“Look at the mess we’ve got ourselves into just because we invited a gringo to eat some bananas.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Throughout the 20th century, particularly after the Second World War, the US government, often at the behest of local elites, militaries and multinational corporations, interfered in the internal affairs of most Latin American countries. This was especially true in the less developed economies of Central America, where whole nations were under the heel of companies like United Fruit for decades.
Such power had real consequences. In Guatemala, in the years after land reforming President Jacabo Arbenz’s 1954 removal from power, some 200,000 people were murdered or “disappeared”. Successive right-wing and military governments claimed that the casualties were the result of a war that had to be waged against the terrorism of left wing “radicals”. In the end, the majority of those murdered were poor campesinos and indigenous Mayan people.
While it might seem that “terrorism” is unique to our own time and emanates from the greater Middle East, this is a distortion of history. Throughout the Cold War (and long before), the charge was made against any group or person deemed to be on the left, from labor organizers to indigenous land rights activists to actual insurgent groups like the FMLN in El Salvador.
Of course, in the 21st century when you have tanks rolling through the cities of countries you are presumed to be friendly with, from a political angle the optics aren’t good. It can also create problems for allied countries with large business interests in such places. In Latin America, countries like Spain and Canada tend to be more risk averse when it comes to such publicity (although they usually go along quietly with such actions).
As a new wave of leftism and regional integration has progressed throughout Latin America in the current century, new methods have been needed to ensure that multinational corporations and local elites retain control over restive populations, agricultural land and natural resources alike. In a 24/7 news environment the use of security forces, if possible, must be minimized.
As Ted Snyder recently wrote in an investigative piece on what he calls a “silent coup” underway in Brazil, “Rather than tanks in the streets and grim-looking generals rounding up political opponents – today’s coups are more like ‘color revolutions’ used in Eastern Europe and the Mideast in which leftist, socialist or perceived anti-American governments were targeted with ‘soft power’ tactics, such as economic dislocation, sophisticated propaganda, and political disorder often financed by ‘pro-democracy’ non-governmental organizations (or NGOs).”
A Culture of Impunity: The Murder of Berta Caceres
On March 3rd, at around 1 AM, Gustavo Castro, a Mexican environmental activist, awoke to gun shot wounds as he slept in the house of his friend Berta Caceres in La Esperanza, Honduras. He’d been hit twice but managed to play dead until the two gunmen fled the scene in a white pickup truck.
Caceres was not so lucky. The recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, a leader of the indigenous COPINH (Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras) movement and champion of the indigenous Lenca people, died from her wounds at the scene.
In a place like Honduras, where a tiny elite owns most of the land and covets what’s left, even large scale projects like the Agua Zarca Dam, which Berta Caceres fought so hard against, have the potential to become personal. Although the project came to involve powerful transnational organizations like the IMF and foreign companies like Chinese giant Sinohydro and Dutch company FMO (both have since dropped out of the project), the initial money was put up by local business interests.
Augustina Flores, the activist’s sister, was interviewed shortly after her murder, and shared her suspicions regarding one of the companies behind the project, “…in November, Caceres told her she was being ‘seriously harassed’ by three local politicians who she believed were acting the behest of Desarrollos Energeticos, SA (DESA), the private energy company behind the Agua Zarca dam”.
Three brothers from one powerful family, Jose Eduardo, Jacabo and Pedro Atala Zablah are all on the board of directors of DESA; Jacabo also holds the position of Director of Honduran Operations for the Banco de Centroamerica. While it’s highly unlikely that such men would ever dirty their hands with the murder of an activist, they could certainly bring pressure to bear on their own representatives in the area, local politicians and security forces who would decide how best to take care of the problem.
And it isn’t as if Caceres is the only activist murdered in Honduras. On March 15th, Nelson Garcia, another activist with COPINH was killed “when he helped a group of poor families resist a land grab in the small town of Rio Lindo.” In fact, at least 109 environmental activists were murdered in the country between 2010 and 2015, along with many more journalists, union organizers and LGBTQ activists.
Which brings us to another recent figure in Honduras whose story, while certainly less tragic, points to the reason why the culture of impunity has only gotten worse in recent years.
A Coup is Still a Coup
By most accounts former President Manuel Zelaya was no fire breathing radical, he was the leader of the one of the country’s oldest political parties, the Liberals, but his attempts at land reform, like those of Arbenz in Guatemala long before, are rumored to have angered wealthy interests like the Atala family and the recently deceased palm oil king, Miguel Facusse.
Zelaya was taken from his bed at gunpoint and put on a plane to Costa Rica on June 28th, 2009. He was kept in exile while the coup government, led by former Speaker of the Congress, Roberto Michelatti, ran out the clock to a new election. During the ensuing outcry, the country was temporarily banned from regional organizations including the OAS (Organization of American States).
The US State Department’s role in this is important because the person in charge at the time of the coup is now running for President. As reported by the Huffington Post, the newly released US paperback version of Hillary Clinton’s book “Hard Choices” no longer contains the section on the former Secretary’s reaction to the removal of Manuel Zelaya. While Bernie Sanders was grilled at the debate in Miami for comments made about Cuba and Nicaragua more than 30 years ago, Clinton has yet to be asked about the coup in Honduras under her watch.
Before her death, Berta Caceres said that the former Secretary of State should bear some of the responsibility for the worsening conditions in Honduras, “The same Hillary Clinton, in her book… practically said what was was going to happen in Honduras. This demonstrates the meddling of the North Americans in our country.”
Caceres was referring to Clinton’s comments from the now excised portion of the book, where she wrote that at the time of Zelaya’s removal she spoke to her counterparts throughout the region and, “We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.” Not exactly a call for his immediate return or for the suspension of aid that should follow such a coup under US law, more likely a way to ensure an “orderly transition” to a new president. A hard choice, indeed.
Oddly, the stated reason for Zelaya’s ouster was his call “for a poll on a non-binding national referendum to draft a new constitution, drawing the ire of the military, the Supreme Court and the opposition, which alleged that Zelaya wanted to end the term limits that prevented him from running again.” The opposition was outraged that Zelaya might make changes allowing for more than one term in office for the country’s chief executive. It’s interesting that they are not at all scandalized by the current President, Juan Orlando Hernandez of the right-wing National Party, pushing for this exact change and having it approved by the country’s Supreme Court.
Those most hurt by the control that elites have over Honduras and other Central American nations are the poverty stricken majority of their citizens, some of whom struggle to find food to eat. As Alexander Main of the Center for Economic and Policy Research recently put it, “In the years following the coup, economic growth has stalled, while poverty and income inequality have risen significantly. Violence has spiraled out of control. Meanwhile, the US government has increased military assistance to Honduras, despite alarming reports of killings and human rights abuses by increasingly militarized Honduran security forces.” ()
In a just world, those in government, especially in Canada and the US, who tacitly supported the forces behind the Honduran coup would pay at least a political price for helping to set the country back years, if not decades.