'In many ways, the state is no longer functioning'

I'm still trying to figure out how things work, or don't work, in Honduras by reading the newspapers.
It's baffling. (Maybe it would also be baffling for a Honduran trying to figure out Canada by reading the newspapers there.)
I've been struck lately by the sense that there are a lot of reports on things going wrong, but little analysis to pull them into some coherent framework, or show how they're related.
La Prensa reported that the public hospital in Tocoa, a city of about 45,000, is being evicted by the building owner because the health ministry hasn't paid the rent for 10 months. But it didn't say why the hospital is in a rented building or why the payments weren't made, or what would happen to patients. In the same vein, the meal suppliers are cutting off service to the main teaching hospital in Tegucigalpa, the capital, because they say they haven't been paid. The hospital administration was such a mess that the government transferred management to the University of Honduras last year. The new regime won't accept responsibility for bills predating its takeover.
Fortunately, Associated Press reporter Alberto Arce, based in Tegucigalpa for about a year, has done an excellent job of looking at the bigger picture.

"Street surveillance cameras in one of the world's most dangerous cities were turned off last week because Honduras' government hasn't paid millions of dollars it owes. The operator that runs them is now threatening to suspend police radio service as well.
"Teachers have been demonstrating almost every day because they haven't been paid in six months, while doctors complain about the shortage of essential medicines, gauze, needles and latex gloves.
"This Central American country has been on the brink of bankruptcy for months, as lawmakers put off passing a budget necessary to pay for basic government services. Honduras is also grappling with $5 billion in foreign debt, a figure equivalent to last year's entire government budget . . . ."
It's worth reading the entire piece here.

(Arce also took an interesting look at his own work life in a report here.)

MLAs' expense allowance lets almost one-in-four buy second homes in the capital

MLAs� living expense benefits are likely too rich when 18 of them have been able to buy second homes in the capital.
It�s reasonable to cover living costs for MLAs from outside the capital region when they�re here on business.
But when almost 25 per cent of eligible MLAs use the expense allowance to help buy second homes in one of the province�s most expensive markets, the payments  deserve a tough look. (The information is from disclosure statements. A few have half-interests in the properties.)
MLAs� decision to give themselves big pay raises and lavish pension plans in 2007 attracted much attention. (Rightly, of course. About 75 per cent of working British Columbians have no pension plan, but pay higher taxes so MLAs can have a gold-plated plan. The average pay for B.C. MLAs is now $118,000, more than the income of 96 per cent of tax filers in the province.)
But MLAs also voted for big changes in their benefits.
MLAs had been eligible for an allowance when they had to be in the capital on business. The amount - $150 per day - was judged enough to cover meals and a hotel room. Some members - mostly cabinet ministers - were in Victoria enough that the per diem allowed them to rent a place, or in a handful of cases buy a residence.
In 2007, MLAs decided they needed more. 
The new deal gives them $61 a day for meals, no receipts required. 
And it provides generous housing allowances. MLAs can rent, and claim up to $19,000 a year in expenses with receipts. Or they can claim $12,000 a year and not have to provide any receipts.
And they can also claim taxpayers� funds to support the purchase of a second home in the capital, based on the same approach. With receipts, they can get up to $19,000 a year for �property taxes, strata fees, if any, insurance, basic telephone and Internet service, parking and furniture rental.� 
Or they can just claim $12,000 a year with no receipts. (It�s notable that MLAs believe they need up to $19,000 for a second home, but single parent with two children on disability assistances is allowed less than $8,000. Their children must not need housing up to MLA standards.)
The new rates are a good deal for MLAs from outside the capital region, or they wouldn�t be buying the condos and houses.
But is it a good deal for taxpayers, especially when the legislature sits so rarely? The legislature has been sitting about 47 days a year. Committee work and other meetings could bring an MLA to Victoria for another 30 days a year. Under the old system, he or she would get about $7,700 for accommodation. Enough for a nice hotel or long-term rental.
Under the new system, taxpayers pay at least $12,000, maybe more - a 56 per cent increase. (The extra costs might be less for MLAs or ministers who are here more often.)
Part of the problem in assessing the benefits is that MLAs continue to cloak their spending in secrecy, despite repeated promises to provide a proper breakdown. It�s impossible to tell what they�re doing with the housing allowance - or even whether the rules are being followed.
The whole plan was presented and approved without any rationale, justification or assessment of the increased costs to taxpayers. 
The government picked three panelists to examine pay, pension and benefits - two senior lawyers and a business professor. Their average income was well over $200,000. Their perspective on compensation would inevitably be skewed by their own experiences. Unlike past compensation committees, there was no one earning the average B.C. wage of abut $40,000. No one, as the BC Liberals used to proclaim in the old days, �Thinking like a taxpayer.�
There are better approaches. For more than two decades, Washington state has used a 16-person salary commission to deal with pay for elected officials. One member is selected at random from the voters' list in each of nine geographical areas. The politicians appoint five members - one each from universities, business, personnel management, the law and organized labour. The state's HR department and universities get to name one person each. 
I don�t know if the allowances are reasonable, or fair. But when so many MLAs are able to buy second homes, they deserve a close look.

Murder in the city, daily life and tourism

Honduras took another hit this week when a British tourist was shot and killed in San Pedro Sula, the biggest city. 
The headlines in the British media, naturally, weren�t good. Most stories noted Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, which seems to be the main thing people know about the country.
Honduras, for tourists, isn�t dangerous. My partner�s son and his family - including boys 11 and 13 - just spent six weeks here, feeling secure and welcome everywhere they went.
But Kaya Omer, the 33-year-old British tourist, had a different, tragic experience. 
It�s hard to tell tourists there are two Honduras. Copan Ruinas, Tela, Santa Rosa de Copan, most smaller communities are completely safe for travellers. The big cities are dangerous. 
The risk is that people will either be scared from the whole country, or not scared enough where they should be.
Omer was walking and shooting video in a nice San Pedro Sula neighbourhood around 11 a.m. Accounts vary, but it seems two young men and a woman tried to steal the camera, and his backpack, which contained two more cameras, an iPad and money. He resisted, they shot him.
You can�t blame the victim. But when we go to Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula, we carry nothing when we walk. Certainy not a backpack of valuables; if you travel with possessions in the city, you take a cab, with a driver you know. (Most Hondurans do the same if they can.)
During our in-country Cuso orientation, we learned to be ready to avoid eye contact and hand whatever we had over to a robber if it came to that. (And to carry at least a reasonable amount of money so the bad guys wouldn�t get mad at a mingy payday.)
But how do you give tourists that kind of advice and still expect them to visit? We found the orientation, with its bleak scenarios, alarming, and we were committed.
The real solution, of course, is to reduce the crime and violence. Tourists almost never experience crime, but urban Hondurans - especially those without the money to insulate themselves - live with the risk every day. Small businesses, taxi drivers, vendors in the city pay weekly extortion to stay safe.
Two days after Omer was killed, President Porifirio Lobo said security has improved this year. �Everyone feels that has gotten better,� he said.
But it�s hard to find anyone who actually say that. Some groups are predicting the murder rate will be higher again for 2012. There might have been a few tiny steps on police corruption. Drug seizures are up. (But Canadians have learned giant seizures don�t make a bit of difference to the trade, supply or crime.) But life hasn�t changed, or security improved, for Hondurans.
The Observatorio de la Violencia just reported on 2012 massacres, events in which three or more people were killed in the same attack. There were 115, killing 432 people. Half were gang executions, and another eight per cent involved fights between gangs. Imagine a mass murder in B.C. every week, based on the relative populations.
There are no easy solutions. The enforcement and justice systems don�t work - more 90 per cent of murders go unsolved. �Impunity� is a big public complaint. Some people are just above the law.
Still, efforts could be made. El Salvador reported a 41 per cent drop in murders in 2012 as a result of a truce between the two major gangs. That took the rate to 38 murders per hundred thousand people, from 65 in 2011. The Honduran rate in 2011 was 87; Canada�s was 1.7. (The deal was facilitiated by Adam Blackwell, a Canadian diplomat now on the Honduran Public Security Reform Commission. He has raised the idea of a similar truce in Honduras.)
It�s far from a cure-all. But two or three fewer murders a day would free up a lot of police time.
The frustrating thing, again, is that Honduras is safe for tourists, or as safe as their home countries. You can walk the streets of Copan Ruinas late at night without fear, people are welcoming and they are eager for you to like their country. 
But it�s asking a lot to expect people to ignore the headlines.

Liberals suffer big self-inflicted damage in three ridings: What's gone wrong?

The Liberals� fumbling in three potential swing ridings is baffling. They�re spending big money on political advisors and campaign staff (some from party funds, some from taxpayers).
But the Liberals have suffered self-inflicted wounds in three ridings - Vernon-Monashee, Boundary-Similkameen and Abbotsford-South. 
Polls point to an easy New Democrat victory. If the Liberals hope for a surprise win, they�ll need those seats.
Instead, they�re giving the advantage to rivals.
In Boundary-Similkameen, the Liberals have bounced sitting MLA John Slater. Publicly, they say he has �personal issues that, in our view, impact his ability to represent the party.� Privately, Liberal operatives have whispered he has a drinking problem.
Slater says no. He�s naturally outspoken, he says, and that�s uncommon in caucus. He concedes the interaction of prescription drugs and antihistamines and �a glass of wine� might have affected him on a few occasions, including in a caucus meeting after he had a glass of wine at lunch.
That�s not a great explanation. Many people have decided a glass of wine at lunch isn�t a great idea; certainly after one bad episode that would seem prudent.
But the party people could have convinced Slater to step aside. An delegation of MLAs could have talked to him. Or the party could have backed another candidate in a nomination contest and let party members in the riding decide.
Instead, Slater says, they came to him in December, claimed polls showed he couldn�t win and pressured to go quietly or else. He thinks the polls were fake. The riding association president quit in protest.  An Osoyoos Times editorial described the party�s treatment of Slater as �abhorrent, disgusting, amateurish, disrespectful and childish.� 
And now that he�s been turfed as a Liberal, Slater is running as an independent.
Which is bad news for the likely Liberal candidate, Oliver Mayor Linda Larson, who had been lined up in advance by the big guys. (Real nomination meetings have certainly become rare in some parties.)
Slater won the 2009 election with 38 per cent of the vote. The NDP candidate came second with 33 per cent, the Conservatives third with 20.
So if Slater takes 10 per cent of the vote and some Liberal supporters stay home because they don�t like the way their MLA was treated, the NDP wins easily.
These kinds of situations are difficult. There was likely no tidy outcome. But this seems a  good example of how not to do it.
The situation in Abbotsford-South is similar. Abbotsford Coun. Moe Gill was encouraged to run for the Liberal nomination. He signed up 1,500 members and had a lock on an open contest.
But then Rich Coleman and party brass told him they had decided Daryl Plecas, a Fraser Valley University crime prof, should be the candidate and there would be no real nomination contest.
Gill initially bowed to the pressure, changed his mind, and is now running as a motivated and angry independent.
Again, bad news for the Liberals. Plecas will compete with Gill, incumbent John van Dongen and a Conservative for the traditional Liberal vote.
In the last election, van Dongen won with 59 per cent of the vote, with the NDP candidate at 26 per cent. This time, the NDP actually has a chance, although van Dongen remains the favorite.
And then there is Okanagan North. 
Liberal MLA Eric Foster, chair of the legislative committee responsible for appointing an auditor general, has been under fire for his role in the decision not to re-appoint John Doyle. 
In part, because Foster remained chair even though he was singled out for criticism in an auditor general�s report last year.
The auditor general�s office raised concern about a potential conflict of interest, as Foster spent $67,000 on renovations for a new constituency office in a building owned by the family of his assistant. Foster referred that issue to the conflict commissioner, who found no wrongdoing.
The auditor general also raised concerns that Foster requested $78,000 in reimbursements for the landlord without any supporting documents - receipts, quotes, evidence of value for money. About $67,000 was eventually paid. (Foster says no one told him of the report.)
Foster refuses to provide the documents. And Conservative candidate Scott Anderson has questioned the spending, alleging the family of the constituency assistant bought the building a week before the election, and the downtown office used by Tom Christensen, Foster�s predecessor, cost taxpayers about 40 per cent less a year.
Not the Liberal party�s fault. But the leadership�s inaction - the bad decision on Doyle, the failure to make Foster produce the documents, the long delay in facing the problem - let the questions build. (Christy Clark finally tried to address the Doyle issue this week.)
In 2009, the Liberals won in Vernon-Monashee with 37 per cent of the vote. The NDP candidate came second with 32 per cent, Greens third with 17 per cent and Conservatives fourth with eight. 
Conservative candidate Scott Anderson has received good local media coverage on the constituency office issue. Even a small Conservative gain would mean a Liberal loss.
One blunder, you could chalk up to the nature of politics. Not everything goes right. 
Three strikes should worry Liberal supporters. 
Footnote: The other questions are how these missteps affect donors and volunteers. Top-down campaigns, where candidates are picked by a handful of party strategists, risk alienating the local troops. And no one wants to give money to a losing cause, or if there are doubts it will be spent competently.

Another bizarre and alarming twist in the auditor general scandal

The Times Colonist has a damaging story and column on the decision not to reappoint John Doyle as auditor general.
Rob Shaw and Les Leyne reveal that Liberal MLA Eric Foster, the chairman of the committee that turfed Doyle, was cited for spending and conflict concerns in an auditor general�s report in October - �the only MLA singled out.�
The devastating audit identified widespread sloppy management practices of MLA expenses and $63 million in legislature spending.
And it cited the case of $78,000 paid to the landlord for renovations at Foster�s constituency office in 2009.
Doyle raised several issues. First, there was a possible conflict of interest, he found. The rented office was in a building owned by the family of Foster�s constituency assistant. The renovations benefited the family.
Foster took that concern to conflict commissioner Paul Fraser, who cleared him.
The October audit also found the bill for renovations was �"paid without an appropriate level of review for reasonableness and without adequate supporting documentation." 
Foster's staff provided only a spreadsheet showing $67,000 in work, without invoices, details or evidence quotes were obtained for the work to get the best price.
The payment also violated policy on renovations in rented offices, which are to be covered only if specified in the lease. The auditor was told Speaker Bill Barisoff ordered the payment to be made.
It seems clear Foster should have quit the committee, given the possible perception that he had an axe to grind with Doyle. 
This is where things get bizarre. Foster says he never knew the spending was questioned in the audit. So serious concerns are raised, and no one in government or legislature even bothered to ask him about them. He didn't think the auditor's concern about conflict was significant enough to justify stepping aside
A remarkably sloppy way to treat the public�s money, and handle an important appointment.

The land where fireworks are king

I�ve lived in places where they set off fireworks to celebrate different cultural events, but Hondurans are the most enthusiastic.
Fireworks here feature in the Christmas and New Year�s celebrations. They start early. We were listening to the whistles and bangs - some quite resounding - by mid-December. The really big explosions are at Christmas and New Year�s. 
I grew up in Ontario, and fireworks were pretty much a one-night thing, on Victoria Day. In Quebec, fireworks were a St. Jean Baptiste Day tradition, although more subdued. (Or maybe just more subdued for anglophones.)
When we moved to Victoria, things got stranger. Fireworks were part of Halloween. Times Colonist columnist Jack Knox suggested that since British Columbians already had excited children in masks running around dark streets, and fireworks, they might as well legalize drunk driving for the night and go for the danger trifecta. 
The late Jack (the Wonder Dog, not the columnist) hated Halloween firecrackers, hiding as best he could. But it was usually brief - one night, with occasional bursts before or after.
In Honduras, fireworks are a year-round affair. There is a birthday tradition of blasting the lucky celebrant awake at 5 a.m. with fireworks and music. The road between La Entrada and Santa Rosa de Copan has a collection of firework stands, all identical, selling products made in small factories in nearby towns. (Though the stands increase in the run up to Christmas. I counted 28 on one side of the highway.)
There is a certain danger in all this. In October, a fireworks factory blew up killing the owner, injuring five workers and damaging nearby houses. Tegucigalpa, the capital, has tried to ban fireworks because of the number of kids showing up in emergency wards with burns and missing fingers.
In a country with an average 21 murders a day, firework enforcement might seem less urgent. But policing priorities are always hard to understand. In December, La Prensa reported police had swept in on eight stores selling knock-off Pepe jeans and seized their stock. Protecting the value of a global billion-dollar brand took priority, apparently, over protecting people riding the buses.
Of course we bought fireworks, from the back of a truck parked outside Bodega Gloria and from a neighbour who had set up a table in front of his house. We�ve had youngsters - grandboys,with family - visiting from Canada for a while, and cheap, potentially dangerous firecrackers, Roman candles and mariposas and little balls you throw down to the ground to produce a satisfying bang all seemed attractive.
We set a few off in Copan Ruinas to celebrate surviving the end of the world. 
Though, actually, we had a great end of the world. The ruins were open for the night, with a couple of spotlights and rows of Tiki torches. There were few people, and it was magical to wander among 1,600-year-old stone structures and sculptures under the stars, as glow bugs flashed in the grass. We climbed the stones on the side of the ball court, and went into a small room with an arched roof, and with a tiny light saw dozens of bats roosting in the stepped ceiling. We sat on the pyramids and watched the sky, and walked home very happy.
We set off a couple of fireworks on Utila for New Year�s Eve, blasting Roman Candles into the palms.
And a few more for Zachary�s 13th birthday on the beach in Tela, although the fireworks were a little battered by then, having travelled by bus and ferry in a crowded backpack. The Roman candle fizzled. But the mariposas - butterflies - were impressive. It�s a small firecracker, with little wings, and instead of going bang it takes off like a rocket, if you�re lucky. It dives into the ground if you aren�t.
We�re back in Copan now. Happy New Year. I hope you had fireworks.

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