An unlikely friendship spans from Sacramento to Honduras
Sacramento City Councilman Allen Warren will arrive in a remote city on the coast of Honduras in a few days with a movie star, a 1960s radical and a famous comedian – all traveling together to provide protection to a revolutionary making a dangerous journey to the swearing-in of the city’s new black mayor.
It’s as confusing as it sounds.
It’s also the culmination of an unlikely friendship between Warren and a man who hopes someday to be president of Honduras – Luther Castillo Harry. Harry, 38, fled to Sacramento after his political fight against government corruption and the repression of his black minority ethnic group led to threats of death and imprisonment in Honduras.
This week, Harry will travel back to his country following a deeply contested and violent November presidential election that many international observers and Hondurans say was rigged by the incumbent president and alleged winner, Juan Orlando Hernandez.
A week of massive demonstrations is expected leading up to the Jan. 27 inauguration of Hernandez, and most expect more violence. Though the United States has recognized the results, thousands of Hondurans have been protesting in the streets for weeks, often clashing with security forces. At least 30 people have been killed so far, including many opponents of the government, who continue to call for a new election.
“A big number of citizens feel it was stolen from them,” said Danny Glover, the Hollywood heavyweight known for his role in the “Lethal Weapon” movies and the recently released “Proud Mary,” who will travel with Warren.
Warren has a friendship of his own with Glover, who is a United Nations Children’s Fund Goodwill Ambassador and has spoken out against racism around the globe.
Also going are Cedric the Entertainer, who starred on the WB sitcom “The Steve Harvey Show” and more recently the cable show “The Soul Man,” and Eugene “Gus” Newport, a former Berkeley mayor who worked with Malcolm X and the black nationalist movement.
Along with other travelers, the group hopes their presence will provide safety for Harry as he returns home.
“It’s always dangerous for Luther to be in his country. Anybody who speaks out against that government is always at risk of being killed at any moment,” said UC Santa Cruz professor Dana Frank, an expert on Honduras. “The more public attention you can get from powerful people in the north, the better so that these things don’t happen under the cover of darkness.”
Frank is not part of the group going and doesn’t know Harry personally, but said he is well known as a “charismatic figure that has legitimacy in the opposition and symbolizes numerous struggles and social justice.”
Harry is part of a minority black ethnic group in Honduras called the Garifuna, a mixed-race people descended from escaped West African slaves and indigenous Caribs. As a people, they have long endured poverty and discrimination.
Part of that repression is economic, said Harry. The Garifuna settled in the 1800s on the north coast of Honduras on land granted to them by the government. Once too remote to have value, the area’s white sand beaches have now become desirable for tourism and the surrounding land for palm oil plantations. Some Garifuna have been forced out, Harry said.
Racial discrimination is also strong and few Garifuna hold positions of power. In the last election, Harry backed several reform-minded candidates, including a Garifunan, Jerry Sabio, who won a mayoral race and will become the first black person to serve in that position. He will be sworn in this week as mayor of La Ceiba, a tropical port city with a population of 200,000.
“You could equate it with the civil rights struggle of the 60s,” said Warren. “The blacks and the Garifunas are getting a seat at the table and Luther has been a mover of that for 20 years.”
Warren helped Harry and Sabio by donating more than $10,000 to a social media company that campaigned for Sabio and other leftist candidates in local and national offices, and Warren, 53, campaigned personally with him on a prior trip, lending his image to campaign materials, doing press interviews and offering strategic advice, he said.
“He’s a very important young leader in Sacramento, but also he’s bringing an awareness and passion and clarity about, ‘How do we build communities?’ … Whether those communities extend in his range around California or around Honduras,” said Glover of Warren.
Warren said that the political skills needed to organize a neighborhood in Honduras are not so different from those needed in Sacramento. He said part of what interests him about Honduras and Central America is the chance be part of a larger social movement where the stakes can be life or death.
“I’m trying to shake things up a little bit,” said Warren, adding that the trip is “to make a statement about democracy and vote manipulation ... human rights and decency and discriminating (against) people based on culture or race.”
Harry – and Warren’s entourage – are also going in part to celebrate Sabio’s victory.
“It’s significant in that I am able to bear witness to something that is extraordinary,” said Glover. “To be at this historic moment to not only celebrate the election of the new mayor but also to celebrate African descendant people is very important.”
Harry grew up in the Garifuna region where the group is going. The area is poor and remote and many places lack basic infrastructure like running water and electricity.
As a child, Harry said he traveled more than four hours roundtrip to attend school because there were no roads and few vehicles, walking most of the way and going by canoe the rest. His father was a teacher and education was important in his family.
“Education is the only way to grow out of poverty, not only economically but in the mind,” said Harry. “It’s really difficult when you look back. Maybe 30 of us made that journey, but only one of us got into university. Then you watch how those kids watch their dream die, in the lack of opportunity.”
Harry made that trip for three years and then moved to La Cieba to train as a carpenter. But he decided he wanted more. He left for the capital city of Tegucigalpa to study medicine and work with a nongovernmental organization that helped indigenous communities with land rights and preservation of culture.
For awhile, he worked in Belize and El Salvador helping young people recruited into armed conflicts return to normal life.
But in 1998, Hurricane Mitch hit, the most devastating storm in the region in hundreds of years. Mitch wiped out crops, roads and entire villages. Nearly 7,000 people were killed, 8,000 more missing in the days after. The then-president of Honduras estimated it set the country back 50 years economically.
Harry returned to Honduras and began helping a Cuban medical brigade that provided some of the few relief workers venturing into outlying areas like the one where he grew up. After four months, they offered him a full scholarship to medical school in Cuba.
Cuba has provided free training for doctors since the 1960s with the expectation they will return to under-served areas in their home countries to practice. It expanded the program under Fidel Castro. Castro founded a medical school in Havana, The Latin American School of Medicine, in 1999 and brought more than 1,900 students from 18 countries for its first class – Harry among them.
“I was a little afraid with all that you heard in the news about Cuba,” Harry said. But he quickly forged friendships with classmates and began to see the commonalities of poverty and repression across geographic lines, he said.
“We started to understand we have the same reality,” he said. “The only way we can move forward is to look for solutions in common.”
Harry received his medical degree and returned to Honduras to practice – and to preach some of his newly formed political ideas. Chief among them was that health care is a human right and ethnic communities like the Garifuna need to be self-reliant.
There were few other doctors around. Harry began to dream of building a hospital in an especially isolated area, a place with a maternity ward so that women in difficult labors could have local care instead of traveling hours or days by river to the nearest help, and where families could find care for children without going into debt over even simple illnesses.
“They sell everything so they have money to move to the city and get medicine,” he said. “It’s like $1,000. When you provide accessible healthcare in those remote areas … then this mother, what can she do with this $1,000? She can feed her children better, give them shoes to go to school. You put a floor in the house.”
Harry found unlikely help in Sacramento. In about 2004, he met local labor leader Bill Camp through Camp’s brother, a doctor in the south. Camp, an iconic figure around town best known for his love of suspenders and radical causes, organized a group to bring Harry and others to Sacramento for a visit and help him raise funds and donations of medicine and building materials.
Warren was quick to pitch in.
“We got the first $5,000 with Allen, then we starting creating this movement,” said Harry. “That was like the beginning of the relationship with Sacramento.”
Other locals donated solar panels and an ambulance, which was packed with supplies and shipped down.
Harry used Warren’s money to start buying construction supplies. Local community members in Honduras built the hospital by hand. It opened in 2007 with the maternity facilities – including an ultrasound he’d wanted – and the ability to serve about 20,000 people from the surrounding communities.
Harry was also rising in prominence politically as an advocate for the Garifuna and other minority groups, always centering on land rights and health. But a military coup in 2009 ousted the country’s leftist leader, Manuel Zelaya, and upended Harry’s life.
He became the spokesman for a national resistance movement protesting the military takeover. Soon after, the hospital was raided by government forces, ostensibly searching for illegal drugs. Military power in Honduras increased, as did violence against journalists, social activists and unionists.
Harry said he feared arrest or assassination. He lived in hiding, traveling frequently and rarely sleeping in the same place. He eventually left Honduras for a time.
The situation stabilized for a few years and he became the National Commissioner of Ministry of Health under a later conservative president, in what Harry describes as an attempt to work for change within the system. He began to craft a national vision for primary healthcare for everyone, but in 2013 was admitted to Harvard University’s Kennedy School for a master’s program in public administration. Harry saw it as a key move to further his political ambitions.
“They have been training presidents for years – Felipe Calderon from Mexico, President (Juan Manuel) Santos from Columbia,” said Harry of the Harvard program. “I didn’t want to lose that opportunity.”
With the chaos of the recent election, Harry said his resolve is stronger than ever to be part of his country’s political future.
“I am really open in my mind to do that. I am young, I have opportunities. I think I can do it. I have the capacity to do it. I have the conscience to do it. I have the commitment to do it and I have been preparing myself to do it,” he said. “I have to do it. I have no choice. A team of young people, we have to assume our responsibility. … That is the only way to do something and save our country.”
But until he does put his name on a ballot, he’ll stick around Sacramento, where he has increasingly spent time as Warren helped him build a life in exile.
He has his own office at Warren’s Del Paso Boulevard development company and can often be found with the councilman helping on issues in his district.
“Who has a problem with housing, who has problems with garbage, who has a problem in the neighborhood. … For me, being here with Allen is like school.”