Just one year ago, I had a joyous reunion in San Francisco with a high school classmate from my native Honduras. Social justice campaigner Berta Caceres came to the Bay Area to receive the prestigious Golden Environmental Prize for her leadership among indigenous people opposed to mining and the construction of hydro-electric dams that would destroy their communities.
Unfortunately, in a time when Honduras has grown ever more violent and repressive since its 2009 military coup, Berta’s continued activism and global recognition put a bullseye on her back. On March 3 of this year, she was killed by gunmen in her hometown of La Esperanza, not far from where I grew up before I emigrated to the United States two decades ago.
This tragedy added Berta’s name to the long list of recent Honduran political martyrs—students, teachers, journalists, lawyers, LGBT community members, labor and peasant organizers, and even top civilian investigators of drug trafficking and corruption. More than 100 environmental campaigners have been killed in the last five years. This carnage, along with escalating gang violence, has led many Hondurans to flee the country, often arriving in the United States as unaccompanied minors or mothers with small children.
The world learned recently that four people have been arrested and charged with Berta’s assassination. The suspects include a retired military officer, an army major, and two men with close ties to Desarrollos Energeticos S.A. (DESA), the controversial dam builder. As The New York Times reported, Berta’s family and friends “questioned whether the investigation would ultimately lead to those who planned and ordered the killing.”
Flush with tens of millions of our tax dollars for “security assistance,” the Honduran army and national police have acted with impunity since U.S.-trained generals overthrew Manuel Zelaya, the elected president of Honduras, seven years ago. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton toed the White House line that this wasn’t really a “military coup” worthy of near unanimous condemnation by the Organization of American States. The United States was more concerned about maintaining its own military presence in Honduras than objecting to local human rights abuses that have increased ever since.
Today, candidate Clinton cites her foreign policy experience and describes her run for the presidency as a “campaign for human rights.” Yet, unlike her rival for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton believes that youthful refugees from violence in Honduras “should be sent back” rather than welcomed and assisted on this side of the border. Today, many still face deportation while languishing in U.S. detention facilities under poor conditions and without proper legal representation (which even Clinton agrees they should have).
As Democrats in California begin to cast their primary ballot now and on June 7, it’s particularly important that voters of Central American descent consider such differences between the candidates. We have no indication yet that Clinton favors suspending U.S. funding of the Honduran military and police until the Caceres case and other human rights abuses are addressed—a position urged by the San Francisco Labor Council and many other groups.
Instead, Clinton has remained silent on this subject, just as she failed to speak out and condemn the military take-over in 2009 that set in motion the cycle of resistance and repression that claimed the life of my friend Berta and so many others.
As our labor council noted in March, “[Berta’s] murder was a tremendous loss for Honduras, the region, and all those working for a more just and sustainable world.” Justice for Hondurans, trapped in or attempting to flee the most violent country in the world without a civil war, requires national leaders in the United States whose human rights rhetoric is matched by their actions.
Instead, Hillary Clinton has simply defended her stance on regime change in Honduras, claiming that she “managed a very difficult situation” in a way that was “better for the Honduran people.” My friend Berta did not agree, nor do the many courageous Hondurans following in her footsteps who need all the solidarity they can get from the good people of my adopted country.