Saturday, March 19, 2011

Inaugurating an airport

For several years people in the area of the Dulce Nombre de María parish in Copán have looked forward to the possibility of an airport near the town of Concepción.

Saturday, March 19, between three and five thousand people gathered at the site of the airport, in the words of Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, to inaugurate the airport, to “reactivate” the airfield which was abandoned at the site in the 1970s. The main event was a Mass.

I won’t try to explain the history and the recent conflicts about establishing an airport in this region. There are powerful economic and political forces which are seeking to place an airport in another location just north of Concepción. There are four very good blog entries on Honduras Culture and Politics which can be found here and here and here and here.

Arrows pointing out the route were posted in Dulce Nombre and Concepción on Friday and the roads from Dulce Nombre to Concepción to the airport site were fixed, with big potholes filled in and the road smoothed.

People arrived on foot, in buses, in cars and pickups, and even in a big cattle carrier truck.

There were children in arms, people in wheelchairs, the bishop and three priests, the mayors of Dulce Nombre, Concepción, and Santa Rosa de Copán, as well as the vice-mayor of San Agustin. Among those present were several who remembered using the airport or going to visit it as a child. One man told me that TACA and SAHSA airlines landed there, as had a woman a few days earlier. I wondered about that but there was a 1958 photo of a plane that had been damaged that they were trying to take on a trailer through Dulce Nombre. The people also brought two of the tires!

The Regional Committee for the Airport in Concepción – whose president is Bishop Santos – had called for the celebration with a Mass as the central action. The parish played a major role in convoking the people.

When I arrived I saw that they had leveled off a landing strip which is about a kilometer long. Kids were racing their bikes on it. Monseñor in his homily noted that this is larger than the land

What is also interesting is that from the field you can see the San Andrés Gold Mine – another contentious point in the diocese.

About ten thirty the musical group began singing religious songs to animate the people. At about 11:20 the bishop started Mass.

In his sermon the bishop noted that they had invited President Pepe Lobo and Juan Orlando Hernández, the president of the National Congress. Hernández told the bishop that though he was at a meeting in Ocotopeque he would try to get there. He also told the bishop that he would push for the airport and the road to from the airport Santa Rita to provide access to the Mayan Ruins near Copán Ruinas as well as for the necessary legislative decrees to establish an Association with joint public and private support for the airport, something the regional committee was suggesting.

The bishop applauded the cooperation which exists between the Catholic Church and the municipal corporations on this issue, and the initiative of Concepción to donate 40 manzanas for the project.

Monseñor Santos has a lot of connections with political and military leaders, partly because of his years in Tegucigalpa as a teacher and later the rector of the Salesians’ high school, San Miguel, one of the best schools for males in the country with many of the elite as its alumni.

He tried using multiple contacts to try to get a military plane to land during the celebration. But the effort started too late but he did get four colonels to support the airport in Concepción.

Lest anyone think the bishop has changed into a “golpista,” he placed his remarks in an interesting context.

The Virgin of Suyapa is the patron of Honduras and she is also considered a patron of the military. Some call her the “captain” of the armed forces. But, said Monseñor Santos, captain means “guide,” and Mary does not have a place in the military hierarchy.

He spoke of being in solidarity with the Armed Forces – in all that is good. But he told the military to avoid repression and torture, to never aid the economic powers in the country, and not be disposed to help coups d’état.

In the light of the current events where the police and military have violently responded to teachers’ demonstrations with tear gas and water cannons, resulting in at least one death, those words were quite pointed, perhaps especially for the 15 or so police there and the 20 or so military present at the airfield.

The bishop said that “we in the west of Honduras have the reputation of being poor,” but he noted that there are rich in the area who recognize that there are riches here. But even more, he said, “It could be that we are poor, but we are people of faith.” Recalling the words of Jesus, “Nothing is impossible for those who have faith,” he called for going forward on the project with faith and intelligence.

After Mass, many people ate and left, though many remained in hopes of greeting Juan Orlando Hernández, who we thought would arrive about 2 pm.

The event was, many felt, a success, bringing out a great crowd and showing support for an airport in Concepción. The spirit was great and I was delighted to greet many people I know in the parish, even some from remote villages.

There were only two things that lessened the joy and excitement of the day for me.

Juan Orlando Hernández arrived a about 3:50 and stayed for less than five minutes. He had told the bishop on the phone that he had other engagements. The helicopter landed and Hernández went to speak with the bishop. He told the bishop that this project would “also” go forward. Does that mean that he considers that there could be two airports - one in Concepción and the other in Rio Amarillo? The bishop though thinks that Hernández had promised him twice that morning to push – impulsar – the Concepción airport. But what is sad is that though people waited more than two hours, Hernández could not take more than a few minutes to talk with the bishop and the authorities. Political leaders ought to be responsive to the people.

The other is not related to the airport issue but is reveals a major problem of the country. While we were waiting for Hernández a few guys on four wheel All Terrain Vehicles were riding around. At one point in the midst of an area with lots of people, including kids, they started doing wheelies and going around in circles at high speeds. A policeman was right there. I was afraid for the kids in the face the recklessness of these guys. I told the police to do something – very loudly and forcefully. I was mad. After they had done it a few times he said something to the major offender. The guy took off but returned and proceeded to do the same thing while the policeman did absolutely nothing. I was enraged and shouted at him. I then went to one of the leaders of the event who made a public announcement asking the police to watch out for acts that endanger others. Police should protect the people, especially children – but did nothing. (I also wonder that if I ever encounter the same policeman at a roadblock he may give me a hard time.)

And so today the people of Dulce Nombre, Concepción, Dolores, and San Agustín took a firm public stand.

Will their pleas be heard by politicians? And will police promote the protection and common good of the people?


Other photos can be found at my Flickr site in the set Concepción, Copán, aeropuerto.

Addendum: On Monday, March 21, the Honduran newspaper La Prensa reported that there were 4,000 participants.

No comments: