April 12, 2007 / 11:41 PM / in 12 years

Honduras blacks, hit by AIDS, mark historic landing

EL TRIUNFO DE LA CRUZ, Honduras (Reuters) - Black Hondurans danced and drummed on Thursday to mark the occasion of their arrival in Central America more than 200 years ago, even as an AIDS epidemic threatens the nation’s Garifuna ethnic group.

Wearing rags and shielding themselves from the sun with coconut palm leaves, black Garifuna men clambered out of a canoe in the Caribbean coastal village of Triunfo de la Cruz, reliving their ancestors’ first steps ashore in 1797.

The Garifuna culture, with its African influences and unique language, originated when slaves were shipwrecked on the island of St. Vincent and intermarried with indigenous people.

They were deported to the Bay Islands off the Caribbean coast of Honduras after a violent rebellion against British colonial forces, from there spreading to what are now Belize, Honduras and Guatemala on the Central American mainland.

Thursday’s reenactment kicked off a party starting at the beach as Garifuna women in colorful dresses danced through the streets with young men sporting mostly U.S.-style urban gear, including baseball caps, baggy trousers and heavy chains.

But an AIDS epidemic that has plagued the Garifuna community in Honduras, estimated to number about 100,000 or just under a third of the Central American total, cast a dark shadow over the celebrations.

Honduras, with about 7 million people, already has 60 percent of the HIV cases in Central America, with an estimated 1.5 percent of the population infected, according to the United Nations, which says the country suffers a “generalized epidemic”.

Within the country’s adult Garifuna population the U.N. says 8.4 percent are HIV-positive, while a Honduran government study puts the rate in some villages as high as one in five.

“AIDS is spreading alarmingly though our people,” said Mirian Miranda, president of the Fraternal Organization of Honduran Blacks, which represents the Garifuna.

Scientists cannot say why HIV is so prevalent among Garifunas in Honduras, although contagion from emigrants returning home from high-risk U.S. areas like New York is one possible factor.

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