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For Area Hondurans, Coup Back Home Sparks Worries for Families, Future

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009

They are far from the rioting and bloodshed that have thrust their home country into the daily news, but for Hondurans living in the Washington area and beyond, the coup d'etat last week has reached into their lives in ways many hadn't expected.

A waitress in Springfield is afraid to speak openly with her mother by phone. A jeweler who moved here 37 years ago is scrambling to sell his properties there. A construction worker in Falls Church has had trouble sending money to his family back home.

"They couldn't take money out of the banks," said Fredi Ortega, 27, one of hundreds of Hondurans who crowded into RFK Stadium on Wednesday night to watch their soccer team play the United States in the Concacaf Gold Cup. "If you tried to send money from here, they told you you can't."

Many immigrants leave their countries to escape war, revolutions or economic meltdowns, and many of those who come to the United States become key sources of income for relatives back home. As their homelands stabilize, they often travel back and forth, send their children home on holidays and even start to invest there.

But sometimes the stability melts away overnight.

Last summer, when Russia's army invaded Georgia, cutting the country in half, Georgian families in the United States who had sent their children to visit relatives there panicked as borders closed and telephone connections were cut. Last month, Iranian Americans planning summer vacations canceled their trips home as a disputed election escalated into street clashes and a wave of arrests.

Now it is the turn of the 1 million or so Hondurans living in the United States, following the unrest after President Manuel Zelaya was ousted and replaced by Roberto Micheletti. According to census estimates, 25,319 people in the Washington region identify themselves as Honduran.

From the first days after the coup, Hondurans living here said, phone lines were down and they had to rely on news reports to find out what was happening back home. "We were watching CNN," said Orlando Vallecillo, 38, of Herndon. When they finally did reach their families, they heard about the martial law confining people to their homes at night.

"No one wants to go there," Vallecillo said. "Those who had plans to go canceled them."

Jessica Mendoza, 21, a waitress in Springfield who moved here three years ago, usually visits a couple of times a year. "But who wants to go to Honduras right now?" she asked, adding that she is nervous talking to people there about the political situation. Residents fear that the government could be listening in on land-line phone conversations. "My mom said just call to cellphones because they can hear the conversation."

In recent days, remittances have resumed and phone lines are working, but some said the situation is likely to change their long-term connection with the country.

"It really affects us because I still have family over there, and I still have properties over there," said Romel Martinez, 55, a jeweler who lives in Long Branch, N.J. "We've really been trying to build something up over there. But I really don't feel like the situation is good anymore for investing."

Now he is trying to sell his beachfront properties. "You feel scared, because you don't want to invest in something that's really a canoe instead of a ship." He said the situation has given many Hondurans pause about returning there to live. "I'm really selling because I don't feel like it's worth it anymore."

Most people interviewed at the soccer game said they were against the coup, though some also criticized the ousted president's move to change the constitution, which helped spark it.

But Juan Garcia, 42, a police officer who lives in New York, said that he supported the coup and that he has had no trouble reaching family members. "My sister's a nurse, and I talk to her every day, and everyone's carrying on business as normal," he said.

Regardless of political opinions, almost all of those interviewed said they were concerned for their country. "No one expected it," Omar Fuentes said of the unrest. Pointing at a particularly energetic group of fans tooting plastic horns, he said the soccer game was a welcome distraction. (Honduras went on to lose 2-0.) "This is an escape from the worries that we have, and this is a way of soothing the pain that we're feeling as Hondurans."

For Martinez, there was even a bright spot to the turmoil at home. His mother might come to visit for the first time in several years. "She stopped coming because of 9/11," he said, "and now she's thinking of coming back because of the situation."

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