Indigenous Rights Leader Assassinated in Honduras
Jesse Freeston, the director of the documentary “Resistencia,” tells us how Berta Caceres has become a martyr in the struggle against the Honduran post-coup regime and how the Obama administration bears responsibility for the current situation in Honduras.
GREGORY WILPERT, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador.
Around 1:00 AM of March 3, assassins murdered Berta Caceres in her home in the town of La Esperanza, Honduras. She was a longtime Honduran indigenous rights activist, and the founder and coordinator of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras. The people of Honduras have been attacked relentlessly ever since the coup attempt, or the coup, against President Manuel Zelaya in 2009.
With us to talk about Berta Caceres and the current situation in Honduras is Jesse Freeston, an independent documentary filmmaker, and the director of the film Resistencia, a documentary about the resistance to the coup against Zelaya. He’s coming to us from Buenos Aires. Hi, Jesse, thanks for joining us at the Real News.
JESSE FREESTON: Great to be here, Greg.
WILPERT: Let’s start with what we know about the assassination of Berta Caceres. You know her personally. What do you know about what happened, and who might be behind her murder?
FREESTON: What we know is that Berta was, was staying not in her regular home, but because of fears for her life she was staying in another house. And in the town where she was born and where she’s from, on the land that she’s defended for her entire life. And that somebody broke in, apparently multiple people who, we don’t know who they were yet, probably never will, given recent history in Honduras. And that’s certainly the sentiment of Hondurans. We won’t know who broke in and shot her at about midnight last night. And that’s, that’s the situation we’re in in terms of, in terms of who pulled the trigger.
In terms of who was behind it, who sent the trigger-puller, that we also don’t know, because the truth is there’s many suspects. And the reason why there’s many suspects is because the coup project in Honduras, this long, hundreds-years long project of taking land from people in Latin America and in North America and the world over always involves multiple people and multiple interests and groups.
And so, for example, when I went to report on this current struggle that Berta’s been involved in around Gualcarque River, where they’ve been planning on building dams, and they successfully stopped a Chinese company, Sinohydro, the biggest dam builder in the world, from building a dam. The company pulled out citing the community resistance as the reason they were pulling out. Berta was a key figure in that resistance. That project then was taken up by a Honduran company backed primarily with other international investors. And that, in a renewed conflict that’s been taking, that’s really escalated in recent days.
And when I went in 2013 to cover that, that struggle, you know, we were confronted by police officers, military, private security guards, and armed locals who saw this as a way for them to get jobs and get out of their economic situation that they were in, that all these groups saw Berta and saw COPINH and saw this resistance as a threat, and were worried about us giving their resistance more voice.
Now, Berta is much bigger than that struggle because of what a big voice she was for identifying some of the different ideas and ideologies and forces that are behind all of these different groups and people that you run into in a struggle like this. And Berta was always identifying three main evils that she called them, or systemic forces would more likely be the word she would have used. Capitalism, the idea that people who don’t live and work on the land will decide what happens on that land. Racism, which has [Lenca] a group that had been made invisible for hundreds and hundreds of years. She is playing a key role in making them visible again within Honduras and in the world, and will be one of her major legacies, and the legacy of her group, COPINH, in breaking that isolation. The racism involved in that. And patriarchy, which she constantly ran into as a, as a strong woman, a strong, indigenous woman. She will be seen as a model for indigenous people. She was, she is unwavering in her willingness to say yes, I speak to the river, and yes, I speak on a cell phone. And those things are not contradictory.
So this is a, this is a woman–they’ve made a martyr right now in Honduras. And if you go on social media in Honduras right now you’ll see it. They’ve created a martyr last night that is of a size and stature that Central America may not have seen since I was born, in 30 or more years, maybe since Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980.
WILPERT: So, you know her personally. How did you meet her, in what context? And how has her struggle, from your observation and your filming in Honduras, how has her struggle changed as a result of the 2009 coup attempt?
FREESTON: I met her in the street, covering the 2009 coup attempt. She’s one of these people that is omnipresent. Earlier today I translated a poem by a Honduran musician about Berta that he wrote this morning. And there was a word in it that was very hard to translate, and basically it means she was omnipresent. She was unmissable, she was in everything. And she was making sure than the Lenca people had a voice, both in the resistance, and all these things.
And she, and she became to take on this much bigger role as a bridge builder amongst marginalized people within Honduras. I’ll remember her forever for her friendship with Miriam Miranda, who is another point of reference for all these things, another person who spoke out against these, these ideas that I mentioned earlier. And Miriam and Berta did incredible things together, Miriam being a spokesperson for the Garifuna group. It is the Afro-indigenous group on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, primarily.
Berta and Miriam together, put together an assembly, the first-ever coming together of massive numbers of all the eight different indigenous groups of Honduras. This is a historic moment, it’s one of those situations where you’re in it and you feel like you just see it on everybody’s face that this is a, this is an historic moment. This is the first time these different peoples have come together in modern history, at least in recorded history.
WILPERT: When was this?
FREESTON: This was in 2011, I believe. You know, and this was, you had thousands of people coming together on Garifuna territory to talk about their, their shared struggles, their shared enemies, and come to decisions–there was something much bigger happening here, and this is what makes resolving crime like the assassination of Berta Caceres so difficult, because not only do you have local interests involved, and local people that see her as a threat to their jobs, building the dam, running the dam, you have the, the interests of the corrupt politicians that are involved in the sale of that dam. You have the interested investors who have been known to be involved in certain things like this, to be behind certain things like this in the past. Not only do you have that, you have a broader system that’s seeing the emergence of a new vision.
You know, Berta Caceres had a, had a foundation in the past of her people, and a vision towards a future, a shared future. And she was gathering allies, you know, with the Garifuna people and the Tolupan people, and different indigenous groups. The feminist groups saw her as a feminist leader. You know, the resistance movement saw her as a defender of land, for people that may not have indigenous links to the land but who see themselves as wanting to be farmers or being farmers with a right to land, they saw her as a leader. I mean, she was much bigger, and that means that there are so many suspects in this situation.
WILPERT: Give us a little bit of a bigger picture, also, as to what has been going on in Honduras since the 2009 coup. I mean, how many people have been assassinated, or how much political violence and repression is currently going on in that country?
FREESTON: Yeah. Certainly the days following the coup saw a number of, of local-level leaders being killed. A lot of teachers, farmer leaders, and environmental leaders being killed. But we haven’t seen since the coup in Honduras is a lot of really high-profile national-level or international-level leaders being killed. And with Berta Caceres we have one of the most visible Hondurans to oppose the coup in the world being killed. She’s the 2015 recipient of the Goldman prize, which she got for her successful participation in the resistance against Sinohydro, against the Chinese dam-building company. You know, she had protections from the inter-American human rights court, saying, you know, legitimizing the fact that she’s been receiving death threats on the regular, and that they would hold the Honduran state responsible if anything were to happen to her. So that’s now happened.
And so she, she in this situation kind of represents now for a lot of people in Honduras that nobody’s safe. There was a belief at some point up until this morning that a certain profile person wouldn’t be killed, but that’s, that’s now out the window. As for what’s been happening since 2009 in Honduras, I mean, there was a big event in 2011, once it was clear that the coup project had been successful. It was called Honduras Is Open For Business. In English, that’s what it was called. And they invited investors from all over the world, and I remember they had this room with these interactive maps, and all these investors would come through, and they would have these six different kinds of investment that people could do. You know, palm oil investment. And one of them was dams. And you know, that region, the Lenca region, was on that map and you could click on it, you could see where the rivers were. And you wouldn’t see any people on that map.
You know, and Berta represented a very different way of seeing things, and for that reason became a leading figure in the resistance to that coup that saw Honduras as a map to be divvied up to the highest bidder, and that’s what’s been happening. And so this concession that she was fighting against to defend this river, the concession of that river came after the coup. It was a concession carried out by the coup government. And then the response that we see from the U.S. State Department, which under Hillary Clinton was one of if not the key player in the coup, in my opinion, I think the WikiLeaks that have come out since, the emails from Hillary Clinton made it very clear that their, that their participation was active in the coup and decisive in the coup.
And now we have the U.S. ambassador today saying that he has offered all the resources of the United States government to assist the Honduran authorities in bringing these criminals to justice. Well, in 2013 there was a member of the resistance, of the Lenca resistance, Tomas Garcia, who was killed in Rio Blanco, where this project is trying to be, they’re trying to carry out this dam project. And Tomas Garcia was killed by a Honduran military official, who was found guilty. Only the soldier was found guilty. Nobody above the soldier was found guilty, but he was found guilty earlier in 2015 of carrying out the killing of Tomas Garcia.
And yet, now we have the U.S. ambassador saying that we’re going to work with those authorities to find the criminals. Those authorities are the key suspects. They’re not the people that should be trusted in finding, I think. And it’s hard to think of a solution right now, but back in 2009 you had a legitimate elected president in Manuel Zelaya, and you had a resistance movement that had organized assemblies in every one of Honduras’ 297 municipalities. That was a government in waiting. The rest of Latin America was saying, that’s the legitimate government that we want to work with. The United States, Canada, Europe, and big international bodies like the IMF refused to work with that group. They decided to continue their many centuries-long alliance with the Honduran oligarchy.
And that’s the people who are in power today. And that is a decision that I think is, is one of the most important in understanding what happened last night to Berta Caceres. And Berta Caceres, somebody who had the kind of imagination to imagine another international relations, another way that we could relate between countries, and unfortunately we’ve lost that.
WILPERT: Well, unfortunately we’ve run out of time. But thanks so much, and we’ll probably get back to Honduras soon, I hope, to talk about more in-depth about what’s happening there. And I think what you’re mentioning, also, about the responsibility of the U.S. government in this whole situation is extremely important to remember, of course, since Hillary Clinton was the secretary of state at that time.
Anyway, thanks again for joining us, Jesse.
FREESTON: Thanks, Greg.
WILPERT: And thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.
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