The National Catholic Review
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Hell in Honduras

Honduras is facing growing international scrutiny following a jailhouse fire that killed more than 350 inmates, many burned alive in their cells. It was the third major prison fire in the last decade. The many institutional failures that led to the tragedy suggest a prison system out of control. The prison barracks where the men died, in Comayagua—about 47 miles north of the capital Tegucigalpa—were seriously overcrowded. Many of the dead had not been convicted of any crime; many had in fact been detained merely because of their gang-related tattoos.

The tragedy at Comayagua is a small indicator of a larger social breakdown. Democracy appears to be unraveling in Honduras. Since the June 2009 coup that deposed the volatile President Manuel Zelaya, Honduras has struggled to return to something approaching normalcy but is failing. In a ghastly reminder of the past, human rights abuses and the assassinations of opposition, labor and media figures are on the rise.

Drug violence and diminishing economic opportunities are propelling a new generation of undocumented migrants northward. It is testimony to conditions in Honduras that this treacherous migrant path and an uncertain welcome in the United States seem to many a better option than staying behind. The increasing instability of this Central American neighbor seems to warrant closer, proactive attention now, but an immediate need is an independent U.N. Human Rights Council or Organization of American States inquiry into the lapses that led to this completely preventable tragedy.

News Fast

Lent is upon us. It is the season for fasting from addictions harmful to body and soul. While we at America have proposed taking up civic engagements for Lent (“What Will You Take Up,” 2/20/12), there is one civic practice Christians might think of giving up: election news. Electioneering has grown into a 24/7, year-round activity. There is never a moment when the news media are not covering political personalities, their hypocrisies, their gaffes, every hint of scandal, every sound bite.

Talking heads, commenting about the ins and outs, ups and downs of the national political scene are now supplemented by high-tech graphics, illustrating the “metrics” of the electoral horse races. Solid reporting is displaced by surveys of the candidates’ appearances, their digs at their rivals and fact-checks about their claims. Hard news is driven from the screen, the airwaves and the printed page by the effluvia of campaigning. The contagion has spread even to NPR and PBS.

Lent could be a time when we revive our shrinking brains by substituting reading around an issue or just surveying the news of the world rather than ingesting the trivia of election-year journalism. Imagine how much better we would be prepared to vote in November if every evening we took 20 minutes to read about an issue—the Keystone XL pipeline, the Eurozone crisis, the withdrawal from Afghanistan—rather than taking in the evening news. Try reading The Economist or The Atlantic. Online scope out longform.org and givemesomethingtoread.com. Or take your news from globalpost.com and read its special reports. Reject the dumbing down of America and help smarten up the national conversation.

Minding Our Elders

There is a pile-up of old codgers with hits right now on the Amazon.com music bestseller list—right behind Adele (age 23), that is. The seniors include Leonard Cohen (77), Bob Dylan and Paul Simon (70), Paul McCartney (69), Bruce Springsteen (62) and Tony Bennett (85). At the 2012 Grammys, McCartney and Bennett won trophies, too.

The art world also celebrates its senior citizens. In February, Will Barnet (100), a New York painter and printmaker, received a National Medal of Arts, presented by President Obama at the White House. That same month “Gerhard Richter: Panorama,” a traveling retrospective of the German artist’s work, opened in Berlin fresh from the Tate Modern. Richter (80) has long been an international artist sensation. His thousands of works include photographic oil paintings (characteristically blurred portraits and landscapes plus edgy abstractions), prints and drawings. His works have sold for double-digit millions, prices usually reserved for nonliving artists.

It is commonplace to think of pop culture as the province of the young, but the aged often play leading roles, whether as singers, conductors, actors, composers, writers or artists. As stars age, their fans age with them. Stars still aglitter often attract the notice of younger generations. Talent has few borders. It is misguided to think that young people are drawn solely to their peers. Young people in the 1980s idolized Ronald Reagan, the oldest president ever elected. They flocked to Pope John Paul II during his last decades, as many do to Pope Benedict XVI today. The two popes are revered among teens as cultural celebrities, if not as authoritative religious leaders whose precepts they follow.

Comments

Gabriel Marcella | 3/6/2012 - 10:43am
John,
The onslaught of drugs and gangs has magnified the real roots of the problem. Like a number of Latin American countries, Honduras has a very weak state system. Ministries are poorly staffed and resourced, the government's reach to the people is poor, and tax revenues are insufficient to run an effective government. Everything starts with security and a functioning and credible judicial system. You can't have democracy without security and the rule of law, as demonstrated throughout Central America, the Andean countries,and much of the developing world.
John Donaghy | 3/3/2012 - 7:07pm
I believe that the social breakdown in Honduras is rooted in several deeply-rooted in several aspects of the social, political, and economic structures in Honduras.

Honduras has had a very unequal distribution of resources and it has gotten worse in the last few years. The large landowners, as well as the several extended families that own most of the larger businesses (including major communications outlets, fast foods, etc.) have their control of the economy supported by a Congress that is more interested in private gain than in the common good.

Corruption is rampant at all levels, including among the police, who have also been responsible for a numebr of serious human rights violations. Corruption allows the two major political parties to virtually "buy" votes - since whoever rules has access to jobs for members of their party as well as funding.

The presence of drugs, I believe, is related to the corruption since police and government officials ar many levels are "in debt" to the drug lords and very little is done to cut back on their activities.

In this the presidency is virtually powerless and the Congress makes laws that do not really respond to the problems of poverty, corruption, and instability.

The worst may be yet to come, I fear, as the government militarizes police actions to deal with insecurity and the US seems to be involved in these moves.

The US has a tarnished history in Honduras - from William Walker to the banana companies to the US bases in support of the Nicaraguan contras and the Salvadoran government. Its weak and ineffective negative response to the coup did not little to change the lawlessness of the Michiletti coup government.

Increasingly the present presidency is looking to the US to help with the insecurityu here. I fear that US involvement will again be a big mistake and only worsen the situation.

I could write more, but that would be a full article.

Katherine Schlaerth | 3/2/2012 - 11:54am

Seniors will have a voice in society when they remain actively involved in society, as the above artists prove. When seniors "retire" to play Ma Jong and eat at fattening restaurants and drive their granny wagons, consuming fuel in a wantom fashion, they forfeit a place in society.

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