Berta Caceres, a indigenous environmental activist, who was murdered in Honduras. (photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)
An interview with Beverly Bell, founder of Other Worlds
‘ve heard it said more than once, since the close-range murder of indigenous leader Berta Cáceres, that it’s time for Hillary Clinton to apologize to the people of Honduras for supporting and sustaining an anti-democratic process that has turned that country into the murder capital of the world. Meanwhile, as Clinton campaigns, touting her expansive foreign policy record, the violence in Honduras continues unabated.
In the following interview with Beverly Bell, founder of Other Worlds and a close friend and associate of the murdered Cáceres, we learn that anyone on the ground in Honduras who opposes the 10-plus US military bases there, and who is standing against turning the country into one big free-trade zone, is putting himself in grave danger. That point was made very clear with the murder of Nelson Garcia, a second environmental leader from the same organization as Cáceres.
Bell herself, who has been in Honduras for the last two weeks, says she was inches away from being killed by machete during an anti-government protest last Friday in Honduras, when her potential killers realized she was an American and lowered their machetes. “I went to get a bottle of water and I somehow ended up on the wrong side of enemy lines,” Bell said. “Everything shifted very fast, and two different men within moments came up to me, machetes raised sharply over my head, just started to bring them down, and then I guess seeing that I was a gringa, thought better of it and stopped.”
Dennis Bernstein: Good to hear your voice, Bev … Where exactly are you?
Beverly Bell: I’m speaking with you, Dennis, from the town of La Esperanza, in Honduras. La Esperanza is where Berta Cáceres, the global movement leader who was slain on March 2nd of this year, was born, where she lived, and where she died. It is also the headquarters of the organization that she founded, The Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). I am here because my organization, Other Worlds, and the Center for Economic Justice that I ran prior to that, have worked closely with Berta, and with COPINH, for 18 years now, in quest of sovereignty and rights for indigenous peoples of Honduras and elsewhere. We have been working for the protection of their lands and waters, their rights to control those riches of nature, and also for a very profound global transformation of economics, politics, and society.
DB: When did you arrive there, and why did you decide to go down at this time?
Bell: I came down here a week ago at the request of COPINH to help out because they lost their leader, Berta Cáceres, who not only was a moral and political powerhouse, but also was like a 100-woman work operation. So the organization is in need of a lot of support, mainly to mobilize international people to get at the root cause of their problems, many of which lie with an unelected and dictatorial government here with the backing of the U.S. military – and also the backing of international institutions, including even possibly U.S.A.I.D. in dams and other operations that are taking place on Lenka land here. COPINH is an organization of Lenka indigenous people. But the most immediate reason for my arriving when I did was to attend a magnificent international gathering called the Convergence of the Berta Viva People, and that is the peoples of the world, indigenous and otherwise, who identify so profoundly with this extraordinary leader. There were approximately 1,500 people from 22 nations at this 3-day gathering.
DB: Two other things that relate to the murder of Berta unfolded before you arrived. One is that her friend, the eyewitness to the murder, was by grace and a lot of organizing gotten out of the country, escaping the death squads in Honduras, and in the same context, there was another murder.
Bell: That’s right. Gustavo Castro is to the environment and its defense, in Mexico, what Berta Cáceres was, and I will say is, even though she is dead in the body. And he was at her home the night of her murder. He said that the hit men thought that she was alone, and were very surprised to see him. They did shoot him twice. One of the bullets went very, very close to his skull, but fortunately hit his ear instead. The other hit his hand. He then went through the most horrific experience of 26 days of either being directly held by the Honduran government, supposedly for questioning, but through the entire days he was horribly psychologically tortured, and to some degree physically tortured. And then the remainder of the time he was in the Mexican Embassy, he being a Mexican citizen, for his own protection, because the Honduran government refused to allow him to leave.
However, his departure, and the fact that he is now back in Mexico, is a rare moment when people united actually get to see immediate results of our work. And what happened is that people around the world who know Gustavo or who care about the struggle, mobilized, and we got responses from 62 congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives, denouncing this to Secretary of State Kerry, and asking him to cut military aid. We got the Vatican to pronounce itself against what was happening to Gustavo. There were calls from everybody, from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and so many other well-known people. And in Latin America alone, over 100,000 people sent letters calling for Gustavo’s release.
So he is back home. However, I am sorry to say that he is not at all safe because a hit man could easily be dispatched from Honduras, and go into Mexico. And we are at a moment when this sort of thing is happening quite regularly here in Honduras. Gustavo is, unfortunately, extremely inconvenient to the Honduran government and to the dam company that Berta and her group had been opposing, who we are quite sure paid the hit men who killed her.
And incidentally I was with Berta’s brother, also named Gustavo, a couple of days ago, and he said that two weeks before her death, Berta called him and said that they had already contracted and paid for the death squads who were to shoot her. This was a long anticipated event.
DB: The name of the company.
Bell: The company is DESA, which means “energy development” in Spanish. It claims to be a Honduran company – however, it is underwritten by funds from the Dutch Development Bank, the Finnish Development Bank, and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, which basically the U.S. runs. In the past it was also underwritten by the World Bank, although very strong pressure from the indigenous organization here, COPINH, caused the World Bank to pull out, and it also caused the largest dam company in the world, Sinohydro, which is owned by the Chinese government, to pull out.
And this makes me think all of a sudden of a wonderful expression I once heard, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never spent the night in bed with a mosquito.” So these unarmed and under-resourced people are indigenous folks, without so much as a cell phone, but they were actually able to get the World Bank and the largest dam company in the world to stop. But the dam itself and the company behind it continue under construction.
DB: What about the second murder? Please remind us what the situation is there.
Bell: Yeah. So, one might think that all of the condemnation that has been brought down on the Honduran government’s head after it killed Berta Cáceres, its best-known international figure, would have stopped it. But that is not the case. Since her death the government has attacked I think something like eight other COPINH members, arresting them, beating them, or threatening them. And it did kill Nelson Garcia, who is another of the leaders of COPINH, The Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, which Berta Cáceres started at the ripe age of 20 years old.
Nelson was coming back from helping some people whose land were being illegally seized by the military, and so the government, in a very clear message to all Hondurans who attempt to stand up and speak out and fight back, killed him as well. Then this past Friday, April 15th, numerous other people came quite close to losing their lives, including me. Yes, the government is continuing on its path.
DB: What happened to you? And where did the danger come from, in terms of the work you’re doing on the ground now.
Bell: Well, I wasn’t targeted, in my case, I’m sure. Although it was targeting in the case of some of the others who were attacked. But the third day of this international gathering of people from all over Europe and the Americas, to honor the life of Berta and to recommit to her struggle, involved a trip to the site of the dam construction, which was the final reason for which the infuriated Honduran government and the dam company killed her, after so many threats on her life for so many years. This was the final straw for them, that she and COPINH had been able to stop construction of the dam for about a year and a half.
So the dam company had actually moved from the village of Rio Blanco, which is organized as a COPINH Lenka indigenous community, which had stopped the construction to the other side of the river, the northern edge of the river where there is a town of people who are not organized, who do not identify as indigenous. Although, of course, they are all the same people.
And so now the dam construction is continuing on the northern bank of the river. So there was a delegation of many hundreds of us, no one knows for sure, maybe 500 who went to that village and were to make the trek down, way down the dirt road to the river itself, both to hold a ceremony, given by Mayan Guatemalan healers, and also to take a swim in the sacred river.
Well, what happened … first we were stopped several times along the way by police, but the COPINH members – whose fierceness I could never overstate, it’s extraordinary, their bravery – got out of the vehicles, and basically harassed the police until they let us go. But when we got to the village where we were to – on foot after we had gotten out of the buses – where we were to go to the river, there were about 20 paid thugs. They were paid by the company. Some of them were known hit men, who had threatened Berta and others in prior times. And they were waving machetes and shrieking like crazy people, shouting horrible racist remarks, and holding rocks and some of them holding guns. And they even said, one of the chants was, “We killed the fly, and yet her plague remains,” referring to the beautiful Berta Cáceres
And they, in turn, were protected by about the same number, about 20 police who held them back, clearly stood there, wanted nothing to do with us. So we went down to the river anyway, and did what we came to do, and as we were turning these thugs, these goons, by now many of whom were quite drunk, were let loose by the police. The police just stepped aside and then watched, without any intervention, as the goons started attacking people with machetes, and rocks, and sticks.
And there were between 8 and 10 people wounded, none very seriously. However, there was one man who almost lost his hand. One of these goons was bringing his machete down on the man’s arm when someone else, one of us, one of our team, grabbed a machete away from him.
And then in my case, two different men … I went to get a bottle of water and I somehow ended up on the wrong side of enemy lines. Everything shifted very fast, and two different men within moments came up to me machetes, raised them sharply over my head, just started to bring them down, and then I guess seeing that I was a gringa, thought better of it and stopped.
So it was horrible, and then the police continued harassing people. And in fact they themselves got more violent, and really jumped into the action, and started physically pushing us back toward the buses. Some of the police got in their vehicles and were pushing, literally, almost literally pushing some of the walkers who were retreating at that point, to our vehicles, with their trucks. If someone had tripped the police car could have easily run over that person. Shouting at us, cursing at us, and waving their rifles at us.
DB: Wow. We have repeated announcements from the U.S. government, official announcements from the State Department that they are cooperating with what the government is doing. Is this about right? Is there any response to this, what happened in this attack by these thugs? You say the police let them go. What is the government thinking? What can we think about the government’s policy?
Bell: Well, the Honduran government is very much a part of this. And they have worked hand in hand with the paid death squads of this dam company, DESA. Which, again, has been the target of opposition of this wonderful, radical, militant, passionate, committed, justice minded, indigenous group, COPINH.
The government, as you mentioned Dennis, is a completely illegitimate government. There was a coup, your listeners may know, in 2009 that the U.S. was very behind. Hillary Clinton herself has taken pride, and publicly bragged at having consolidated it. As we have spoken about before on this show, in her last book, Hard Choices, she even said that, speaking of the deposed president, Manuel Zelaya, she said, “We rendered Zelaya moot.” Which is an extraordinary statement about a sovereign government of another country.
But, of course, Honduras is not sovereign. It has been the main U.S. client state for the whole region of Central America ever since it was used as a base for the contra, who were, of course, fighting against the revolutionary Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and also as a base for death squads used in Guatemala. And now, I have clearer figures on the number of Honduran military bases that the U.S. is behind. The U.S. says it has zero military bases. But I consulted with some human rights observers who have been here for years and the U.S. is known to be involved in 12 to 13 military bases in this country, which is basically the size of Virginia.
So after the coup in 2009, there was then a false election later that year, and another false election in 2013, which I believe that only the U.S. and Canadian governments certified as legitimate, where the U.S. basically imposed its puppets, so though it is not widely recognized as such in the U.S., your listeners and everybody needs to know that this is a completely illegitimate government here to prop up the U.S. military presence, again that’s used all over Central America. And also Canadian investments in mines, which is happening here to an extraordinary degree, that extraction.
DB: Just to have you reiterate: How would you characterize the things that happen in Honduras in terms of the Clinton legacy as Secretary of State? Because that is touted as one of her strongest strengths.
Bell: Yes, well I also work in Haiti, and she has played a very similar role in Haiti with disaster capitalism. And, here, not only did she help to put in this horrendous government that is fully neo-liberal and that has run or that has operated under the explicit banner of “Honduras is open for business,” and incidentally in Haiti the exact same expression, “Haiti is open for business.” But English is used, in both cases, in a non-English speaking country. But Hillary Clinton here is very much seen as the person who facilitated for the U.S. government this ongoing regime of a government that has the worst human rights record in the hemisphere, and that has presided over the nation that has the highest level of killing of environmental activists, according to the research of the group Global Witness. And Berta Cáceres, a few months before her death, singled out Hillary Clinton as having the blood on her hands of having destroyed that democracy, and then through the coup, as having responsibility for so many people who have been killed since. Hundreds and hundreds of environmental defenders have killed since.
DB: Finally, you’re there. There are days of resistance, people are still fighting, putting their lives on the line, as you have. And you’re there to witness that and to support that. What are the people seeing next? What do you see as the plan? Do you see, given this extraordinary amount of intimidation, just what you faced this week, do you see a slowing down? A sense by the people, that the people are tired and frightened?
Bell: On the contrary, Dennis. People here are so angry at Berta’s murder, and they are not going to stop. And those who have taken up the leadership behind her know that they walk with their coffins under their arm, but nobody cares about that. People are working hard for justice, and that is their single determination. They do have a very strong call for us in the U.S. We have a unique opportunity to impact what is happening in Honduras by the grossly applied power that our government has over what happens in this country.
The demands are for the U.S. to cut all security assistance to Honduras, and also to pressure the U.S. government to work with, well, the Central American Bank for economic integration, and others whose finances the U.S. does have influence over, and to stop the dam on this sacred river for which Berta died, and four other members of COPINH died. So I hope that all of your listeners will get in touch with their Congress people, will get in touch with their senators, even if they have already, and will again ask for all security assistance to Honduras be cut, and that the U.S. work to disengage itself from any capital that is involved in this dam.