Saturday, March 03, 2012

Bulging classrooms, Canadian jobs, and a $17 watch on the installment plan: Honduras by the newspapers

I'm reading the Honduran newspapers every day - either El Tiempo or La Prensa - to work on my Spanish and learn about the country. Some days, I'm not sure how well either effort is going.
It's tough to read when at least one word per paragraph sends me to the Spanish-English dictionary, which often doesn't really help.
And understanding the country is a work in progress. El Tiempo had a story today about parents in San Pedro Sula protesting because there were 93 kids in a Grade 2 class.
That's extreme, even by Honduran standards, although in rural schools wild overcrowding is the norm. In conversations, teachers and parents have described schools in pueblitas with 70 students in four or five grades, one teacher who may or may not show up and few supplies.
But San Pedro Sula is the big city, and the parents were mad.
But the story still left me baffled, even after my fallback of finding it online and running it through Google Translate.
The reason there are 93 children in the class is that two teachers haven't shown up for work since school resumed last month, so classes are doubled up. One has "personal problems," the story quoted a parent. The other one, a vice-principal, is inexplicably absent. The principal said the teacher had said "not even Porfiro Lobo (the Honduran president) could make me go there." (My translation.)
The principal wants another teacher assigned to the school. But the story was unclear on why the Grade 2 teacher wouldn't go to work, or whether she was getting paid or what the heck was going on. (I have been wondering whether Canadian news stories would be equally baffling if I didn't have my own knowledge to fill in the blanks in reporting.)
The teachers' unions, with 60,000 members, are a big political force. (And the BCTF is a strong supporter.)
I don't know enough yet to have any informed judgments. I do know that parents I've spoken to are fed up with job actions that have meant students have missed more than half the promised 200 instructional days some years, that anyone who can choses a private school and that the public system is poorly managed.
And I expect to find out more in the months and weeks ahead.
Canada also made today's El Tiempo, one of a few references since I've been reading. (One was an entertainment brief on a plan by one of the Falling Wallenda family to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls. The other was an advance on the Canada-Hondura World Cup qualifier in June; if Canada wins (unlikely) I'll be staying off the streets for a few days.)
Today the story is about the lineup of Hondurans applying for jobs in Maple Leaf meat-packing plants in Canada. The jobs are part of the rapidly expanding temporary working program that lets companies bring in foreign workers to do jobs Canadians won't, or at least won't for the salaries the companies want to pay. (It has always seemed a contradiction. Business groups argue the market should set wage rates, except when they would have to pay more. Then they want to bring in desperate workers from low-wage countries.)
But it's important here. There are up to 200 jobs for people willing to cut up hogs and cattle. If you're under 35, have a secondary education - roughly our high school - some English, three years of physical work, good physical condition and no criminal record or past illegal immigration, then you can apply and Maple Leaf's representatives will make the selections. If you're good in the first year, you might be able to bring your family for the second.
The newspaper quoted two applicants. A 25-year-old single mom is ready to leave her daughter behind after two years of unemployment. A 27-year-old chartered accountant who has been looking for work for a year figures processing meat might offer a good chance to work in Canada. The newspaper photo, at the top of the post, showed a long line of the first of nine days of receiving applications.
The pay is good by Honduran standards - $1,921 a month, $443 a week. Live frugally, and you can send a lot of money home to help family here.
Which people do. About 19 per cent of Hondura's GDP is remittances from people working abroad, legally or illegally. Without that money, the GDP per capita would drop from $4,200 to $3,400 - a huge blow. The U.S. anti-immigrant rhetoric could mean economic disaster here.
Finally, I was amazed by 14 pages of ads from Key Mart, a big and opportunistically named retailer. Most stores sell on time here. When we bought our $125 dresser, we had the chance to make two or three payments, for a price.
But KM, as its logo reads, takes the idea to a new level. It advertised, for example, a backpack for $10.75, and offered to let you make 12 payments of 90 cents each. A $17 Casio watch could be yours today for the promise to make 12 payments of 96 cents. (The store sells much expensive stuff too.)
What was striking is that these were offers for people considered good credit risks. You can imagine how poor people are who don't qualify and can only dream of being able to afford a new Sarten frying pan that would cost 68 cents a month.
I won't buy a paper tomorrow. I've too much still to figure out from today's edition.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Krueger's attack on courts a dangerous smear

Maybe Liberal MLA Kevin Krueger should try to be an elected representative in Honduras. His lack of understanding of the importance an independent judicial system might play better here.

I keep being amazed by synchronicities between Canada and Honduras. This time, it's on justice.

Krueger, in a rambling 30-minute speech supposedly on the budget in the legislature this week, launched a sleazy attack on judges and the judicial system.

MLAs, like anyone else, have the right to opinions, no matter how uninformed.

But when they speak in the legislature, their remarks should have some foundation in fact, and they should have some evidence for their claims.

Krueger called it “outrageous” that child-luring charges against a man were stayed in provincial court because of a 27-month delay in bringing the case to trial - more than twice the time the Supreme Court of Canada said constitutes an unreasonable delay that violates the accused’s right to a fair trial.

“We all know what happened,” Krueger said. “We had a judge recently saying that he let an accused child offender leave his courtroom, and he made political statements about this being because the government is not funding them properly. That is horrendous. I would rather have a guy shake me down on the street for money than let an accused child offender walk, with the prospect that he might offend other children. I was absolutely appalled. It's outrageous.”

What’s outrageous is Krueger’s allegation that the decision was not based on the law, but on politics.

If he has any evidence, a single shred of evidence, he has an obligation to file a complaint with the judicial counsel of B.C., which investigates wrongdoing.

If he doesn’t, if this was simply a smear, and he has an equally great obligation to apologize for such damage to the judge and damage to the court system. (And Premier Christy Clark has a duty to remove an MLA who behaves so badly from the Liberal caucus.)

It is outrageous the charges were stayed because of the long delays. It’s outrageous the alleged victim and family spent 27 months without resolution and that the charge, not proven, will hang forever over the accused.

And it's outrageous B.C. courts lack the resources to deal with cases expeditiously, and that police forces face the same critical problems.

The key officer involved in the case, whose clever online investigation led to the charges, warned more cases will be dismissed because police don’t have the resources to handle complex online sex offence cases. It took police investigators 14 months to complete a full report to prosecutors in this case.

"You need more people," Det. Mike MacFarlane told CTV News. Though perhaps Krueger would argue that the officer also is lobying and doesn’t care enough about bring sex offenders to justice.

Krueger went on. He accused judges of “politicking from the bench.” They should “stop whining about how many judges there are,” he said.

While there many good judges, Krueger said, “There are some real bad apples. If you've been doing your reading,” he told the opposition. “you'll know about those and some of the outrageous things that they have said and done.”

“We have some real problem people on the bench,” he added.

Again, no examples. If Kruger knows about “real bad apples” and “outrageous” actions by judges, he should file complaints and cite cases. If not, he should apologize.

Improvements to the justice system are needed, and the stakeholders have been far too slow to make them. Delays are unacceptable and legal costs mean the system is impossible to access for most Canadians.

But Krueger’s drive-by smear - until he provides evidence to support his allegations - is irresponsible. And, as he should know, unfair, since judges allow their decisions to stand undefended and don’t take part in public arguments with politicians or interest groups. If their decisions are seen to be wrong, they can be appealed.

We rely on an independent justice system to protect us from oppression by the state. It’s not a theoretical issue. The former NDP government would have bullied Carrier Lumber out of its rights without the courts to enforce the law; the Liberal government was checked in attempts to break the law in dealing with teachers and health care workers and the children's representative.

Which leads, finally, back to Honduras, where politicians unhappy with Supreme Court decisions that rejected some of their laws as unconstitutional violations of citizens’ rights are musing about curbing the courts’ power.

The Canadian justice system is far from perfect. But when politicians start attacking it, without any evidence, and argue they, not an independent judiciary, should determine the limits of citizens’ rights and guilt and innocence, we should be alarmed.

There are already too many countries where citizens fear arbitrary actions by the state, or powerful forces, with no protection from the courts.

Footnote: Krueger urged support for Court Watch and public vigilance over the courts. The Canadian organization of that name is focused on concerns about actions by government child-protection authorities, but the notion that citizens should be better informed about the work of the courts is sound. Call the government and ask when the court is sitting in your community and spend a morning watching.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ministries' service plans deal with past failures by moving the goalposts

The Liberal government’s ministry service plans are supposed to provide accountable. They set out key goals, plans to reach them and - importantly - ways to measure or success of failure.

But since 2001, the measurements have been getting fewer. And when the government fails, it simply changes the targets.

Take the education ministry service plan, released along with the budget.

The performance measurements include the percentage of aboriginal students graduating from high school within six years of starting Grade 8.

Back in the 2008 plan, the ministry claimed it had measures and budgets in place to make real progress on the dismal educational success rate of First Nations students. The rate was 53 per cent in the previous year, the ministry said. But rise each year, to 63 per cent by 2010/11.

This year’s plan says the rate was 53.7 per cent in 2011/12. The goal now is 58 per cent by 2014/15.

That’s pretty disastrous failure to achieve the goals set out in the ministry’s own plan.

Or consider another important measure, the percentage of students starting kindergarten “developmentally ready” to learn. That’s a measure of their health and social, mental and emtotional development - a litmus test, if you like, of our success as a society in raising kids.

In the 2008 plan, the ministry reported 70.4 per cent of children entering kindergarten were ready to learn (down from 72.1 per cent in 2004). The plan, citing StrongStart centres and other measures, said that would improve to 75 per cent by 2010/11.

But the current plan reveals that only 69.1 per cent of students entering kindergarten were ready to learn last year - things actually worsened instead of improving. The plan still projects an improvement to 75 per cent. But now it will take until 2014.

Over in the children and families ministry, the service plan includes a performance measurement based on the percentage of children in the government’s continuing care who are at the right grade level for their age.

The percentage was 78.8 per cent last year; the plan calls for it to increase to 80.5 per cent by 2014/15.

But the 2009 plan set the level the previous year at 78.7 per cent. By 2011 it was to rise to 83 per cent.

So the plan failed. There was no measurable progress. And the goals have been cut back, rather than delivering on the commitment to make the lives of kids in care better.

It’s to be expected, and even welcomed, that ministries miss some goals. If they didn’t, that would be a sign that they weren’t setting challenging targets.

But it shouldn’t be acceptable just to move the goalposts any time there is a failure in achieving targets that the government itself identified as critical.

And all the service plans deserve a lot more scrutiny from public and media.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Learning Spanish, and about Honduras, through the daily news

UPDATE: Canada made La Prensa today, with a story that we're offering 200 two-year jobs in the meat-packing industry to Hondurans, who can apply over the next week. They pay $1,912 a month, and if Honduran employees' conduct is good, they can apply to have their families join you after a year.
That's a lot of money by Honduran standards, and with an ultrafrugal lifestyle in Canada would allow regular cheques to be sent back home.
Which is hugely important. In 2010, 19 per cent of Honduras' GDP was based on money sent back from people working, legally or illegally, in other countries.
It could also be argued that the Canadian companies are using the program to avoid paying fair wages to Canadian workers, but that's another debate.

I’ve been reading the newspapers here to improve my Spanish, and learn something about the country.
It’s slow work, but getting easier. I can appreciate the burden of illiteracy, as I consult the Spanish-English dictionary to pry open the sense of some new word, most of which have a confusing welter of possible meanings.

The task is made harder by the maddeningly complex writing style. One sports story had an 83-word lead, a tumble of subordinate clauses and asides ultimately wandering to some conclusion I never quite got.

As for understanding the country, I’m not sure how that’s coming. Today’s El Tiempo - one of three dailies available in Copan Ruinas, if you count El Diez, an all-sports newspaper - featured the usual crime stories. Two young men, 17 and 20, found in a construction site in San Pedro Sula, hands tied behind their back and shot in the head. Two other unidentified young men found apparently strangled and wrapped in sheets and dumped on another road in that city. There’s been a lot of that going around, the story noted, recounting five other bodies found dumped in various wrappings.

It was a typical day. San Pedro Sula has a dismal record for crime, with some 1,143 murders last year, about three a day. It has 1.2 million people, so if Vancouver had the same murder rate there would be about six new dead bodies every day. In Victoria, a daily murder.

La Prensa, the other paper we get, regularly runs a helpful two-page infographic map of San Pedro Sula, with little pictographic symbols showing where different crimes were committed in the previous few days. A kind of chalk outline drawing for murders, a handgun for armed robberies, a sedan for carjackings and so on. I’ll write about the theories of why the country San Pedro Sula has become so violent in a future post.

The big news was a cabinet shuffle. The president, Porfiro Lobo, fired the education minister, the religion and culture minister, the vice-minister of agriculture and the head of the state energy agency. The finance minister and a couple of others were fired or quit in the last couple of weeks.

It’s all a bit familiar. The education minister got the chop because he hasn’t been able to get a handle on the job. El Tiempo noted that after two years he still couldn’t say how many teachers were actually employed by the government. More significantly, the teachers’ union and government have been bickering for years, and parents are sick and tired of it. Last year, there were supposed to be 200 educational days, but there were actually about 80 due to protests and job action and study days and the like.

The energy corporation head was fired because he signed a long-term deal to buy electricity from an American company that looks suspicious. (Kind of a southern version of BC Rail.) Similarly, the agriculture guy was whacked because he signed a deal letting a couple of big shipments of rice into the country without the normal duty, irking the industry which relies on the tariff protection. Rice imports are a longstanding issue here, and critical in a country where cheap beans, corn and rice are all that keep many people from starvation.

And the religion minister was fired because he wasn’t considered sufficiently loyal to the president, as he failed to fight back when the Supreme Court ruled a recent law giving status, sort of, to evangelical churches was unconstitutional. The status only applied to churches recognized by a council, violating constitutional rights to religious freedom.

It’s puzzling. It seems power is centered with the president, but the firings suggest ministers have a lot of autonomy. Honduras has a republican system, with powers carved up between congress and the president. Practically, it’s a two-party state without much to chose between the Liberal and National parties.

Meanwhile, Lobo gave a speech and argued the Supreme Court has too much power and there should be a remedy when they get it wrong on the law, which sounds ominous to an outsider.

The best quote in the paper today came from the German ambassador, speaking at conference at the end of a visit by German justice officials.

It’s wrong to call the country a failed state, he said.

“I don’t believe Honduras is a failed state,” he said. “It’s a state that functions perfectly, in serving the interests of some.”

Footnotes: At one time, I might have felt a little smug about some of the governance issues here. But since the governing party in Canada was apparently helped to victory by systemic electoral fraud, subverting democracy, it’s hard to claim we have anything to teach others.

And the New York Times looked at crime in Honduras on Saturday. The piece is here.