Fighting For Their Families Back Home


On
April 20, 2002, many thousands of people marched in Washington,
DC and in California to protest global distributions of power and
wealth, once again demonstrating the strength of the movement against
corporate globalization. At the same time, in the living room of
a Harlem apartment a group of Honduran immigrants came together
as part of an ongoing campaign to support their native village,
under attack by large-scale landowners and international financial
institutions. 

The
people assembled are immigrants from Sambo Creek, a village of 4,000
on Honduras’s Atlantic coast. They, like everyone else in Sambo
Creek, are Garifuna, people of African descent who have lived for
centuries in a culture distinct from the mainstream of Latin America.
Garifuna society developed in the 17th century when English slave
ships crashed off the coast of Saint Vincent island, and the African
survivors joined with the island’s Arawak Indians, blending
the two cultures. The British later forced the Garifuna off Saint
Vincent and shipped them to the mainland. Today, most Garifuna live
in Honduras, Nicaragua, and elsewhere in Central America in small
coastal towns that are isolated from the rest of their countries
by language, culture, and economics. 

Traditionally,
Garifuna village economies revolve around small agriculture and
fishing, with women growing the crops while men fish. Communities
own their land communally, based on old agreements with the government.
Any given plot of land may have been handed down through a family
for more than 200 years, but without formal registration of ownership. 

Over
the past 50 years, coastland has become extremely valuable to the
international hotel industry and to large Honduran landowners. In
that time, these interests have taken over much of the land that
had belonged to the Garifuna for centuries. In Sambo Creek, a single
politically connected landowner has illegally occupied about half
of the village, including farmland, beaches, and land that had been
used for housing. Today that land sits unused, waiting to be transformed
into luxury homes, while the population of Sambo Creek lives in
tiny houses crammed together on streets with no sewer system. 


22    Z MAGAZINE JUNE 2002         


        Activism 


This
past July, Sambo Creek residents began a campaign to reclaim their
land. For more than a week, Garifuna activists lived there, building
shanty houses out of cardboard, wood, and aluminum. Then the police
came in and started shooting into the area and beating the activists,
throwing seven of them into jail. Alberto Bernandez and another
member of the New York committee traveled to the village to support
the protest. Along with local activists, they met with the head
of the Honduran ministry dealing with land and agriculture. At the
meeting, the minister promised to help the Garifuna recover the
land, recognizing that they have both the legal right to it and
a great need for it. The official helped free the arrestees from
jail, but since then Sambo Creek has seen few results from his promises.
The government claims that they are re-evaluating the ownership
of some of the stolen land, but, says Bernandez, officials are “playing
it both ways,” and there are no signs that the stolen land
will be returned any time soon. 

Along
with the theft of Garifuna land over the past several decades, multinational
companies have over-fished the oceans that the villages depend on
for subsistence. In response, the government has implemented restrictions
against the sustainable methods used by the Garifuna as against
ecologically devastating industrial fishing. American companies
have illegally laid claim to many of the small islands where Garifuna
men stayed overnight during their fishing trips. 

In
1994, Bernandez, along with Santos Garcia, another member of the
New York group, joined a campaign to solve some of these problems
through political channels. With other Garifuna in the U.S., they
worked to build immigrant support for a presidential candidate from
Honduras’s Liberal Party. Yet, even when their candidate won,
there was little change in the government’s treatment of Sambo
Creek. 

“The
debts that all Latin American countries have mean that we have lost
the ability to control our own countries’ policies,” says
Santos, who worked for the Honduran Labor Department before coming
to the U.S. “All we can do is follow the dictates of the World
Bank and IMF, which are advocates of the rich.” Santos notes
that these institutions demand spending in urban areas, meaning
that the government is forbidden to finance projects in villages
like Sambo Creek. Besides, he says, “the money that is lent
to the government ends up going back to its source. The lenders
control the project, send the engineers who get huge salaries, decide
what materials will be bought, and who to buy them from.” 


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Activism         


Bernandez
adds that even the projects that end up being financed are often
defective; “Every time we have a hurricane the bridges have
to be rebuilt—the ineptitude of these people is unbelievable.” 

Many
Sambo Creek residents dream of finding work in another country.
Many are waiting for visas to the U.S. Those who have made it are
committed to supporting the relatives they left behind. For the
past 20 years, Garifuna immigrants have organized groups to support
their villages back home. About 125 people from Sambo Creek now
live in New York City and a majority of them are actively involved
in meetings and fundraisers designed to help their home community. 

The
group meeting in Harlem is the steering committee that represents
these constituents. They plan fundraisers and report back to the
larger community at general meetings, where the entire group votes
on the use of the money raised. 

The
New York City group works closely with a parallel committee in Sambo
Creek. Most members return home to visit as often as they can and
when they do, they often attend meetings in the village, helping
to coordinate their activities with the community’s needs. 

Dominga
Martinez, the vice president and host of the meeting, tells a story
about life in the U.S. that would be familiar to immigrants from
all over the world. She works two jobs and goes to nursing school
at night. She also takes care of her aging father. 

“When
we come to this country, it’s an opportunity for us,”
she says, “so we try to help out the people who are back there.
It’s a small town, but people are very united. We want to help
the place, so people don’t feel the only way to succeed is
to leave the country.” 

When
asked, the first accomplishment that members of this committee point
to is the creation of a secondary school in Sambo Creek. When these
immigrants were children, the village had only a primary school,
covering first through sixth grade. Parents who wanted their children
to get more education had to send them away to a larger city. 

In
1996, the group began raising money for a school and communicating
with Honduran teachers who were interested in the project. Meanwhile,
in Honduras, people from the village applied political pressure
to get the school built. Eventually the government responded to
popular support for the school and made its construction into a
public project. But the school that opened in 1998 was more a public
relations ploy than a functional institution. It was dramatically
underfunded and had few of the supplies necessary to provide students
with a decent education. 

With
help from the New York group, the community was able to get better
materials and to build a new classroom and a library. Now the school,
originally designed for 60 students, serves 120 from Sambo Creek
and another nearby village. Soon, the group hopes to raise enough
money to provide it with computers. 

The
work of the Sambo Creek community, both there and in New York, goes
far beyond local projects in its scope. In recent years, Garifuna
organizations, including the one in Sambo Creek, have joined with
Misquitos and other native groups in the fight for land reform.
They have organized caravans of buses from villages around the country
to hold a unified march on the capital—a very expensive project
which Garifuna in New York helped finance. A national Congress of
Garifuna organizations has participated in international activities
around issues of racism in Latin America and elsewhere. For the
Sambo Creek immigrants in New York, the work of meeting their community’s
immediate needs is intimately tied to challenging some of the most
powerful financial interests in the world. 

Bernandez
pounds his point home: “The fundraising we do is all about
building institutions that can create consistent change. And dramatic
change.”                  Z 


Livia
Gershon is a labor activist and freelance writer in New York City.