Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

October 1, 2013

Memoria Gráfica de Honduras (Memories of Honduras)

La Ceiba beach front after the 1932 hurricane
I can't remember if I ever told my readers about the Memoria Gráfica de Honduras blog. I first discovered it in 2009 during the 'bad' time and sent the link to some of my Honduran friends but may not have posted it here during that hectic time. Oh, well, even if I have already written about it, it is worth repeating.

If you are Honduran, and even if you are not, you will love this blog. I promise. It includes a lot of history on various topics as well as the old photos, antique postal cards, money, stamps, and documents.

Honduras' postal service, 1897
The articles are in Spanish, but even if you don't read Spanish, you'll enjoy the photos. Click the first photo in each article to view a slide show of enlarged photos for a much better experience.

September 12, 2011

A step back in time with Wikileaks 2002-2004

Ricardo Maduro, Honduran president, 2002-2006A new Wikileaks-Honduras cable came through on a Google Alert the other day. "Oh, yeah, I forgot about Wikileaks," I thought to myself. So I clicked over to see what was new: Pages and pages of new Honduras-related cables, 50 cables per page. I went through at least 10 pages and still didn't arrive where I had last left off. These latest posted cables were from 2002-2004, when Larry Palmer was US Ambassador to Honduras, and Ricardo Maduro (photo) was president. The majority were "Media response to xyz event" and even though I skipped all of those, I still spent hours reading selected cables.

Some cables read a little like gossipy soap operas or tragic comedies. Juicy! But overall, as I was reading, all I could think was, "It has been a decade and only the names have changed." Honduras has had Nacionalista presidents and Liberal presidents. We've had hundreds of million in aid and loans as well as hundreds of millions of debt forgiven. We've had new laws and new 'watchdog' committees and organizations put into place. We've had foreign experts working on various problems. We've had plans and studies and dialogues and negotiations. And Honduras still has all the same problems, only in double or quadruple now!

US Ambassador to Honduras (2002-2005), Larry PalmerUS Ambassador Palmer (2002-2005, photo) was initially generally very optimistic about changes to be made under new President Ricardo Maduro. It's true, some significant laws were implemented. Personally, with my limited experience with government offices, I saw improvements in service. At least the government employees no longer flagrantly pulled out their wallets and deposited my fees directly into them right in front of me as I had seen a couple of times in my first year in Honduras. Most payments now have to be made at a bank.

Hope and changes in the law

In February 2002, the criminal procedure code was overhauled providing for oral presentations in public court instead of written presentations debated in private by the judges. A stronger anti-money laundering law was passed early in 2002. The election law was reformed and a government simplification law was passed. The Tribunal Superior de Cuentas (TSC) was created in 2002 as a hybrid general accounting and public ethics office but, according to the Embassy, had no visible affect on corruption. In almost two years of existence, the 600-employee TSC had not reported a single accounting discrepancy or recommended a single corruption charge. "Rather, the TSC seems to have become a jobs program for contacts of senior GOH (government of Honduras) officials in need of employment."

Immunity then, impunity now

Changing the constitution to revoke immunity for a long list of public officials was another success of the Maduro administration. Unfortunately, while politicians no longer have legal immunity from prosecution, in reality, they still do and are rarely ever even fired, much less prosecuted. Public employees can become millionaires seemingly overnight without even an investigation occurring. In many cases, they are merely shuffled to other government jobs in order to preserve their dignity. In some cases, they fade away only to be later resurrected under a new administration when the public has forgotten the scandal.

We'll see how the Zelaya, Flores Lanza, Bonano, Latinode, and other cases go, and I will happily eat my words if anyone goes to jail or even more far-fetched, are forced to make restitution. Just last week, (now former) Minister of Security Alvarez told us that he can't even fire police officers accused of crimes, narcotrafficking involvement, and corruption, that the courts restore them with full pay and that 10 high level police officials are "air traffic controllers" for the narcos.

In 2003, a minor congressman, Armando Avila Panchame, caught red handed fleeing the scene of a narco plane landing, was sacrificed to the anti-corruption gods and sent to prison for 20 years. Shortly after he claimed that he was going to implicate the "big people" involved with narcotrafficking, he was murdered in prison. To the best of my knowledge, he was the first and last politician to be convicted of anything, despite strong rumors that many in congress and high level government officials were and still are involved in narcotrafficking, money laundering, and other crimes, as are some of their family members.

Astronomical violent crime rate, endemic under-reporting

Central America homicides 1999-2007Truth scarier than fiction: That was the title of this August 2003 cable in which the Embassy lamented the shocking increase in murder rates but also expounded on the several ways in which they were certain that murder was vastly under-reported, particularly in areas where there is no morgue (most of the country) and where there are no journalists from the major news organizations (again, most of the country), since most statistics are based on morgue reports or the news.

Paragraph 15 of the cable pointed to a 50% increase in murders to date in 2003, but amazingly, the official 2003 statistics issued later by the government showed an unexplained 39% reduction in homicides! No doubt there was fiction in those numbers. The same statistic gathering problems apply in 2011, but now the homicide rate is estimated at 78-86 per 100,000, placing Honduras number one in the world of countries who report such statistics.

Same old, same old

High government salaries, teachers strikes (many cables), union pressures: Each of those issues were mentioned in several cables and are worse today than they were in 2002-2003. Current government salaries are stratospheric compared to 2001 despite at least a decade of constant pressure from the IMF to reduce them. One 2009 news report said that government salaries were 10 times what they were in 2001. Teachers unions have become so emboldened by the governments' lack of resolve to make politically tough decisions that they no longer think they should even have to work in order to receive paychecks and a whole generation of children have been robbed of an education. Those children, soon to become part of the workforce, will never recover that lost time.

Expropriation of private property

This cable discussed 13 cases of government expropriation or loss through corruption of US Americans' property, some of whom had been trying to get justice since the 1970's. One of those cases is actually a friend of mine. (Very strange to read about a friend's case in Wikileaks!) A 2005 update on these cases indicated no favorable results. Another entire cable was devoted to the shocking Roatan McNab-Anderson-Moore case in which the American citizens' caretaker was forcibly removed in handcuffs from their house by police while they were in the US. When they returned to Honduras a few days later, they were forced by a judge and police to remove their personal belongings from their home in two hours and they found others already living in it! Ambassador Palmer thought this case would be a test of the resolve of the Honduran government in the area of investor rights. Can anyone tell me how that case ended up or is this something that we shouldn't discuss?

For the rest of the story on the McNab case directly from one of the parties involved, see Roatán's McNab-Anderson-Moore case.

Open for business, 2002 style

This cable discusses Maduro's efforts to attract business, not so terribly different from the current "Honduras is Open for Business" One section is entitled "Hopes rest on CAFTA" — hmmm, that didn't work out near so well for most of Honduras as it did for US exporters. It then lists some of Honduras' challenges, which, unfortunately are still with us. One example was the then recent minimum wage hike (which brought wages at that time to less than half of what they are now). In another cable, Palmer discusses the case of a US citizen who believed that his cable company was being harassed and that he was personally and publicly being defamed as being a narcotrafficker by a politically powerful Honduran business rival.


Corruption and a frustrating lack of will for change was a frequent theme of the cables, despite Ambassador Palmer's initial hopefulness. But by December 2003, in a cable entitled "Good talkers, but Maduro Administration not seriously committed to fighting corruption", the embassy wrote this:

"In office for almost two years, President Ricardo Maduro's administration talks a lot about fighting corruption .... Upon close examination, however, one sees little demonstrable progress in breaking corruption's pervasive grip on almost all aspects of daily life in Honduras. Moreover, there appears to be very little genuine interest in addressing corruption's root causes or the venality of many Government of Honduras officials."
At that time (2003), Transparency International ranked Honduras 106 in corruption out of 133 countries (fourth lowest in the Western Hemisphere). In 2010, Honduras was in 134th place out of 178 countries, tied with eight other countries. Honduras' score fell from 2.7 (out of 10) in 2002 to 2.4 in 2010. Among many other actors, Palmer pointed to the congress, describing it as,

"riddled with tainted politicians who view their positions heavily through the lens of personal wealth creation. This year alone, three members of Congress have been arrested on drug trafficking charges, and many others continue to be involved in a wide range of other illicit activities."

By October 2004, Palmer makes his disappointment about the lack of progress on the anti-corruption front and with President Maduro crystal clear. Palmer reports on a heated meeting with Maduro in which:

"Maduro was visibly put-off by the Ambassador's suggestion that Honduras needed to do more on the anti-corruption front. Apart from the fact that Honduras could be found ineligible to receive future MCA funds based on its undistinguished anti-corruption record, Maduro appears more preoccupied with maintaining the political status quo."

And so it goes.

Honduras corruption
Cartoon: Dario Banegas
La Prensa, Honduras

January 10, 2011

The Original 'Wikileaks': The 1862 scheme to colonize Central America with freed black slaves

US President Abraham Lincoln (1861-65)

I was searching for a better scanned version of an old e-book about Honduras that I have when I stumbled upon what could only be described as the original 'Wikileaks'. The search results included an item that caught my attention with a phrase about colonizing freed blacks in Honduras.

The book is called Foreign Affairs, Part II from December 1, 1862. My search sent me to a particular section which is a collection of 1862 US State Department correspondence to and from Central America. In August 1862, in the midst of the civil war, US President Abraham Lincoln made a speech to emancipated blacks in Washington, D. C., (who had been freed by decree in April 1862) suggesting the possibility of immigration to Central America where he would "endeavor to have them made equals, and that he had the best assurance that they would be as good as the best." That speech was reported in newspapers and caused a flurry of activity among the diplomatic community.

US representatives from various countries in Central America as well as foreign ministers wrote in alarm to US Secretary of State William H. Seward about proposed US plans to colonize freed blacks in the Central American countries under the protection of the US.

The population and the presidents of those countries were totally against this idea and offended that the US would even consider such a thing without discussion and the approval of the respective governments. Seward was politely told that, in fact, any such colonization without the permission of the respective governments was illegal, whether it be white or black colonists.

Seward's response was to downplay the idea as just a fleeting thought, saying that, of course, the US would not take any such action without the consent of the respective governments, but unfortunately, the President was not available to discuss it with the representatives. (Image: William H. Seward)

Seward even replied with a diplomatic reprimand to one foreign minister, surprised he would take action based on rumors and unconfirmed newspaper reports.

However, in other letters it was noted that the US Congress had made an appropriation of funds to assist emancipated negroes in colonization in other countries and that the government had been authorized to procure land and transportation for blacks wishing to migrate to Central America, so it was obviously more than an offhand comment by President Lincoln.

In one case, the US was offered 50,000 acres for $1.5 million in Ecuador for such settlements and had been in negotiation with an American, Ambrose W. Thompson and the Chiriquí Improvement Company, for many months to buy several hundred thousands acres of land in the Chiriquí region of Panamá, to which Ambrose held a dubious title. Even more telling about the duplicity of the US government, was the promotional pamphlet being publicly distributed to blacks by US Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy, inviting free blacks to join the colonization, promising the assistance of the US government.


I intended to stop here with the above summary, but thought that you might find this as interesting as I did — learning about US and Honduras history at the same time — so I'll include a partial summary of the correspondence. Please forgive the lengthy sentences! You should see the original sentences that I'm summarizing. Fair warning: If you read the correspondence, be prepared for the distasteful racist views common of the times on both sides of the conversations.


The topic of black colonization appears to begin with Guatemala on page 881, though I have not read the entire 900+ pages, so I can't be sure that it isn't mentioned in other sections.

Mr. E. O. Crosby of the US Legation in Guatemala wrote in May 1862 to Mr. Seward inviting him to consider the idea of freed black colonization along the coast near the borders of Honduras and Belize, as it 1) would help to direct trade to the US, 2) would materially increase the influence of the US in shaping the future policy of Guatemala, and 3) would check the future encroachment of the English colony of Belize upon Guatemala. He also pointed out that since other blacks already lived in the area, the new blacks would fit right in since all Africans spoke the same language and had the same religious sentiments. Mr. Seward responded by authorizing Crosby to make an offer to the Guatemalan government similar to that being made to Costa Rica.

Costa Rica

The Costa Rican section (page 883) begins with correspondence, also in May 1862, from Mr. Charles N. Riotti, US Legation to Costa Rica, indicating that he had been informed that the Costa Rican congress will consider setting aside part of the national domain, a tract of coast land, for the colonization based on their knowledge that the US President had been authorized "to expend a certain sum to assist the colonization".

However, in September 1862, Mr. Riotti strongly urged the US government not to spend "one cent for the purchase of lands for negro colonies" as the government would surely be swindled and the poor negroes robbed or placed in miserably poor locations. He believed that President Lincoln referred in his speech to the coal mining area of the Chiriquí province of New Granada (which later became Panamá), which he pointed out was not only worthless mining property, but the title to the land was in question and the area was in dispute between the governments of New Granada and Costa Rica.

Later information described the Chiriquí Improvement Company and particularly its representative American Ambrose W. Thompson with terms like cheat, scoundrel, opportunists, and swindling speculators. Mr. Thompson apparently continued to try to defraud the US government with his illegal claim of ownership and untruthful claim of vast coal reserves until at least the early 1880's according to this NY Times article from March 1882. But, interestingly, President Lincoln seemed fixated on this area despite several investigations over the years which cast serious doubt on the legal ownership of the area.


The tale continues with Honduras on page 887, with Mr. James R. Partridge of the US Legation in Honduras writing to Mr. Seward in August 1862 of his deep concern. Partridge had spoken personally with the Honduran President who indicated his strong desire for "the immigration of industrious whites .... particularly those of German descent" who had done so much to develop and add to the wealth of Costa Rica. The President felt that immigration of blacks was not at all desirable based on the trouble the government had had on the northern coast and particularly the Bay Islands, with the free negro population. Mr. Partridge informed Seward that this was the general sentiment of the country.


The Nicaraguan section begins on page 889 with several letters from Mr. A. B. Dickinson of the US Legation in Nicaragua expressing the deep-rooted and strong opposition of the people to the US President's project. He wrote that the "more or less colored population" (he explains that although not so dark as the negroes, they are colored nonetheless) was insulted to be classed with "a servile race". He also blames wealthy American secessionist immigrants to be a big cause of the panic in the country regarding "a dreaded deluge of negro emigration" into Honduras and Nicaragua. Dickinson credits these Americans with keeping the population agitated over this topic.

Guatemala and Salvador

Notes from Guatemala and Salvador begin on page 897, with an August 1862 letter from Mr. A. J. de Yrisarri, Foreign Minister representing the governments of Guatemala and Salvador (whose name actually should be Antonio José de Irisarri - image). He writes that he has seen the newspaper reports of President Lincoln's speech. (You can read the Harper's Weekly of August 6, 1862 here.) The letter expresses his regret to inform Seward that no type of colonization of foreigners, of any color, is allowed without the express permission of the respective government. Seward responds with feigned surprise that any diplomatic communications would be based upon informal conversations and newspaper reports, and that secondly, (paraphrased) just because the president said it, doesn't mean that he meant it or had any desire to do it.

Minister Yrisarri writes back with an amusing apology for relying on the speech of the US President related in public newspapers and for attributing to the President a wish to colonize other countries without permission, even though, he points out, this coincides exactly with what has been set forth in public by US Senator Pomeroy, "the President's commissioner for organizing colonies for persons of color in Central America", which was authorized by Congress. Yrisarri stated that he waited 12 days for the US government to deny or clarify the newspaper reports before writing. He states that he has no wish to insult the President but that he must make it very clear that no such colonizations can take place because they do not suit the views of these governments, who desire a more educated class of immigrants, something which was not acquired by blacks under slavery. Seward wrote back with assurances that no attempts at colonization will take place without the permission of said governments.

Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras

The next section, beginning on page 901, is titled Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras. It begins with a lengthy September 19, 1862 letter from Minister Luís Molina, representative of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras in Washington, D. C., documenting the understanding which has resulted from what apparently had been repeated meetings and conversations in Washington. It all boils down to 'no way, no how' will the governments of Central America allow the US to colonize in their territories, and certainly not independently under the auspices and protection of a foreign government. He refers to the colonization as "for the purpose of importing a plague of which the United States desire to rid themselves" but he states that the countries are disposed to promote the immigration of industrious persons capable of contributing to the improvement and advancement of the country.

Molina went to great lengths explain the illegality of Ambrose Thompson's claim of Chiriquí land ownership, describing him basically as a well-known charlatan trying to "make gold out of that which has no value". Thompson had a $300,000 contract with the US Navy, a contract in which Thompson had gone so far as to grant the US inalienable rights of sovereignty over the territory, a right which he did not have and would not have even if he actually did own the property. The contract was later not sanctioned by Congress.

Despite all of the previous meetings and assurances, Molina wrote of his alarm at reading in that very Sunday's newspaper that Senator Pomeroy (image) had been granted full powers by Congress on the matter of settling people of color in Central America. He said that he had been assured by the Assistant Secretary of State that the reports were not true. He requested that the assurance be put in writing by the Secretary.

To further his concern, he wrote that the Pomeroy pamphlet indicated that Pomeroy himself would be leaving for Central America to accompany the first group of 500 colored settlers on October 1st to aid them in selecting a good location. The publicly distributed pamphlet said that they would be exploring the most promising areas, beginning with "Chiriquí, New Granada, and would also visit the numerous islands and perhaps the countries of Venezuela and Honduras."

Relying on the "aforesaid assurances and upon the good faith and integrity of the US government", Molina humorously wrote "I have no other alternative left but to attribute it .... to a misunderstanding on his [Pomeroy's] part .... or to "an inexplicable hallucination which makes him feign not to understand [his instructions] and to counteract them by embarking upon an expedition [which is] in every way aggressive and illegal, against which your excellency knows a protest has been made from the beginning in various forms, in the name of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Salvador and New Granada."

Seward responded five days later to acknowledge the protest and to inform Molina that Pomeroy had been instructed not to go to any country without prior permission and now that the protests of all six countries had been received, that Pomeroy had been instructed not to land on any of the territories, though he pointed out that Thompson claimed his land was not in Costa Rica or in the disputed territory, but entirely in New Granada.

Five days after that, on September 29, Molina replied in alarm again to inform Seward that on Saturday night, the 27th, Senator Pomeroy held a meeting with persons of color to urge them to join his proposed expedition, bound for Central America at the beginning of October and he "described to them in brilliant colors" the place on Lake Chiriquí at which he proposed to land and establish the colony. "However great my surprise, I must suppose the fact to be indubitable by supposing that the orders and instructions of your excellency's government may have got astray or been delayed for some cause....". Seward replied on October 1 with his usual reply.


Curious about this colonization scheme (which was variously called deportation and expatriation), I found this well-researched website which indicates that Abraham Lincoln was a long time proponent of emigration of blacks (estimated at 4 million in 1861) to other countries as the only solution for the vast numbers of newly emancipated slaves, who had been purposely kept in ignorance for generations and therefore would not be productive members of society, not to mention the importance of "maintaining the separation of the races".

This site also shows that the initial efforts to acquire land in Central America began in 1861, despite Seward's repeated assurances in 1862 that the the President and the US had no such plans. According to historian Warren A. Beck, on September 11, 1862, President Lincoln authorized a federal contract with Ambrose W. Thompson and Chiriquí Improvement Company to establish a colony by ex-slaves in Panama — during the very time the above correspondence was going on and Seward was denying any such acts!


As reported by historians on the above site, one black colony of a little more than 400 people was established in Haiti in 1863, with disastrous results. Lincoln entered into a contract with another shady character, Bernand Kock, despite warnings. Twenty to 30 of the passengers died of small pox on the voyage to Haiti, and as Riotti predicted, the blacks never received the promised assistance (materials to build homes, a church, and school and many other necessities). They were living in crude huts, sick and nearly starving to death before the remaining survivors ultimately were returned to the US less than a year later at the request of the Haiti government. Even the company agent, who assured the US government of the favorable conditions and that the cotton was "just springing from the ground" admitted that there were many reasons why colonization would never work, "prominent among which are the great dissimilarities which exist in language, religion, education, and government."

I found some other US State Department correspondence collections for other years, but brief searches did not yield more information on Central American colonization. Other than that, my admittedly limited research only discovered a few letters in which the topic was approached, notably by a US representative in Brazil whose lengthy, detailed plan included having the blacks pay for their own passage by indenturing them to their employers for 3-5 years while paying them 10 to 15 US cents per day for their work in the cotton and sugar fields. It seems there was a shortage of labor in Brazil due to Brazil's own abolishment of slavery. He felt that both countries could benefit without it costing them a dollar, while American investors could garner huge profits from this scheme.

If any readers have more knowledge about this topic, I'd love for you to share that with us in the comments along with any links, if possible.

July 4, 2008

A dance, three dates, and you're engaged

The following is another guest blog from Ed, remembering the good old days of 1950 La Ceiba, Honduras. Oh, my, how times have changed in La Ceiba!

Standard Fruit Company (now Dole) provided more entertainment for their cruise passengers by holding a dance ashore in the company mess hall. These 'tourist dances' were usually well attended, both by the gringos and the tourists. This gave us a chance to stare at them, and they, us. The music was a live marimba band with the usual Latin instruments, guitarrón, cuchumba, serrated sticks, and occasionally a saxophone.

Latin music of the time came from Brazil and Cuba. It consisted mostly of sambas, rumbas and tangos. My first tentative steps on the dance floor were taken here. An older girl who was home from college in the States took pity on this awkward boy and tried to teach me to dance. I guess it helped. But to this day, I still feel awkward on the dance floor.

There were about a half dozen American kids whose families sent them to the US for college and private school. They all came home for the summer in La Ceiba. I was the youngest of them and was adopted as mascot. I learned a lot those summers. When they returned to the States, I didn't have anyone to play with; there were no Americans my age.

My parents didn't prohibit me from seeking locals as friends but, didn't encourage it either. There was a definite social line between the gringos and the townspeople, to the extent that there was a six foot tall page fence surrounding the Mazapan and armed guards patrolled inside from sundown to sunup.

This divide was never more vividly pointed out to me than in this way: Argentina was her name and she worked as a salesgirl in the commissary. I was attracted to her as only a shy teenage boy can be, all moon eyes and foot shuffling. She accepted a date to the local movie. My mother drove us and the dueña (chaperon) to the movie. The chaperon was a complete surprise to me and my mother. But, this was the accepted dating form. No chaperon, no date.

Well, we had three dates, and my parents stopped it. I couldn't date Argentina again, or even hang around the commissary. The reason given to me was that after three dates, this implied to her parents that I wanted to marry their daughter. This made no sense to me, but few restrictions from my parents ever did. Marriage!! Hell, I could barely dance. There was, indeed, a difference between us and them.

The chaperon thing remained in place on other dates and even social visits to another local girl. Elena was a student at a private school in New Orleans and home on summer vacation. We'd sit on the front porch, talking, with the
dueña in the background...who understood not a word of English. Elena's parents must have been a little more enlightened about the date/marriage problem. It was never mentioned by my parents again.

Thank you, Ed, for another peek into the past. Ed's other guest blogs are Planes, trains, and motorcycles in 1950 La Ceiba and Remembering 1950 La Ceiba.

I've really been enjoying these guest blog articles! How about you readers? If you would like to submit a guest blog article, it will be greatly appreciated by me and my two bum fingers. Send it to me at my email address in the "About me" section at the top of the page. Photos are welcomed, too. Don't worry about formatting or spelling − I'll take care of it. You can send it as a text file or just include the text in your email.

June 30, 2008

Planes, trains, and motorcycles in 1950 Honduras

The following guest blog was provided by Ed, who moved to La Ceiba in 1950 with his parents at the tender age of 14:

1915 steam engine, La Ceiba, Honduras1915 steam engine

Back in the 1950's, the Parque (central park) and the Hotel Paris were the gathering places for all people of La Ceiba. The large shade trees and several benches offered relief from direct sun and an opportunity to greet friends and chat. Across the street, the Hotel with its bar and restaurant attracted a somewhat more affluent crowd. Businessmen and town officials all showed up, sooner or later. Inside, the room was dominated by a massive mahogany bar. Ceiling fans rotated slowly.

Flies were everywhere, and were barely held in check by a half dozen streamers of 'fly paper'. The paper streamers were coated with a very sticky and pungent substance. Once an insect landed, it was stuck fast and soon died. Well, after a few days, one can imagine what these streamers looked like. When the flypaper filled up, it was replaced with a fresh streamer.

I had lunch there a few times, but always felt out of place as the only gringo. Lots of stares and whispering, or so I thought. The bartender didn't seem to care much if a customer was of legal age (whatever it was). Anyone who could reach up and put money on the bartop got beer. There may have been others, but Salva Vida was the choice of most.

The beer wasn't the only attraction for me. Two of the locals rode motorcycles. Now, there was something to get excited about. One was a two-stroke Jawa 250, and the other a BSA 650 "Golden Flash". The BSA was always immaculately clean, in spite of dusty roads. The chrome tank, fenders, and head pipes could blind a fellow in the sunshine. I got close enough to see my reflection−and thus began a lifelong love affair with all things motorcycle.

Most people got about on foot. More often than not, on sandals fashioned from old automobile tire treads. The 'middle class" rode bicycles. The predominate make was the British made Raleigh. Occasionally, one saw a French Peugeot. The 'wealthy' rode motorcycles and scooters. Very few locals owned cars, and most of them were used as taxis.

The cost and having to deal with all the paperwork involved in buying a car Stateside left few choices. Those choices were cars brought into Honduras by Standard Fruit employees and later sold when they left. Our family sold the Nash locally, for more than it had cost in the US.

It was surprising to see a large number of the not so well to do Hondurans traveling by air. The were two airlines that serviced the local airport. TACA and SAHSA. The terminal was barely more than a tin roofed unpainted wooden shack. One paid the fare, and walked out to the plane carrying ones own luggage. The planes were DC 3s, old even then. Seating was two by two fore and aft, with a cargo area just behind the pilot. One could ship just about anything by air. The only limitation was if it wouldn't fit past the cargo door. Once, I flew with crates of chickens and two goats. The cargo area and the passenger area were the same with no partition.

At the time, Tegucigalpa was the only capital city in the world that couldn't be reached by rail. Might explain all the air travel. Trains had always been a passion of mine, and to this day, still are.

La Ceiba, being the shipping port for bananas and mahogany, the were many, many trains coming and going. The train yards were located in Mazapan, so there was alot of activity to interest this 14 year old. The engines were oil fired and steam driven. The larger engines were assigned names of the provinces of Honduras. For example: Atlantida, Yoro, and Santa Barbara. The names were painted in white on the cab's sides. Smaller engines were given the names of towns and villages. Tela, La Lima, Olanchito.

My next door neighbor (Charlie Cate) was the man in charge of railroad operations. After much pleading form me, he got me a job as a mozo (boy) in the yard. My duties were to check the oil levels in the boxcar wheel journal (bearing) boxes with a long spouted oil can and a flashlight. Loss of lubricating oil on the bearings resulted in overheating, destruction of the bearing, and often fires. So all in all, it was a pretty important job for a kid.

For a week's work, I was paid nine lempiras ($4.50 US). This lasted for about a month, and I was fired. Seems someone complained about a 'rich' gringo taking a job away from a needy local to Mr. Cate, and I was out. I can't argue with the logic. My stepfather thought it was the Communist reformers who were always at odds with the banana companies. I always wondered how that looked on my resume: "Fired at fourteen, from first job."

Thank you for the story, Ed. You can read Ed's previous guest blog here.

Hotel Paris is still a popular hotel among gringos today and el Parque Central is still crowded with people all the time. The railroads were eventually turned over to the Honduran government where they were run into the ground and are no longer operational. The remnants of the rails are still being sacked and pilfered for scrap metal. Some of the old rail cars and an engine are on display at Parque Swinford.

June 14, 2008

Remembering 1950 La Ceiba

The following guest blog article is from Ed, a retired banker and motorcycle service technician (interesting combination!). Ed is happy in retirement now as a competitive rifle shooter attending shooting matches, and also serves as a board member of a local medical clinic in West Virginia.

Ed lived in La Ceiba, Honduras, for three years starting when he was 14 years of age. He and his sister have considered visiting Honduras again, but he says, "The more research I did plus your blog made me realize that the memory I have of what La Ceiba was then is a far cry from what it is today. I'm reminded of Thomas Wolf's dictum...."

Map showing the dock, old railroad tracks and the Mazapan area.
Map and photos are current day

This will be a brief recollection of La Ceiba through the eyes of a fourteen year old boy in 1950.

My three year adventure in Honduras began when my family and I boarded the Vaccaro lines' SS Contessa in New Orleans. The Contessa was a banana boat that plied the route between New Orleans, Havana and La Ceiba. The voyage took about a week or so.

The family move to Honduras was occasioned by my stepfather accepting a position with the Standard Fruit and Steamship Company in La Ceiba (now Dole). Our stay lasted three years − three truly sublime years of my life.

Standard allowed us to bring the family car, a '49 Nash. Overkill in a town with a 15 mph speed limit and all of one mile of paved road that ran from San Isidro (main street) out to the airport. The rest of the streets in town were dirt and gravel.

There was one gasoline station (Esso) located east of the central Plaza (parque) that sold gas for the outrageous price of 75 cents a gallon; three times higher than in the US! The gas pump was a relic from the 1930s. On top sat a large glass cylinder graduated in gallons into which one cranked the pump handle until the gas level in the cylinder filled to the desired amount wanted. The hose and cut off valve were inserted into the cars tank, and the valve opened, and down flowed the gas filling your tank, unless, of course, one had over estimated the amount needed to fill it tank and the rest overflowed onto the ground. No convenient auto cutoff valve.

I'm getting ahead of the story.

Dole pineapples packed for shipmentThe ship tied up alongside the huge pier that jutted quite a ways into the Gulf. Much longer than the length of the ship; 300 feet, and had plenty of room fore and aft of the ship. The size of the pier is hard to convey but, the narrow gauge railroad (3ft) locomotive and several boxcars were easily contained within the length of it. It was big! Just off the end of the pier were the prison with guards and watch towers and rifles.

Company execs met us ashore, and took us to our temporary housing. Our permanent house was being built and not yet finished. The trip down San Isidro and into the Mazapan zone (where all the gringos lived) was a bleak one. Some sidewalks, small mom and pop stores, very rundown, dusty dirt streets. And most ominous, uniformed policia carrying rifles standing at all corners giving the us the evil eye.

The summer heat rolled over and engulfed us. It was going to be hot for a long time. On the ship, there was always a good breeze, even in the cabins through open ports. On land the heat was oppressive. And in 1950, in Honduras, air conditioning was unheard of. Even the Hotel Gran Paris couldn't boast of A/C. It did have a swimming pool within its surrounds.

Building in Mazapan area, La Ceiba, HondurasInto the Mazapan district, our temporary housing and all of the Company properties were pointed out to us. The one room schoolhouse (that I attended) close by, the commissary (run by the Company) where one could buy almost anything. The Company owned-and-run ranch supplied beef to the commissary. The commissary was open to the public, but the 'natives' were too poor to shop there.

Company employees were fed in the communal mess hall (until permanent housing was ready) which was a large wooden building with many many screened windows and shutters that could be lowered to cover during storm season. There was a small swimming pool adjacent, and I spent a lot of time there.

To picture where our house was, if one stood in front of the Hotel Paris and followed the street to the gated Mazapan, and kept walking about a mile you'd be at our house. On the left, down a crushed stone drive lined by several palm trees stood our little house. It was built on a concrete slab on top of 8" by 8" piles. Painted white with green trim. I'd guess about 1000 sq ft. Two bedrooms, bath with flush toilet (I don't remember having to not flush the toilet paper) and our own septic tank. The yard sported the usual shrubs and grass − really quite attractive. The under house area had walk around clearance and a space to park the car during the rainy season.

pineapples at the Dole plantNo telephones and no TV. You supplied your own entertainment with visits to the neighbors, card games and parties (canasta was big). Endless parties and daily sundowners held off boredom and supplied an opportunity to gossip. Gossip was VERY popular.

Thank you very much, Ed, for sharing this story with the Blogicito readers. We would love to hear more about the olden days if you or any of the readers would like to share more stories.

If you would like to submit
a guest blog article, it will be greatly appreciated by me and my two bum fingers. Send it to me at my email address in the "About me" section at the top of the page. Photos are welcomed, too. Don't worry about formatting or spelling. You can send it as a text file or just include the text in your email.

June 10, 2007

What the heck is a Catracho?

Photo: La Prensa Nicaragua

is the nickname for Hondureños (Hondurans). An interesting thing is that not many people, including some Hondurans, know where the nickname came from. So La Gringa is going to tell you.

After spending a looong time mentally translating this La Prensa Nicaragua article, I found almost exactly the same thing, word for word, in this Wikipedia article about Florencio Xatruch. Here is a summary of the highlights:

In the war of 1856-1857 when Central American forces were united to fight William Walker in Nicaragua, Honduran troops were commanded by two generals, Florencio Xatruch and his brother Pedro. When referring to the Honduran troops, the Nicaraguan people would say, "here come the xatruches," which later became catruches, and finally became catrachos.

Florencio Xatruch was a hero to Hondurans and Nicaraguans. He was named General in Chief of the Allied Armies of Central America for a time. After returning to Honduras, he was named Minister of War and Commerce of Honduras in 1861, became Vice President of Honduras in 1864, and briefly acted as President in 1871. Later he returned to Nicaragua where he also held governmental positions. He died there in 1893 at the age of 82.

The Nicaragua National Congress authorized the following epitaph: "Nicaragua to the Honduran by birth but Nicaraguan by adoption, General Florencio Xatruch, and this is a testimony of admiration and thankfulness for the services he provided to the Country".

In case you don't know, William Walker was a U.S. doctor, lawyer, and damned gringo soldier of fortune who had visions of privately conquering Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, and Costa Rica, where he would create states ruled by white English speakers. In fact, he was self-proclaimed ruler of Nicaragua from 1855 to 1857.

The Central American countries banded together to fight him. Twice Walker surrendered and was repatriated to the U.S. In 1860, he returned to Honduras with plans to overthrow the Honduran government with the help of Honduran Liberal Party leader Trinidad Cabañas.

This third time he was captured by the British, who instead of sending him back to the U.S., turned him over to the Honduran military. Like a bad penny, he kept turning up so the Hondurans executed him at the age of 36. He is buried in Trujillo, Honduras, where his grave is marked by a simple stone engraved "WILLIAM WALKER" with a metal plaque reading "WILLIAN [sic] WALKER -FUSILADO- 12 SEPTIEMBRE 1860." (Fusilado = Shot to Death).

In Central American countries, the successful military campaign of 1856-1857 against William Walker became a source of national pride and identity, and it was later promoted by local historians and politicians as substitute for the war of independence that Central America had not experienced. Ironically, Walker's name is better known in Central America than it is in the U.S.

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