Saturday, November 21, 2009

Breakfast in Honduras

We're still seeing an occasional article on the crisis in Honduras. Then-president Zelaya wanted to change the country's constitution, allowing him to serve another term. The judiciary, along with certain elements of the military, took exception to his plans, and he found himself on a plane out of the country.
Right-leaning blogs applauded his ouster, citing similarities to a Chavez-type takeover
a la Venezuela, and decried the fact that the White House and Department of State seemed to favor Zelaya's position.

I have no opinion to give except that "we" took a proper and prudent public position, and no information to give, other than the following story:

It must have been around the late of the '80s, my friend Jim and the owner of a construction company based in Ft. Lauderdale flew down to Honduras to see if there were any opportunities for offshore construction work. Jim always considered Ft. Lauderdale a good "jumping off place," and indeed had found work that sent him to Jamaica, Haiti, the Caymans, Bahamas, Virgin Islands, and even Africa. This company had a good product and good track record. They'd been successful in other places, and now they hoped to be able to do business in Honduras.

They flew from Miami to Tegucigalpa, the capital. Arriving late in the afternoon, they checked into a downtown hotel. The boss made a few phone calls to local contacts, setting up a couple of appointments for the following day. They stayed close to the hotel that night.

The next morning they ate breakfast at the hotel. Whether it was to treat himself with the "hair of the dog," or to brace himself with an early-morning "shooter" (something he was known to do), Jim excused himself and went off in search of a barman, or some hotel employee able to be bribed to dispense a couple of drinks at 7:00 in the morning.

Having accomplished his mission, Jim reported, he returned to the dining room to find his boss sitting there with a disturbed look about him, his face suddenly gray and ashen. "Go up to the room and pack up your stuff. We're getting out of here."

Within a few minutes they were in a car heading back to the airport. They flew back to Miami later that day. "So what happened?" I asked, when told about the trip.

"He wouldn't say," Jim replied. "And he was so upset, I didn't want to push him. I surmise, while I was gone, somebody came to the table and told him to go. Exactly who it was I don't know. But I do know he wasn't sure if we were even going to make it to the airport."

So who knows what really happened? Certainly the boss wasn't a wimp who would scare easily; his company had operated in a lot of places, many of which had an "edge."
Whatever was said to him that morning at the breakfast table, for him doing business in Honduras was a clear-cut case of "No vale le pena."

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Strange Case of Antonio Tovar

Did you ever meet someone whose real age was impossible to guess? A number of years ago, working for a construction outfit in Central America, I met a man who was, to say the least, of indeterminate age. If I remember correctly, his appearance was such that he ranged somewhere between a hard-bitten thirty and a nimble seventy.

He was short by American standards, slightly built, with an air of self-assurance about him that was out of the ordinary. He spoke easy-to-understand Spanish, and wore an expression on his face that can only be described as a cross between saintly humility and extreme amusement. His clothes were simple. He might have been any one of the many refugees from the wars in El Salvador of Guatemala who were growing corn and beans on small patches of land they had cleared in the woods around the job site.

“My name is Antonio Tovar. I’m here to see about the chain link fence,” he said. Part of the building under construction was going to get a chain link fence around it, but I hadn’t seen any details about it. Most of the previous crew had been cashiered for going “wild west” on the job. There’s a certain type of American who, when taken out of the country, feels that he’s beyond the law and goes bonkers. A lower level on Kohlberg’s moral chart, perhaps, or as someone said, “Travel makes a wise man wiser, but a fool worse.” For the first couple of months we were finding out indirectly about deals and arrangements that the ancien regime had made with various locals, some of which were legitimate and some of which were not.I referred him to one of the engineers on the job who would know something about the fence. That weekend I saw Antonio Tovar and a group of similar-looking men working behind the building, and shortly thereafter a chain link fence appeared. At the end of the week Antonio came back into the office with a bill. It seemed completely reasonable, so low that I was able to pay him out of our petty cash fund without bothering the boss with it. Off he went with the same inscrutable smile on his face.

About two months later I heard a radio broadcast about a missing person. Friends and neighbors were concerned about the disappearance of one Antonio Tovar. “If anyone has any information on the whereabouts of Antonio Tovar, please contact your local police or this radio station. His friends are very anxious to find him.”
That spring I made the acquaintance of some of the refugees who were living out in the woods. I asked if they knew him. They told the following story. He appeared one day on foot out of nowhere. No one knew exactly where he was from, except that the spoke a Spanish they could understand but not recognize as coming from any particular place. He wouldn’t tell them his age, except to say that he was very old.

When he arrived, he was carrying many seeds in a leather bag. He worked among the people clearing land and planting beans, corn, and vegetables. When the people spoke of lacking certain things, he found work that paid them money. He took very little for himself, but spread most of what they earned around where it was needed most. Then one day, saying he was going to a city, he simply disappeared. When he didn’t return, they made inquiries, first to the police and then later to the radio station. He’d been a big hit with all the people in their community. He brought money in. The women, the children, even the men all loved him. They were worried about what happened to him. He’d now been gone a long time.

So I asked them who they thought he was. The answers ranged from a Communist organizer, a Lakota “road man,” a guerilla agent, one of the Three Nephites of Mormon legend, a Cuban spy, a devilishly clever man from Scotland Yard, a brujo, a saint, to just a nice guy who disappeared in the jungle. A snakebite victim, perhaps.

I asked the engineer who he said had hired him, and he told me, “I thought you did.” Nope.

The ABC’s of Medical Care

The Horror of “Obamacare.”

The Great Unwashed clog free clinics with their endless needs. Aunt Gabby, insured through her job, but who’s never been happy unless she has the latest ailment, burdens the system with imagined complaints. Richie Rich goes to a private cash-for-care facility, which, if necessary to avoid government interference, may be located offshore. “Death Panels” decide whether you or your loved one merits the expense of life-saving medical treatment.

The real horror is that such a system already exists, right here in Hometown, USA. There are three tiers of medical care, not to say there aren’t levels within each tier or that there isn’t a degree of overlap among them, but basically here’s how it appears:

Level C is where you end up if you don’t have insurance or money. You might have a low-paying job without insurance, or you were laid off and lost your insurance. You could be chronically unemployed or homeless. Maybe you’ve just arrived in this country, knowing that you can have your baby in one of our hospitals for free, or that if you need an operation or treatment, you’re much more likely to get it here, eventually, than you are back home in your Third World country. You’ll have to wait in long lines at free clinics and county health departments. You’ll be at the mercy of slow-moving, non-caring bureaucrats. If you’re really sick or hurt, you can go to a hospital emergency room. You’ll wait a long time there, too. But they eventually somebody will take a look at you. And with a little luck they may actually help you out.

At level B you’re a working stiff lucky enough to have some sort of insurance. If something serious happens to you, you won’t lose your shirt, and they’ll take reasonably good care of you. You’ll probably be in a shared room, if hospitalized, but you’ll move down the medical assembly line with relative ease. You may have to wait for elective surgery and for non-emergency tests and procedures, but in an emergency situation, they’ll take care of you before things get out of hand, and you’ll be OK. Still, it’s a good idea to have an intelligent advocate available to help make decisions in case you are incapacitated, or in case they start treating you like a number on a chart.

At A level, you’re likely to have a super-duper insurance policy (the kind they’re talking about taxing to pay for the Level C’s), or you’re extremely wealthy, or you’re relatively prominent in your community. It may help to be a doctor, or be related to a doctor, but it helps even more to be an attorney, or related to an attorney. (A doctor knows the limits of health care; an attorney does not.) At this level you’ll get a private hospital room. You won’t have to wait very long for anything; it’ll seem as if all the procedures are streamlined. You’ll wonder why anyone has any problem with American health care, and you’ll be sure that “we have the best health care in the world.”

“Death Panels”? At level C you may have something to worry about. At the higher levels, the problem is more likely to be that they’ll use extreme measures to keep your body alive past the point where your quality of life has disappeared, just because somebody, whether insurance or government, is paying for those measures.