Honduras This Week article (and longer version)

Emma Lovegrove, an Anthropology student at University College of London currently writing for Honduras This Week, put together this article about my WHDH tour. I'm excited to be in the publication, which is the most widely read English-language source for Honduran news. In the article, Lovegrove draws from a longer interview I did with her over email, which I'm including in its entirety below:

Firstly, what inspired you to conduct your anthropological work in Honduras? What is the history behind your relationships and work with people in this particular country?

Although I first visited Honduras in 1990, I didn't start doing research there until 1997. My decision to go to Honduras originally grew out of a desire to better understand the international process by which the clothing I wore went from design to the rack at retail stores around the U.S. Following the Kathie Lee Gifford scandal in 1996, I thought Honduras would be an interesting place to carry out a case study on the maquiladora industry. From my first research visit, however, I realized I would have to broaden my scope of analysis. Honduras is a fascinating country with such a complex history of exploitation, resistance, and poetry, that to focus on one particular industry (albeit a very important one) would have not done the Honduran people justice. The study I have done is still limited in scope–there's only so much one can fit into a book–but I have tried to make it more comprehensive than my original focus would have permitted.

With regards to my relationships with Hondurans, I have developed close friendships with three different families with whom I have lived over the years while carrying out my ethnographic research—one in La Lima, one in San Pedro Sula, and another in Tegucigalpa. These relationships are all very different in character. The members of one of the families are relatively recent, fervent converts to evangelical Christianity. Another of the families, who I got to know through their transgender daughter who sought asylum in the U.S., are devout Catholics. The third has everything from conservative army members to radical antiauthoritarian feminists. The members of all three families have survived extreme violence, and in that, tragically, they are not exceptional.

In addition to the families with whom I have lived I am lucky to have developed many close friendships over the years with Hondurans. As I write in my book, although I often find my friendships in Honduras to be more complex and challenging to maintain due to my privileged position there (as opposed to my friendships in the U.S.), they have also been more rewarding to me. I strive to create relationships of solidarity with Hondurans, rather than the patron-client relationships that characterize so many of the NGO and aid efforts in Honduras.

How long have you conducted fieldwork in Honduras, and what is your overall impression of your time in the country, in terms of the people and the place?

For my book Working Hard, Drinking Hard, I carried out fieldwork between 1997 and 2003. Rather than staying for over a year at a time, I did my fieldwork in spurts: a few months here, a few months there. I think this approach actually helped me, because not only did I get to live in a variety of different places; I also got to witness first-hand significant social changes that happened over that five-year period.

My overall impression of the country is that it is a beautiful place whose people are warm, welcoming, and living in conditions of extreme structural vulnerability. But what struck me the most, from the time I first arrived in 1997, was the fear that people live with on a daily basis. This first became clear to me in the warnings I would receive while carrying out the simplest of tasks: walking to the corner store, taking the bus, taking a picture from inside a taxi. Friends or even strangers would admonish me to be careful, and make it clear to me that by doing such things, I was practically asking to get killed. Often they would follow such warnings with gory stories of people who had been tortured, decapitated, raped, or just robbed at gunpoint nearby. I taught myself to not think–at least on a conscious level–of these things most of the time. My own experience in Honduras, after all, has not been one of violence or victimization. However, I became aware that these incessantly repeated warnings, combined with the gruesomely graphic Honduran style of (mainstream) media that I refer to as "death porn," were having an impact on who I was–on how I experienced my life through my own body. This ever-present fear, and what it did to Hondurans' sense of themselves, became one of my central research question.

You recently publicized your book “Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras” at several locations in the U.S. Is your work intended to raise awareness of the problems of inequality in Honduras? In that sense, is the book intended to campaign for human rights, and who were you reaching out to when you conducted your book launches?

I do indeed hope that my book will raise awareness about the problems of inequality in Honduras. However, beyond that, I hope it will help people to tie that inequality and its deadly consequences to a much larger international system of inequalities currently being exacerbated by the neoliberal economic model. Human rights abuses, whether they are carried out by private security guards working for companies owned by the leaders of the 1980s death squad "Battalion 316," by the underpaid and poorly-trained police force, or by maquiladora owners, are inseparable from structural adjustment programs being imposed by the IMF and World Bank, with no democratic involvement on the part of the Honduran people. Such programs have dramatically decreased the security of the Honduran people by denying them access to public education, public healthcare, and public oversight of their government, while providing massive profits to private corporations who are not required to return the favor in the form of taxes. At the same time, people have been distracted by the extremely high levels of violent crime, often carried out by agents of the state and private industry. Thus, many call for a different kind of security than that offered by education and healthcare. This arrived in Ricardo Maduro's presidency in the form of "Zero Tolerance," a draconian crime control policy imported by former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and resulted in what I call an "invisible genocide" and what Hondurans refer to as "street cleaning"–the murder of thousands of youths, primarily unemployed young men who were marked as criminals by a society that had no room for them.

So, although I am referring here to the particular case of Honduran human rights abuse, the various structures that facilitate them are international in scope. While Giuliani's policy did not result in large-scale killings in New York, many accused it of criminalizing poverty and cleaning the streets to aid economic investment that never trickled down to the poor. Zero tolerance was implemented in New York and then Honduras to stop a violent yet vague threat, "delinquency," just as the Patriot Act, which reconfigured the U.S. constitution toward creating a security state, was implemented in the name of stopping the vague enemy, "terrorism." Similarly, the privatization of schools and healthcare in the United States, part of the Washington consensus model followed by the IMF and World Bank, has significantly increased the structural vulnerability of a large part of the population, a fact which is reflected in the poor educational outcomes, and high mortality and morbidity rates among people in that country. Thus, my goal in touring the U.S. is to help people better understand structural violence in Honduras as being not so different from their own. The target audience is as broad as people who care a whit about justice. While my book contains a significant amount of social theory, it is written in language that a college freshman could understand. On this tour, much of which I did jointly with Oscar Estrada, director of the documentary film "El Porvenir," I have spoken at 12 different venues. These have included independent bookstores, Central American Resource Centers, the School of Public Health at the University of Pennsylvania, union halls, the Washington Office on Latin America, and even anarchist collectives. I have spoken with people from all over the political spectrum, which is my aim. I don't see the issue of structural violence as belonging to conservatives, liberals, deists, atheists, or any other group. It is something we should all be concerned with, and which I hope we can come together to change. But we have to start with a dialogue, with understanding.

If you do consider yourself to be a kind of militant anthropologist, how do you think that will have affected the nature of your ethnography?

Every anthropologist, and for that matter every scientist and journalist, has biases. I believe that an ethnography that takes an open political stance is much more honest than one that hides its stance behind academic jargon. Understanding the truth of any given situation (insofar as truth exists) is a necessary part of fighting to improve that situation, and ultimately to make the world a better place—something I am dedicated to, no matter how corny that may sound. In ethnographic fieldwork, it is very important that the anthropologist treat her interlocutors with deep respect and take their opinions seriously, even when she disagrees. That means that I have listened just as carefully to maquiladora owners as I have to workers, police officers, gang members, and government ministers. It was only after doing years of careful research that I developed the analytical framework I use in my book, which highlights the contradictions and ambiguities embedded in the daily choices Hondurans make.

As a militant anthropologist, I try to exercise the "preferential option for the poor," a concept that anthropologists have borrowed from liberation theologists. To me, this means not just acknowledging forms of violence experienced by the most vulnerable members in a society (in this case the majority), or even condemning them, but actively working alongside others who wish to bring about their end.

Unfortunately, I have yet to lay my hands on a copy of your book, but from the title of your book “Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras”, I wanted to know to what extent is "drinking hard" is correlated with "violence and survival in Honduras"? If it is a vicious circle, how do you think it can be broken?

The title of the book is perhaps misleading in that it lends itself to the common assumption that Hondurans are a bunch of drunks. In fact, while there is a fair amount of public drunkenness, statistics show that fewer adults drink heavily in Honduras than in the U.S. I do not mean to belittle the suffering associated with alcoholism; certainly for any alcoholic or family member of an alcoholic it can be intense. Nonetheless, I found the scope of alcoholism to be wildly exaggerated by Hondurans. I was repeatedly told unbelievable statistics, e.g., that Honduras had one million alcoholics, that 95% of adults were alcoholics, that vast numbers of young women were drinking uncontrollably, etc. The moral anxiety surrounding alcohol points to deep underlying social tensions that are tied into a "cycle of poverty" logic. Poor people are more often visibly drunk than the wealthy, because they lack the wealthy's easy access to privacy. Thus, drunkenness has become understood as a trait of the poor, and evidence of the moral failings of the poor, which (following this logic) lead to more poverty. Despite the facts that a) most poor Hondurans are not drunks, and b) the cause of most Hondurans' poverty can be traced to structural violence, i.e., lack of economic opportunity, housing, healthcare, and education—the solution most often proffered for alcoholism is church attendance or AA. Both of these institutions, at least in Honduras, tend to reinforce an ideology that blames the individual and their disease and/or sin for their failings, to the exclusion of structural violence. Meanwhile, the government spends next to nothing on prevention or treatment programs for the public. If there is a cycle behind Honduran poverty, I believe it is a cycle of wealth, masked by the ideology of a cycle of poverty. Undeniably, it is harder for a poor drunk than a poor sober person to rise out of poverty. But how did they and the vast majority of Hondurans become poor in the first place?

Do you think that violence in Honduras correlates solely with inequality, and that the best solutions for decreasing violence in Honduras would be to reduce social inequality?

Social inequality is not the only cause of violence in Honduras, but it is one of the biggest ones. I believe that reducing social inequality is a much better goal than "increasing security," a phrase that has become synonymous with destroying civil liberties while imposing increasingly violent control on a population. To truly have increased security, Hondurans need a dignified standard of living and access to education, work, healthcare, and other public services. This would mean that rather than being concentrated in the hands of a very few, the vast wealth generated in Honduras would have to be more equitably distributed; in other words, the cycle of wealth would have to be broken.

What do you believe are the biggest obstructions to human rights problems in Honduras?

I have addressed this question to some degree already in previous answers, but I think the primary obstructions to human rights are government corruption and the complicity of groups of power (including organized crime, large corporations, and U.S. government agents). When Honduras, which hasn't even begun to hold the torturers and assassins of Battalion 316 accountable, still finds itself getting ordered around by John D. Negroponte, the U.S. deputy Secretary of State who during the 1980s as the U.S. ambassador to Honduras aided and abetted the CIA-trained death squad, it's difficult to imagine progress being made. Still, I believe it is vital to continue to demand accountability and to take a strong and consistent stance against torture and other human rights violations perpetrated in Honduras. In particular, those of us who do not risk our lives, as Hondurans do, by speaking out against these crimes, must speak all the more forcefully.

After your time in Honduras, what solutions would you advocate to begin to solve some of Honduras major problems?

I firmly believe that in order to find a solution, we must address the cause. The cause of Honduras's problems can not be attributed to alcoholism, gang violence, ignorance, broken families, or poor morality, despite the endless editorializing in Honduran newspapers to that effect. I have come to see that the origins of most of the problems experienced by Hondurans–though they are experienced on a deeply personal level—are structural, and in many cases brought about by the mandates of larger international bodies like the IMF and World Bank. The solution I advocate is an end to neoliberal politics, and the beginning of a true democracy. Obviously that is a big goal, but I think we need to avoid getting distracted from band-aid solutions. I believe that first and foremost it is incumbent upon all of us who suffer the structural violence caused by these institutions and their policies, to stop blaming the victims of this cycle of wealth and fight back. We also need to challenge those who benefit from the violence of neoliberal policy, be they large retail stores in the United States selling cheap clothing from Honduras or China, private security companies in Honduras, New Orleans or Iraq, politicians and political parties who receive money from corporate lobbyists, and so on. I do not believe that my role is to tell Hondurans what to do; they've been hearing that for centuries, from Spanish colonizers, North American banana and mining magnates, U.S. ambassadors, their own corrupt governments, and the countless USAID and corporate-funded NGOs that have come to replace their public sector. Additionally, Hondurans are already pretty good at identifying problems with their society, and at mobilizing to fix them. One recent example of this is the massive popular support for the prosecutors' hunger strike against judicial corruption and ties to organized crime this spring. What Honduran activists currently lack is the power necessary to succeed in their struggles against organized crime, international corporate monopolies, and a governmental duopoly that all too nearly resembles that of the United States. My role, and I think that of non-Hondurans in general, should be one of solidarity, rather than consultant or aid worker. After all, I'd like to see democracy in my own country, too.

What do you hope that your work will achieve for the people of Honduras? What do you think the future holds?

I hope that my book will be translated and published in Spanish so it will be accessible to Hondurans. Of course, few Hondurans have the resources to buy expensive books, but I would like to see it made available to as large a public as possible. As an academic exercise, I think that it will achieve very little. But used as an organizing tool, I hope it can help Hondurans to see in a new light the connections that I myself have struggled to understand, and support their fight against the structures of violence. I believe this is a fight that can be won; I envision a future in which Honduras is no longer saddled by centuries of unjustly inherited debt, where human rights abusers are held accountable, where boys and girls are not afraid to go out into the streets, where workers are able to unionize, and where taxes are spent on education and healthcare, not new high-security prisons.