bags with gas for the trip home. (I would pay money to watch someone try and fill a car gas tank using a garbage bag.)
I liked the quote from Sgt. Mark Dennis of the Washington State Patrol: "In a bag like that, it's probably not a safe idea."
But mostly I liked the reminder that Honduras has no monopoly on odd behaviour.

Who was minding the ICBC store?

A government internal audit has apparently discovered mismanagement at ICBC. The Crown corporation president is leaving, and it has pledged to chop 135 management positions by June 2014. The report found that between 2007 and 2011 the corporation reduced union ranks by one per cent, but added 32 per cent more management positions. The compensation costs for management increased by 50 per cent over five years, while union compensation costs increased by nine per cent.
In part, the review found, that was because managers had a "generous" bonus plan "with easily met criteria resulting in almost all staff receiving them." Management pay, perqs and benefits were also more generous than other branches of the public sector.
"A culture of cost-containment and financial discipline has been lacking in recent years," the audit found. "ICBC's expense policies are generous when compared to the B.C. public service with exceptions approved by senior management."
Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said he was unhappy, and things had to change. But he's been the minister responsible for ICBC since March 2011. Shirley Bond and others were responsible before him. They could have read the annual reports and asked some questions.
And, of course, the Liberal government appointed the board of directors, including party supporters, who bear responsibility for the corporation's direction.
Then there's the legislature committee on Crown corporations, with MLAs from both parties tasked with providing oversight and direction.
Except the premier's office decides if they can meet. And the Crown corporation committee hasn't met since 2008. (The education committee hasn't met since 2006; the aboriginal affairs committee hasn't met since 2003. MLAs are named to the committees every year, there are important issues they could examine and committees in other jurisdictions are an important part of the democratic process. Not in B.C.)
If the corporation has been mismanaged, it means the government failed in its reponsibility.

And another thing:

The Liberal government's internal disorganization and scandals have played a significant role in these problems.
Since 2007, seven different ministers have been responsible for ICBC - Falcon, Bond, John Van Dongen (now a Conservative), Kash Heed, Rich Coleman, John Les and Iain Black. None of them had time to become knowledgeable, and the board faced a succession of new ministers, none of whom were around long enough to make a difference. It's an irresponsible way to manage a critical Crown corporation, and a symptom of the chaos that has afflicted the province since the 2009 election.

The marketing folly of renaming Copan Ruinas

President Lobo in Copan Ruinas    La Prensa
As a stranger here, I struggle with how much to rely on my observations about Honduras, based as they are on limited information (and given my bad Spanish).
For example, it has struck me that Hondurans don't get marketing. But that's based on limited experience in the country, and I wondered if I was just wrong.
Then President Porfirio Lobo came to our town Thursday, and bolstered my confidence in my judgment.
The president was in Copan Ruinas to celebrate the International Day of Indigenous Peoples at the archeological site. And, out of the blue, he proposed renaming the town.
They aren't Mayan ruins, he said, they are a holy site. Lobo said he doesn't like the name and the government should change it to Copan Galel, recognizing a Chorti chief - the Chorti are considered descendants of the Mayans - who led an unsuccessful resistance against the Spanish invaders.
But Copan Ruinas is one of probably three Honduran destinations that international tourists might have heard about. (Roatan and Utila, beautiful Caribbean islands with great diving, being the other two.) The Mayan ruins, a kilometre outside town, are spectacular, if still not widely enough known.
Changing the name would damage a Honduran tourism industry that's already struggling under the triple whammy of the global recession, lingering effects of the 2009 coup and Honduras' unhappy claim to the highest murder rate in the world.
Tour operators would be offering a chance to visit Copan Galel, a place travellers had never heard of, in a country they had mostly heard bad things about. It is, as local reaction quickly confirmed, a really bad idea, especially from a marketing perspective. Critics also noted there are a lot more serious issues facing the country, and its impoverished indigenous population, then our town's name. (As a Canadian, I'm no position to comment on the lives of native people in any other country.)
My observation that Hondurans don't get marketing was based, until Lobo's anouncement, on random observations.
My bus trip to Tegucigalpa last week reinforced one of them. Near Lago de Yojoa, a beautiful lake, there was about a three-kilometre stretch of roadside highway vendors - all selling big heaps of pineapples and bananas in exactly the same way. No one made even a tiny effort to offer a selling point - a price, a pledge that the pineapples were fresher or the bananas a better variety.
It's the same in Copan, where melon season brings three or four pickup trucks heaped with melons, all the same and all at the same price. No one has a little sign saying 'Picked this morning' or 'Organic.' No one plants a different variety that will ripen a little earlier, or later, than the rest.
Honey is always sold in recycled, 26-ounce glass bottles. No labels. Just big bottles of honey, on roadside stands or sold door-to-door.
So if you buy from one woman, whose hives are in a great location beside a meadow rich in sweet flowers, there's no way to try and buy from her again, because there are no labels. No one does a banana honey, or dark honey, or tries small, stylish jars to sell to tourists.
It's all honey.
During Spanish classes, I talked with my teacher about corn production in the many small farms around the town. Most of it is for the family - corn, as tortillas, and beans provide 81 per cent of the total calories consumed in the basic Honduran diet.
But any surplus is sold. Farmers can process the corn in two ways. After the corn dries on the stalk, they can husk them, pick out the bad kernels, put the ears in a net bag and beat them with sticks until the kernels come off. Or they can put the whole ears in a machine that strips the kernels.
Machine processing, my teacher said, is faster but the bad kernels - bug-damaged - aren't culled, and the corn can spoil more quickly.
So, I asked, do you charge more for hand-processed corn?
The answer was no. The better corn sells a bit more quickly. But in terms of price, corn is corn.
It's not just agricultural products. Furniture makers all produce more or less the same kinds of tables and chairs at the same prices. I went to a workshop for producers on increasing value, and the notion of design as a sales tool, or trying different products, was not really on their radar.
Restaurants, hotels, stores, people offering horseback rides - few operations appear to have given much thought to letting people know about their businesses, let alone offering a reason to choose them.
We've gone too far the other way in North America, with marketing more important than the actual product or services. New, improved, life-changing - the hype is largely empty, and expensive.
But finding ways to add value - to get just a little more for your products, or labour - should be on the agenda for Hondurans and their businesses.

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Our man in Honduras and a gang truce


Gang members, Adam Blackwell, in El Salvador jail      elsalvador.com
Canadians don't make the papers in Honduras very often.
But last week, Adam Blackwell got a full page in El Tiempo when he showed up to talk about peace talks between the maras in order to reduce the murderous turf battles.
Blackwell is a Canadian and career diplomat, currently the "Secretary of Multidimensional Security at the Organization of American States."
He's also Canada's representative on one of the many efforts to reduce crime and corruption here - the 
Honduran Public Security Reform Commission, created by Congress earlier this year. The notion is that the independent panel will design and oversee a process to improve security, including investigating the work of the national police and the courts. There are three members named by the Honduran government - a former university head, a sociologist and former cabinet minister. Blackwell, named by Canada, and Aquiles Blu Rodriguez, named by Chile, are to provide independent international advice. (Rodriguez, a retired general in Chile's national police force, is a controversial choice. He was accused of corruption in 2011.)
It's not a great job. No job that comes with both driver and bodyguard is. The problems of corruption and crime - Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world - are entrenched.
But Blackwell's effort to promote - or at least explore - the idea of peace talks between the gangs shows a welcome willingness to take real action.
He's already been involved in a similar effort in El Salvador, which seems to be working. Murders have dropped from 14 a day to four, the government reports, as gang members quit killing each other. The OAS has been monitoring and supervising the truce.
It's a controversial idea, and is at best a first step. Just because the gangs have stopped killing each other doesn't mean they have cut down on the robberies and extortion that push up crime rates. (In fact, some critics have argued crime has increased since gang members don't have to worry about being gunned down. Blackwell says there are no statistics to refute or support the claim.)
But something has to be done to reduce the murder rate and start to address the gang problem. Estimates have put gang membership at 36,000 in Honduras. (There are 14,000 in the national police.) The two main gangs - Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Mara 18, or M18, - have their roots in Los Angeles, started by the children of a wave of Central American immigrants in the 1980s. They've grown into full-scale multinationals, in part because of a U.S. policy of deporting non-citizen offenders instead of dealing with them in the justice system. That's helped the gangs spread rapidly throughout this region.
They are ultra-violent. That's not surprising in a country with lots of guns, few economic opportunities, a large population of young men and an ineffective police and justice system, but the extent to which the taboo against killing has been lost is striking.
And they touch the lives of many Hondurans in urban areas, collecting "a war tax" from businesses and bus drivers and others, on penalty of death. (Why call it a war tax? The name is a leftover from the civil wars in Central America when non-government forces collected what they called war taxes to fund their operations.)
The El Salvador truce was negotiated by MS-13 and M18 gang leaders sharing a maximum security prison, who called on a Catholic bishop and leftist former politician to broker the deal. The OAS has effectively been a guarantor. The gang leaders said they were tired of the endless war and revenge killings. Thought the government might have promised better prison placements as part of the deal.
Blackwell was in Honduras to meet with Bishop Romulo Emiliani, who already has credibility with the gangs. He walked into the middle of a prison riot in March - and prison riots here are grisly - and not only wasn't killed, but got them to quit fighting and allow police in.
Central American countries have tended to opt for the "iron fist" approach to gangs. That's crowded jails, but hasn't made a dent in crime and violence. (Sounds familiar.)
So a truce - between the gangs, and between the gangs and society, makes sense. Stopping the rampant killing isn't a solution, but it's not a bad first step. And the Salvadoran agreement includes a commitment to quit recruiting adolescents, another good step if it holds up.
The next stage involves finding alternatives to crime - not easy in a country with widespread unemployment and poverty, especially for 35-year-old gang members with a web of tattoos across their faces.
But talking is a start. And it's interesting that a Canadian is taking the lead.

Update: 
La Prensa reports that a police raid on gang members seized Beretta, Ruger and Glock handguns, an Uzi submachine gun, three fragmentation grenades, 560 rounds of ammunition and homemade bombs. What makes the seizure particularly newsworthy is that gang members in question were in prison.

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