Honduran Activist Berta Caceres Stood Up Against Racism, Patriarchy, and Capitalism
Filmmaker Jesse Freeston marks the first anniversary of the assassination of Berta Caceres, an outspoken critic of US imperialism and environmental activist
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown.
March 2nd marks the first anniversary of the assassination of Honduran environmental leader Berta Cáceres. Just the day before this anniversary the newspaper, The Guardian, reported that two of the main alleged perpetrators of the murder were U.S. trained military officials, according to Honduran court documents. According to the documents as seen by The Guardian, Major Mariano Díaz and Lieutenant Douglas Giovanny Bustillo, both received U.S. Special Forces military training at The School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, back in 1997. So far six others have been also arrested in connection with Cáceres’ murder including one more military officer and five civilians.
And joining us today from Montreal, Canada, to discuss these latest revelations about the murder of Berta Cáceres, we’re joined with Jesse Freeston. Jesse is an independent documentary filmmaker. He’s also the director of the new film, ‘Resistencia’, which is a documentary about the resistance to the 2009 coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.
Jesse, we appreciate you joining us today.
JESSE FREESTON: My pleasure, Kim.
KIM BROWN: Before we get into the details of the latest revelations that The Guardian reports, bring our viewers up to speed about what happened last year with the assassination of Berta Cáceres; and also The Guardian is reporting that at least two of the eight alleged suspects in Cáceres’ murder were trained at The School of the Americas, which has now been renamed to the western hemisphere ‘Institute For Security Cooperation’ according to Honduras documents. So what is the significance of the background of these alleged murderers?
JESSE FREESTON: Well, the first thing to understand is the significance of who Berta Cáceres was, and still is, in many ways. Berta was one of the main forces in Honduras behind getting people to realize that they had a right to protect their land and to decide what happened on their land. So not just only voting in elections, but that, in her case, the Lenca people, or in other situations in Honduras people had a right to say, you know, “we don’t want a dam, we don’t want a mine, we don’t want another sweat shop”, and sort of put forward their own proposals and their own ideas. And the way she kind of put this together was through the idea of rewriting the constitution into a new form of constitution that would be more democratic, more participatory. And she pushes, and she actually got the sitting president, who had previously signed a free-trade agreement with the United States, to actually … really she was one of the main forces in getting him to totally change his position and pick up this new idea of rewriting the constitution. And that is what led to the coup d’état in 2009, amongst some other things, but that was the main project that was being pushed forward that was really going to put forward some really, really interesting reforms and revolutionary changes in Honduras. Because at the end of the day, as Berta would say, “When the people who live on the land and work on the land get to decide what happens on it, that is a complete transformation of the whole political-economic situation.” And so that’s what they were pushing forward to this new constitution. The coup comes and puts an end to that.
The coup is led by a man named Romeo Vásques Velásquez, he was a general, at the time, who led the coup. He was also trained in the United States at the School of the Americas which, as you mentioned, has changed its name because it had such a bad reputation, to one that’s much harder to say. And I interviewed him a couple of years after the coup, and after the camera was off and we were just talking, he said, “You know, Honduras is a conservative country. That’s something they taught us at the School of the Americas.”
So you have a man who’s been told, by military instructors from outside his country, what his country is. And that his country is conservative, meaning that it doesn’t want to change. And so this is the view that the general has who carried out the coup. And now we find out that two of the three military officers that were involved in Berta’s murder, at least that we know so far, we know that two of them were trained in the United State; and this is not big news because it would be hard to find a military officer at least of medium to high rank who has not been trained either directly inside the United States or has had the U.S. train them militarily inside Honduras. So this is nothing new.
What’s also been leaked through this Guardian report is text messages between the three men that appeared to speak in military code about the assassination of Berta Cáceres. And I want to point out on this note that Berta was very, very much against U.S. presence in Honduras. In fact, in 2011, on the second anniversary of the coup – on the anniversary usually the protests happened in the cities – but Berta and COPINH, her organization, went to the largest U.S. military base in the region, which is in Honduras, it’s called Palmerola, and they went there and organized their second anniversary of the coup protest there. And when she was asked why they were doing it there, she said, “I want to remind the people of the evil role that the United States has played against the people of Honduras for more than a century. They played a fundamental role in the coup d’état and in the militarization of Latin America and the Caribbean, as part of a strategy of invasion, expropriation, and pillage.”
So she gave that statement and then they tried to march through the gate, and before they even got to the gate the Honduran military attacked them with tear gas and close(?). And now in 2016, with Berta dead, there’s a bill in U.S. Congress calling for an end to all U.S. military in Honduras. And which is currently at the highest level it’s ever been in history. And that Act is called the Berta Cáceres Act.
KIM BROWN: The U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, James Nealon, has said that the U.S. has no record that Díaz and Bustillo attended The School of the Americas. So what do you make of this denial?
JESSE FREESTON: Ambassador Nealon has absolutely no legitimacy in my opinion. The U.S. embassy just always says whatever it needs to say in the moment. There was a U.S. helicopter with U.S. officers onboard that killed four women, two of which were pregnant, when they opened fire on them in their canoe in the northern region of the Miskito in Honduras, that was about three years ago. The U.S. embassy said they were going to fully investigate and they were going to fully find who was responsible and there was going to be justice and as of today we have nothing. So that’s just to give you one example of why the U.S. embassy and the U.S. military and their interactions in Honduras and what they say in their statements, don’t match up, and I don’t think they have any legitimacy with me and not with most of the Honduran people either.
KIM BROWN: Over 150 Honduran activists are said to have been killed since the 2009 coup against President Manuel Zelaya. Meanwhile the U.S. continues to provide at least $18 million worth of aid per year to Honduras. So, Jesse, how serious do you think the U.S. government is in trying to put an end to impunity in Honduras?
JESS FREESTON: Well, I mean, absolutely not. If they wanted to put an end to impunity in Honduras they could start with Americans who’ve acted in Honduras. We know for a fact, through WikiLeaks, that Hillary Clinton was one of the key players in the coup d’état. There’s Hillary Clinton’s close aide, Lanny Davis, who is working directly with the coup plotters to help clean their image in Washington. I mean there’s Americans that should be … If the U.S. really was about putting an end to impunity in Honduras, they could start with the major detonating event which was the coup d’état, because all the murder rates and poverty rates, everything has gotten significantly worse since that day, since June 28, 2009. So that’s the most important event for understanding impunity in Honduras today. There are Americans who are as responsible as anybody in the world. And so if the U.S. was serious about impunity they could start with them.
And then the other thing that we notice is that these are the same authorities that the U.S. claims to be fighting impunity by giving them more resources, giving them more money, giving them more equipment, more training. That $18 million doesn’t come close to touching what the actual investment is, when you take into account all the equipment, all the training and all the other things that are involved. And when we look at that, you’re giving all these resources to people that every time there’s a major crime like this, we see that they’re involved. So in this case it’s the military. The police, immediately following the assassination, tried to frame a case against Berta’s ex-husband, saying that he was responsible for the assassination. And then it was only when the international pressure came down, when people like Leonardo DiCaprio started tweeting about Berta Cáceres and other things, that they realized that they weren’t going to get away with that. And so then they shifted and arrested these guys who are only the material authors of this assassination. We still have no idea, well there have been plenty of ideas, but nobody’s been brought to justice in terms of intellectual authors, the people that financed or organized this assassination, who are clearly out there. And those people clearly have ties to these security institutions.
So for example, Felix Molina, who in my opinion is arguably one of the best journalists in the world, he was reporting on the fact … well he was one of the people to break this information that some of these military officers in Honduras were actually invested in the dam that Berta was opposing. When he put out this information, the next day he was shot and had to flee the country. So I think it’s clear that if you want to fight impunity in Honduras, you have to support something other than this regime that was put in place by a coup d’état. That’s how you fight impunity. You have to support groups like COPINH, who are fighting for a new Honduras. To ‘re-found’ Honduras is the term that they use, because the current regime that was reinforced by the coup d’état, is rotten to the core.
KIM BROWN: And lastly, can you tell us about the progress of the Cáceres case – because eight of the suspects have been arrested so far a year after her murder. So will this go to trial? Is there a chance that the perpetrators will indeed be punished? What are your thoughts about this, Jesse?
JESSE FREESTON: It’s hard to tell. It’s kind of a unique case. If we look at the history since the coup of political people being assassinated or people being assassinated who are politically active, none of them had the profile of Berta Cáceres, and certainly none of them created the international following that the Berta Cáceres case has created. That said the case has clearly been slow. There’s been reports of the investigators losing documents, documents getting stolen, there’s been all kinds of excuses put out there as to why they might not be able to close this case. So I’d say there’s a good chance that maybe somebody will go to jail for the assassination of Berta Cáceres. Will they have actually been involved in the assassination? That’s a question. Will they actually be the people who ordered it? Most likely not. We’re seeing no sign of that without a lot more pressure.
And I really think that, what I want to leave on, is the legacy of Berta Cáceres, is her integrity, is that Berta stood against three things, that I think you can see very deeply involved in the impunity around her case – it’s deeper than just the word “impunity”. So Berta fought against what she called … the three pillars of evil in the world, and she called them racism, oligarchy and the political economic system, what she referred to as capitalism. And then you can see all three of those things playing a very, very detrimental role in terms of us getting justice for the assassination of this indigenous woman, Berta Cáceres.
KIM BROWN: Well, we will certainly stay up to date on the latest developments with the Cáceres murder case in Honduras. And we’ve been joined today with Jesse Freeston. Jesse is an independent documentary filmmaker, also the director of the film ‘Resistencia’. It’s a documentary about the resistance to the 2009 coup in Honduras against President Zelaya. He’s been joining us today from Montreal.
Jesse, we appreciate you joining us and thank you very much for your reporting on this.
JESSE FREESTON: Thanks, Kim. My pleasure.
KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.