Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/3/2016 (532 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, assassins broke into the home of an indigenous Lenca community leader in western Honduras and killed her.
Berta Cáceres was 47 years old and was one of the best-known and most respected leaders in Honduras. Her life had been threatened countless times, she had been harassed by the national police, and she had been physically attacked on several occasions. Now, she has paid the ultimate price for opposing a military dictatorship that isn’t afraid of international censure.
The current government of Honduras — the product of a 2009 military coup — has singled out Canada as one of its closest friends. Canada worked hard in the aftermath of the coup to help the new regime rebuild its reputation, and Canada has consistently downplayed the government’s role in the human rights crisis in Honduras that has made it the most dangerous country — with the highest homicide rate — in the world.
Why would we do this? Isn’t this contrary to Canadian values?
It’s no conspiracy theory, and it’s not complicated. You simply have to follow the money. Under the Harper government, Canada openly shifted its foreign policy to prioritize the interests of Canadian businesses abroad. When the military kidnapped a reforming Honduran president and put power back into the hands of the business elite, it was good news for Canadian capital. Canada is Honduras’s top investor in mining and has more than $600 million invested in the country, a number that is growing every year.
So, when the military government reduced taxes on foreign capital and eliminated labour and environmental regulations that cut into Canadian profits, it was all smiles in Ottawa. And when that same regime sent death squads to assassinate activists trying to maintain the rule of law and democratic process, then-prime minister Stephen Harper was in no hurry to speak out against the violence. Quite the contrary, the Harper government repeatedly praised the new Honduran government for promoting "reconciliation" after a "political crisis." This despite widespread acknowledgement by organizations such as Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders that the Honduran government was murdering its own citizens for daring to organize peaceful rallies against the coup.
Canadian companies in Honduras are no doubt thankful the Canadian government didn’t interrupt the flow of profits to condemn the assassinations. Our new prime minister doesn’t seem inclined to crash the party, either. He has already signalled his staunch support for Canadian capital in the ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal that looks very similar to the one Canada signed with the Honduran military government in 2013.
This is bad news for Hondurans, hundreds of whom are killed every year as the country descends deeper and deeper into lawlessness and impunity. Cáceres is the latest victim of this situation, and the loss is profound.
Cáceres was a world-renowned environmental and indigenous advocate. She was awarded the Goldman Prize in 2015 for her work helping to protect the Gualcarque River from a proposed hydroelectric dam that would destroy crops, flood communities and separate the Lenca people from their traditional lands and lives. The community of Rio Blanco denied the company permission to build the dam on several occasions, but the company went ahead anyway. Cáceres was among those who blockaded the road and refused to let the river be dammed.
The assassination of such a well-known figure in Honduras sends a terrifying message to anyone who would oppose the will of the regime. If they can kill Cáceres, they can kill anyone.
When I sat with her this time last year at a small café in Tegucigalpa, I remember thinking how much she reminded me of my own extended family in rural Manitoba. Like the women in my family, Cáceres saw through people. This was a woman who cut past the nonsense and spoke plain, obvious truths. As a result, she was a magnetic presence in the Honduran resistance, which has maintained a peaceful opposition to the violent dictatorship for more than seven years now.
But when we spoke a year ago, Cáceres wondered whether people could hold out much longer.
"People have lost hope," she told me, in part "because so many people are struggling just to get food to eat."
The situation in Honduras is desperate, and the murder of Cáceres only emphasizes how bad it has got.
The Canadian government still celebrates its relationship to the dictatorship, noting our "two countries enjoy a positive relationship, and Canada is playing a constructive role in Honduras."
Canada’s complicity in the crisis, which now has claimed the life of one of Honduras’s most impressive individuals, is anything but constructive.
Tyler Shipley is a professor of politics and economics at Humber College and author of the forthcoming book Ottawa and Empire: Canada and the Military Coup in Honduras.