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Honduran activists continue to suffer repression at the hands of state authorities and private companies, says filmmaker Jesse Freeston

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GREGORY WILPERT, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert and I’m coming to you from Quito Ecuador. Hooded gunmen shot and killed two land rights activists in Honduras, the government confirmed on Wednesday. This was the latest in a string of attacks on rights groups in the Central American country. José Angel Flores was President of the Aguan United Farmers Movement or MUCA, a group that opposes agriculture companies in the conflict over ownership and use of land. The other activist who was killed Silmer George was also a member of the same group. Both were supposed to be under police protection since May 2014. MUCA estimates that more than 150 farmers have been killed since 2009, in clashes over land rights in Honduras. The most diplomatic case was Berta Caceras, the award winning Honduran environmental rights activists that was shot and killed in her home in March. Joining us to talk about the situation in Honduras is Jesse Freeston. Jesse is an independent documentary filmmaker and the director of the film, Resistencia, a documentary about the resistance to the coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. He’s coming to us from Montreal. Hi Jesse, thanks for joining us at the Real News today. JESSE FREESTON: Thanks Greg. WILPERT: So first of all, tell us what you know about this latest assassination of the two Honduran rights activists from the Aguan Unified Farmers Movement, also known as MUCA. Are there any suspects so far as to who might have killed them or who was responsible for having them killed? FREESTON: No suspects and if history is any guide, there likely will never be any. Jose Angel Flores was the President of MUCA and it’s worth clarifying what MUCA is and what MUCA represents. MUCA is the organization who following the coup de tat, they bought together 2000 families of landless farmers and they took over the plantations of the most powerful man in Honduras, Miguel Facusse in one of the most fertile areas of the who region. All of Central America, the Aguan Valley. These are palm oil plantations. They’re very valuable and these families have a historic link, that goes back one generation to that land. They argue that the land was taken from them either through trickery, through violence, through a number of different means. Basically what has resulted from that and what is a long standing history in Latin America and particularly in the Aguan Valley of a battle between two models and this violence that we’re seeing but we have seen for years now is a response, is a reaction, is a symptom, is an indicator of a conflict, of a base conflict that’s going on between two models. Those models are the corporate model of agriculture and a cooperative model of agriculture. MUCA represents a group that managed to successfully take back 10,000 acres of palm oil plantations and turn them back into worker run cooperatives and still today they are controlling that land and as you see, violence is often being used as a way to both try to get MUCA to maybe give the land back or in some way stop what they’re doing. But more so I think it’s actual deterrents for these new groups that we’ve seen since 2009, all over the country because similar situations are all over the country. Some say there’s up to 500,000 families in Honduras who live in the countryside who have no land. A lot of them are getting organized and look at MUCA as a shining example of bringing justice back to the Honduran countryside and I think this violence can be seen in many ways as a deterrent to stop those groups from getting organized. WILPERT: Right I was wondering about that too. To what extent is the state itself involved in this. The two who are killed just recently, they were supposed to have police protection but were killed anyway. Does this mean that the state itself is involved in some way or is this mainly a battle against private companies? FREESTON: Well it’s all mixed and without an appropriate investigation it’s very difficult to tell. That’s what you see in the case of Berta Caceras, that the family continues to demand an international independent investigation because there are no authorities in Honduras that can be trusted to find out who killed somebody. Particularly to find out who paid that person to kill somebody and who that person was working for or follow these trails back at all. So is the state involved? Those protective measures that you talked about from the police, that comes from the Inter American Court of Human Rights. So when activists like or a President of this co-opt movement for example, Jose Angel Flores, when he can go to the Inter American Court of Human Rights or a Honduran human rights organization can go on his behalf and say we have credible death threats against this man, they will pass on these protective measures. Which means that if violence is carried out against him, the Honduran state is considered responsible. So these same measures Berta Caceras had them, [Noun Palacious] the journalist who was killed in the Aguan Valley earlier. I could go on. There’s so many Hondurans that have died while having this measures intact. So supposedly according to how this is supposed to work, the Honduran state’s still responsible for that violence against them. Amnesty international yesterday as following these most recently killings declared Honduras a “no go zone” for people defending land, whether that be for ecological reasons or agricultural reasons. So in the face of that, Amnesty International asks for a meeting, the general secretary of Amnesty International, the director globally asks for a meeting with Juan Orlando Hernández, the President of Honduras and he says no. Right then the United States says they’re okay. They approve of the different steps Honduras has been making in dealing with human rights violations and they send another along, another 55 million dollars in aid. So aid to this regime in Honduras is at the highest it’s ever been. Violence against people standing up for justice in Honduras is arguably at the highest it’s ever been. FREESTON: So according to MUCA over 150 activists have been killed in Honduras since 2009 which is just around the time that Manuel Zelaya was overthrown. Tell us some more about this situation since the coup attempt and what that coup attempt has meant for activists in Honduras. FREESTON: Well the coup, really just a little background, the coup took place on the day that Hondurans are supposed to vote for the first time ever in their lives for somebody other than who was going to lead them. So what was on the ballot was a referendum over whether or not to rewrite the constitution by way of a representative institutional assembly that was going to involve participation of not only people by the region of the country that they live in but also by their profession and by their identity. Such as the LGBT community was going to have a seat at the table, for example. Or the farmers were going to have a seat at the table. Or the taxi drivers. That way, all these different interests were going to be taken care of and that was the day when they woke up to vote in that referendum and instead saw soldiers take control of the street. Those soldiers are still on the street in greater numbers than ever. As we speak right now, right at this moment, a COPINH march which is the group of Berta Caceras who was defending the Lenca territory in western Honduras, they had a march today in [inaud.]. It was attacked both by the military police and by the regular police. We know that two people are in custody and many have been injured and so that’s happening right now as we do this interview. The lesson I think to learn from the is I mean there’s many but one of the lessons for those of us who are outside Honduras is that that moment in 2009 in defense of that project of rewriting the constitution of having a more democratic participatory equal society rolls up a movement that organized so quickly that within just a couple of months, it had a committee, democratically organized committees voting by assembly in every one of Honduras’s 298 municipalities. That movement could’ve been our ally. Our governments could have said we’re not going to deal with this coup regime, we’re going to consider this movement the legitimate rulers of Honduras. They’ve got the democratic project. They did not take power by arms. And so that was a moment then where we could’ve accompanied the people in Honduras that are now being killed. Like Berta Carceras and most recently Jose Angel and Silmer Dionisio. WILPERT: As you know, right now we’re of course here in the United States involved in the middle of a presidential campaign and one of them is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who apparently played a role in Honduras. Can you just quickly bring our listeners up to speed as to what her role was in this and what you might expect from her should she become elected president? FREESTON: Yea. Honduran journalist Felix Molina said listen I know you guys have up here, I was recently with him when he was speaking to a crowd here in Montreal, and he said I know you guys up here have a lot of different ideas about Hillary Clinton but for us she’s just a coup leader. That’s because Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State at the time of the coup and as a result of WikiLeaks and her email releases and even stuff she published in the hark of her autobiography which then was taken out of the soft cover. When you put that all together, you get a picture of Hillary Clinton as one of the key players in the Honduran crew. Somebody who her and her staff actually were celebrating when the overthrowing government was not brought back to power. So in that situation you can just imagine the perspective of Hondurans who see in their country, just to give you a sense of how the US is seen and historically is for central America, there’s a joke in all over Central America which is why are there no coups in the United States? The answer is because there’s no US embassy in the United States. So if you see that your country is so clearly dominant. I mean it’s over 65% of Honduran trade is to the United States, so much of the military, the police are basically completely funded by the United States. When you add up all these things and then you see the two options in the US election, when you’re hoping that something’s going to change up there, to allow you to take some control over your reality, some sort of democratic control over your state. You’re seeing that maybe you need some change up north first. Then you look up and you see Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I mean it’s just, it’s devastating. WILPERT: Just turning quickly back into the activists in Honduras, what are they doing now? How are they reacting to this wave of assassinations? FREESTON: I think the reaction is typically to denounce it. To try and get the word out and to call for an end to military aid. To call, I mean the immediate reaction is immediately almost always by activists to say that we consider the Honduran state that took power by way of a coup de tat, responsible for this violence. If not directly, indirectly by not allowing us – by using a coup de tat as a blunt instrument to stop a process that would’ve gotten land to farmers, that would’ve gotten the Lenca people rights over their territory or had their rights respected. That would’ve brought at least some sort of progress and process towards justice for all these people that now have to take that land, now have to set up blockades, put themselves in violence and are eventually killed by these forces. One of the things to point out is how unequal a battle this is. For example, in the Aguan Valley, where you’ve got a corporation versus a co-opt. One of the beauties of a co-opt is that the decisions get made by the people that live and work on the land. That’s what makes it democratic. What that also means is that president of your co-opt lives right there and so he is so vulnerable as we just saw two days ago when Jose Angel Flores was walking out of a meeting and was killed. Meanwhile the leadership or the people that make the decisions in the corporation likely don’t even live in Honduras, let alone do they walk around. So you really see kind of the unequalness of these situations and the desperation that you see in a lot of these communiques and statements that different activist groups or human rights organizations will make in the face of this violence. WILPERT: Okay well, Jesse thanks so much for this update. We’ll definitely be continuing to follow this story as it evolves and we’ll get back to you. So thanks again for being with us today. FREESTON: Thanks for having me. WILPERT: And thank you for watching the Real News Network.


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Jesse Freeston is a filmmaker, shooter and editor based in Montréal, Québec.