Report from the Northern Atlantic Coast Garifuna
La Voz de los de Abajo Delegation to Honduras
We arrived in La Ceiba in the late afternoon on Saturday, October 24 and were met by staff from the Foundation for the Health of the People (Luaga Hatuadi Waduhenu). This foundation, headed by Dr. Luther Harry Castillo, works with the Garifuna communities building and operating the first and only Garifuna hospital in Honduras, located in Ciriboya close to Iriona. They talked about the history and significance of the hospital project for the communities living in the poor region, in particular for the Garifuna communities that make up the majority of population. The hospital serves approximately 30,000 persons and has treated close to 200, 000 adult and pediatric cases, including traumatic accidents, snakebites, complications of chronic illnesses and acute sicknesses of all types. They also serve as an important maternal health resource for pregnant women.
The Foundation staff also talked about the situation at the hospital, as well as in La Ceiba, since the coup. In La Ceiba, the anti-golpe resistance has a smaller percentage of the population than in Tegucigalpa and some other parts of the country. None-the-less, it has mobilized demonstrations and is an active part of the national anti-coup movement. Organizations and individuals in the resistance have received threats, including death threats. After one demonstration, for example, threats were made stating that “some of the people you see here (at the march) will be found with cotton stuffed down their throats” - a reference to the death squad style killing of people by suffocating them. Hospital staff have been threatened and the coup government has attempted to close the facility. We heard more about the defacto government’s repression against the hospital when we travelled to Ciriboya on Sunday, October 25.
Ciriboya is one of many small Garifuna communities on the Atlantic coast in Colon and Miskitia. We reached the hospital there after a 5 hour drive from La Ceiba, including more than two hours on unpaved, rutted road which passes through beautiful countryside full of banana and coconut palms, small creeks, and lush greenery and flowers, often just a very short distance from the sea. Along the road, people walk carrying loads of firewood and water (there is no electricity and shortages of drinking water in most villages).
The hospital is a beautifully constructed, yellow building with a veranda on the second floor, located in a clearing, with its own electrical power and water pumping system for water for cleaning and bathing. We were met at the door by Dr. Wendy Perez and other hospital staff. Dr. Perez, like Dr. Castillo, is one of the Honduran doctors trained in Cuba who along with volunteer Cuban doctors and locally trained nurses’ aides make up the medical team for the hospital.
Our delegation to the hospital had two missions. La Voz de los de Abajo was committed to a mural project at the hospital to be completed in the 3 days we were there (see the photos for the finished project) and we were carrying out the Todos Somos Honduras delegation’s mission of interviewing the community and documenting the situation since the coup. To that end we interviewed hospital staff, members of the community support committee for the hospital, Garifuna activists working to defend the culture and rights of their people, members of women’s organizations, patients from the hospital and other community members.
We were told that the hospital projects originally faced harassment and problems from government officials and regional powers, as well as the Honduran medical elite because of the hospital’s dedication to serving and empowering the Garifuna community and because all care is absolutely free to all its patients, without discrimination of any sort. The situation improved during Mel Zelaya’s presidency and the hospital was formally opened in December of 2007. Zelaya and his Minister of Health visited the hospital before the coup and committed government support for the project. Dr. Castillo was appointed Director of International Cooperation for the Ministry of Health.
Right after the coup, the defacto government began to harass and threaten the hospital and the community. The physician appointed to head the defacto Ministry of Health by Michiletti was previously the head of the Honduran physicians’ organization that attempted to block the Cuban trained Honduran doctors from being licensed to practice medicine in Honduras. The coup government revoked the hospital’s permit and ordered it to close. Dr. Castillo and the Foundation refused and the military came to the hospital and attempted to seize control. The reaction from the local community and from national and international human rights organizations forced the military to withdraw. Dr. Castillo and the other staff began receiving threats right after the coup and human rights organizations in Honduras declared the threats against Dr. Castillo to be credible and serious, including a plan to assassinate the physician. On October 6th the military again sent troops to the hospital, entered it forcibly and searched it. At the same time the coup government has cut Health Ministry operations that were cooperating with hospital staff to extend services to even more remote communities and recently re-wrote an agreement for regional collaboration to eliminate the participation of the Foundation and the hospital.
The community members we interviewed talked about the climate of insecurity and fear in the region due to the military activities and threats, and the feeling of being isolated and vulnerable to any paramilitary or military violence against the community, its leaders and the hospital. The Garifuna organizations we spoke with stated that the coup has set back their progress in health, education and economic services and projects desperately needed for the survival of the people and culture.
Pictures: Meeting with the Foundation staff in La Ceiba; meeting with the community committee in Ceriboya for support of the hospital. Delegation member with community; finished mural with Dr. Perez and community children, mural with Cuban medical personnel; children’s mural painted by local children.