In Honduras, Whispers of Political Unrest Remain Amid Mayan Beauty

BY Kathleen McCleery  August 3, 2010 at 11:13 AM EDT

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras | Within an hour after landing here in Honduras’s second largest city, I had my picture snapped three times — at immigration, a record of my arrival, then before boarding the airport bus to the downtown terminal, and again barely 30 minutes later alighting the bus to the city of Copan.

It led me to wonder why the authorities needed such a detailed record of my every step. Was this some super security precaution in a country that was wracked by violence and unrest just one year ago? Later, I’m told that was exactly the reason. The bus company has a way to trace and identify the perpetrator or the victim in case of an assault or a robbery. Sobering.

Mayan RuinsThe only sign of instability as our first-class bus careens down the two-lane highway heading west from San Pedro Sula is the rutted road surface below. The driver swerves to avoid the rocks and dips and once to miss hitting a cow. When I push back the curtains of the air-conditioned coach, I see horses, cattle and sheep dotting a lush landscape flanked by mountains.

Four hours later, the time it takes the Bolt bus back home to barrel down I-95 between New York and Washington, we’ve traveled just 90 miles and arrive at the Hacienda San Lucas just outside Copan. If anything, the scene is even more idyllic.

In the ruins of the ancient Mayan city, the talk is of the political intrigue surrounding the 16 kings who reigned from about 400 A.D. to 822 A.D. The mysteries abound from the beheading of the 13th ruler known as 18 Rabbit to the quest to learn the true identity of the Lady in Red whose skeletal remains were found buried in a treasure trove of jade and obsidian.

The biggest mystery of all: What caused the demise of this thriving metropolis of some 25,000 Mayans in the 9th century? Some say, with a touch of irony, the cause was deforestation, environmental degradation and soaring population growth.

Back at the Hacienda San Lucas, some more direct questions about the current state of affairs reveal an undercurrent of dissatisfaction. No, the new government headed by Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo isn’t any better than the administration of Manuel Zelaya — toppled in what the U.S. and others denounced as a military coup, said one local woman. It’s corrupt, really the “narcos” control everything and line the pockets of the officials with drug money, she said. Even the international aid that has resumed, she complained, doesn’t make it into the hands of Honduras’ many poor people.

The eight-room ecolodge sits perched on a bluff overlooking the tiny town, the river and the ruins. As the sun sets, the candles are lit. A Mayan woman pounds corn tortillas with a stone. We sit down for a sumptuous five-course meal of locally grown and traditionally prepared foods. The only mention of the troubled time in 2009 is a sigh of relief that tourism is slowly picking up again.

At Twisted Tanya’s, a popular restaurant just off the main plaza, the British expatriate proprietor is thrilled the Honduran people rose up to oust Zelaya. He was allied with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, she said. As for security in the neighborhood around her restaurant, “it’s safer than London.”

It’s a seven-hour trek to the capital city of Tegucigalpa. There, the front door to the bus terminal is manned by an armed security guard who runs a metal detector over the belts of any man who wants to enter. The city is crowded. Traffic jams the major thoroughfares.

At an upscale café, Martha Loreno de Casco, a former deputy foreign minister, reflects on the tumult of the last year. “Hondurans are happy now,” she says, having rid the nation of Zelaya and held off what she termed a power grab by Chavez. But her optimism is not shared by all of the Latin American neighbors of Honduras. The Lobo administration has yet to be recognized by the Organization of American States and left-leaning countries in the region.

The United States, Mexico and nine others in the hemisphere have given diplomatic recognition. And the OAS issued a report saying that it found “significant advances on the part of the government and other Honduran actors to deal with the main problems that came about after the coup.”

Loreno served in the interim government of Roberto Micheletti immediately after Zelaya was taken out of the country, a role that has resulted in having her visa confiscated, preventing her from entering the United States. There’s a bitterness toward the U.S. evident in her remarks, but there’s also a sense of moving on, of trying to come to grips with the myriad of problems facing this nation.

There’s abject poverty in Honduras (nearly 50 percent live below the poverty level), high unemployment and increasing drug trafficking. Add to that crime (just last week, the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists issued a report critical of the murders of seven journalists in Honduras and spoke of “a climate of lawlessness” in the country) and ongoing corruption in the newly elected government of “Pepe” Lobo.

The future for one businessman depends on acceptance by the international community. Asked what’s next for Honduras, he shakes his head and says, “I’m worried.”