Janine Jackson: March 2 marks a year since the killing of Honduran indigenous rights and environmental activist Berta Cáceres. The private and state actors believed responsible for her murder never made any secret of the threat they saw from Cáceres and her group COPINH, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras — the threat to the ability of extractive industries to steal land and water out from under indigenous people with state sanction. Such predations and the accompanying violence have been exacerbated by the 2009 coup in Honduras, a coup that the US, critically, supported.
If history is guide, what coverage you may see of the anniversary of Cáceres’ death will acknowledge her as a human rights leader but won’t discuss US complicity in her fate, and that of many others killed, attacked or jailed in Honduras for standing up for themselves and their communities.
Beverly Bell is coordinator of the group Other Worlds Are Possible, and associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She worked and traveled with Berta Cáceres and COPINH for many years. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Beverly Bell.
Beverly Bell: Thank you, Janine.
Well, in May of 2015, when we spoke to you last, corporate media in the US were largely overlooking Berta Cáceres and COPINH being awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, a sort of “green Nobel.” And we talked about that as a missed chance to bring to light connections between US-based corporations and US aid dollars, and the violence against indigenous communities and environmental advocates, among others, in Honduras. I remember that at the time, you said that because of her work, Berta’s life “hung by a thread.”
Well, that missed opportunity to talk became an ominous silence, it seems, just as it’s been made painfully clear how important it is to make just those connections. I’d like to ask you to tell us about Honduras since the assassination, and what still stands in the way of justice for Berta Cáceres and for all of those others.
The first thing that stands in the way of justice is that the Honduran government continues to be an imposed government, and completely unaccountable. It reigns with full impunity, as have the administrations which preceded it, ever since 2009 — when, as you say, the US very strongly backed a coup d’etat against Manuel Zelaya, who was the last elected government of Honduras. Since then, there have been two other elections, and both have been total shams. They were certified by both the US and Canada, but very few other governments. And so the government pretends to be a democracy, and is certainly touted as such up here, but it is in fact a dictatorship, and acts like one.
The group Global Witness, a very well-known and well-respected international human rights group, just put out another report saying that Honduras continues to be the most dangerous country in the world to be an environmental activist, and certainly the record of the last year proves that to be true. There have been dozens and dozens of assassination attempts, and at least six high-level indigenous activists — just indigenous activists — have been killed or almost killed, just in the past year since Berta Cáceres was killed.
The most recent was on February 20, when José de los Santos Sevilla, who was a leader of the Tolupan indigenous people, who are fighting their own battles against the theft of their land and resource extraction, was killed. So he is only the last. I don’t even have all the figures; they haven’t even all been tracked.
But what we know is that until there is a change in the actions of the Honduran government, and a respect for lives, human rights and democracy, indigenous and other environmental actors will not be safe. And we know, furthermore, that there will not be this change, vis-a-vis the Honduran government, as long as the US continues to send many, many, many millions of dollars of military aid to Honduras every year.
When Berta Cáceres was killed, papers like the New York Times covered it, and they talked about how the coup, in fact, had made Honduras more dangerous for activists, but then they left out the US role in the coup. Well, since then, US media have gone, if you will, further. They’ve actually worked to sell a whole different idea to US citizens about the role that the US has played and is playing in Honduras. What can you tell us about that?
Well, you mentioned the investigation into the events of March 2 a year ago, which is when Berta Cáceres was assassinated. Also that night, also in her house, a guest from Mexico, a very powerful indigenous and environmental defender in his own right, Gustavo Castro Soto, was shot and was almost killed. One bullet just missed his skull by a millimeter, and took off part of his ear instead. He was also shot in the hand. He was then held illegally by the Honduran government and tortured for one month. And we do know, we actually have corroboration from the State Department in a written email, that they were part of that investigation. Gustavo escaped just by a hair with his life, and he and his family are now living in exile in Europe.
So both Gustavo and the family of Berta Cáceres have been trying to have a fair investigation. This investigation, much like Berta’s own killing, is really a window into the role of the United States government. And I’ll just spin that out for you a little bit, because it’s part of the story that has been kept from the US public, and certainly the Honduran public.
So these two entities, one of them a direct survivor — Gustavo Castro Soto from Mexico; he’s actually the director of Friends of the Earth Mexico in Chiapas — and then the family of Berta Cáceres, have been trying to gather evidence. The Honduran government has blocked them at all turns, and then last September actually disappeared every shred of evidence that those two parties had spent six months collecting. Every document, every photograph, every scrap of paper that had the name of a lead, all disappeared.
And, of course, the Honduran government said that it was a theft. Of course, we know that it wasn’t. Furthermore, the Honduran government has refused to share any information with these players, including with Berta’s very own daughters, and they have refused the offer of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to help out and to come in as a neutral player. That is not at all surprising.
And then what the US has done is only surprising in how far it goes. It’s so egregious; what the US did has been to arrest, through a special unit that is deployed to the Honduran government, the US has made arrests at strategic times of suspects, and then has gone to the US Congress — we know this for a fact — and said, oh, no no, you can’t cut off US military aid to Honduras, because then there will be no way to go forward with the investigation into Berta Cáceres’ killing, because the US is the only team that is doing anything serious.
The US began doing this immediately after Keith Ellison introduced into Congress last year the Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act, which called on all US military aid to be cut until there was significant improvement in human rights. And so it was immediately in response to this bill going into the US Congress that we then saw the US being so duplicitous, and convincing Congress that US aid had to continue flowing.
That would seem to dovetail nicely with the piece that some listeners may remember from August of last year in the New York Times, which was about how the US is involved in Honduras and making things safer in Honduras. I mean, “How the Most Dangerous Place on Earth Got Safer” was the headline over this Week in Review piece, and the subhead, I thought, was very interesting: “Programs Funded by the United States Are Helping Transform Honduras. Who Says American Power Is Dead?” This seems to me to fit precisely with this effort to fight back against any plans to stop aid by saying, no, no, no, the US is actually the force for justice here — including justice for Berta Cáceres.
Yes, that piece that you mentioned that came out last August is really extraordinary, and the same journalist did one the same week on National Public Radio. And both of them show one tiny little micro example of a little community where apparently — who knows if it’s true, I doubt it, but — where apparently US government funding helped one small community center. And so this journalist extrapolated, and said that all of Honduras is getting better — as you say, Janine — thanks to US funding.
What’s extra interesting about those two pieces is that they appeared just weeks after the president of Honduras, in response to the Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act moving forward in the Congress, the president had come up to Washington to do a big PR blitz to ramp up the Honduran government’s image, using the convenient tool of US media.
We’ve been speaking with Beverly Bell of the group Other Worlds. They’re online at OtherWorldsArePossible.org. Thank you so much, Beverly Bell, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
Janine, I’m delighted to speak with you, and I hope that all US people listening will take responsibility for our government, such as it is, and get in touch with their congresspeople to push for this act that can truly make a difference for all Hondurans.