In an environment where everyone knows but no one speaks, volume is a measure of courage.
Berta Cáceres had a loud voice, and even louder actions.
The all too familiar arc of prominent activists in Central America sadly mirrors that of Icarus; too much ambition, or worse, success, in making your society a better one will likely result in the proverbial sun cutting short your journey.
Since founding COPINH (Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations) 23 years ago, Ms. Cáceres had mobilized communities against powerful state and multinational interests that would re-appropriate their land and resources for profit. Recently a target of her activism has been the planned construction of a hydroelectric dam which would restrict water to and severely damage rural communities whose approval, of course, was not sought in the development of the dam plans. Since legal channels aren’t a viable option, their activism usually entailed physical presence, consisting of, among other things, roadblocks and protests at the sites themselves, which in turn prompted military as well as private security forces to react, resulting in a large number of accusations against them. Her work made her a hero internationally, and won her the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, but it also put a target on her back.
Growing up and seeing the state my country was in, I remember wondering if anyone was actually trying to do anything about it. The more I researched activism in Honduras, the more Berta Cáceres’ name kept popping up, on issues ranging from feminism, to environmental rights, to LGBQ rights to indigenous rights. She, along with a small number of others, always stood out for speaking truth to power despite the avalanche of intimidation and threats they drown under.
Last month, gunmen entered her home in the night and followed through on the many threats to her life. Gustavo Castro Soto, an activist who heads an affiliated organization based in Mexico, as well as a friend of Caceres, was present when gunmen murdered her and was shot twice himself, only surviving the attack by playing dead. Less than two weeks later, another member of COPINH, Nelson García, was also shot and killed on his way home following the forced eviction of an indigenous Lenca community.
Though Cáceres’ assassination sent shockwaves through Honduran society and prompted a declaration from President Juan Orlando Hernández vowing to do all that is necessary to investigate it, precedent doesn’t inspire confidence. These are the same authorities who had initially attributed the home invasion and subsequent killing of an activist – whose life had been threatened to such an extent that the government itself assigned her protection – to a robbery.
Due to his status as the sole witness to her murder, Mr. Castro Soto was prevented from leaving the country back to his native Mexico following the attempt on his life. This was in spite of a treaty between the two countries which would allow him to continue cooperation with the investigation from Mexico, as well as campaigns by multiple rights organizations. Before his eventual return to his home country, Mr. Castro Soto had sought refuge in the Mexican embassy in Tegucigalpa. His fear of staying in Honduras, particularly after being denied exit, was not at all unreasonable; campaigns of violence and intimidation towards activist organizations and their members, not excluding frequent allegations against government forces, has ranked Honduras the deadliest, relative to its size, country for environmental activists. In nominal terms, this translates to 109 activists reported killed between 2010 and 2015 alone, and we can reasonably assume that there have been more that haven’t been reported. Ms. Cáceres had previously told Al Jazeera that the army had an assassination list of “18 wanted human rights fighters with [her] name at the top”.
The political atmosphere has been absolutely contemptuous of anything that could threaten the veil of secrecy.
For this reason, journalism in Honduras ostensibly lacks the courage to pursue stories that would significantly impact power. Fear of retaliation has generally prevented the media from graduating from sensationalism to substance; every day there are new headlines of homicides committed around the country (most with no expectation of a real investigation, let alone justice), but seldom will a journalist be brave enough to venture too far down a road that would hurt the wrong person’s wallet.
In theory, investigations into power and influence in Honduras shouldn’t be too difficult, given how it is essentially an oligarchy largely controlled by small number powerful families; the large players in the economic and political space, as well as their major business interests, are well relatively known even to the regular public, let alone journalists.
As it happens, these same oligarchs own most of the major publications as well. Out of 180 countries listed on the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, Honduras ranks 132nd.
I used to believe that the lack of will was a product of laziness and a money-grubbing, tabloid-like “if it bleeds it leads” ethos, but the fact is that journalists are simply not allowed to go any further than that day’s carnage. More than 30 journalists have been assassinated in Honduras since the U.S backed coup in 2009, after which there were severe clampdowns on human and civil rights by the de facto government, especially on rights to expression and a free press. Today not only does the government actively suppress them, but it barely bothers to pretend it’s protecting them; 60 percent of the journalists killed had reported receiving death threats, and 80 percent of threats have not even been subject to investigation. The life of dedicated activists in Honduras was perhaps best crystallized by Berta herself, “They follow me. They threaten to kill me, to kidnap me, they threaten my family. That is what we face.”
On top of the fear for one’s safety, the government’s aggressive use of libel laws make even reporting on allegations of misconduct a risky venture for someone working at a paper (as this would provoke hatred towards government officials). President Hernández has also brought in legislation regulating the reporting on the internal workings of government agencies, and justified it by citing the threat to public peace posed by any potential revelations. Essentially, you’re not allowed to know what goes on because if you did you would get angry and act out, and that’s a just hassle that trumps the need for transparency.
Honduras finds itself in a catch-22; it needs a government that allows journalism and activism to function unimpeded, but in order to get one, journalism and activism would need to function unimpeded. At the risk of sounding cynical, I see no clear internal solution to this. Many of our problems are not exclusively ours, but regional, such as drug trafficking (largely a result of the U.S’ War on Drugs) and gangs, and there is not enough international pressure on our leaders to do anything substantial about them. Ornamental policies that may be aesthetically pleasing but don’t tackle the source of problems have become popular; “A soldier on every corner” is President Hernández’s solution to homicide.
Despite its immense natural beauty, humble people, and in my opinion the best food in the world, the thing Honduras is most associated with in the rest of the world is its homicide statistics. Scrolling down some headlines a few months ago, I found myself in a grotesque state of relief when I saw that the Venezuelan capital of Caracas had displaced San Pedro Sula, my own city of birth, as the city with the highest homicide rate on the planet. Whatever smile I wore was short lived, and swiftly followed by a profoundly hollow feeling. What a depressing a state of affairs it is when seeing one’s country go from having the first to having the second most homicidal city in the world can, at first glance and at a purely visceral level, deceptively give a momentary sense of progress.
Political discourse is deeply polarized; an attack on the opposing party is considered a sufficient defense against an attack on one’s own, and the mirrors that allow people to criticize their own beliefs seem to be few and far between. Basic elements of democracy like the separation of powers are a bad joke; power has been consolidated by the executive, and Supreme Court justices have been summarily removed for their opposing positions on certain cases. Elections, even if one somehow manages to look past the issues of vote manipulation, are also farcical; campaign ads generally consist of attacks on the opposition, shameless footage of candidates handing out food in poor communities, and catchy jingles. The future of a society is marketed the same way Corn Flakes are. Honduras, I’m sad to say, is not in a position to fix itself on its own through civic means.
It is the view of many Hondurans that our problems are our own, and that we should project only what is good about our country when engaging the outside world. Given what the world sees our nation as, I don’t blame them. We really do have a gorgeous place carved out for ourselves, but we need to acknowledge that we have problems bigger than ourselves and ignoring them with the rest of the world is counterproductive. The truth is we need help, we need a deus ex machina, we need the assistance of the international community and global activist organizations to complement internal efforts. External help is not without recent successful precedent; an OAS (Organization of American States) commission looked into corruption allegations in Guatemala which resulted in the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina, and there has been heavy lobbying for such a commission to be established in Honduras in the aftermath of revelations into the government-linked sacking of the national social security fund. It took the U.S Treasury Department to bring down one of Honduras’ largest banks for money laundering, and it took the U.S Justice Department to bring down our former vice-president on FIFA-related corruption charges. Granted, law enforcement cooperation with the Americans is part of what gives President Hernández a free pass from them on human rights issues, but it is evident that without some external force, nothing of value gets done.
Every now and then there is reason to feel slightly hopeful, at least. OAS announced the establishment of an ad hoc commission tasked to investigate Berta Cáceres’ killing. Unfortunately its success will depend largely on the willingness of the Honduran authorities to cooperate, but one can be cautiously optimistic.
Maybe this time the hope isn’t false.