November 7, 2009

His name was Raul, and he was once an illegal immigrant to the United States.  He came into California, worked picking crops, taught himself English.  He fell in love, married, had 2 daughters.  He moved from picking crops to chasing traffic accidents and recommending ambulance-chaser attorneys to the victims – an extra-legal profession, to borrow Joe Klein’s Orwellian Newspeak.  Eventually Raul got on the wrong side of a cop, and was deported.  His wife and daughters remain to this day in the US, and Raul has not seen them since he left.  He rebuilt his life, began to work at a textile factory in Honduras, but that shut down when the owners decided it was easier to move operations abroad then to pay their workers $240/month.  He’s been unable to find work since, unsurprising in a country that suffers 30% unemployment and whose economy is driven primarily by remittances from the 1,000,000 Hondurans living in the US, and after that by textile manufacturing, banana, and coffee production.  An export economy to the West suffers deeply when the US and Europe aren’t buying, and to complicate matters, ever since the military-led Coup this summer, tourism has been flat-on-its-face dead, leaving this writer to conclude that 2009 will go down as the year Honduras got brutally beaten, shaken down, and left for the vultures on the side of the road, a not-occasional-enough event in this part of the world.

Really – when there’s no money, no work, your children are starving, and there are a very small group of incredibly rich owners in your midst, what would you do?  If you answered “turn to crime” then you’re spot on – the poor in Honduras have been driven inch by agonizing inch into the sort of activities that would get one labeled a terrorist and possibly French back in the US of A.  Everything from massive surges in gang and drug-related violence, kidnapping, smuggling, roadblocks, hijacking, bus and taxi robbery, pickpocketing, underage prostitution, child and female slavery, damn near everything you’d want to limit if your goal was societal stability is rising, and rapidly too.  Not only in Honduras, mind you – every place in Central America is seeing the same problems, the same trends, as the global economy sags like a 70-something social butterfly who fell behind on her Botox shots.  As the bigshots protect their own asses and their friends’ Wall Street investment firms, the people further down the line take the hit all the harder, and this part of the world is pretty near the bottom of the totem pole.  No one has credit, liquidity, savings to fall back on – most don’t have an extra tortilla or cup of coffee to spare, let alone money.
The rich will survive this – even if they have to sell the extra Mercedes and the lake house, they will make it through, keep sending their kids to the right schools, showing up at the right events.  The middle class (in the US sense) will live as well, though not without having to cut out the Starbucks a few times a week, perhaps put off the new TV or those cute jeans for a bit.  It won’t be easy – many people will lose their mortgages, cars, declare bankruptcy, but you’ll eat at least.  The poor, the real poor, the billion people who live on less then $1 a day – that sixth of the world is, to put it politely, fucked. Just like the last time, just like the next time, the poor take it on the chin whenever the Capitalist system over-invests in tulip bulbs.
Ok, so what does this have to do with Raul?  It seems a good enough time to reintroduce our protagonist.  When I met Raul, I was in Choluteca, Honduras, hitchhiking north to friendly faces and a roof.  He was lying in the street near the market, facedown with an arm stretched dangerously close to the choking line of buses, trucks, taxis slogging through the narrow dirty streets.  In his hand, a small bottle of Catrachito, cheap gut-rot liquor, hinted at the cause.  I didn’t intend to meet him, I just wanted to move his arm out of the road, but as I did so he sat up with a start, scaring the hell out of me and coughing booze-scented pleghm on his dirty clothes.  I convinced him to move with me, and we sat in the shade of a nearby shop and shared a cigarette.
“Why,” I asked him after he told me his awful tale, “why are you doing this to yourself?  What about your family?”
He spat in the dirt. “My wife does not receive my calls.  She told me that she is sorry, but she needs a man who can support the children.”  He put his head in his hands, wracked by sorrow but still too proud to cry openly.
“Raul, why drink?  Surely there is something better, no?”  I asked so many variations of this, brought in God when I had to, but nothing penetrated his dark clouded eyes.  There was one phrase he kept repeating that hurts me still – I’ll try to translate it as best I can.
“I have worked like a slave my entire life.  All my life.  What good is there?”
He stared at me, and I could only shake my head – I don’t know.
I don’t know anything – I came down here looking for reality and truth, and I’ve found bucketloads, but none that penetrates quite like the poverty, the hopeless, lifelong, humanity-draining poverty.  It isn’t just Raul, it’s nearly everyone – coming from the US I had studied the victims of our economic policies, but I wasn’t prepared for the sights I’d see, the people I’d meet, the guilt and helplessness I would feel confronted with it all.  The mind rages – there must be a better way!  We’re not trying to help these people – how could we when we don’t even know they exist?  The poor, starving, dying, have no value in a system that cares only for productivity, shaving costs, trimming staff – maximizing profits has replaced human decency, and we all lose.
And yet… I’m no better.  After our talk, cigarette, and a few mouthfuls of water, I bid farewell to Raul, mouthed “I’m sorry” to his pleading eyes and outstretched hand, turned and walked away.  I had a bus to catch, a friend to meet, a hot meal and a shower waiting for me on the other end.  There are a billion Rauls, a billion humans like you and me out there trying and crying and dying to live.  There’s a way to help them, the means exist, but the will – that’s where we fall flat.  There isn’t any profit in keeping the poor alive, at least not one comparable to corporate piracy and waging aggressive war, and so until we change this fucked up system we live in, the Rauls of the world have to die – the bottom line demands it.



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