“Today it is a crime to defend human rights”. Interview with indigenous leader Bertha Cáceres

Orsetta Bellani, Latinamerica Press (Photo: O.B.)

Eighty percent of crimes go unpunished in Honduras, yet social movements there are criminalized and prosecuted. In the Lenca peoples’ fight against hydroelectric power firm Agua Zarca, on the grounds the company is privatizing rivers, water, land and energy, three members of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) are accused of serious offenses: Tomás Gómez, Aureliano Molina and Bertha Cáceres, the organization’s general coordinator. Latinamerica Press correspondent Orsetta Bellani interviewed Cáceres on the eve of the country’s presidential elections Nov. 24, which were ultimately won by right-wing candidate Juan Orlando Hernández.

What are you accused of, and how is the trial progressing?
Legal persecution is only one form of political persecution against COPINH, and it’s a strategy coming from presidential level. We are conscious that in our struggle, which is peaceful but determined, we are going up against major and influential power (players). In one of the two cases against me—illegal weapons possession that threatened the internal security of the State of Honduras—the prosecution and Public Ministry have offered a conciliatory hearing. First, they proposed to end the persecution against me if I compensated the State [for the allegations of threatening internal security]  and asked for forgiveness, taking responsibility for the weapon being mine, which is obviously not something I would do; I didn’t commit any crime and I have no reason to conciliate. [She was arrested May 24 on these charges, however due to insufficient evidence she was released after 21 days and given an alternative to jail.]
Later, under pressure from the defense, social movements, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International and thousands of manifestations of solidarity that have denounced this injustice across the world, [the State] offered for me to compensate for the trial expenses, since [the State] was my victim. I also rejected this. Right now the probability is that at the next hearing, the trial will continue without any regard for conciliation.
The other case, in which the company is accusing us of continuing damages, coercion, and usurpation, in September I was ordered to be jail and a preliminary hearing is set for February 11, 2014. [In this case, there is a warrant for Cáceres’ arrest; she was declared herself a victim of political persecution.] A [legal] reform this year was approved stating that a person serving time through a method alternative to prison time—as in the first case, when they barred her from leaving the country, and ordered her to check in every two weeks—cannot benefit from a similar alternative in a different case. When I was accused of arms possession in May 2013, this law wasn’t in effect, but it was made retroactive and that is illegal, there is no such thing as a retroactive law in Honduras.

The accusations follow COPINH’s public opposition to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project in the community of Río Blanco (Intibucá department). Why is this community’s fight so important to Honduras?
Years ago, COPINH’s communities in Río Blanco took on the battle to defend the land and the Gualcarque River, which is a sacred river for the Lenca people. In April 2013, we managed to oust Sinohydro/Desa, one of the largest dam builders in the world. Ours is an exercise in autonomy and territorial control. The company got the concession illegally in 2010 and through its ties to the Army had really pressured the communities, not only harassing them but also offering bribes and trying to manipulate the residents. This demonstrates that multinational corporations don’t need political intermediaries, but rather they can go repress communities [on their own]. Wherever there are plans for mining or hydroelectric projects, there are plans for militarization.
The struggle of Río Blanco sets a bad precedent for big business, because it proved possible rolling back a project of domination and privatization and shows that it is possible to get rid of an invasive multinational company —and this is part of the Lenca people’s legitimate struggle.

The persecution against you seems to be taking place in a climate of criminalization of social protest throughout the country.
The state has built repressive structures that are well-funded —including by the Inter-American Development Bank under the Regional Security Plan for Central America. This is concerning to social activists, since repression is going to intensify. Today it is a crime to defend human rights. Congress and the oligarchy have pushed for the creation of a Military Police that is working as a paramilitary organization directed against social movements. They aren’t working alone, these police and intelligence apparatuses; there are also undercover operations and private security agencies, which are just another type of army that protects the interests of big business. They work alongside the Police and the Army, and doubles the number of agents. During elections week the military and police presence increased, and included reservists. This is not a climate that fosters the development of democratic elections.

In the presidential elections tomorrow, the candidate for the Libre (Freedom and Refoundation) Party is Xiomara Castro, wife of former president Manuel Zelaya. She mobilized against the 2009 coup that ousted him. Castro promises a life in Honduras with 21st century socialism and wants to break a 100-year-old bipartisanship in the country. What do you make of her?  
The Honduran people are thirsty for profound changes, we have had a process of awareness and training, especially in the streets, where we have learned more than anywhere else. I think it would be important for Libre to win. In Honduras there is a need for another political party to take over the government. It wouldn’t change things profoundly but it would represent a government different from what we’ve had under an ultra-right fascist (ruling party).

Article published by Latinamerica Press on 19.12.2013: http://www.lapress.org/articles.asp?art=6937

Versión en español: http://www.sobreamericalatina.com/?p=663

Versione in italiano: http://www.sobreamericalatina.com/?p=737#more-737