Tea Party Paradise: My visit to Roatan, Honduras

I had the opportunity to head south for spring break (due to the generosity of someone who understands that even tired, broke teachers need some sun now and then.)  We traveled to Roatan, Honduras, and stayed on the beach and tried to make the most of our R & R opportunity while the snow continued to pile up on our northern Michigan friends.  When we have had the opportunity to travel, we try to find places that are not typical warm-weather resorts where the only people you run into are other North Americans or Europeans who are trying to see if they can make the resort sorry they offered an all-you-can-eat/all-you-can-drink package to people who know how to do a lot of both.  Instead we try to get off the beaten path and spend time learning how people live in systems very different than the one we enjoy in the United States.

Roatan has a very interesting history, dominated like so many other Caribbean islands by legacies of colonialism and the slave trade.  Several of the Arawak Indians who survived Columbus’ genocidal assault on their original homes (see the diaries of the priest who travelled with Columbus, Bartolome de Las Cassas, for the gruesome details) found their way to Roatan.  These descendants survive today in enclaves on Roatan and seemingly make their living by performing traditional dances for tourists.

The island also has a significant ex-pat population of former Canadians, Americans, and Europeans who came to Roatan seeking a new life on this relatively undeveloped island.  In the last twenty years, there has been significant investment on the island primarily by the cruise ship companies who make ten to twelve stops a week at Roatan so that their passengers can disembark, buy t-shirts and trinkets that will turn their skin black within a week before piling back on the ship so they can get to the next island and repeat the process.   We calculated that over $500,000 a week pours into the island from cruise ship passengers.  With that kind of money, a wonderful climate, an interesting and dynamic mix of cultures, one might expect to see modern infrastructure and a standard of living that benefits everyone.

Instead, however, I got the vision of what life under the Tea Party would look like in the United States.  Government spending and services on Roatan are practically non-existent.  The money that flows into the coffers via exit taxes keeps right on flowing to the mainland and very little of it is used on the island.   The roads are something to behold.  Giant potholes transform whatever paved roads exist on Roatan into a non-stop game of chicken as cars swerve to avoid the larger hazards.  It soon became a running gag for us as my step-son kept track of the pot holes I missed versus the pot holes I couldn’t avoid.  Repair and repaving consisted of locals hired to dig clay from the side of the road and dump it in the holes while the drivers brave enough (or blind enough) to roll over the spot helped tamp it down.

More eye-catching evidence of the lack of government investment is the omnipresent trash which lines the roads, beaches, and waterways.  An aluminum recycling process has locals digging through trash for cans they can make some money on, but plastic pop and water bottles have no value and consequently overwhelm the government’s ability and/or willingness to provide waste management services.  I jokingly told one of the ex-pats I met that I should get back into the plastic recycling business and open a plant on the island.  He said that if I did that, I would immediately become a local hero.  As Roatan seeks to join the list of elite Caribbean resorts, it will have to deal with its trash problem but neither the political will nor the financial resources seem to be available to attack the problem.

Security is another clear are of government neglect.  While we did not experience any crime nor ever felt that we had wandered into unsafe areas, we noticed an overwhelming and threatening presence of private security on Roatan.  Banks were guarded from the outside by one or two men holding menacing weapons.   Even the chicken trucks had a guard riding shotgun who stood watch while deliveries to local restaurants were made.  This garish display of force by the local security firms is needed because the government is unable or unwilling to spend the money protect the assets of its citizenry.

As we picked up our rental car, we were told that it had no license plate.  When (not “if”, but “when”) we were stopped by the police, we were told to roll our windows down immediately so they can see who we were, and to show them the registration from the glove box and we should be fine.  I am not sure how long someone could drive around an American city without a plate and expect not to be pulled over, but we made it eight days on Roatan without ever having to open the glove box to produce the proper paperwork.  And, of course, we weren’t the only car on the road without plates.

On Saturday night, we participated in an AIDS fundraiser.  With no government hospital on the island that we could see, the burden of caring for young children with HIV/AIDS falls to the courage and generosity of those willing to collect money $5 at a time.

Later in the week, we visited a truly fabulous beach on the northeast side of the island.  The national park greeted us with a spectacular vista as we pulled into the abandoned parking lot.  As we stepped out of the car we were overwhelmed by the putrid stench of rotting garbage.  Nearly a week had gone by since a massive Easter weekend party on the beach, yet no one had been by to clean up the mess.  Bags of trash were stacked 20 high around dumpsters and it was impossible to say when the problem would be addressed.  As we made our way past the trash heaps, we came across six or seven dogs in very poor health.  Mangy and so thin, it was clear the mounds of trash weren’t providing the nourishment they needed.   We ran into a couple of tourists on the beach who were very agitated by the condition of the dogs.  They wanted to call the humane society, but were told by a local restaurateur no such reliable government service of this type existed.

It was as I was walking back to my car and observing the dogs in obvious pain and distress that the light went on and I realized that Roatan is living the Tea Party dream.  A nearly non-existent government is unable or unwilling to provide basic services for its population.  The logical extension of less and less government is what we saw all around the island.  The abject poverty of Coxen Hole contrasted with the opulence of the mansions on the northwest corner of the island.  A very small number of really rich people lived on the hill overlooking the thousands of people living day-to-day.  Lack of industry (not unusual for an island economy) is bad enough, but lack of government investment prevents the possibility of developing a middle class through decent and much needed infrastructure jobs.

So while wasteful government spending benefits almost no one, the lack of reasonable government services hurts everyone.  Screaming that all government spending is bad, can only come from the mouths of people who are satisfied that their piece of the pie is already secured.  But if the Tea Party continues to have its unearned influence on the United States, many of our communities will begin to look a lot like Roatan (without the fabulous weather, beaches, and reefs of course.)  And while that might sound pretty good to those who can afford to build a mansion on the hilltop, the rest of us are sure going to be thinking that it might be time to pull on those bootstraps and kick the radical right back to their lives of selfish obscurity.

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One Comment on “Tea Party Paradise: My visit to Roatan, Honduras”

  1. Sue VanDeventer April 9, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

    But do they have low taxes, Mark? Because, you know, that’s all that matters.

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