Rain, Riots, Racism, and RECO

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got til it’s gone?

November 4, 2008. After one month of depressingly endless rain and wind sinking Roatan to the mud-coated economic low that typifies the island rainy season, things are finally starting to look up. An eclectic international group of expatriates is intensely huddled around a television watching the results of the United States election trickle in. The excitement is palpable: inside, American international policy is finally about to make a profound transition that will hopefully mend the shattered relations between the United States and the rest of the world, while outside the wind is relenting and weather is finally making a turn for the better. When Barack Obama is announced as the President-Elect, the miniature United Nations in our room lets out a cheer. Change is coming. Sunny days are ahead.

November 5, 2008. The sun breaks through the clouds. The sea is calm enough to venture out for two dives along the West End. Full of high spirits, we set out to explore the recently-rearranged wreck of El Aguila and the beautiful storm-scrubbed wall at Spooky Channel. Partway through our second dive, however, we feel the surge begin to violently undulate. Another front is moving in; things are getting gnarly. We stagger back aboard the boat and race to beat out the incoming storm.

Unbeknownst to us, a massive storm has already begun to unleash its fury on shore. Not a drop falls from the sky; no more mud fills the streets. This is a storm of racial tension, a lightning blast of street barricades and machetes, a thunder clap of protests followed by three days of darkness. This storm has been on the radar for some time, but up to this point Roatan has ignored the ominous dark clouds of turmoil looming on its socioeconomic horizon.

RECO (Roatan Electrical Company– the island’s sole electrical provider with a notoriously spotty history of blackouts and bribes) had unexpectedly increased its rates by 82% the previous month, leaving a majority of the sticker-shocked island struggling to scrape together means with which to pay our surprisingly enormous bills amidst the hottest month and lowest economic time of the year. When the bills were distributed (accompanied by a pithy letter feebly apologizing for the financial sodomy), protesters took to the streets for a day to demand that RECO give them a break. The growing thunderhead was momentarily abated when rates were promised to be reduced by the following month, but when RECO threatened to pull the plug on the many poorer families who had failed to pay their bills, the clouds of this perfect storm reached the breaking point.

We pull into West End to find ourselves held prisoner in our own town. Barricades have been laid across the only intersection leading into the beach village, where stick-wielding Hondurans are effectively preventing all traffic flow. The coconut telegraph is alive: rumors fly of similar barricades being erected around the island, of Gringos being violently accosted when trying to run through, of Municipal police officers being assaulted when trying to control the crowds. As we stare across the choppy bay, one rumor reveals itself to be true: the Carnival cruise ship is heading out to sea, ferrying her 3000 American tourists with half a million dollars of tourist income away to safer ports.

Amidst this chaos of tourists trying to make their way back to their resorts, parents struggling to collect their children from schools, and workers fighting to figure out how to get home, the unthinkable happens: RECO pulls the plug on the entire island. Against the din of the countless generators firing up, the storm howls with a cacophonous roar of pure panic. The island’s collective insanity, which has been broiling for the past month against the endless rain and economic downturn, spills over the cauldron of anger, racism, and blame.

The gas stations are the first to be hit. With limited fuel available to power the generators, the pumps quickly run dry as people fill their fuel reserves to the limit. The grocery stores are next as countless refrigerated items are tossed out (much to the joy of the street dogs) and non-perishable supplies begin to wane. Motivated by fear and powered by rum, our angry population begins to fear how long we will have to endure these conditions. Like always, rumors fly: the power will be back on in one day; two days; one week; two weeks.

Meanwhile, we are literally cut off from the rest of the world. As the phone providers run out of juice with which to power their services, our internet and phone lines drop dead. We now have no way of knowing what is happening either on or off our little angry rock in the Caribbean. The ferry stops running and access to the airport is impossible. Never before has the Honduran mainland seemed so far away. We are truly trapped on an wild island surrounded by dangerous locals.

Where are the police? The road blocks continue without the municipal muscle stepping in. Where are the island leaders? Some are hiding in their homes, while others are personally agitating the protests. Where is the solution? Rumors fly of the Cobras (Honduran special ops) and the Honduran President arriving on the island to address the situation, but without communication or transportation we are compelled to ride out the storm in the darkness of ignorance.

November 7, 2008. I am driving back from Anthony’s Key Resort when I notice a promising sign: street lights. As we pass home after home, the beautiful soft glow of electrical lights stream from within. A whoop of excitement rises in my chest, only to be swallowed again as I pull my scooter up my driveway into absolute darkness. I unleash a stream of expletives, consisting mostly of creative combinations involving “fuck” and “RECO”.

I am lying perpendicular across my bed in absolute darkness, contemplating the myriad means of making Molotov cocktails along with various techniques for lobbing them into mobs, when I hear a sound I will never forget. Beep. The gentle sound of my air conditioning unit receiving power. I run through the house, flicking on all the lights, my joy erupting as each flick further illuminates the house. I run the water in the shower, then dive straight in as I feel the warmth of the water heater stream from the faucet, my three days of grime running down the drain.

This storm had been building for some time. Roatan faces the unique sociological challenge of successfully merging at least three distinct cultures– Bay Islander, Honduran Mainlander, and Foreign Expatriate– into one functioning society. So far, we’re doing a pretty awful job. The Bay Islanders have rapidly fractured from a fairly unified fishing culture into a small class of Bourgeoisie businessman-politicians rapidly profiting from the influx of tourism and an expanding Proletariat base marginalized by their own leaders. The Foreign Expatriates have transplanted the wealth from their respective home countries into a previously impoverished but economically stable island, furthering the economic rift by financially empowering the Bay Islander Bourgeoisie through shady real estate deals whilst simultaneously triggering an unstemmed influx of Honduran Mainlanders to construct their developments at exploitative rates. The Honduran Mainlanders have migrated in droves to seek out a land of milk, honey, and employment– only to be disillusioned when the construction contract dries up, their family is marginalized into one of the countless shanty towns around the island, and then the overinflated RECO bill arrives.

The events that unfolded over the last month are an embarrassment to our island, and deservedly so. We are a beautiful island– one of the last true gems of the Caribbean– with so much to offer the outside world in terms of natural beauty and with so much potential for intelligently-planned growth and development on the inside. But we are an island without a voice, an island without unity, an island that is, at present, more content to let the socioeconomic rift widen, the marginalization persist, the government remain aloof, the racism escalate, and the infrastructure devolve than tackle the politically sticky issue of how all three groups are going to coexist both now and in the future. The reward for our current behavior? Three cruise ships canceled, millions of dollars lost, the island slapped travel warning from the US Embassy, negative press around the world, and a tarnished international reputation. Way to go.

Like all winds that blow through the Caribbean, this most recent storm has thankfully passed. The island is back to her normal ways: we have electricity, we have telecommunications, and (most importantly) we have awesome scuba diving. That said, I hope that the next storm to strike this island is of the barometric– not socioeconomic– variety.

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