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Jun 16, 2014

Soccer a distraction from Honduras' reality

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- Two things are happening right now at the same time that bring each other into focus: We are watching Iran play Nigeria while reading local newspapers about the life and death happening in the penumbra of the tournament we're watching.

Let me set the scene: My translator Leo and I have claimed a table beneath the portico at our swanky hotel in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. A light breeze blows from across the pool, which is surrounded by tropical trees and plants. It feels like we're in a Graham Greene novel. I'm sipping a cold Port Royal beer and smoking a Cohiba. Two more cigars wait on the table for later. On the other side of the pool there's a steakhouse, where I'll eat once, maybe twice, today. Televisions are set up around the pool, and in the bar, broadcasting the World Cup. The bubble of this hotel, while obviously fancier, is an apt metaphor to the bubble the World Cup creates. Across our lobby, outside the sliding glass doors, an unbelievably violent city is also distracting itself with a soccer tournament, too.

Honduras is in crisis around us, five years after a coup deposed the democratically elected president, who was allegedly overthrown by the wealthy elite because he worked to raise the standard of living of the millions of people trapped in poverty. Rule of law has collapsed, in big ways and in small ones, history repeating itself once again. This country was the original Banana Republic, because United Fruit funded and supported a mercenary army led by Americans to take over the country and run it to the benefit of the corporation. The names have changed since then, but not much else has. The country is still an oligarchy, one that human rights groups compare to Europe in the time of serfdom. And when you fly into San Pedro Sula, the ground below is a pointelist painting of the banana plantations still dominating daily life.

There's also a possible war brewing.

In 1969, El Salvador and Honduras fought what has famously become known as the Football War over a maritime border in the Gulf of Fonseca. Anger had been simmering and the nationalistic fervor over a World Cup qualifier jump started the shooting. That war ended but the border remains in dispute and a few weeks ago, the El Salvador Navy killed a Honduran fisherman. The Honduran government has been saber-rattling since then, threatening to buy fighter jets and other weapons, as the two countries inch closer once again to war.

Not all the problems tied like rocks to the nation's collective ankles are geo-political.

Leo spreads out San Pedro Sula's tabloid papers, and he reads the Spanish headlines: drug gangs charge the bus companies a "war tax," as they call it, and if the payment isn't received, a bus is burned and its driver is murdered. Five buses have been lit on fire in the past 16 days. The paper ran a picture of the latest. More than 4,000 children are missing after trying to cross the border, and there is graphic video and pictures of yet another murder in a city with more murders than anywhere else in the world. This goes on page after page.

We are watching the United States play today, and for the next two weeks, Honduras will similarly distract itself with soccer, and then return to a future that seems inescapably like the past.