Fight for freedom brings arrest peril
Providing free medical care for thousands in his poverty-ridden homeland was one huge undertaking.
But returning home to fight for freedom -- and face arrest or worse -- represents the latest challenge from which Dr. Luther Castillo says he will not wilt.
In 2005, the Honduran doctor established a free hospital in a poor, rural region of his Central American homeland, with the help of Pittsburgh-based Global Links, which provides medical equipment and supplies to poor nations.
The past two weeks, he made his rounds through the city and Washington, D.C., to gather political support against the military coup d'etat that took control of Honduras on June 28.
Despite threats of arrest, Dr. Castillo said he would return home last week and remain in hiding while providing free medical care in Iriona and Ciriboya in the northeastern coastal area of Honduras.
The First Garifuna Hospital, which he founded, has provided free medical treatment to 276,000 people in the region. But the de facto government led by President Roberto Micheletti now threatens to shut down the hospital.
The United Nations and the United States have condemned the coup and its human rights violations, military killings, illegal curfews and rape of women. The coup forced elected President Manuel Zelaya to flee the country, although he, too, reportedly returned and sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy. Little concrete international reaction against the coup has occurred.
Early this year, Mr. Zelaya had named Dr. Castillo as medical chief for the region served by his hospital and provided the hospital $3,600 a month to feed its 17 volunteer doctors. His association with Mr. Zelaya put Dr. Castillo at odds with the coup government.
"They now want to capture us," Dr. Castillo said, noting plans to return to Honduras. "We have to leave a new country for our grandchildren and our children -- a new country of peace -- a new country where rich people see the poor as having equal rights. That's the opportunity history has given us to do now."
Daniel Kovalik, a Pittsburgh labor and human-rights lawyer, serves on the board of Global Links, the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization that collects surplus supplies and equipment from local hospitals for shipment to needy countries in the Americas under the motto, "Sharing surplus. Saving lives."
Mr. Kovalik was a member of a seven-person delegation that traveled to Honduras in July to gauge the coup's impact. In a July editorial published in the Post-Gazette, Mr. Kovalik described Dr. Castillo as "an altruistic doctor" who runs the free clinic that Global Links helped to furnish and supply.
During his recent trip to Pittsburgh, Dr. Castillo received AFL-CIO support against the coup during the union's convention here. The doctor also met with Global Links and local doctors to seek additional support for his clinic and encourage opposition to the coup.
"Like many others who have decried injustice in Honduras, Dr. Castillo is now on a long list of people for whom the new regime has issued arrest warrants, and he has gone into hiding," Mr. Kovalik wrote. "Even so, Dr. Castillo continues to minister to the sick and to those injured by military assaults."
Donations can be made to Global Links' "Honduran Emergency Aid" fund at www.globallinks.org.
The First Garifuna Hospital in northern Honduras that Dr. Castillo founded in 2005 opened its doors in 2007 and represents one of Global Links' many successes.
Iriona, home of the hospital, represents one of the poorest municipalities in Honduras. "We don't even have electricity," Dr. Castillo said. "The machines in the hospital work on solar power. We get furniture from Global Links."
Besides providing medical care to 30,000 people in Iriona, the hospital also serves 70,000 from surrounding areas. Many of the patients are Garifuna -- the indigenous people of the region.
Since the coup, Dr. Castillo said, his doctors and nurses have faced problems maintaining certifications to practice medicine. The new government also discontinued the monthly food fund for doctors, who have had to discontinue trips throughout the region to care for patients unable to travel to the hospital.
"This is the first time in history people in this area have had access to health care," Dr. Castillo said. "But [the new government] is destroying what we'd been doing,"
Medical officials from other nations have visited his hospital for pointers on providing free health care in poor regions: "Now we are surviving on what we can get," he said. "We are struggling."
Dr. Castillo serves as secretary of communications for the national committee against the coup attempt, a group that includes union members, teachers, ethnic groups and indigenous people. That role places him in further jeopardy with the de facto government.
"I know that I will be in trouble when I return," he said.
While the Obama administration condemned the coup, it also has sent mixed messages by continuing foreign aid and maintaining troop levels in Honduras, Mr. Kovalik and Dr. Castillo agree. There also were suggestions that Mr. Zelaya's return to the country "would be irresponsible" before the political turmoil is resolved.
But Mr. Zelaya's return "is the only way that peace can come back," Dr. Castillo said. "We need to return to the constitution, then see gains from that process."
Mr. Kovalik said the coup government has killed about six people and beat or assaulted thousands of protesters. More than 1,000 have been illegally detained, with the shutdown of media outlets and the arrest or detention of journalists. One journalist was killed.
Once back in Honduras, Dr. Castillo said, he will not remain in the same place two nights in a row. But he said he's willing to put his life on the line to restore freedom and democracy to his homeland.
"I have a responsibility to the people to return," he said. "I'm in danger, but I will have protection. I want to let the government know that I am ready to fight for freedom."
David Templeton can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1578
Posted on Monday, October 05, 2009
By David Templeton, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09278/1003098-53.stm#ixzz0T5iB28LV