In the Trenches with Berta Cáceres
Berta Caceres, a 44-year old human rights and environmental activist, was murdered in the early morning of March 3, 2016. She was a member of the Lenca indigenous group of Honduras. The assassins broke into her home and shot her, killing Berta and wounding the Mexican sociologist and environmentalist, Gustavo Castro Soto.
Berta had received countless death threats for her activism. The indigenous rights organization she co-founded kept a eulogy for her on file. The Inter American Commission on Human Rights had ordered the government to protect her from attacks. The night of the assassination, however, the Honduran police claimed that they were mistakenly guarding the wrong house.
I met Berta in the spring of 2001 on an activist speaking tour
I met Berta in the spring of 2001. I was hired to be her accompanier/translator/driver for the next two weeks as we traveled across Canada on a speaking tour culminating in a series of protests and alternative conferences outside the Summit of the Americas meeting in Quebec City, where the heads of state of all the countries of the Western Hemisphere (except Cuba) were meeting at the behest of George W. Bush to map out a new trade deal called the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Not only were citizens excluded from the party inside the old stone walls of the center Quebec City, but, with the 1999 Seattle anti-WTO protests (and the 2000 and 2001 DC anti-World Bank/IMF protests) still recent memory, government officials had erected a not-quite Trumpian 10 foot high barbed wire fence with armed checkpoints to keep out the riffraff — or what today we might call the 99%.
Before the Summit, Berta and I traveled to cities across Canada, staying in the homes of local activists and speaking in church basements, Fair Trade cafes, and school auditoriums. We were working for my sometimes employer, a small global justice funding and activist organization called Rights Action (RA). The group collected donations and grants from the United States and Canada and dispersed them to human rights and activist groups in Mexico, Central America, Peru, and Haiti. One of the groups that we partnered with was called COPINH, a typically bulky Central American acronym that stood for the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras. Berta had cofounded it in the Esperanza department of Honduras, one of the poorest regions of one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.
COPINH had a broad mission and sought out whatever path they could to improve the lives of residents, and to resist and overcome the forces that were keeping them poor and oppressed. Berta, who was raised by a similarly determined activist mother, Austra Bertha Flores Lopez, who both encouraged Central American activists during the bloody 1980s and helped them hide from government death squads, understood that those forces included not just the oligarchy of a few dozen elite families who ruled the country, sometimes via elections, but more often through the military. It also included the United States government that saw Honduras as a useful and receptive staging ground for US military bases and a source of cheap manual labor to fill the foreign-owned sweatshops in the free trade zones, and other global interests who saw riches in Honduras’ soil, water, and minerals.
Berta could quickly tell you the plot of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism years before that book had been written.
I had spent a few years in Guatemala and Peru by the time I met Berta, but had only passed briefly through Honduras. Even the sad excuse for urban infrastructure I had seen had by then been wiped out by the devastation of Hurricane Mitch. Millions in aid dollars had poured in, but Berta could quickly tell you the plot of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism years before that book had been written.
Berta was both badass and hardcore. We were roughly the same age, and with my own predilection towards anti-US foreign policy and Latin American leftism, we were pretty well ideologically matched. But Berta had a charisma and rock-solid core of energy and commitment that I could only stand back and admire. On my best days I might aspire to be a fraction of what she was at her worst.
Her diminutive stature, ever-present smile, warm features, and unassuming manners led most strangers at events to think that she was younger than her years, and humble in a way that perhaps reminded them of their gardeners or other economic migrants. She seemed aware of this first impression she had on people, and used it to draw people in, but she had no patience for moral equivocation or condescension. After the formal talks, someone in the audience would often ask her if she had kids. She did, she would reply, and her husband was taking care of them. “What a lucky woman to have such a great husband,” someone would invariably say. Without missing a beat, she would respond “No es ningún santo” (“He’s no saint” I would translate). People never knew what to do with that answer and I had to stifle a laugh at their confusion each time. She had no interest in playing to people’s expectations or sugar-coating hard truths. Once she had your attention, she didn’t waste a second.
She couldn’t finish the cake, but assured me that I should apply for the psychological torture department of the CIA
In our downtime on the speaking tour, we had a running joke about the disconnect between First and Third World realities. I would ask her what she thought about some wonder of modern society like touch-free faucets with infrared lights and she would respond that this was the type of useless invention that the people of Honduras were paying with the interest on their foreign debt. Once, though, I accidentally took the joke too far when we stopped in at a cafeteria for a quick lunch. I ribbed her about the half-eaten piece of cake on her plate. “What about all the kids in La Esperanza who would love to have that cake?” I’ll never forget her crestfallen face. She couldn’t finish the cake, but assured me that I should apply for the psychological torture department of the CIA, as I was obviously an expert in their most effective techniques. I didn’t make comments like that again.
Berta’s political views were grounded in her daily reality. She belonged to the indigenous Lenca people, although through centuries of oppression and assimilation, they had lost their language, yet still retained important elements of their traditional culture and, as Berta put it, their “cosmovision” — their world view, including a deep connection to the nature and the land. It wasn’t some New Age idealization, but rather something based in the reality that her people spent much of their time engaged with the earth through agriculture. They were connected by centuries to a place that imbued their lives with meaning. Without land, they had no home. Without corn, the staple of every meal, they could not eat. Without clean water, they could not survive.
Back in 2001, Berta had not won international awards and her name would not be tweeted by Hollywood celebrities (had Twitter existed) as happened after her murder. Yet still, there was enough interest in global solidarity that there were audiences at every event we came to. It was a moment before the 9/11 terrorists hijacked not only planes, but also a growing awareness and critique of the Washington Consensus that held the rules of global capitalism should be written by and for the powerful, without regard to the cost to people, the planet, or democracy.
Although few of the people we met had any idea of where Honduras was or what it had to do with their own lives, Berta quickly painted a picture of what life was like for her community. She could describe the daily reality of her fellow Lenca, not as objects of pity, but as victims of local and global forces of oppression. International mining companies, many with US and Canadian headquarters, were tearing the landscape to shreds and polluting the water. If local populations refused the crumbs of compensation for their dispossession, they would be forcibly removed by the police and military at the service of local elites who stood to make their fortunes grow. Hydroelectric dams and other megaprojects, usually financed by the World Bank but with funds leaking to local powers and global conglomerates, meant devastation for local communities.
But Berta was not looking for pity, but rather solidarity. Her organization, COPINH, and other allies were working to unmask the corrupt financing behind these projects and to inform and organize local communities to protect their rights. She was well versed in the minutia of international treaties, like the International Labor Organization convention 169 that protects the rights of indigenous communities. She recounted meetings with officials from her own government as well as the World Bank, and anyone else who controlled the levers of power. She asked the audience to further their own education: to learn what was being done in their name, with their taxes or investments, and to join in solidarity with those working to stop the destruction of communities like hers and others around the globe. We ended our talks with strategy sessions, and a call to join us and the thousands of others we would be joining at the Summit of the Americas to stop the power elites from codifying their rapacious version of capitalism in global trade rules.
These are the kind of cushy sinecures that most people in the world of international development and aid dream of landing — But for Berta, there could only be one answer.
We spent virtually all our waking hours at these events or in constant conversation. I learned some of the stories that she didn’t have time to fit into her talks. She told me how after years of throwing monkey wrenches into the plans of the World Bank, she and her husband (also an activist, but they later divorced) were offered jobs by the Bank officials. These are the kind of cushy sinecures that most people in the world of international development and aid dream of landing — fat tax-free paychecks, cars and drivers, housing allowances in gated communities, and instant respectability in policy circles. They would even be able to be the voice of indigenous people in those lovely policy reports and white papers that pile up in research libraries and diplomats’ waste bins. The only condition of the jobs, of course, is that they would have to forsake all activism and organizing.
She turned them down of course. I say “of course,” but to most people, this would not have been an obvious choice. You could guarantee the welfare of your family. You could live in comfort. You would have access to policy wonks and decision makers, and perhaps be one yourself. There would be no more death threats. But for Berta, there could only be one answer.
She told me another story about how she and fellow activists confronted the foreign directors of an American-run global aid agency. They had set up a fancy office in Berta’s hometown. Armed guards protected the compound that included a fleet of imported SUVs. Berta and a group of protesters blockaded the office, indifferent to the threats of the guards. They wanted to know why the group, which used footage of poor Hondurans in their TV fundraising pitches, was spending most of its programming money on SUVs and giving out so little to the actual poor of Honduras. They wanted to know why local residents weren’t being consulted about how the aid programs were to be carried out. Just because they did not have money, Berta explained, didn’t mean that they didn’t know what they needed to improve their lives.
We talked about how she and other Lenca activists had joined with the other indigenous groups of Honduras, who together account for about 10 percent of the population, had staged coordinated demonstrations to protest large dam projects that would have wiped out their homelands. The groups simultaneously occupied the Copan archeological site, the top tourist attraction in the country, as well as camping out in front of the National Assembly. After several days of domestic and international pressure, the government negotiated with the protesters. The agreements were later abrogated, which later led to more protests. This was Berta’s daily reality.
She also told me how, during an international conference in Havana, she had been given the task of moderator, charged with keeping a close eye on time. One of the Cuban officials, however, went far over his allotted speaking limit and ignored her entreaties to stop. Determined to carry out her role as assigned, Berta took matters into her own hands and pulled the plug on the microphone. She gained instant fame in Cuba for being the only person to have ever found a way to make Fidel Castro stop talking.
She ignored the odds of success in favor of the rightness of her cause.
On a more personal level, I became privy to some of Berta’s more mundane struggles. She suffered from severe muscle tension and pain, exacerbated by the weight of her worries back home. She also had constant chest pain that I recognized as the same as my own chronic acid reflux. I shared some of my medicine with her and she later told me with amazement that this was the first relief she had felt in years. Rights Action began donating cases of the pills to her and helping her seek other medical support.
A clear theme emerged from her stories. Against the wealthy and powerful, she organized her community and stood her ground. Against the weapons of the military and police, she had her body, mind, voice, and force of will. She ignored the odds of success in favor of the rightness of her cause.
After almost two dozen speaking events in half as many towns, we ended up in Quebec City. There we met up with the co-directors of Rights Action, Grahame Russell and Annie Bird, as well as the leader of an environmental activist NGO based in Chiapas, Mexico, the sociologist Gustavo Castro Soto. Fifteen years later, Berta would die in Gustavo’s arms as he himself was shot and left for dead by Berta’s assassins.
The five of us wound up crashing in sleeping bags on the floor of a sympathetic Quebecois family. The Summit was not well received by many local residents. The fear of a repeat of the Seattle and DC protests of the previous years had led the Summit organizers to wall off the old city and turn the French Canadian capital into an occupied town. Some 20,000 activists from around the hemisphere streamed into the city, setting up an alternate “People’s Summit” complete with conferences, workshops, and declarations. We toured a few of the events, helped arrange for Berta and Gustavo to speak at a few, and just took in this odd moment where it seemed that the global tide of corporate-sponsored trade was finally on the defensive.
Prevented from directly confronting the central meeting places of the delegates by the barbed wire and over 5,000 riot police, protesters found creative ways to express themselves. A feminist collective decorated a section of fencing in the Saint-Jeane Baptiste neighborhood with bras, girdles, and protest signs (“Our Mother is not for sale,” read one bra). Dancing and drumming was a common sight. We wandered out and found a self-governing outdoor peace encampment under a bridge (a foreshadowing of the Occupy cities). I was tasked with drumming up press coverage for our motley band, and noticed two well-dressed men, one holding a camera and the other with a notebook. I asked if they wanted to interview a Honduran indigenous activist and a Mexican sociologist and environmentalist. They sensed that this might make a more interesting story than the scruffy campers they had been chatting with and Grahame deftly translated from Spanish to French.
We were a front page sensation.
The next morning, our hosts excitedly woke us up. The morning paper had just arrived, and we were a front page sensation. “What do the protesters want?” asked the headline, with the article letting Berta and Gustavo give their answers. Berta explained that there would be much greater numbers of Hondurans and other victims of global capitalism at the Summit if not for economic barriers and the control of local media by economic elites.
That afternoon and evening we left the conference and joined the protesters circling the perimeter of the Summit conference zone. Fearing a repeat of Seattle, local shops had shut their doors and boarded their windows. The protesters weren’t interested in smashing windows though. They wanted their voices heard and their presence felt. A few enterprising corner shops realized this and did a booming business in bottled water, vinegar, and lemon juice, the preferred home remedies to ward off the effects of tear gas.
The lines of police, decked out in full riot gear, gas masks, and body-sized shields, took a proactive approach, lobbing canisters of tear gas and spraying water cannons whenever more they saw a handful protesters gathering together. Reports came in that they fired off a can of tear gas every ten minutes throughout the three day Summit. Clouds of gas hovered over parts of the city. Anger among the city residents ran high at the police overreach as it became impossible to walk outdoors without eyes stinging on an otherwise clear day.
After one too many of these smoking cans was shot in our direction, I was moved to kick it away. I succeeded, but the winds changed and I was enveloped in a cloud of gas. Some protesters pulled me out and led me to a clearing where I slowly regained the ability to breath and see despite waves of tears. Berta squirted my eyes with a cleansing solution and gave me an approving smile for my foolhardy action. “Adelante compañero,” she said. “You’ll recover from this soon enough.” And then she added with a laugh, “At least it isn’t the stuff your government sells to Honduras. They add a chemical that makes us vomit.”
We were heartened to hear news reports that the police had dispersed so much tear gas that some of it was sucked back into the ventilation system of the buildings where the Summit was being held, forcing the delegates and officials to be evacuated into the streets.
I mostly lost touch with Berta over the following years, although I often saw her name when Honduras found its way into the international news cycle. When the military forced the oligarch turned leftist President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya onto an Air Force plan while he was wearing pajamas and sent him to Costa Rica, Berta emerged as the leader of the popular resistance to the de facto regime. With the behind the scenes maneuvering of Hillary Clinton, the United States refused to impose sanctions and force the coup leaders to allow Zelaya to return to finish out his term. In online interviews at the time, Berta clearly calls out the illegitimacy of the new regime, but refuses to be officially associated with any political party. “We are part of a social movement,” she says. “We are not interested in these political games.”
Turning back to the immediate concerns of her community, Berta led the charge against the Agua Zarca dam projects that were now revived by the Honduran company DESA with the support of the new post-coup regime, in partnership with the Chinese Synohydro corporation (the world’s largest dam builder) and with financial backing of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation. The dam construction (actually four cascading dams) would require changing the course of rivers that would leave most of the land the Lenca people depended on either flooded or deprived of irrigation and drinking water. With no openings in conventional political channels, Berta led protesters as they blocked roads and occupied construction sites.
The occupation lasted for over a year. Activists were threatened, attacked with machetes, arrested, and murdered. Berta was arrested after police planted a gun in her car and was forced into hiding until the charges were dropped. Authorities doctored records to falsely claim that the local residents had approved the dam. In one police raid in 2013, the police shot and killed Tomas Garcia, a fellow COPINH leader. Berta received multiple threats on her life, as well as warnings that she would be kidnapped and raped if she continued her activism. As COPINH’s anti-dam activism gained international awareness, the Chinese backers and the World Bank pulled out of the project, although the Honduran government and local elites vowed to continue the dam construction, which still enjoys the support of the German engineering company Voith Hydro.
In late 2015, Berta was honored with the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s most prestigious environmental award. I wondered what Berta would make of this, given her indifference to ceremony and empty platitudes. I imagined her calling out the attendees at the San Francisco award gala for their lack of concrete action and melting down a trophy into a more practical object. But after her murder, I watched Berta’s graceful acceptance speech and realized that she understood the power of such recognition for her life’s work. She was not being asked to stop her actions in exchange for the ears of the global elite, but rather was there to speak to them and raise the profile of her people’s causes. She accepted the award on behalf of all her fellow activists made martyrs, the rivers, and her mother.
Placing her own murder a few months later in the context of her indigenous worldview, she told the audience “The Lenca people are ancestral guardians of the rivers, in turn protected by the spirits of young girls, who teach us that giving our lives, in various ways, for the protection of the rivers, is giving our lives for the well-being of humanity and of this planet.”
She called out all the forces that were aligned in the destruction of nature, from rapacious global capitalism and racism to patriarchy, and urged the audience to act with urgency: “Let us wake up! Let us wake up, humanity! We’re out of time!”
I’m sure she saw the Goldman Prize as an opportunity to reach a larger global audience, increase the pressure on the dam backers, and provide a greater measure of protection to herself and her fellow activists, in the hope that they could continue their work without adding their names to the list of Honduras’ environmental martyrs.
But neither the threats nor the dam projects were halted. Berta could have fled to safety at any time. Unlike the thousands of youths from Honduras and other Central American countries who flee the regions violence and repression only to end up corralled in detention centers at the U.S. border, Berta had many well-placed friends and a well-documented history of persecution. She could have continued her fight from a comfortable office in any European or North American city. But of course, that was not Berta’s way. She did not want to die. She had four children, grandchildren, and lived near her mother. Her struggle was, as she put it, “for the emancipation” of her people and the preservation of the land that was a part of her. That love cost her life.
Given the political reality of Honduras, it is unlikely that Berta’s assassins, either the people who pulled the trigger or the ones who gave the order, will be brought to justice. The militarized Honduran police, which receives generous funding and training from the US government, has reportedly contaminated the crime scene, and treated Gustavo like a crime suspect instead of a surviving witness. He was only allowed to return to Mexico after an international outcry against his illegal detention. And as Berta would have told you, the forces behind her murder are not ones that can simply be put on trial or jailed. They are part of a global system that must be exposed and defeated.
I think back to that time in Quebec. The global political and financial elite surrounded themselves with armed guards and barbed wire to ensure that they did not hear the protests of the citizens who would live with their decrees and rules. But the tear gas they used to push back the demonstrators ended up choking the elites themselves. It’s not the easy path we have of clicking and liking our way to social change. We have to soak up gas and put our bodies on the line and be willing to make sacrifices to do what needs to be done. And when our compañeros become martyrs, we must carry on the struggle in their name.
“Wake up, humanity! We’re out of time!”