Soccer fields and chain stores: Weighing U.S. influence in Honduras

Former Seattle Sounders player Roger Levesque (Photo by Dan Poss for the Seattle Sounders.)
Former Seattle Sounders player Roger Levesque kicks a soccer ball with local youth in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (Photo by Dan Poss for the Seattle Sounders.)

This is part 2 of Reagan Jackson’s report on her recent trip to Honduras, organized by the Seattle Sounders and the Seattle International Foundation. Part 1 is here.

You might not have heard much news from Honduras recently. If you did, it was probably about the violent crime that has gripped this small Central American country in recent years, lending to its reputation as “the murder capital of the world.”

So when I got a last-minute opportunity to join a Seattle delegation headed toTegucigalpa, Honduras, last month, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The Centro de Alcance “Mi Barrio” is located in a neighborhood in the capital city ironically named Colonia de los Estados Unidos (Colony of the United States). Nestled on a hillside overlooking a residential area, the center provides programming and support for 300 local youth. It’s one of 46 centers in Honduras co-created by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in partnership with local community organizations.

After crossing an unmarked boundary the driver rolled down the van’s tinted windows so we could see and be seen by the residents. “It’s a sign of respect,” Mauricio Vivero, the CEO of the Seattle International Foundation tells me. “That way they know we aren’t gang members.”

There seemed to be little confusion about who we were — to the youth at the center we were the U.S. citizens responsible for refurbishing their soccer field.

“We do two things,” explained Vivero about the role of the Seattle International Foundation and why they jumped at the chance to partner with the Seattle Sounders during the team’s trip to Honduras. “We help Seattle people and Seattle institutions do good in the world and try to facilitate that. And then we also have our strategic focus on Central America and that is where we spend a lot of our intellectual energy and our resources,” he said.

The small delegation of Seattleites including Vivero, former Sounders player Roger Levesque, Sounders photographer Dan Poss, and Melissa and Bruce Seiber, two Seattle Sounders fans who won a contest to attend the Sounders game in Honduras, received a warm welcome. Levesque drew smiles from the youth and struck up a pick-up game the moment he dropped a soccer ball on the field.

The day before the official ribbon cutting ceremony, the field didn’t look like much, just a few rolls of green AstroTurf laid out over a concrete corner. The field markers hadn’t yet been painted and the goal posts were still being welded together, but this was not a deterrant to youth delighting in have a new space to play.

The center itself was not fancy. It didn’t seem large enough to accommodate those it serves, at least by U.S. standards. It began as a concrete patch surrounding an existing kindergarten and has expanded to include a small playground, a computer lab, bathrooms and two multi-purpose spaces. Center director Ulices Garcia led us around the corner to a narrow strip of concrete. “That’s going to be a gym,” he said.

With Vivero as a translator, Garcia introduced the staff, the majority of whom are volunteers from the neighborhood. Despite its size, the center offers a wide selection of programming including gym time for adults in the early morning and after work and classes for youth in dance, art, and computer. At one time they offered vocational courses for barbers and hair stylists, but they have since converted the space into a mediation room to encourage a different approach to conflict resolution. Several of the volunteers have received professional training to run this new initiative.

Our hope is that our community be totally clean of all that is violent, domestic violence and child abuse and also narcotics because there are a lot and that’s why we work with youth here, making sure there are other opportunities so that they can avoid falling into gangs,” Garcia said. “That’s what we hope, that our community can get out of this development. “

For 18-year-old Jon Carlo Josua de Cuba, the two years he has been a part of the center have been transformative. “It’s a place where young people can go to have fun and it has helped a lot. It’s helped me in the area of computers and video games. It’s a safe place where we go to have fun, but also to help out a little.”

When I asked him the most important thing he’s gained from the center, Josua de Cuba answered immediately: “Values, and to be someone in life, respect, love, and being nice with everyone.” Josua de Cuba now volunteers regularly and expects that many other youth who come through the program will choose to do the same. When asked whether he was learning these values anywhere else in his life, he shook his head. “The truth is, no.”

The morning after our initial visit to the center 50 youth met with Sounders’ coaches Brian Schmetzer and Tom Dutra, Levesque, and 15 members of the team’s official fan club, the Emerald City Supporters for a soccer clinic at the national stadium. In addition to getting to work on their skills, they received goalie gloves, jerseys and shirts courtesy of the Seattle International Foundation and the Emerald City Supporters. Later that afternoon, officials from USAID, World Vision, and various other organizations showed up at the Centro de Alcance to make speeches and break in the new soccer field.

Ted Glenn from USAID was present to speak about the overall strategy. “What we’ve done in the USAID is follow the examples of experts… in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York working with the Department of Justice, that National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control who have a real expertise in violence prevention in the United states.”

The objective is to adapt best practices of these models to fit the Honduran context.

Honduras is a country continuously struggling with crime and poverty, largely due to gang activity and the drug trade. Nearly two-thirds of the population live in extreme poverty. Contributing factors include Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which wiped out 70 percent of their crops, causing $3 billion in damages and killing 5,000.

Yet according the CIA factbook, Honduras’ natural resources include: timber, gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, iron ore, antimony, coal, fish, and hydropower. The question no one seems to be asking is how is it that Honduras is so poor and yet so rich in mineral resources and farm land?

I pondered this question throughout my brief visit. Every time I got into a van or cab to leave the hotel, I thought about the relationship between the United States and Honduras as I passed what seemed like one continuous symbol of modern day colonization. Dunkin’ Donuts, Chili’s, Baskin-Robbins, and McDonald’s signs proliferated the skyline. This was Honduras, the second most dangerous country in Central America and home to Forever 21, Sears, Burger King, Subway, and even Cinnabon.

Meeting Ulices Garcia and the youth at the Centro de Alcance made me believe that the U.S. government and organizations like the Seattle International Foundation are doing some good work to support Honduran citizens in their struggle against poverty.

Still I was left wondering how much of these problems were we responsible for creating? I also wondered whether Hondurans determine what they need within their own communities or are the U.S. business ventures and philanthropic initiatives an international example of white privilege? Is it manifest destiny moving south instead of west?