Snowbirds Gone Wild! Canadian retirees and locals clash in Honduras
This is the last piece (other than my thesis, which I have yet to publish) from my trip to Honduras in December 2009. I’m really happy with it… Enjoy! Quick update, this story got picked up by CBC radio’s Dispatches program, more information here.
I’m sitting with the cab driver who has brought me to the end of a long gravel road, near the edge of Trujillo, a small town on the north coast of Honduras. He’s flipping through a newspaper, telling me in halting English that he’s saving up to buy an excavator. Anyone with an excavator has work, he says. I hear the sound of four-wheeled all-terrain-vehicles in the distance, humming as they near. In a cloud of dust, Cathy Bernier appears at the top of the hill, followed on another ATV by her two daughters. All of them are here for a vacation from a freezing Alberta December. Bernier, who works as a client-relations manager with the development, has agreed to take me on a tour of Campa Vista, a housing project for retired Canadians perched above the Caribbean Sea.
With a wave from a security guard tuning his radio in a tiny booth, we pass under the front gate, a cement arch built over a dusty gravel road. From the back of Bernier’s speeding ATV, her blonde hair blowing in my face, I can see that the route we’re on is cut through what was quite recently a thick jungle. Along one side, a high wall of earth shades the road, and on the other, a steep ditch drops away toward the ocean. Peeling around a corner, the road forks. We hang right, and Bernier slows to a stop in front of an imposing house with a pool set in the front patio. Within a few months, this house will be occupied by a 70-year-old rugby player from Edmonton—one of this gated village’s first residents. Below us, dense jungle sprawls down the mountain toward the water, interrupted only by the newly built roads, faint outlines of staked-out lots, and high power lines.
Once completed, as promised in the promotional materials, Campa Vista (“Country View” in English) will afford a sunny, secure perch for Canadian snowbirds. The development’s website boasts of a “Euro-Mediterranean-style private gated community, with each property possessing its own unique and outstanding view.” North American baby boomers have proven to have a boundless appetite for vacation or retirement homes in sunny, cheap places that aren’t too racked by crime or war. It’s been a global windfall for many other countries, and now the people who run Honduras want a cut. Canadian entrepreneur Randy Jorgensen, developer of the Campa Vista complex, is happy to oblige. Jorgensen sells this tropical dream over the internet and in hotel conference-room seminars held in grey-skied Canadian locales: Regina; Etobicoke, Ontario; Duncan, B.C. His basic pitch: Honduras is the latest, best bargain available to Canadians wanting to own their own piece of a developing country.But—as you might have guessed—this sunny picture doesn’t tell the whole story. Just off the beach in Trujillo, six men sit around a peeling wooden picnic table. They’ve agreed to meet me here to discuss their concerns about the Canadians they say are squatting on their ancestral lands.
“Canadians have a strong sense of private property,” said Evaristo Perez Ambular, a native of Trujillo and member of Honduras’s major organization representing the Garífuna indigenous population. “We don’t have any access to that land anymore, including to some of our traditional pathways.”
Ambular speaks fluent Spanish, but switches back to the Garífuna language at times to discuss with the other men. The Garífuna language and its people are unique in a way that is recognized worldwide: the language, dance, and music of the Garífuna peoples were added to the United Nations’ list of rare cultural traditions in need of safeguarding.
Popular lore has it that Garífuna peoples descend from a slave ship that washed up on St. Vincent Island, whose passengers escaped slavery and instead intermarried with local indigenous people. The Garífuna were once called “Black Caribs” by the British, who forced them off St. Vincent and onto Roatán Island and the Central American mainland in 1797.
A fishing people, the Garífuna developed a rich collective lifestyle dependent on the ocean, the forests and the beaches. Expert seafarers, many Garífuna became deckhands for cargo ships travelling up and down the coast of Latin America. Today, there is a significant Garífuna diaspora in the United States.
The latest threat to Garífuna people, says Ambular, is the wave of Canadian settlers who are cutting them off from their land base.
In the first decade of the 20th century, the Garífuna who live in Trujillo were given collective titles for a fraction of their territories. But community members allege that in 2007 a former leader misrepresented himself as the owner of the land and wrongfully sold off parcels of real estate—land that eventually ended up in Randy Jorgensen’s hands.
“There are many Canadians in our communities on the coast, and we haven’t seen a positive presence from them,” says Ambular. “They use our bridges and our roads, and they don’t leave us a thing.”
José Velasquez, the current president of the two Garífuna communities in Trujillo, hands me a photocopy titled “Pronunciamiento No. 3.” It outlines the Garífuna peoples’ desire to reclaim their ancestral territories, and demands that the Honduran government nullify all land sales to Jorgensen.
Randy Jorgensen has lived in Honduras for 20 years, on and off. It’s been a getaway of sorts from his bustling life in Canada, where he conceived and oversaw the creation of Adults Only Video, the country’s first national chain of pornography stores.
Originally a muffler salesman in small-town Saskatchewan, Jorgensen was nicknamed Canada’s “porn king” in a 1993 Maclean’s profile. His specialty, as the article put it, was to “bring dirty movies into the clean streets of middle-class Canada,” and by the early ’90s, Adults Only Video was bringing in $25 million a year. Faced with lawsuits and police raids because of the content of his videos, Jorgensen maintained that everything he did was within the boundaries of the law.
Later, when I called Jorgensen to get his response to the claims of the Garífuna on the land where he’s building Campa Vista, he laughed, chalking the claims up to a form of “extortion.”
“For Canadians, the easiest way to compare it is to compare it to our own native Indians in Canada,” he says. “Depending on what’s going on, they may or may not decide that they have a land claim going on.” He says all of the paperwork for the land that he’s purchased is legitimate, and there’s no conflict. “As soon as there is any development going on generally, the Garífuna start checking around and seeing if there isn’t some way that they can extort some funds or something out of whoever is doing that development,” said Jorgensen.
Today, Jorgensen lives full-time in his home near the Campa Vista development in Honduras. He runs AOV Online, the internet broadcasting version of what his porno chain once was. But his first career is downplayed in his most recent venture into real estate, where he instead positions himself as a lifestyle expert. However, it’s clear that he’s learned something from his years in the porn business: sex sells.
The marketing videos for a partner project sold in Costa Rica include close-ups of various young, attractive women in tight, white T-shirts. After I watched these videos with a crowd of prospective buyers, the first comment from a man sitting nearby was “I wonder if she’s single.” Should he choose to move down to Honduras, he wouldn’t be the first to discover that sex tourism abounds.
In the tropical coastal town of La Ceiba, a few hundred kilometres from Trujillo, I meet Rick Mowers. I find him, a retired Ontario Provincial Police officer from Hamilton, sitting at the computer beside the bar at Expatriates, a restaurant that he now co-owns.
“I just quit, moved here, went to instant retirement, did nothing for one year,” he says. The boredom eventually got to him, though. “It costs money to do nothing all day long. We find that too many of us drink too much alcohol or beer if you have nothing to do all day long.” Buying the restaurant has given the young-looking 53-year-old something to do with his time. He tells me he moved to Honduras with his wife, but they split after he had an affair. A warm breeze moved through the restaurant, stirring up the air under the high, thatched roof.
“It’s too cold, it’s too expensive, and I’m not going to live there for the free health care,” says Mowers of Canada. He rattles off how much cheaper things are in Honduras, from rent and food to crack cocaine and sex.
“Here sex is, in the whole country, sex is $10. So if you go downtown, and you stop and the girl gets in your car, it’s $10, 200 lempiras, for you to go have intercourse,” he says. Mowers didn’t mention the AIDS epidemic in the north-coast region, where over 60,000 people have HIV/AIDS, the highest infection rate in Central America.
Later, I Google Mowers. It turns out he was a bad cop. He had at least six disciplinary sanctions on his record when he left the Ontario Provincial Police, including neglect of duty when responding to a domestic violence complaint. On his partial police pension, he now lives like minor royalty in Honduras, a country where more than half the population lives below the official poverty line, and at least two million people live on less than $2 a day.
Sitting in the central park of San Pedro Sula one hot afternoon, I get a text message from a friend who says that the Honduras National Tourism Federation is having its annual meeting in the city tonight. After stopping at my hotel to change from shorts and a T-shirt into my most stiflingly hot, but fanciest, dress, I catch a cab over to the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The downstairs lobby, in from the heat, noise, and chaos of the outside, might as well be in Winnipeg, Los Angeles, or Shanghai. Air conditioning blasts the air, and well-dressed Hondurans sip fancy drinks and drag on cigarettes. San Pedro Sula has long been home to the country’s richest families, and today is the hub of Honduras’s sweatshop industry. I finagle my way into the upstairs ballroom and mingle with the upper crust of the tourism business in Honduras. They’re happy to talk about Canadian tourists. “Canadians are super-important to us,” says John Dupuis, the top representative for tourism in La Ceiba. In some hotels in the region, 70 to 80 percent of the guests are Canadian.
“Tourism from Canada, especially in winter, represents the largest source of income in the tourism sector in the Bay Islands and the north coast of the country,” said Piero Dibattista, who owns and manages several hotels in Roatán.
Canada has always been an excellent ally of the tourism industry, says Juan Antonio Bendeck, the chair of the Honduran Chamber of Tourism. Honduras’ tourism industry is small by comparison with its neighbours: the country welcomed 247,082 visitors in 2001, compared to nearby Costa Rica’s 823,575.
But following the June 2009 coup d’état in Honduras, the already struggling tourism sector took a substantial hit. “I’d like to tell everyone to come to Honduras and that it’s a tranquil place and everything is beautiful, but you think I’d be successful with that message?” asked deposed tourism minister Ricardo Martínez, after showing footage of riots and repression in Tegucigalpa during a presentation to the Central American Travel Market.
“Well, Central America is Central America,” says Jorgensen, when asked about the safety of travelling and living in Honduras. He says Trujillo is a small town, and the “really bad guys” tend to stay away from the area.
Jorgensen’s Campa Vista development in Trujillo is being marketed by Tropical Freedom Properties Ltd., who promise just that for only $85 per square foot. Tropical Freedom is a subsidiary of Fast Track to Cash Flow, a St. Albert, Alberta-based company. The local Better Business Bureau gives the company a D on a scale of A+ to F, expressing “concerns with the industry in which this business operates.”
On this sunny morning in June, I’m attending a meet-up hosted by Tropical Freedom Ltd. in the basement of a Travelodge hotel on the freeway beside the sleepy retirement town of Duncan, B.C. Cindy Storme, a petite blond woman in a gold-accented brown pantsuit, wowed the three dozen or so mostly retirement-age people attending the event with stories about waking up to the sound of howler monkeys, banana boating, barbecues, and life beside the water. As her audience chewed on white-bread sandwiches cut into little triangles, Storme talked about Costa Rica, a much more stable country, which she says is “exactly like the movie Avatar.” At the tail end of Storme’s talk, she spends about 10 minutes talking about Honduras, a country that she says “every Canadian” can afford to buy property in. Not only will investing in Honduras give Canadians a place to get away, says Storme, but there’s no credit check involved. Jorgensen is even offering a travel allowance for anyone to go visit the properties, and there are income-tax breaks to boot. At least a few people in the room signed up for a $500 gold membership with Tropical Freedom, which gives them the right to buy property with Jorgensen’s Honduran project. Jorgensen is making sales. But the global market in pleasant tropical experiences is a highly competitive business, and members of the North American middle class have certain expectations when they purchase their own little slice of a Third World paradise.
My mind went to a conversation I’d had with two tourists from Gatineau, Quebec on a beach near La Ceiba. They told me that they found their hotel boring. They were too scared to go into town. The two of them were the closest thing I can imagine to professional beach-goers: deeply tanned, lathered up in oil, laid out on folding lounge chairs with most of their middle-aged skin exposed to the scorching sun. For the money, they said, Cuba is a better deal.
Honduras isn’t for the faint of heart, or stomach, as anyone who strays from their supervised beach resort or walled-in retirement complex to a larger city will soon learn. There were 4,473 murders in Honduras in 2008, giving the country the chilling designation of having one of the highest murder rates per capita in the world. Canadians who ignore the country’s security situation do so at their peril.
But Canadians who choose to ignore the long-standing conflicts over rural land do so at the expense of all who have lived there before, and put themselves at risk as well. Consider the advice of the U.S. State Department: “U.S. citizens should exercise extreme caution before entering into any form of commitment to invest in real estate, particularly in coastal areas and the Bay Islands.” Instead of buying into a smooth sales pitch, Canadians would do well to ask themselves why they expect to land in one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries, which is also one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and be treated like gods.