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Honduras — invisible country… (page 2 of 4)

K. Sapozhnikov (January 2008)
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The aircraft of Panamanian company «COPA» - regional air-coach, which is gaining more and more popularity with Latin Americans, brought me safely to Tegucigalpa. It is worth to say that the first «visual contact» with the capital did not produce impression on me, though the sitting next to me woman, a Honduran returning back home after a long absence, well in advance of reaching Tegus (a local «unceremonious» abbreviation) with enthusiastic patriotism described the advantages of the capital, asserting that the beauty of Tegucigalpa is best observe from the air. I hurriedly got armed with a camera and made a few shots through the window, peering into dull-green mountain slopes, flat roofs of monotonous structures, serpentine roads between residential zones, which in Tegus are called «colonies». Later I rejected those shots: there was no Honduran special thrill in them: just a habitual «standard» of suburban structures of Lima, Quito or Caracas.

Passengers and I were more thrilled by skill of the pilots who managed to take the plane through the air corridors in the mountains and land it on a critically short landing strip in the densely populated part of the city.

Landing strip in the densely populated part of Tegucigalpa

Airport «Toncontin»

It was not possible to come through the passport control in the airport «Toncontin». The employee with an impenetrable face and authoritarian manners meticulously studied the validity of CA-4 visa in my passport, took electronic fingerprints of my forefingers, and, in conclusion, took my picture fullface by a web-camera «eye» having left me forever portrayed in the computer of the Honduran border guards. Later they explained to me, that strict control procedure is carried out not only in respect of citizens of Russia and CIS, but also of all «non-western» foreigners. Illegal immigrants are actively penetrating from the territory of Honduras to Guatemala, Mexico and further to the USA. The Honduran authorities have to capture the «unwanted elements» also because that there appeared the information that emissaries of «Al-Qaeda» penetrated in the country and started recruiting members of criminal youth groupings «maras» for carrying with their help acts of terrorism in the USA. Supposedly Iranian diplomats (from embassies of Nicaragua and Venezuela) frequented in Honduras. Iranians have not done anything bad to Honduras, but Washington does not like them, and the government of Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales has to take it into consideration.

The presidential palace

Having finally obtained the needed «stamp» in the passport, I started to the hotel «Plaza del Libertador» situated on the borderline between the old, colonial part of the city and its modern quarters, with large trading centers, embassies, fashionable restaurants, casinos and houses of wealthy people. To tell you the truth, that prevalence of unpretentious structures, chaotic planning of the city, seal of provincialism on everything — even the presidential palace took shelter somewhere under the slope, surrounded by plain metal wire net of «country cottage type», - all this unpleasantly surprised me. Tegucigalpa was definitely losing both to San Jose, and Guatemala-City, and moreover, to modernistic capital of Panama1.

Hotel «Plaza del Libertador»

The hotel, despite the tourist season was almost empty - two or three married couples «gringo» and several local «caballero» with confident manners (type of merchant-business owners). I filled in the registration form paying attention that the word «ruso» in the column nationality produced absolutely no impression on the clerk. It confirmed my idea that they are used to guests from Russia.

Having left my things in the hotel room, I started for «reconnaissance» to the old part of the city. Provided to me plan of the capital helped to choose the route: follow the avenida Cervantes without making any turns, and after ten to fifteen minutes you will find yourself on the main square of Tegus. As it was revealed, on this avenida, completely void of the capital stylishness and glamour, there are souvenir shops, the versatile assortment of which, and first of all wooden carved things – from landscape pictures and plates to intricate caskets and chests, - have retarded my movement for quite a long time.

Guardia with pump gun

This time I didn't buy anything from the owner of one of these shops, señor Mario Gonzalez, but, taking advantage of his sociability and total absence of customers, asked him the question that was the most burning for me at that time: what, according to his opinion, were the parameters of street crime? Do I look very defiant walking around Tegus with camera on the chest and with foolishly-curious expression of the face?

Señor Mario reassured me:

- I've been selling things at this place for thirty years and has never suffered from attacks. There are more police nowadays on the streets. Especially in the center. But there are certain areas in the city where danger is permanently present. At day time – to a less extent, at night – always. Being old residents, we know very well where it is better not to poke the nose. And as for the shop – I don't even hire security, these guys are sufficient for me.

He pointed to guardias with pump guns, who were shifting from one foot to the other in the doors of trade «locals» opposite.

Rincon Catracho

From the gracious señor Mario for the first time I heard the word «catracho», which he used, as far as I could understand, as a synonym of the word «Honduran». I was right. A male or female resident of Honduras can be easily called «catracho» or «catracha» and it will be conceived with positive emotions. As señor Mario explained, the history of appearance of this word is studied even in Honduran schools, because it is related to heroic past of the nation and connected with repelling the attacks of American mercenaries - «filibusters», headed by adventurer William Walker, to colonise all Central America. In 1856 the united Central American army was created. In May 1857 the filibusters were struck a crushing blow and Walker was captured and executed. One Honduran unit, headed by general Florencio Xatruch, displayed exceptional bravery. After his name in Latin American countries they started to call courageous Honduran fighters, but having reduced the pronunciation to the limit - «catracho»! The name turned out to be very tenacious and was fixed – lexically, historically and emotionally – in the collective mind of Hondurans. There appeared numerous sayings to the topic, the most well known sounds like this: «Catrachos are not made, they are born!»2

Bonilla Theatre

Tegucigalpa is the city without any special attractions. This opinion is not only mine. Hondurans themselves, say with bitterness that there are more museums in the country and in the capital than exhibits. One of them - Museo del Hombre (Museum of Man) was lucky for some time, a travelling exhibition of Rembrandt's etchings was held there. Some marked in guide-books «historical and architectural monuments» were difficult to locate, but if you were lucky, it turned out later that these «objects» were in a pitiful state, like, for example the «architectural pearl of Tegus» - Teatro Bonilla (Bonilla Theatre). It stands covered with dust and lifeless. The house where a national hero of Honduras general Francisco Morazan was born, has been given to Archivo Nacional (National Archives). The Parque La Concordia (Concordia Park) glorified by several generations of Honduran poets has a lonely look. Stone replicas of pyramids and other Mayan structures, scattered in the bushes of the park, could be taken for the real ones, if it were not for omnipresent nameplates with explanations that majority of the «originals» are situated far beyond the Honduran borders, from Tikal to Yucatan.

Plaza Morazan
Plaza Morazan – green well groomed oasis, favourite place of business meetings, love dates, «massive actions» is located in the historical center of Tegus. A building of «obscure» architecture, city municipality, banks, the Cathedral and a couple of honoured by catholics temples rise above in the close neighbourhood to it. There is their own Arbat, but much more modest if compared with the Moscow one, but also «street-lamped» to the maximum extent. The Plaza Morazan is always full of gapers, unemployed and pensioners, who from morning till evening pass their time on benches, stone fences of flower beds and other places «to sit» under the shade of century-old trees. These people produce a sad impression: they have everything in their past and nothing in their future. Nearby, sellers of lottery tickets made themselves comfortable. Now and again you can hear them crying: «Thirteen! Thirteen!» This figure is thought to be lucky among Hondurans. But the unbelievable quantity of such tickets arouses certain doubts. Where from so many?

Monument to Peace

To my opinion the most original monument of Tegus is El Monumento a la Paz (Monument to Peace), that was erected on one of the capital hills as a sign of final reconciliation of Honduras and El Salvador after the «football war» of 1969 that rang out throughout the country. The landing airplanes invariably pass over the Monument – an impressive structure of concrete in the shape of rotunda with high, aimed to the skies columns.

The taxi driver, whom I called, hesitated before taking the trip. The reason became clear to me, when we started going in spirals on the broken road going to the top of the hill, - the place was empty, not crowded, without any signs of police presence. However, we safely reached the Monument. It turned out there that the monument is rather neglected, and eternal flame is completely put out. And only blue-white-blue national flag with five blue stars from time to time was shaking from gusts.

The reason for conflict of El Salvador and Honduras was not, naturally, football. In the first months of 1969 in Honduras the number of seizures of land has drastically increased, the active role was played by expatriates from El Salvador (20% of workhands in rural area, mainly in borderline areas). Big Honduran landowners were alarmed: «Foreign usurpers invade our property!» They were right to certain extent. There is not much good fertile land in the country - not more than 20% of the territory. «At the instigation» of National Agrarian Institute3 the authorities had to react. In April — May hundreds of Salvadorian families were «removed» from the occupied lands in departments Yoro, Copan, Santa-Barbara and Cortes. As usual in such cases there were many cases of «skewed administration», abuse of power, nationalist demagogy. Intimidated Salvadorian peasants in thousands rushed to their motherland, where nobody expected them: the agrarian issue in El Salvador was more acute, and, as we know, the land is reluctantly shared.

Against this background (in June) there happened «brawls of local scale» between football fans first in Tegucigalpa, and then — even in larger scale — in the capital of El Salvador. The news that the national flag of Honduras was profaned in El Salvador, the anthem was played with distortion, and football fans were abused and beaten, literally enraged Hondurans. Defeat with score 3:1 was recognised as «unjust», caused by «provocative actions» of the host country. Andre-Marcel d'Ans, expert on Honduran issues used to write: «Disappointment was so strong that in Honduras they started the real hunt after Salvadorian emigrants, who, frightened to death, in thousands rushed back to their country».4

On June 26 the government of El Salvador declared about breaking of diplomatic relations with Honduras, and on July 13, the Salvadorian troops, strengthened by reservists and militia detachments, started overall offensive. Airplanes bombed a number of borderline cities of Honduras, as well as Tegucigalpa. The army was followed by crowds of looters who, removed everything more or less valuable — whether it was cattle or house utensils — to the Salvadorian side.

The last Salvadorian soldier left the territory of Honduras only on August 3. Nine months after low-intensity fights and bombings along the border, in which 2 thousand Hondurans were killed and at least 4 thousand were wounded, the both sides signed a peaceful agreement. One of the results of that confrontation became disaffiliation of Honduras in December of 1970 with Mercado Comun Centroamericano (Common Central American Market). Motivation was the expected one — disparity of relations in the market, uncontrolled expansion of goods from El Salvador, absence of compensations for weak in trade-economic respect Honduras. Tegucigalpa preferred bilateral relations with all countries of the region except El Salvador to Membership in the Market. Transit of Salvadorian goods through the territory of Honduras was prohibited.

I don't know how it is in El Salvador, but in Honduras, judging by TV programs, veterans of that war are honoured as heroes, who gave a worthy rebuff to the aggressor. Medal awarding ceremonies to veterans (38 years after!) were held with participation of local authorities followed by ceremonial banquets, during which the «warriors recollected bygone days and battles, in which they fought».

1. Russian tourists, who used to come to the Honduran capital, shared their impressions in Internet, and they were all alike. Here is one of comparatively fresh «posts»: «Tegucigalpa did not seem to be friendly. At every crossroads some suspiciously looking people were clustering, there was a smell of danger in the air. We had only one wish – to hide behind the doors of the first hotel on the way, and we did it. In the morning the city did not look much better – dirty and unfriendly». I was more lucky: a cleaning campaign was at full swing in Tegucigalpa.
2. El catracho no se hace, el catracho nace!
3. Instituto Nacional Agrario de Honduras (INA)
4. Andre-Marcel d’Ans «Honduras. Dificil emergencia de una nacion, de un estado». Traducido del frances. Quinta edicion. Tegucigalpa, 2007, pp. 291. As of today this monograph is the best of all written about Honduras.

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