On the morning of June 28, Rodolfo F. Pastor began an unexpected journey to Harvard. As Honduran Minister of Culture, he suddenly found himself threatened, entangled in a military coup against his elected government.
Coup leaders had sought out his colleagues in the ministry, and Pastor feared for his safety. To avoid persecution by the new regime, Pastor went into hiding at a family cabin deep in the Honduran mountainside.
It was there that Pastor, who is also a renowned Latin American scholar, received a call from a longtime friend in Cambridge, Mass.
Harvard Anthropology Professor William Fash had read a contentious quotation in El Tiempo, a Honduran newspaper, criticizing the de facto government and worried that his friend might be in danger.
“It occurred to me that there was a safety factor,” Fash said.
He soon assembled a team which, by July, had secured Pastor a post as a visiting professor in Harvard’s History Department.
Since then, the University post has provided Pastor a means of maintaining a strong connection with Honduras, but from a safe distance behind Ivy-clad walls.
A HEART IN HONDURAS
Buried in the depths of Robinson Hall, Pastor’s new office is bare. No books sit on the shelves, no pictures hang on the walls. His office decor seems to suggest that he won’t be staying for long, that his worries lie elsewhere.
A few minutes into an interview with The Crimson, Pastor’s phone rings, and he immediately jumps to answer. It is his son on the line, calling from Washington D.C, where he serves as a diplomat on behalf of the Honduran government.
Technically, his son is unemployed—he is a diplomat for what Pastor calls “our” government: the administration ousted in June. But because the United States does not recognize the regime that took over in the coup, Pastor’s son has retained his title. Likewise, Pastor still considers himself Minster of Culture, Art, and Sports.
Reverting to Spanish, Pastor speaks on the phone for a few minutes and then hangs up, happy. But he deflects inquiries about the conversation, explaining that because the situation in Honduras is so precarious, anything made public could potentially change the course of events.
“We have news by the hour,” he says. “I can’t tell you much more about Honduras’ future. We get often hopeful about avenues for the future and then get frustrated, so I refuse to speculate.”
In the fourth poorest country in Latin America, Honduras’ pre-coup government had been seeking support for a national referendum that, if held and supported, would have dramatically changed the fabric of the government, a move those in the coup did not want to succeed.
The past months have been tenuous. In mid-August, Pastor flew to the United States, and has been in Cambridge since, safe from the turbulence of his home country. Bur his wife and youngest son are still in Honduras. Pastor’s wife could have joined him at Harvard, but he says her job in Honduras as an anthropologist and museum director prompted her to stay.
Though she is not under direct threat, family and friends of other ministers have been arrested and attacked. “I feel insecure about it,” Pastor says of his family’s decision to stay, “but if they want to reject my invitations or my exhortations that they go away from Honduras I have to respect their decision.”
A NEW RECRUIT
The switch from politician to professor was not without precedent for Pastor, who had previously taught at El Colegio de Mexico, the University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College, and the University of Chicago, and served as a lecturer at Harvard. Though his post in Honduras is a political one, it is a political post for which he is academically trained.
A Tulane University graduate, Pastor received his Ph.D. in history from the prestigious El Colegio de Mexico.
This semester, Pastor is teaching two undergraduate courses, Central American and Mexican (or Mesoamerican) Peoples: 1500-1840, and a freshman seminar, titled Alternative Narratives: An Introductory Seminar on the Modern Literature and Historiography of Latin America.
It took a team, led by Fash, to open Harvard’s doors for Pastor. Scholars at Risk, a nationwide initiative that finds posts for academics who find themselves persecuted and thus unable to pursue their academic work had already hired its faculty for the fall semester. Undeterred, Fash sought a network of support within the Faculty of Arts and Science to gather the resources to find Pastor a position at Harvard.
“The University really took it on the chin this past year so the question became, ‘how are we going to fund this?’ Because you don’t just find 25,000 dollars lying around,” Fash said.
By the end of July, just a month later, Scholars at Risk had partnered with the Peabody Museum, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, the Freshmen Seminar Program and the History department to offer Pastor the position of visiting professor.
“It was really very heartening that so many concerned citizens could act in such a conjoined and conscientious way,” Fash said. “It’s wonderful that Harvard can rise to the occasion even in our own fiscal crisis.”
While he doesn’t speculate about the nation’s political future, Pastor is a strong critic of the new government. And on his replacement in the new cabinet, he offers what he describes as an old Latin American proverb: “If you can’t say anything positive, you better not talk,” he says.
But Pastor has not shied away from speaking more generally. On Wednesday, the history professor gave a lecture for the Rockefeller Center titled “The Short Story of the Coup.”
“We are living a national tragedy,” he said in the lecture, a week after the ousted president secretly returned to Honduras only to set up camp in a Brazilian embassy.
Though Honduras is currently struggling, Pastor says he still cares about his homeland and what he preserved as a minister of culture. “I believe cultural heritage sights are essential to understanding identity, which is supposedly what binds together a civilized nation,” he said. “I don’t understand how we could live without artistic expression.”
Pastor expects to take up a position at the Colegio de Mexico for the spring semester. Beyond that, his fate is linked with his nation’s. “I am—what is it you call it? A patriot.”
—Staff writer Elyssa A.L. Spitzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Noah S. Rayman can be reached at email@example.com.