What would Berta Cáceres make of today’s world had she not been murdered in her home five years ago on March 2, 2016?
The Indigenous Lenca land defender in Honduras did not live to see the COVID-19 pandemic. Berta did not live to see the Trump administration. She did not live to see thousands flee her home country for the United States, which would only deport them back to homes that had been swept away by a hurricane or mine. She did not live to see dozens of Honduran activists be murdered like her.
Berta was a founder and director of the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). When she gathered under an ancient oak tree on the banks of the sacred Gualcarque River with Lenca people who had walked miles across the Río Blanco to discuss the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam in April 2013, she spoke of how Indigenous people on their continent had resisted 520 years of colonialism that was not over yet. The crowd decided to resist the dam owned by Honduran company DESA. They blocked the road to the dam site for months in 2013.
Three months after that gathering, Berta and fellow COPINH member Tomás Garcia were detained for their opposition to the dam. Then, on July 15, 2013, in front of a crowd of hundreds of people, a Honduran soldier shot and killed Tomás and wounded his son Alan. Tomás, 49, was a father of seven.
“I have received direct death threats, threats of kidnapping, or disappearance, of lynching . . . threats of kidnapping my daughter, persecution, surveillance, sexual harassment.”
For her unwavering defence of life despite the dangers to her life, Berta was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015. Berta told the audience gathered at the San Francisco Opera House to watch her receive the award: “These are centuries-old ills, a product of domination. There is a racist system in place that sustains and reproduces itself.”
Months later Berta was dead. Just before midnight on March 2, hired assassins shot and killed Berta while she slept in her home. She died in the arms of Mexican activist Gustavo Castro Soto, who was shot twice in the attack. Honduran authorities immediately tried to blame Gustavo for the murder.
Thirty thousand people attended Berta’s funeral. Tributes to Berta poured in from organizations across the world. Banners were dropped at Honduran embassies that said, “Berta Cáceres Did Not Die, She Multiplied!”
In June 2016, a former soldier who fled his unit told The Guardian that Berta Cáceres’s name was on a Honduran military hit list that included the names and photographs of dozens of activists. Nina Lakhani explains in her book, Who Killed Berta Caceres?, how the Honduran state and capital came together to eliminate a woman they saw as too big of a threat to their designs for profit.
Berta’s family, Lencans, Hondurans and activists around the world have pressured Honduran authorities to bring her assassins to justice, including the intellectual masterminds. Just this week, the trial date of the U.S.-trained former military officer also accused of masterminding Berta’s assassination was scheduled for next month.
What would Berta Cáceres tell us about today’s world had she not been murdered in her home five years ago? Berta probably would have reminded us that the hurt that pours out in Honduras today is the result of capitalism, an economic system concerned foremost with profit, and bolstered by racism, misogyny and other forms of oppression.
Honduras is one of the original banana republics, long subjected to plunder for the profit of multinational corporations and the domestic elite. The small nation has been a base of U.S. military operations since Reagan backed the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Soldiers trained at the notorious School of Americas are implicated in the murder of activists.
A 2009 military coup in Honduras ousted democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. Since the coup, the country has become a murder capital of the world. Zelaya’s actions as president included proposals to raise the minimum wage by 60 per cent, ban open-pit mines and cyanide use, and provide free education for all children.
The U.S. and Canadian governments have been criticized by Honduran social movements for legitimizing the post-coup regime, a regime that is friendly to U.S. and Canadian investments in the country, and deadly for environmental activists, journalists, lawyers, peasants and queer activists. When Berta was murdered, a loud message to activists was sent: no activist was safe in Honduras.
Berta did not live to see the Biden administration or the Trump administration but she did live through the Obama administration. In 2014, about a year before her assassination, Berta named Hillary Clinton, then U.S. secretary of state, as a key perpetrator in Honduran suffering:
“We’re coming out of a coup that we can’t put behind us… The same Hillary Clinton, in her book, Hard Choices, practically said what was going to happen in Honduras. This demonstrates the meddling of North Americans in our country.”
Clinton was campaigning to be the first woman president of the U.S. when Berta was murdered. Greg Grandin, a historian on Latin America, wrote in The Nation: “Hillary Clinton will be good for women. Ask Berta Cáceres. But you can’t. She’s dead.” Grandin called on all people of goodwill to question Clinton about Berta’s assassination and her country’s foreign policy towards Honduras.
All people of goodwill should ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau those same questions. After the U.S., Canada is the largest foreign investor in Honduras. In 2011, the Canadian government signed a free-trade agreement with Honduras that paved the way for Canadian investment in the impoverished nation. Before Berta was killed, she was organizing Lenca opposition to a dam being built by Hydrosys, a Canadian company, and she said she had received death threats from Blue Energy, a Canadian hydro developer at another site near her home.
Berta would likely look at today’s pandemic world and the inequalities that COVID-19 has made more visible and still demand more of the activists concerned about climate change and forced migration. She would call on people everywhere to go to the root cause of oppression and environmental degradation.
As we dream of a new normal post-COVID, we must remember Berta’s spirited call on U.S. soil in the months before her assassination:
“Let us wake up! Wake up humankind! We’re out of time. We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism, and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction.”
Nina Lakhani, author of Who Killed Berta Caceres?, will be speaking on March 3 at 7:30 p.m. Atlantic Time/6:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Details here.
Tracy Glynn researches the gendered nature of resistance to resource extraction, and engages in international solidarity work with mine-affected communities.
Image credit: UN Environment/Wikimedia Commons