In April 2016, Hillary Clinton was asked about her role in Honduras’ 2009 coup by Democracy Now’s Juan González. The coup, which took place while Clinton was Secretary of State, ousted the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya and plunged the country into chaos. Today, Honduras is one of the most violent countries on earth, particularly for activists. On March 3, 2016, Berta Cáceres, a Honduran indigenous Lenca and a leading human rights activist and environmentalist, was assassinated in Honduras. Shortly before her death she singled out Clinton for criticism, holding her accountable for legitimizing the country’s current political situation.
González posed his question during a meeting between Clinton and the New York Daily News editorial board. “Do you have any concerns about the role that you played in that particular situation, not necessarily being in agreement with your top aides in the State Department?” he asked her. Here is a portion of Clinton’s response:
Well, let me again try to put this in context. The Legislature — or the national Legislature in Honduras and the national judiciary actually followed the law in removing President Zelaya. Now, I didn’t like the way it looked or the way they did it, but they had a very strong argument that they had followed the Constitution and the legal precedents. And as you know, they really undercut their argument by spiriting him out of the country in his pajamas, where they sent, you know, the military to, you know, take him out of his bed and get him out of the country. So this was — this began as a very mixed and difficult situation.
If the United States government declares a coup, you immediately have to shut off all aid, including humanitarian aid, the Agency for International Development aid, the support that we were providing at that time for a lot of very poor people. And that triggers a legal necessity. There’s no way to get around it. So our assessment was, we will just make the situation worse by punishing the Honduran people if we declare a coup and we immediately have to stop all aid for the people, but we should slow walk and try to stop anything that the government could take advantage of, without calling it a coup.
According to leading activists in Honduras, this defense doesn’t add up. Gaspar Sanchez is the coordinator for sexual diversity and equal rights at the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, where Cáceres served as general coordinator. According to Sanchez, “the financing that the government receives from outside the country is money that ends up being used for assassinations in Honduras. In recent months the assassinations of human rights and environmental defenders has been conducted by the military and police themselves, because the military and police are who are guarding the facilities where the companies operate.”
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Former Honduran soldier First Sergeant Rodrigo Cruz claims that Cáceres was named on a hit list for U.S.-trained Honduran special forces months ahead of her death. Cruz made the revelation to Guardian reporter Nina Lakhani, according to an article published in late June.
In an interview with AlterNet, Sanchez zeroed in on a notorious U.S.-backed fighting force, stating: “We know that here in Honduras there is a military squad called the ‘Tigres’ who are directly financed by the United States who are also those who have been conducting operations in the Bajo Aguan region where our sister and brother peasants are fighting for their land rights and where they are assassinating and threatening people who do work to defend human rights.”
The Bajo Aguan region was specifically referenced in a 2012 letter from Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and 93 fellow House members to Clinton, who was then Secretary of State. The letter called on the State Department “to suspend U.S. assistance to the Honduran military and police given the credible allegations of widespread, serious violations of human rights attributed to the security forces.”
As for the military squad cited by Sanchez, information about the Tigers can be gleaned directly from a U.S. military website. A report posted on the Army’s official website, in 2015, explains that:
Green Berets, from the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), hosted members of the Honduran Tigres, whose name translates into “intelligence and special security response groups units,” during the final two weeks of February to mentor and coach them in tactics and methods they will use to fight narcotics and human trafficking in their country.
The curriculum, authored by the detachment tasked with training the Tigres, called for a mixture of training in marksmanship and urban combat, known commonly as close quarters battle. Many periods of instruction focused on instilling fundamental principles of close quarters battle and knowing how to execute them amidst the chaos that is combat.
The report quotes Col. Christopher Riga, commander of the 7th Special Forces Group, talking directly to the Honduran trainees:
Here’s what’s most important; the partnership. The partnership of you with us. I promise you at some point in time, together, we’ll be on target killing terrorists and drug traffickers together. There’s no greater partner that’s accomplished more in a little over two years than you. I can never say enough words to tell you how proud I am of you, how proud I am of all of our guys, and the great partnership we will maintain and the work we will do together for a secure and stable Honduras.
Elise Roberts, director of the solidarity organization Witness for Peace-Midwest, U.S. says financing and backing of such squads is typical of so-called aid. “We have not heard of any significant counterexamples from our partners where U.S. or U.S.-led multilateral ‘security’ or ‘development’ aid has had anything other than a negative impact on our partners’ work to achieve peace, justice and dignity,” said Roberts, “these being things that have been elusive for vulnerable populations in post-coup Honduras, including human rights defenders, journalists, and the Indigenous, [email protected], Garífuna, and LGBTQI communities.”
“In contrast,” Roberts continued, “we have heard hundreds of examples of destructive and unwanted ‘development’ projects being pushed through with the support of a militarized security force, displacing people from their land, terrorizing them, and assassinating them if they continue to resist.”
Leading campaigners argue that the prerogative to continue U.S. aid does not justify the coup, but merely compounds its injustices. “After the military and civic coup d’etat that we lived through in 2009, the situation for Hondurans has been very grave, as we saw the military come out into the streets to repress all of us who denounced the coup d’etat,” said Sanchez. “There were assassinations and arrests of our sisters and brothers. And what has most affected us as indigenous people after the coup d’etat has been the handing over of our territories to huge transnational corporations by this government.”
Sanchez’s observations are buttressed by a recent report from 54 Honduran social movements and civil society organizations that concludes, “The coup d’etat in 2009 meant an imminent reversal of human rights and a serious blow to the country’s institutions.” The report adds: “There a strong link between high levels of poverty and inequality and high rates of violence and insecurity in the country, which remain among the highest in the world.”
In light of these realities, the call to halt U.S. military aid has become a key rallying cry of Honduran social movements and their global supporters. On June 15, a global day of action calling for justice for Berta Cáceres coalesced around a key demand: end U.S. military aid to Honduras. The day of action coincided with Rep. Hank Johnson’s (D-GA) introduction of a congressional bill, named after Cáceres, aimed at halting all military aid to Honduras until the country’s human rights violations are addressed. In July, campaigners with the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance will take this message on a People’s Caravan from the Republican to the Democratic National Convention, accompanied by members of Cáceres’ family.
According to Vicki Cervantes, coordinator in North America for the Honduras Solidarity Network and member of Chicago’s human rights group La Voz de los de Abajo, “It is important for Clinton to be held accountable and have to answer to her cynical policy at the time of the coup and after the coup. Hundreds of people have been killed by the state, police, the military and death squads over the past seven years.”
It remains to be seen whether Clinton will respond to any of these criticisms on the campaign trail.