Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Berta Se Multiplicó - COPINH Resists:La Voz Delegation Report

V. Cervantes July 26, 2016, Chicago
Unless otherwise credited, photos are from La Voz de los de Abajo

On July 25, some people might have been surprised outside the Democratic Party’s National Convention in Philadelphia to see protesters wearing masks made from  a photo of assassinated Honduran indigenous leader Berta Caceres and a giant puppet of Berta as well marching through the streets.   
Nas lutas@PersonalEscrito

One of Berta’s daughters, Laura Yolanda Zuniga, was there too representing  Berta’s organization COPINH and her family as part of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance actions.  The protesters had a specific complaint related to COPINH and Honduras, denouncing the fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has admitted to working hard to extend and institutionalize the June 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras and the fact that the Obama administration in general continues to support and supply funds to the latest version of the coup government, President Juan Orlando Hernandez — despite a very long list of human rights violations, state violence, and corruption allegations tied to Hernandez's government and political party. At the same time, it isn’t really a surprise to find COPINH participating  in protests that include support for migrant’s rights, against police murders of black and latinos in the US, the TPP, environmental justice and more. Since its beginnings COPINH has had an international vision. 

In late June of this year La Voz de los de Abajo sent a small fact finding and accompaniment mission to Honduras. One of our priorities was to show support for and to talk to with COPINH in the aftermath of the assassination of its co-founder and long-time general coordinator, Berta Caceres.  On June 26 th we started out for La Esperanza, Intibuca to visit COPINH and to pay our respects to Berta Caceres’ family.  Leaving from Marcala, La Paz, where we had visited campesinos from the CNTC,  we were already in the area in which the Lenca indigenous people’s communities and descendants are a majority. The indigenous word Lenca means something like “a place of many waters” in English and it is a land of rivers flowing down from breathtaking mountains
 covered in Honduran pine mixed with flowering plants and cultivations of coffee and small land holdings of corn and beans.  At the time of the Spanish conquest the Lenca were one of the larger groups of indigenous people in the region and were  concentrated in the Southwestern region of Guaymara - eventually renamed Honduras by the Spanish. Their resistance to the conquest, led by their most important leader Lempira,  is celebrated like that of Cuahtemoc in Mexico.

Lempira was killed during the final Lencan  uprising of 1537-1538. After the conquest, tens or even hundreds of thousands were eliminated by violence, slavery, and disease.  This history does not feel so distant given both the ongoing violent attacks on the communities and their tenacious resistance in the region today in defense of the waters of the rivers that are threatened by hydroelectric projects involving international and national companies, land grabbing by the regional and national oligarchy, and the murders of the defenders themselves such as the March 2, 2016 murder of Berta Caceres. Just a few days after we left Marcala itself would be the site of the murder of another environmental community activist associated with COPINH. Lesbia Yaneth Urquía was murdered and her body found in a trash dump on July 7th. Five members or supporters of COPINH have been murdered since 2013 when the struggle against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project intensified (Justo Soto, Nelson Garcia, Tomas Garcia, Berta Caceres, Lesbia Yaneth Urquía) 

After a few hours in a bus bumping down a dirt highway we arrived in La Esperanza where a municipal festival of “Mushrooms and Wine” was underway in the small plaza in front of the cathedral. As is usual, the Honduran local and national authorities claim as their own the legacy of Lempira. Honduran currency bears his name and there is a lot of advertising  of “eco-tourism on the Lencan Trail”, but the real spirit of rebellion is also present. In  La Esperanza there are murals and graffiti throughout the small city celebrating and mourning  Berta’s life and death and denouncing the Honduran state and police.   

Graffitti on muncipal building
"JOH Assassin"
Berta’s mother, Doña Austra Bertha Flores, lives in the family home not far from the old colonial center area of La Esperanza. There is now a National Police presence in front of the house to fulfill the obligation of the Honduran government to protect Berta Caceres and her family who are in receipt of an order for protective measures from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Of course everyone recognizes the irony of government protection when so many believe that the Honduran government is involved in the violence.

In Berta's case it wasn't until July 8, 2016 that the Honduran government finally conceded publicly that it had not provided the required protection to Berta prior to her assassination. At the family home, the on-duty policeman got out of his car and looked us over as Doña Austra Bertha Flores (Mama Berta) came out of the house to greet us and again when we left the house.  She is an articulate, strong woman who has her own history of activism and service to the communities, having been a midwife for many years, as well as a mayor and a governor, known for having a position in defense of the Lenca communities and the poor in Honduras. She showed us the small altar dedicated  to Berta in the house and spoke sadly, but proudly of her daughter. She spoke firmly and with determination outlined the continued demands of the Flores/Caceres family for an independent international based investigation of the assassination, and an end to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project.
Mama Bertha with
La Voz members

Mama Bertha also strongly denounced the fact that the government and its investigators have never shared information or included the family in the investigation and strongly reiterated the family’s position that the investigation will not be complete, even if the gunmen and most proximal guilty are jailed, until all the intellectual authors of the crime are identified and brought to justice as well. 

At the time we were in Honduras the introduction of the Berta Caceres Human Rights Act in the U.S. Congress on June 14th was reverberating in the Honduran media, augmented by a June 21st Guardian article  exposing  the fact that Honduran military special units circulated an order to assassinate a  “kill list” of activists including Berta Caceres before her death. To date, three of the four men arrested for Berta’s murder are military - one an active duty officer in the Armed Forces, although the government has denied that there is or was a hit list. The Berta Caceres Act would cut off US security aid to the national police and military, and require a "No" vote on multilateral developmental loans until the government of Honduras meets a series of conditions for investigating and ending human rights crimes. Doña Austra Bertha expressed her strong support for this proposal and her personal thanks to the members of Congress and solidarity activists pushing the Act forward. 

COPINH was founded in 1993 and consolidated its program based on indigenous values and a radical vision of the future in 1995.  From the beginning COPINH emphasized both local community organizing and the importance of a strong, diverse mass movement to fundamentally change Honduras. It has also always been internationalist, seeking and offering solidarity with struggles around the world. In Honduras COPINH is centered in  organized community base organizations in the Lenca region (at least 200 exist now) with a program for autonomy, against racism, against patriarchy, for gender diversity including LGBTI people and for  sustainability and life opposed to the death and destruction of the present. capitalist and imperialist system. 
Mural at Utopía 
COPINH has made their ideas concrete with the construction of an organizational center and meeting space called Utopía just outside of La Esperanza; a women’s refuge, and their office and radio stations. The La Voz de los de Abajo group arrived at Utopía later in the afternoon of June 26th.  We spoke with Tina, a COPINH member who is one of the people who keeps Utopía up and running on a daily basis and later with a leader from the Rio Blanco community along with a member of COPINH’s coordinating committee, Asunción, and COPINH’s communication coordinator Gaspar Sanchez.
La Voz members at Utopía

They had all only recently returned from  traveling outside the country to present COPINH’s case on Berta’s assassination to solidarity organizations and legal entities in Europe and Costa Rica.  Utopía  has meeting halls, dormitories, a kitchen, — decorated with beautiful murals and slogans that reflect Lencan culture and the people’s struggles. It includes land that has been planted with corn and beans and a few head of cattle graze around the building. A larger meeting shelter outside the main building is under construction because the meeting halls inside are not large enough for the people’s assemblies. COPINH uses popular assemblies as the key part of their decision making process. The next morning when the General Coordinator Tomas Gomez Membreño arrived he explained that COPINH has the vision of making Utopía a more sustainable collective agricultural project as well as a center for training and gatherings. 

Tomas also had just returned to Honduras from a speaking tour in the United States, including Chicago and Washington DC. The next day as he showed us more COPINH projects including the women’s refuge, main office and one of the radio stations. While he drove us he talked some about the history of racism in the region. La Esperanza is really a dual city which includes La Esperanza and the city of Intíbuca. According to some histories these cities originally corresponded with closely related Mayan and Lenca communities that were, along with the entire region, seized by the Spanish crown. During the 19th Century the area slowly drew in more businesses and ranchers from outside the Lenca area and from Guatemala and El Salvador this new elite founded La Esperanza. Meanwhile, as Tomas explained, The city of Intíbuca remained more indigenous and poorer, with its residents discriminated against to the present day. These kinds of conditions greatly influenced the founding of COPINH and its principles of autonomy.

At the women’s shelter we met with another long time leader in COPINH, Lillian, who explained the importance of COPINH’s feminism and anti-patriarchal stance not being in words only but also in action.
The women’s shelter is an impressive apartment complex with around 8 complete apartments (each with its own kitchen and bathroom) as well as a communal kitchen and meeting rooms. Women fleeing domestic violence or other difficult situations can find not only shelter but also emotional support. Lilian told us that COPINH organizes women’s encounters (in which men are asked to do all the cooking and childcare so that women can fully participate). Their plan for the center, for which they are looking for solidarity funding, include to have full-time healthcare staff for psychological and physical health, educational projects and more. 
"No Patriarchy"
"My body is my territory"

When we got to COPINH’s office and the site of one of their radios (Radio Guarajambala)  we found La Abuelita (the Grandmother) Doña Pascualita on the air, with another compañera,  talking about women’s contributions to their communities and to the organization COPINH. We were invited to say a few words about our organization, the solidarity movement and other things going on in the US.
La Abuela Pascualita on the air

 Later Gaspar interviewed La Voz member Jenine, who is active in the Palestinian community in Chicago, about the Palestinian struggle. She took the opportunity to denounce the members of the Honduran oligarchy of Palestinian descent probably 5 of the 8-10 oligarchic families, including the Atala family who are involved in the Agua Zarca project and the Faccusse family that is the largest landowning family and dominates the Aguan Valley. She called them out as not representing the Palestinian people who understand very well the role of elites who betray the people.
Gaspar Sanchez interviews Jenine
with interpreter
Since the death of Berta, COPINH leaders as well as her daughters Berta, Olivia Marcela and Laura Yolanda have been non-stop traveling across Honduras but also internationally, advocating for pressure on the Honduran government to allow an internationally based investigation of the assassination and to end the Agua Zarca project.  One of the focuses of COPINH is on how to deal with the Honduran government's refusal to allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to head up an independent investigation of the assassination. This has been one of the key demands of the family and of COPINH since the assassination. Berta’s death and the demands of seeking justice for her and defending COPINH from the blatant attempts to destroy it as an organization, have taken a toll on the organization and its leaders but they made it clear that they are strong and united as an organization, unblinking in the face of the attacks and dedicated to the vision of COPINH. Berta Caceres was murdered but that murder spread her spirit and as the slogan goes — “she didn’t die, she multiplied”.
Mural in Utopía

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