The AFL-CIO, members of the United States Congress and many other organizations and individuals are raising their voices to demand an end to the murders of indigenous, working class and environmental activists in Honduras.
On March 3, Lenca indigenous activist Berta Caceres, an internationally recognized environmentalist leader, was murdered in her house in La Esperanza, Honduras. Caceras had been leading protests against the Agua Zarca dam project when she was slain.
Another indigenous environmental activist, Nelson Garcia, was killed in Honduras on March 15. He was also a member of Berta Caceres' organization, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations, or COPINH. Garcia was part of a peaceful civic protest against efforts by powerful interests to force farmers off their land. He was shot four times in the face while returning from a protest action to his home in Rio Lindo, about 100 kilometers from la Esperanza where Caceres was killed. (story continues after video)
A report by Global Witness indicates that between the coup of June 2009, which overthrew the progressive government of President Manuel Zelaya, and the end of 2014, 101 Hondurans have been murdered for their opposition to various schemes by wealthy developers and their allies that would alienate the lands of agricultural communities as well as harming the natural environment. This represents a tenfold increase since the period between 2003 and 2009, which saw ten such murders.
The 2009 coup opened the door to aggressive penetration by foreign corporations which, allied with local private and government elites, have seen Honduras as "open for business". Workers, indigenous people and poor communities suppressed by violence. Laws are modified or simply ignored to permit destructive mining, dam building and agribusiness practices that displace farmers and wreck the environment. Special "Economic Development Zones", initiated by the current Honduran government in late 2014, are seen by many as threatening not only labor and environmental protections but Honduras' sovereignty as a nation, all for the benefit of rapacious multinational corporations.
Next year, there are presidential elections in Honduras. President Juan Orlando Hernandez engineered a constitutional change to allow himself to run for re-election, while packing the judiciary with his supporters so that this could not be challenged. (Some readers may recall that one of the pretexts for the 2009 coup which overthrew President Zelaya was the claim that he was secretly plotting to run for re-election.)
Besides the issue of the murders, Honduras is roiled by massive scandals involving theft of public funds that were intended to provide health care services for the poor, but some of which ended up in the coffers of Hernandez's National Party. Unspecified numbers of sick Hondurans may have died as a result, because they could not get needed health care. Ex- President Zelaya, his LIBRE Party, and other members of the opposition make the accusation that these purloined funds were used to steal the January 2014 presidential election. Pre-election polls had shown LIBRE's candidate, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, Manuel Zelaya's wife, as the probable winner.
But Hernandez and his clique do not have everything going their way. Before the murder of Berta Caceres, a major Chinese contractor and the World Bank pulled out of the Agua Zarca project because of the COPINH protests, and last week Finnish and Netherlands banks also pulled out, citing apparent violations of law and human rights by their Honduran partners.
Not for the first time, members of the U.S. Congress are also speaking up. On March 17, U.S. Representatives Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) and Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), as well as 58 other members of the House of Representatives, sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with a list of demands that adhere closely to demands that Berta Caceres' family and friends have been demanding. The House letter also closely follows the outline of a statement made by U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D Vermont)
These include putting pressure on the Honduran government to:
*Accept an international investigation into the murder of Berta Caceres.
*Allow Berta Caceres' family to have access to the investigation, including to propose independent experts.
*Genuinely protect Berta Caceres' family from further violence.
*Likewise, commit to protections for other members of COPINH and other activists.
*Review the scheduled U.S. funding for Honduran security forces. "We believe that the U.S. government should immediately stop all assistance to Honduran security forces, including training and equipment, given the implication of the Honduran military and police in extrajudicial killings, illegal detentions, torture and other violations of human rights."
*Make sure that banks in which the U.S. has a role, including the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund cease to fund projects which threaten the rights of indigenous communities and small farmers.
*Pressure the Honduran government to immediately cancel the Agua Zarca dam project.
If this pressure on the Honduran government is not sharply increased, there will certainly be more murders as next year's elections approach. One person whose life is in immediate danger is Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro Soto, who was the only witness to the attack on Caceres, during which he was also wounded. Castro says that the Honduran government has tried to pressure him to testify that the murder was the result of an internal dispute in COPINH, and he now fears they will actually try to frame him. The Honduran government has not allowed him to leave the country. He is now ensconced in the Mexican embassy in Tegucigalpa, but still has reason to fear for his life. His immediate return to Mexico is another demand that must be made against the Honduran government.
The United States bears a great deal of responsibility for the situation in Honduras, and for what is likely to happen in the future there. Though ex-President Zelaya says he thinks the coup plotting took place with the participation of the Republican ultra-right in the United States, it is also the case that the Clinton State Department blocked efforts by other Latin American countries to reverse the coup.
U.S. citizens and voters, therefore, should pressure our own government so that it will use its influence to put an end to the scandalous situation in Honduras. At the moment, the best way to do this is to contact our Congressional representatives and ask them to add their support to the initiative of Congresspersons Johnson and Ellison and Senator Leahy. Concerned readers may wish to ask their Congresspersons to make sure:
- That the deaths of Berta Caceres and Nelson Garcia are fully investigated by an independent, international group;
- That Caceres' family and friends and all fighters for social and environmental justice in Honduras are protected from harm;
- That Gustavo Castro Soto is allowed to return unharmed to Mexico;
- That U.S. funding for Honduran security forces is cut off; and
- That the U.S. act to block funding for the Agua Zarca dam and similar abusive projects that harm the Honduran people and environment.
Readers can contact their representatives and senators here. House members should be asked to add their support to the Johnson-Ellison letter; Senate members should be asked to express their adherence to the position taken by Senator Leahy. Readers can also contact Secretary of State John Kerry here.
Photo: A woman spray paints the phrase "Always Alive" below a stenciled image of the recently-murdered Berta Cáceres. | NPR.org