Things that have changed since I roamed Central America as a ‘Sandalista’ in the 1980s:
– Even though the civil wars are long gone, the homicide rates are some of the highest in the world, razor wire is everywhere, and the security brief for Oxfam staff makes it sound like a war zone.
– Cellphones, obviously. A new ritual at the end of meetings with committees of campesino leaders. Everyone gets out their cellphone and starts exchanging numbers with the visitors.
– The global tuk tuk (see pic) – they apparently arrived from India about ten years ago, and have become an essential part of public transport. Viva frugal technology. Has anyone seen any analysis of the global spread of India’s tuk tuk multinationals, Reliance Industries and Bajaj?
Other things haven’t changed, like the fine gradation of handshakes – gnarled, soft peasant hands become firmer among peasant leaders and strong grasps among NGO activists. Or the enormous importance applied to calendar dates – for invasions, laws, the signing of documents, and more soberly, for attacks and assassinations
Then there’s the weird stuff. Being stopped in my tracks by a truly disturbing picket line (see pic) of students that looked like members of some green wing of the KKK. Apparently it is a pre-Easter tradition at Guatemala’s San Carlos University for the kids to dress up like this and stop academics entering the building – after posing for photos, they were happy to make an exception for my seminar, though (some random thoughts on rural change in Latin America and beyond – powerpoint here for Spanish speakers).
And why are Honduran telegraph wires liberally hung with pairs of dilapidated shoes? When I ask if it shows that drugs are on sale, (a story I vaguely remember from somewhere) the local guys laugh and say, no it’s just a fun way to get rid of your old trainers. Really must try it sometime. Needless to say Wikipedia has a whole page on theories of shoe-tossing.
Finally, the sudden realization that I was in Trujillo, a sleepy cobble-stoned town on the Honduran coast that recently hit the global headlines because the government wants to locate the world’s first charter city there. No-one I ask knows much about it, but rumours swirl – that 30 square km has been allocated in the middle of the Garifuna people’s traditional lands; that a local landowner has bought up all the land and stands to make a killing. The charter city has already been declared unconstitutional by one court and is destined for the supreme court. Should it go ahead, it will be in the middle of a drug trafficking zone. Good luck to Nancy Birdsall and her colleagues on the city’s ‘transparency commission’ in keeping a check on all this. Trujillo is home to the old colonial fort at Santa Barbara, where the US ‘filibustero’ William Walker (infamous in Central America, pretty much forgotten elsewhere apart from one not very good film – see right) was shot by firing squad and buried. Hope the same fate doesn’t await the godfather of the charter cities, economist Paul Romer……