Berta Cáceres in her own words

Much of what has been written about Lenca/Honduran activist Berta Cáceres has focused on her identifications as an Indigenous woman and as an environmentalist. While neither is false, those two facts alone paint an anemic picture of Berta’s militancy, and that of COPINH (the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras). While she strategically organized alongside her fellow Lencas and other feminists, her struggle was not rooted in identity per se, but in her analysis of the legacies of colonial and capitalist violence. 

“This whole project of domination has been consolidated in Honduras,” she said, clarifying that “the concept of power created from within capitalism…is very patriarchal and racist in its form of domination.” 

On March 27, 2015, Honduran sociologist Asís Castellanos interviewed Berta at a mall in Tegucigalpa. The two spoke a month prior to her famous Goldman Prize acceptance speech in which she proclaimed: “Wake up, humanity! There is no more time.” Their meeting came a little less than a year before Berta was murdered in her home by military hitmen in the pay of powerful local interests with connections to international financial institutions.

Berta Cáceres, photo provided by Silvio Carrillo and used with permission of COPINH.

The 2015 interview questions were pre-determined, as on this occasion Castellanos was working as a research assistant to a professor who required the data for study on “Social Movements and Democracy in Honduras.” He faithfully kept to script, with results that, years later upon transcribing and translating the interview—and knowing Berta as we did—we found hilarious. 

One by one, Berta brilliantly dismantles each question, demonstrating the flaws in its underlying assumptions. In her responses, she turns the questions around, reframes them, and proposes powerful, coherent revolutionary alternatives. When the fixed follow-up questions fail entirely to acknowledge her masterful exposure of the vapid U.S.-friendly “democratization” logics that frame the entire interview, Berta patiently answers each one, time and again demonstrating that his questions would produce nothing but pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist results, if answered on their own terms. 

In this interview, Berta instead presents ideas that are anathema to the interview’s framework: ideas like decisive democracy, in which groups engaged in democratic processes have full sovereign power to decide what happens in their territories and communities, in contrast to electoral or other less sincere performances of democracy that permit politicians, corporations and international lending institutions to check off the box requiring “consultation” before moving forward as planned with harmful projects.

The ongoing logics of the liberal North (despite recent powerful counter-examples of the Standing Rock protests and #ShutDownCanada movements, to name just a couple), tend to preclude the possibility of Indigenous people being revolutionary, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist scholar-activists and powerful leaders of diverse movements. Instead, Indigenous people are often limited in the liberal (white) left imaginary to identity-based and ecological advocacy. 

Berta refused to be bound by these logics, rather she was driven by the conviction that the most effective leadership cannot be bound up in an individual or her ego, but rather must be horizontal. “I don’t share [that] understanding of the concept of democracy… For us what is important is respect for human dignity, the right to happiness for collectivities. Democracy needs to be exercised as a horizontal power, built by the people, and defined by their participation not just in terms of their numbers but rather through their actual participation. It should be decisive, and I think it has a lot to do with which concept of power we have in mind when we speak of democracy,” she said during the 2015 interview.

Berta’s close relationships with Zapatista organizers and anti-hierarchical Indigenous movements throughout the Americas, as well as her collaborations with non-Indigenous-identified anarchist-leaning organizers were mutually beneficial and constitutive. Though her leadership, revolutionary clarity and vision were undeniable (as her words demonstrate), her praxis centered on building broad-based, radically democratic, horizontalist movements and coalitions capable of confronting the murderous power of capital and creating in its stead a profoundly different model of social organization. 

After her death, instead of a burial, her children and COPINH organized Berta’s siembra—her planting, attended by thousands of grieving Hondurans. In Honduras, there is a saying that goes, “blood of martyrs, seed of freedom.” 

Hundreds of other lesser-known Honduran revolutionaries and land defenders have been killed since the 2009 coup, including dozens of Indigenous activists from COPINH and other organizations alongside which COPINH continues to fight. 

In the small Tolupan community of San Francisco de Locomapa alone, for example, 10 community members resisting logging and mining projects were killed between 2013 and 2019. 

And as of this writing, the whereabouts of four Garifuna men from Triunfo de la Cruz, including three OFRANEH (Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras) members fighting to protect their collective ancestral lands from rapacious developers, are still unknown.

Elected council president Sneider Centeno and three other community members were kidnapped from their homes on Saturday, July 18th by heavily-armed men dressed in Military Police uniforms. Community members fear their names will be added to the long list of victims of the Honduran state’s brutal repression of the Garífuna people.

Berta and the many other brave Honduran activists murdered since the coup were targeted because they refused to be silenced by entities far more powerful than them.

In Berta’s case, the primary entity in question was Banco Ficohsa, owned by the Atala family, a major financier of the DESA hydroelectric project opposed by COPINH. Since her murder and despite ongoing threats to COPINH, the organization (whose coordinating committee includes two of her daughters, Bertha and Laura Zúñiga) has continued to denounce Ficohsa for its destruction of ancestral Lenca lands and waterways, and for its likely role in the murder of Berta and other Lenca leaders under the hashtag #FaltanLosAtala. 

As part of a diverse toolkit of tactics aimed at countering the violence of finance capital against their communities, COPINH has warned international financial institutions to not partner with Ficohsa (a threat backed by the promise of international direct action). Their bravery in standing up to the Atala family is shared: just last week, Congresswoman María Luisa Borjas, who was fired from her position as Police Commissioner in 2002 for blowing the whistle on police death squads, was convicted of defamation, a crime that carries a nearly three-year prison sentence, for naming Camilo Atala, president of Ficohsa, as the probable intellectual author of Berta’s murder in 2017.

Another saying, originally attributed to the 18th century martyred Aymara leader Tupac Katari, was popularized following Berta’s murder: “I will come back, and I will be millions.” The expansion of Berta’s legacy internationally, following her murder, is indeed a powerful opportunity to grow this solidarity movement. But Berta and so many other courageous Honduran martyrs planted seeds in life as well as in death, by organizing relentlessly toward a radically democratic, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist society. 

Having known and loved Berta like so very many of our friends and compañerxs did, we urge readers who did not know her personally not to idolize, essentialize or mourn her. Instead, we can listen to and learn from her own words, and follow her example.

Alongside her compañerxs in COPINH, Berta spent her life building democratic processes and organizing local, regional, national and international coalitions of struggle. She tells us: “It is impossible to exercise democracy from below under capitalism, it can’t be done.” Coming from Berta, this frank assessment is not meant as discouragement. It is a call to join in the struggle to dismantle capitalism and empire through militant, collective direct action, as the path to sovereignty, democracy and liberation.

What follows is the second of two audio-recorded interviews Castellanos recorded with Berta, whom he had known for many years. It has been translated and edited slightly for length and clarity. We look forward to publishing the transcript and translation of a much longer interview with Berta, conducted in 2014, shortly.

Asís Castellanos: Good afternoon, could you begin by saying your name, and your position within COPINH?

Berta Cáceres: Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores, and I am the General Coordinator of COPINH.

AC: What are your thoughts about democracy?

BC: Well, first of all I don’t share the understanding of the concept of democracy that was a creation of the financial organizations that came here after the Second World War with their ideas about democracy and development, which today are also mixed up with the theme of human rights, from the perspective of Western law that constrains the very liberties and concepts that they are pushing.

And for us what is important is respect for human dignity, the right to happiness for collectivities. Democracy needs to be exercised as a horizontal power, built by the people, and defined by their participation not just in terms of their numbers but rather through their actual participation. It should be decisive, and I think it has a lot to do with which concept of power we have in mind when we speak of democracy.

Power is closely related to this, and what we are seeing now is a despotic power that imposes, that violates. So it is from that exercise of power that you build that concept of “democracy.” We understand democracy differently; for us it entails the full and just exercise of rights and freedoms that an entire nation should enjoy—not just one family.

AC: From the 1980s to the present, what democratic advances have you seen?

BC: It has all been window-dressing, because from the 80s to today we are living the same situation. The imposition of structural adjustments, which they call modernization of the state, has meant that a state that is very militarized, backwards and conservative, gives off an appearance of modernizing through its discourse, through technology. But what it really means is giving away all collective property and natural resources and more militarization, only in a more technocratic way, more structured, more planned, with better financing, and completely tied into transnational capital and the mandates of capitalist financial organizations.

So the democracy that we have here, for me it’s just a discourse that the politicians roll out every four years; it is governments that hand over the country’s sovereignty and identity, that destroy its liberatory identities, that have institutional and legal structures that they themselves have created and solidified but with precisely the intention of catering to the interests of big capital and powerful economic, political and military organizations—not to the people. 

I believe things have actually gotten worse since the 80s. Even though there was armed conflict in Central America, there were certain norms that were still respected. But today, the level of impunity –if we compare it with that era– the level of impunity, of social injustice, of denying the right, for example, to land. The concentration of lands, of territories, the plunder, in comparison with what was happening in the 80s; today it’s done in a way that is shameless and the institutions, the laws, the system of justice that is carried out in this country only exists to support that process, not to support the peoples [of Honduras]. So for me, what they call democracy here, which is actually something else, has gotten worse.

AC: In what areas have there been fewer democratic advances to date?

BC: The economic injustice in this country is striking. I can’t get it through my head. The economic rights of peoples are inseparable from the exercise of democracy. In this country—recent studies on economic injustice show this—the situation is dire in Honduras. The other thing is that access to justice and access to land and territories and the right for peoples to live a full life with dignity has been completely minimized. 

And this is happening in the context of increasing militarization, not just Honduran militarization but also the military occupation by the United States, which isn’t just coming in with more and more bases that we’re seeing in Honduras, but is also replicating its role from the 80s, but worse because of the Colombianization [of the military], because we have been positioned as a failed state like Mexico, to justify further intervention and the murder of young people in this country.

It’s very hard to tell you what the worst facet of it is. But the violation of human rights and the absolute lack of opportunity for the Honduran people to exercise power as a sovereign nation—since the constitution says the sovereign power is the people—but when the people tried to exercise that power, for example, answering a question in a regular old poll, they overthrew the government in a coup. I think we continue to be a laboratory for cruelty against nations, and I think it’s going to continue like this for a long time and I believe it will get worse.

AC: What are the main obstacles to democratization in this country?

BC: For me it’s the system that we live in. It is impossible to exercise democracy from below under capitalism, it can’t be done. We can engage in struggles to advance, to build…[but] there are huge obstacles designed to prevent it from happening. Powerful groups like the ones I mentioned, 25 powerful families from this country, the transnational mining and energy companies, the issue of privatization, of the financial organizations, of giving even more power to the military, plus everything that has been woven into the legal framework of CAFTA [US-Central America Free Trade Agreement] and also criminalization. For example, the criminalization of human rights defenders, the criminalization of those of us who defend our lands, in laws written to define us as terrorists—all this is a huge challenge.

But on our side as well, as social movements, we have challenges. I think we have to start with ourselves, working on the processes of internal democratization of social movements in order to build something coherent. And if it is possible to build spaces of internal democracy, with new practices, with political ethics that honestly reflect principles that are profoundly human, revolutionary, re-foundational, Indigenous, feminist, environmentalist, however we want to call them, the important part is that they dignify Honduran society and they dignify us as human beings.

So it’s a huge obstacle that we live in an unjust system in which people don’t think democracy or the exercise of democratic processes are possible, because there is so much lack of hope too and a crushing media war that makes people believe that if you have a good television and a good cell phone, if we can come here to the mall, if the middle class can go to Miami once in a while to have a good time, then that is democracy. So the concept, the lack of a critical consciousness about that is also an obstacle.

AC: Who are the actors who are most committed to the democratization of Honduran society?

BC: I think that whenever we exercise our rights, when we fight for our right to life, to create different logics of power, any and all of us who are in that struggle are committed. All of the social and political processes working to decolonize our thinking and practice, to break down the oppression that has to do with [the concentration of] power and those ideas about democracy, that is our commitment. 

The problem can also be in our internal practices. There are many organizations focused on territorial defense, on justice, against corruption, religious movements, feminists, alternative media, academics—although only a few of them are on board—and the diversity of all of us who are in the social and political movements working toward an emancipatory process. I think that when we fight ethically, and build ethical politics, that we are all in it together. It would be very difficult to point to any one person in particular.

AC: Which are the most authoritarian or anti-democratic actors in Honduran society?

BC: The state itself, the government itself, because its aim is to maintain its power and idea of democracy that has already lost all its legitimacy. And it has been overcome; other forms of democracy are being built by people in struggle. For example, in Bolivia they propose a democracy that is not just representative, not just participatory, but which is decisive

The ones who are impeding the development of democracy here are the State of Honduras, the government itself and its institutions, the legal framework, it’s all part of a broader ideological and media machinery. And I’ll say it again—they are working to keep us from thinking critically and continue colonizing our way of thinking. The media is anti-democratic, and the political class of this country is one of the main actors in blocking the exercise [of democracy].

AC: What is your assessment of the impact of the Coup d’État of June 28, 2009 on Honduran democracy?

BC: It has several effects. One is that it institutionalizes the violation of human rights; it institutionalizes an act that results in dictatorship, imposed by force with the clear intention of preventing the Honduran population from having a sense of what it means to exercise a right, to truly be democratic. Or at least to begin to exercise that right, because the Fourth Ballot Box [the proposed November 2009 referendum, which would have asked Honduran citizens whether or not they approved the formation of a popular Constituent Assembly to work on the formation of a new, more democratic constitution] didn’t represent true democracy either. 

Building democracy is a life-long project, together, as part of a collectivity, in society. It also has to do with making an anti-democratic attack permanent, a project of domination which has not only invaded all of our [Honduran] territories, our neighborhoods, our communities, urban and rural alike, but which has expanded and is being consolidated: model cities, the Alliance for Prosperity, military bases, the whole national territory being offered to transnational mining corporations on a silver platter. And criminalization, in order to finish off the opposition by any means necessary. This whole project of domination has been consolidated in Honduras.

This is an impact that, for me, has to do with power—with the concept of power created from within capitalism, which is very patriarchal and racist in its form of domination. And it’s sucking us dry from all sides, advancing. And they carried out a coup d’état in order to not have to cede anything. It’s what we’ve been saying since day one. They carried out the coup because they are not willing to cede an inch. 

Today we live in a state with a government that is effectively a dictatorship, it murders, it violently represses us, it does not permit different ways of thinking, diversity or plurality. It does not allow a plurality to work together to improve conditions in this country; quite the contrary. The effect is profound and long-term, and also has to do with how they have changed the Honduran people, who are so suppressed, so humiliated. But there are also other sides to it; one is that as a result [of the coup] a large sector of the population had its conscience shaken up, another is that people began to imagine other ways of building power, of democratic life in a country. I believe this is also an undeniable effect, despite the fact that it was a terrible, shameful event.

 AC: What have been the contributions of social movements and civil societies to the process of democratization of Honduran society?

BC: We have a great responsibility to this country as political and social movements, as the popular movement, which brings me back to the internal issue: What are our own democratic processes? Are we dismantling these unethical practices of power within our own movements? Are we allowing and making way for the creation of internal democratic processes, through training, [collective] leadership, debate, analysis, arguments, self-critique, constructive criticism? Are we dismantling the patriarchy, which has to do with power? Anti-democracy, injustice, inequity—are we dismantling racist practice? If we accept these things as natural, then what are we ever going to accomplish? 

For me, this is where we have to begin, and of course we also need to strengthen ourselves to face outward, with a very strong platform. But voices from the social movement proposing projects for the democratization of this country are few and far between, because at the core there are many other debates, for example, about social and economic injustice in a system that is imposed by plunder, colonization, death, repression, murder.

The debate around democratization is more than simply a conversation about going back to elections with a new, progressive political party. It has to do with a discussion about what kind of power we want; it requires a serious ethical commitment.

 AC: How would you characterize electoral processes in Honduras?

BC: They are backwards, despite the participation of new political party [Libre and the Anti-Corruption Party] actors. And this is important, I’m not denying it. But at the same time it’s a step backward because the State, the government, and the power elite have managed to refresh their image by incorporating these new actors. After the coup d’état, they had been completely denigrated and discredited worldwide.

Although the people in the new parties are waging interesting battles, there is so much more to do. The electoral process in Honduras is a process that in reality has very little to do with democracy, since as we know there is fraud, there is abstention and lack of interest among the population, the political discourse is washed-out, the people hate it and this discourages much of the population. It’s a machinery created to guarantee the status quo.

AC: How would you assess the contributions of political parties to the process of democratization of Honduran society?

BC: I could speak about the new parties: they are making efforts, they are trying to include a different voice. But by and large they continue with the same practices of the conservative political party system, and furthermore this is preventing the development of a sustained, long-term construction of what should be a different kind of democracy, of power. It’s very short-term. They can have important fights that overlap with the demands and causes of social movements, but they’re still very isolated [from them]. They replicate the practice, for example, of using certain organizations just for their electoral benefit, and this has to improve.

 AC: What is your evaluation of citizen participation and democratic political culture among Honduran citizens?

BC: It’s very poor, very uncritical, with very little analysis of reality or understanding of how to read what is happening. And this is due to historical marginalization, to subjugation. It’s not that we are stupid, it’s that our people are bombarded with a machinery telling them to think that everything is fine, and the effect of this is that there is little critical citizen participation and they are not questioning the big problems in this country with a structural analysis. 

They might have an immediate analysis of things that happen on a day-to-day level, but what are the causes of these? For example, of migration, which is a huge phenomenon in this country; the murder of boys and girls; how the national budget is allocated—there is so much room for more critical thought and participation among the population. For [such analyses] to be decisive– I believe that is where, as movements, we face a monumental challenge.

AC: Thank you very much.

BC: [laughs] Cheque.

Click here to read the Spanish version of this interview. Click here to listen to the audio of this interview (in Spanish).

Author Bios:

Adrienne Pine is a medical anthropologist and coeditor of Asylum For Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry. She teaches at American University.

Asís Castellanos is an Honduran Miskitu sociologist and researcher with CESPAD (Center for Democracy Studies).