July 15th, Day two with Luther

It was already hot and sunny when I awoke, and although I couldn't see it, I could feel the ocean nearby. A knight, brought back from California by the home's owner (the Cubans were renting it), stood guard on the porch:

A bird had built a home in its helmet:

I posed on my Cuban friend's request, displaying body language that indicates I should have gotten to know the knight a little better before the shot:

Inside, I took a picture of a poster outlining some of the health and revolutionary aims of the Ciriboya hospital"

I sat down in the kitchen with the veterinarian/medical engineer. His tattoos were of sea creatures; he lived for the sea, he told me. He was in charge of the solar panel-operated batteries in the house as well as those in the hospital, and he also seemed to be in charge of daily mango collection. This was a pretty easy operation, involving picking up the dozens of mangoes that had fallen overnight. Here's an image of the mango pile that morning a couple houses down the street:

He gave me three mangoes to eat with a knife, and I peeled and ate them while talking. Luther returned and joined us, having gone early to the hospital to unload all the supplies we'd had in the truck from the previous day's journey. They offered me more mangoes, and since I didn't do a good enough job of refusing them, I suddenly found a bowl with six more in front of me. Luther spoke about how nobody there did anything with their mangoes other than eat them or let them rot; in Cuba they made juice, and all sorts of other value-added products. Convincing his people to make mango juice was one of his side projects.

We spoke about the war in Afghanistan, we spoke about the San José negotiations, we spoke about Arias and Obama, and the Cuban shook his head in disgust. "Esos premios le faltan respeto a Nobel," he said. One I polished off my ninth mango, we set off.

We made a quick stop (and some delicious baleadas) at a neighbor's standalone kitchen building, where I couldn't help noticing the ingenious ways that she (or some other inhabitant) had found to hang every single kitchen implement, pot and pan on the walls and ceiling. I had plenty of time to look around, since the three other people in the room (the neighbor, Luther, and Luther's "¡a escupir afuera!" friend Tito) were speaking in Garifuna and I only understood the occasional cognate. It was clear, though, from the tone, that they were having the same sort of ribald fun that Luther seemed to have in all his Spanish-language conversations. After that we drove through a short strip of town, past an elementary school with a bunch of uniformed children playing, through a river that we had forded the night before in the dark; this time I got to see just how deep we were- it was a small miracle the water didn't make it onto the floor.

At the clinic, a small number of Ladino and Garifuna patients waited on the bench at the entryway, and the one remaining healthy Cuban doctor waved at us with a smile. Luther gave me a tour. The small but well-stocked pharmacy was in the room to right of the entrance. Back wall:

Front wall, facing the road:

side wall, by the door:

Opposite the pharmacy, to the left of the open-air entryway was a reception office/exam room:

A young woman lay on a bed next to her mother while the doctor prepared something for her in the sala de partos (birthing room? maternity hall?), which was inside the hospital, behind the pharmacy:

In the back of the same hall, behind a screen, was the gynecological exam table, which I simultaneously discoved is called a "mule" in Spanish:

Across the hallway from the sala de partos, behind the reception office, was another hall with several beds and a variety of equipment.

Luther showed me the solar-owered batteries in the back of the hall; these charged from panels on the hospital's roof. As with the solar powered stoves, it just made sense to use this interminable resource. But also, no other electricity infrastructure existed. When the lights went out a couple months ago causing widespread panic throughout the country, Ciriboya was probably tranquil.

A poster from the Honduran-Cuban friendship association:

A donated x-ray machine that sat unused in the hallway; they needed more solar panels before they would have sufficient charge to use it:

The stairs were about to be replaced (the timber was laid out on the ground below):

Upstairs, there were several murals in the waiting area. These were painted by local and international artists.

The adjoining rooms included a dental office:

...a sonogram room:

...and a couple other exam rooms. I asked Luther what happened when they got unwanted results in the ultrasonidos genéticos, if they did abortions there. He answered smoothly, not repeating the term (I asked twice), replying only that it was important to have such information, that armed with it, patients could make the decision to go to Tocoa to take whatever might be the medidas necesarias (necessary measures).

I sat with Luther and a number of other people at the bottom of the stairs. Someone had moved one of the new stair planks to use as a temporary bench, unearthing a number of squirming larvae, which Tito ("¡A escupir afuera! ¡Fuimonos pues!") explained to me were the larvae of those flying cockroaches that invaded people's home by the thousands every night. The larvae were squirming around in a deathly dance, as, having become suddenly unprotected from hordes of carniverous ants, they were being eaten alive. It was fascinating:

There were several conversations about the wood and the bichos. A patient's mother sitting out there with us said the best way to prevent termite damage was by soaking the wood in a mixture of diesel and bleach. When the doctor came out and told us, laughing, about the different places she'd found the flying cockroaches crawling around at night (in her ears, in her mouth), jokes about other places the clever bugs would want to crawl had everyone in stitches.I think I heard some more viagra jokes in there somewhere as well- I scribbled a note to that effect in my notebook.

An extremely blond young Canadian woman came by. She was working with a microcredit health-care oriented NGO that only gave loans to women (since in the H. Clintonite neoliberal project, young men are an unreconstructable project, and native patriarchy—not imperialism and structural violence—is to blame for poverty). The loans they gave were of 750 lempiras, a laughable sum even in Honduras (under USD$40). In order to qualify, local women had to attend 8 training sessions, and the loans were only given to groups of women. Luther joked to her that he should give him a loan- no wait, he didn't want debt— or that she should donate something to the hospital- oh wait, he was a man (but the doctors and nurses and many patients were women!). He ribbed her gently about how her NGO supposedly had a healthcare focus, and here was the most important healthcare project on the North Coast (and probably in the country) and they'd never cooperated. She was noncommittal, and instead joked about how she'd have to find a Garifuna boyfriend to learn the language. I later asked Luther what he thought about the kind of microcredit model she was pushing. At that point she'd voiced a number of what seemed to me derogatory judgments about the lack of initiative of Garifuna people leading to an unsustainable level of development, and about the fact that it was a problem that they didn't have a culture of debt (or, that they were hesitant about receiving outside loans). Luther laughed, and said he wouldn't touch that. I admire his ability to work with so many different types of people, without ever ceding his own convictions.

Luther told me construction had started on the Ciriboya hospital in 2005 and was completed in 2008. It was a community effort with all volunteer labor. The elders had told him it could never be done, he had told me the day before in the car, laughing. People like to tell you you can't do things they've never tried. He told me the cost of the materials donated for construction and equipment had been USD$687,000. So far, he said, 406,000 patients had been attended at no cost, and if you were to calculate that at a cost of $50 per visit, then the hospital had saved the Honduran State USD$20,300,000. Of course, this is a somewhat deceptive calculation, since it'd be hard to really call that a savings for a government that has never concerned itself with the health or well-being of its remote coastal and Garifuna populations in the first place. The Honduran government (and neoliberal health industry in general) operates on the logic of Philip Morris's late-90s death benefit to society; the quicker those people die, the less society has to take care of them.

Luther and the community had plans for expanding the hospital. They wanted to build new wings, to provide sections for natural and Garifuna medicine and a surgery ward. Originally, Luther had attempted to bring in trained nurses from other parts of Honduras, but there are few Hondurans who want to live somewhere so remote and treat mostly Garifuna patients as part of a revolutionary social project that pays little-to-no salary. So he made a deal with the Cubans to bring nursing instructors from their nursing schools to live in Ciriboya, and they trained several local women as nurses. This was preferable, because they are better trained than most Honduran nurses (although they're not certified in Honduras, because their training is considered Cuban), and they are local Garifunas who speak the language and are fully dedicated to the project. They are so dedicated, in fact, that while Luther actively searches for donations from abroad to pay their salaries, they have worked for free for years. It is a project that inspires so much community pride and gratitude that, with the support of their families and neighbors, the nurses find a way to make it happen. They'd be able to do a lot more, however, if they did get paid, so if you or your organization have anything to donate, please do. This is a bona fide worthwhile, community-building, educating, quality healthcare providing, anti-profit project.

As we walked around the hospital, I saw Luther peeling the decal logos of various aid organizations off the exit signs. "They don't get to take credit for what we've done!" he said, telling me this was a project of Garifuna solidarity and not NGO or USAID money. Just because they'd donated some evacuation route signs didn't mean they should get free corporate advertising. I managed to find one strip he hadn't removed to get a picture:

Suddenly I was being piled into the truck again, with a large number of other people (including the Canadian), and driven off. We rode past a man with a Pepe Ya! cap on known to my fellow riders, provoking jokes along the lines of those aimed at the friend wearing the Clinton/Gore tee the previous night. There were also a series of onanism jokes (one cousin we drove past was apparently el máximo exponente del onanismo), which put everyone in even better spirits. We arrived at a large, pretty building with some local police and other people milling about. It turned out to be the municipal building (painted a festive shade of aqua) for the mancomunidad. I found myself being shuffled into the mayor's office upstairs. The mayor, who didn't look Garifuna and who spoke to Luther in Spanish, acted duly impressed with my degree, which Luther emphasized at the beginning of the meeting that had nothing to do with me. I chuckled at his skill and scribbled in my notes: "feels like me & blondie are here as social capital."

Luther was asking for some financial assistance for his upcoming medical student brigade, which seemed to be of clear benefit to the community.

Luther had a number of diabetes meds that were nearing expiration date, and so had planned an elaborate brigada estudiantil de salud in which 100 of the Honduran med students on vacation from Cuba had volunteered to go from house to house, giving dengue and diabetes education, but also doing basic public health assessments. They would also have a survey instrument, Luther told the mayor, to find out how many houses have elderly people who are bedridden and/or people needing wheelchairs, children who aren't in school, and if you, sir, have any question you'd like to add to the survey, please let us know (...cuantos viejos encamados, cuantos niños que no han acabado el colegio, y si usted tiene alguna pregunta que quiere agregar al instrumento ahí nos avisa). The student volunteers ranged from the first through the sixth year of med school, and their tasks would vary accordingly.

The Honduran med student in Cuba effort was impressive. 50 Garifuna students are currently on scholarship studying medicine in Cuba, largely inspired by Luther's example. That's out of about 150 total students.

Luther stressed to the mayor, who seemed to be very much in agreement, just how much more his medical teams had been able to accomplish with minimal resources than most public and private hospitals in Honduras. He said, "yo he visto a enfermeras haciendo crochet en los centros de salud" ("I've seen nurses crocheting at the government health centers"), to which the mayor shook his head in agreement, laughing. Luther told him how important it was to train more midwives- it would only cost 300 lempiras per birth, but made such a big difference in mother and child health. Luther spoke of the problem that nurses did not go out into the communities, and of how corruption within the ministry of health was harming their community in particular. "Las enfermeras no salen a las comunidades- el gobierno...el ministerio de finanzas firma los cheques de los trabajadores pero no sacan el dinero- el ministerio está quedando con el dinero." He told the mayor about how the money-grubbing for-profit doctors were harming members of the community, giving the example of the patient we'd visited in Limón the previous evening, who had been told she needed to spend 78,000 lempiras (around $4,100—a huge sum for the family) on a surgery that the doctor knew damn well Luther could get her for free.

Because Luther's project has been such a success, is so popular, and has cost so little relative to the benefits it provides the community (as well as patients coming from far and wide) it's not generally a hard sell, but it does seem important to constantly remind people how much hard work goes into this labor of love. We left the office while one of the members of our group (the young man getting his doctorate at the Universidad Católica in Tegucigalpa) stayed behind to talk about an educational initiative he was working on locally. I sat and wrote down some notes on a bench outside the municipal building, which sat at the edge of the river. Boats periodically motored by. It was idyllic.

We drove back across a couple towns to the strip where the Cuban doctors' house was, and Luther stopped at the house of a friend who greeted him joyously, handing us each a piece of casave with a little piece of pork on it (a pig had been killed earlier). It was surprisingly filling. I sat in the car while Luther went inside, speaking with a variety of people animatedly in Garifuna, presumably about their health, about the community, always organizing. We crossed through the river again (twice). In this shot, we'd picked up a young passenger going home from school.

Through the windshield (note Luther's ever-present stethoscope hanging from the rear-view mirror) an old woman demonstrated the back-breaking Garifuna wood-carrying technique that had led Luther to promote solar-powered stoves:

The previous day Luther and I had discussed some of the different medical brigade experiences he had had, coordinating with teams of doctors, other healthcare workers and volunteers from different countries, mostly the United States. Most had been really good experiences, but some left him wondering. He had been to one training for brigade members in the U.S., in which the presenter had stated to those assembled that one of the goals of the brigade was to meter valores—instill values. Luther was indignant. "¿Y qué cree, que nosotros no tenemos valores?" "What do they think? We don't have values?" We spoke of the difference between solidarity and charity, and of activist imperialism, and enjoyed being on exactly the same page.

He told me about other run-ins he'd had with the system, and reasons it didn't work for his patients. Recently he had had an abundance of a particularly pricey medicine donated to his clinic, and since he would not go through all of it before its expiration date, he donated a portion to the Tocoa hospital. This enfuriated a local politician in the pharmaceutical business (one with close ties to the Ministry of Health), who had himself acquired a quantity of the same medicine with the aim of selling it to the hospital at a significant profit. Luther said the State formulary that existed for medicines for public hospitals was a big problem, as it was not geographically or population specific. The healthcare needs of his patients differ in significant ways from those of patients in Tegucigalpa. For example, on the Honduran formulary, medication to treat sickle cell anemia is not included. To treat patients, you need to address the violence of profit, the violence of debt, the violence of racism..."El concepto no es de un hospital sino de un sistema de salud gratis y universal," Luther told me. "The [ultimate goal] is not to have a hospital, but to create a free and universal health system," Luther told me.

We stopped back at the Ciriboya hospital one more time before heading off toward Vallecito, and Luther introduced me to one of the Garifuna students he'd helped send to Cuba for medical training. This young man was in his fifth year of med school, and was volunteering at the hospital on his vacation, preparing for the med student brigade we'd been speaking about earlier with the mayor. His t-shirt, featuring a Cuban-Honduran handshake, reads "I support the Honduran doctors who have attained their degrees in Cuba, doctors of soul, science, and conscience."

Here we posed in front of the hospital, from left to right (standing) Tito, one of the nurses, Luther, me, the medical student, and the Cuban doctor:

We then headed off toward Vallecito. For the couple hours until we got there, the view out the window looked like this:

Facussé land, Facussé land, and more Facussé land. How many people have been killed to support that man's obscene wealth? How many more people have died less directly (i.e., not tortured and shot up by his paramilitaries) as a result of having had their lands usurped, of having their livelihoods stolen from them? How many more people have died because they've gotten in the way of the drug trade that flourishes, protected by both military and paramilitaries, in tierra Facussé?

I took the opportunity to ask Luther and Tito again to explain to me what this whole "¡Fuimonos puesA escupir afuera!" inside joke meant. Tito told me that, when people were leaving a place (fuimonos pues could be roughly translated as "we got gone"), they no longer spat inside; they spat outside. Uh-huh, I responded, unconvinced. It was clearly funnier than that. He continued after a pause "...there are those who think it has a sexual connotation."

We waited at the entrance gate to Vallecito for one of the community members to drive out and open it for us.

To the left were young banana plantations that were starting to provide good harvests. On the right was the African Palm that had been planted by Facussé's men, after he invaded/stole (invadió) the land with 80 pistoleros (armed mercenaries). As I noted in the previous post, the rightful Garifuna landowners won an international court case against Facussé, and the land was returned during Carlos Flores Facussé's presidency. It would have been politically complicated for Flores not to comply with the ruling, since he is Miguel Facussé's nephew. It's a small, small oligarchy.

I noticed tall barbed wire fences circling around to our right as we drove toward the center of the community, and asked about them about it. "Todo eso otro tipo nos lo robó, ya no tenemos aceso a la playa. Un narco. Facussé tiene un aeropuerto por ahí. Toda esa tierra nos la robó"—"All this was stolen from us by another man, a drug lord. We don't have access to the beach any more. Facussé has an airport over there [pointing in a different direction]. All that land was stolen from us." Even after they won the court case? I asked. Even after they'd won the court case. They were again fighting the illegal land seizures in the courts; they had no other choice—trying to use force to take back their own lands, or merely reoccupying them would be a death sentence. Four or five years ago, after the young teacher and community leader Lombardo had died, while the community was in mourning, Facussé's men had come and gutted the houses of Vallecito, stripping them of anything of value and destroying everything else. They also killed two compañeros, one named Hernán and an artist and composer named Euquerío Bonilla Bernárdez. Bonilla was found tortured, with more than 30 stab and machete wounds and his ear cut off.

We all held our breath going over this bridge, which in this picture you see after the successful crossing (I was afraid to jinx it if I took it earlier). I don't know how they can do it on a daily basis:

A couple pictures of the barbed wire fences put up by Facussé to keep the people of Vallecito from reentering the land he'd stolen from them.

The center of the community was charming. Domestic animals wandered around, pigs, chickens, etc., all seeming pretty happy. I used the restroom in the small main administrative building, which had a very clean water toilet, and asked Tamy, the friendly young operations manager, for help refilling the bucket. Tamy had recently received a university degree in business administration, and, like the others, had decided to forgo a more lucrative career in the city in order to work on this community-building project back home. "Estamos en lucha" Tamy told me. "We are in the struggle." She brought we to the water tank they'd built:

...and refilled the bucket for me.

Several of us then piled into a truck to go to one of the fábricas (factories). The guys and Tamy went in the bed, and insisted I join the driver, a member of the community, in the passenger seat. It was so high I had to do something like a chin-up to get in, but I managed. All along the road were the constant reminders of Facussé's violence:

[just a caveat here- the crashed window wasn't Facussé's violence; that was from when one of the community members drove the car into a low-hanging branch that wasn't visible at night]

...the barbed wire even blocked off the stream:

The truck radio was tuned to Radio Globo. I was surprised they got reception all the way out there, and thought about just how much more the people in the so-called "periphery" knew about the urban centers than vice-versa, and thus how much better they understood the whole country.

We arrived at the factory, which I believe was intended for processing coconuts into various value-added products. Tito told me that within a month, it should be up and running.

As we walked around, Luther talked on his cell phone, organizing, organizing.

The view from the back:

These were small shower stalls, for the workers to clean off before and after processing:

Teto told me that Pepe Lobo was scheduled to fly out next month for the factory's inauguration. I asked him if that was not a direct challenge (un reto) to Facussé. He responded, "vamos a ver si Pepe tiene huevos."

...and this, Tito explained to me, was where a one-way mirror would separate the manager's office from the production area.

Really? I asked. One-way glass?

"Es una medida de control," he responded ("It's for quality control"). Luther jumped in: "Es una medida de control capitalista que se tiene que cambiar"—"It's a capitalist control mechanism that must be changed." I breathed a slight sigh of relief. Luther later said to me with a chuckle when I brought it up again ("...and what was up with that whole vidrio polarizado thing?"): "you have to understand, our engineer graduated from Zamorano." He understood the mechanics of production, but not the ideology underlying it; certainly not the ideology of architectural labor control. We have to be patient with him, Luther told me.

Back outside the main administrative office, a communique informed workers that as of April 10th, the communal food costs would no longer be deducted from their weekly salary of L.750 (around USD$40), and instead they would be responsible for their own food. While only 30-something people live full-time in Vallecito, over a hundred currently work there.

The letterhead read Empresa Agroindustrial del Coco Lemenigi Lomba. Luther explained to me that Lemenigi meant hope, and Lomba came from Lombardo, their teacher and inspiration who had died so young several years earlier. "Lombardo vino a plantar la semilla y se fue," he told me. "Lombardo came to plant the seed and then he left."

This building will be the central offices of the university:

And this will be Luther's Vallecito clinic:

The clinic is currently being used as a small classroom for community children:

And also for storing band equipment.

These instruments belong to a group called Black Men Soul, whom Luther refered to as embajadores cultural/cultural ambassadors. They do concerts to raise money for healthcare.

This is one of the houses destroyed by Facussé's men after Lombardo died. Hard to believe it had been perfectly habitable just 5 years ago:

Tamy gathered some plastic bags in the main office, to carry some of the fresh batch of tajaditas from Vallecito's plantain factory, which was already up and running.

Inside the office I took a blurry picture of one of the many signs in Garifuna. This one was translated to me as "La tierra es la arcilla de la vida; hermanos cuidemos nuestra tierra, hermanos produzcamos nuestra tierra" which translates roughly to "Land is the genesis of life; brothers [and sisters] let us care for our land, brothers [and sisters] let us work our land."

Here's half a Garifuna alphabet:

Outside, a happy-looking pig traipsed around:

As we were leaving, we stopped in one of the yucca fields while Luther pulled out a couple plants.

You can see the edible yucca root at the bottom of the uprooted tree in this picture:

Tito peeled one right away and had a few bites. Seeing my curiosity, he offered me a piece, explaining that after it was pulled out of the ground, you only had four minutes to eat it fresh, before it became tough and dull. It was delicious.

From there, Luther drove me the whole way to my next destination, Trujillo. We went back through Tocoa, past more hours of Facussé's African Palms, past the community of Guadalupe Carney. We were stopped at more roadblocks by transit police and glared at menacingly by military officers who, as Luther pointed out, had no business standing in the road in the middle of nowhere/narcolandia. On his cell phone, Luther had a loud argument about whether it was worth it to hold a meeting to plan the future of Vallecito in La Ceiba—a proposal stemming from César Ham's refusal to meet with Garifunas on Garifuna land and instead coming only to Ceiba. As a result of Ham's actions, it would be more travel for everyone else to get all the way out to the subsequent Vallecito meeting. Luther was unmoved by the argument that it was a long way to travel. "¡No me gusta la teoría!"—"I don't like theory!" he shouted with conviction. "I like action!"