Honduras

A War on Activism

Suprun Vitaly / Shutterstock
Suprun Vitaly / Shutterstock

THE WORD MARTYR means “witness.” In times past, it meant dying for one’s beliefs; but increasingly it means dying for one’s faith because of justice.

On March 3, Honduran Indigenous leader Berta Cáceres was brutally murdered in her home. As co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, Cáceres had led the Lenca Indigenous communities in a nonviolent struggle to defend the sacred lands, forests, and water that her people have protected for generations.

She was beloved by many around the world for her extraordinary leadership on the environment, recognized in 2015 when she received the Goldman Environmental Prize for “sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk.” Her assassination sparked a global outcry, including a demand from the Vatican for an independent investigation into her death.

Cáceres’s life and death is a witness to what Pope Francis calls “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” Her martyrdom embodies the intimate connection between creation justice and social justice for the poor that is at the heart of Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment.

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A Martyr of 'Laudato Si'?

Activist Berta Caceres. Image via Goldman Environmental Prize.

The deadly environment for activists is closely tied to recent Honduran history. Following the 2009 coup, in which democratically-elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was deposed, the new government declared Honduras “open for business” and granted profitable contracts to transnational companies looking to capitalize on Honduran natural resources — including resources on indigenous land. When leaders like Cáceres demanded the rights guaranteed to indigenous people by the U.N and the International Labor Convention — including the right to determine how indigenous land is used — it wasn’t great for business. The death threats followed.

Environmental Activist Berta Cáceres Assassinated in Honduras

Berta Cáceres. Image via Darren Walker/Twitter

The world-renowned leader of an environmental and indigenous rights group in Honduras has been killed. Berta Cáceres, General Coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 for her work organizing indigenous Hondurans to successfully block the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam. Late on the night of March 2, two unidentified individuals broke down the door of the house where Cáceres was staying, shot, and killed her.

Honduran Cardinal Warns Against Aborting Zika Fetuses

A pregnant woman rests as health officials collect mosquitoes to check for Zika virus at a village in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Feb. 4, 2016. Image via REUTERS/Samrang Pring/RNS.

“We should never talk about ‘therapeutic’ abortion,” the cardinal said in his homily, according to Honduran media reports.

“Therapeutic abortion doesn’t exist,” he said. “Therapeutic means curing, and abortion cures nothing. It takes innocent lives.”

First World Problems...

Illustration by Ken Davis

WHEN YOU WORK for a Christian justice organization, it’s hard to complain about your petty personal problems. Dishwasher leaving spots on the glassware at home? Don’t mention it in the office or you get called out for a “First World problem.” Not happy with your cable company? “Dude, First World problem!” retorts a colleague, pouring coffee into his Amnesty International mug before a meeting on income inequality.

I work with people who have traveled the world working for peace and freedom, who have spent time in jail for their beliefs, but who show no sympathy when L.L. Bean messes up my order. (I purchased the medium winter pullover from their activewear collection, but they sent me a small. And it pinches when I lift my arms to pray during chapel.)

In short, my peers are saints working for a better world. And fortunately for them, they don’t have to look outside the office to see what’s wrong with that world, for I walk among them. I am he (or maybe him), the self-centered manchild whose personal preoccupations give a counterbalance to the righteous intentions of my colleagues. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

And that somebody needs new kitchen cabinets.

In my defense—I hurriedly explain to officemates rushing to their next strategy meeting on climate change, this time carrying coffee mugs from Greenpeace—our old cabinets are SO last century. In fact, they were made in the same century as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, a minor monarch whose death prompted the conflagration of World War I. But back to my cabinets.

See how I did that? I shifted from one of the darkest periods of the 20th century to trivial thoughts about new stuff in my house. And from new cabinets to thoughts of kitchen paint schemes is but a short step down the sordid trail to shameless self-indulgence. But such is the thrall of the First World and its petty charms that one can hardly escape.

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'The Children Come': A New Hymn on the Exodus of Children from Central America to the U.S. Border

Children playing at sunset in Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya, India. Image: Seema Krishnakumar/Flickr

This new hymn is inspired by the crisis in Central America that has caused over 70,000 children to take the dangerous journey to the United States in recent months. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette has led many mission trips to Honduras for the past sixteen years. The brother of a child that Carolyn sponsored in Honduras was recently killed there.

The hymn’s reference to “On one boy’s belt, a number carved in leather” is from a news report ("Boy's Death Draws Attention Immigration Perils") of a body of a dead child found with his brother’s phone number on his belt.

“As angry crowds are shouting, “Go away!” comes from the news reports of Americans yelling at the detained children on buses in Murrieta, California. Jim Wallis of Sojourners reflects on this incident in his powerful online essay “The Moral Failure of Immigration Reform: Are We Really Afraid Of Children?" Biblical references in the hymn are Matthew 25:31-46 and Matthew 19:14-16.

Catholic and Libertarian? Pope's Top Adviser Says They're Incompatible

Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga prays at St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz.

Taking direct aim at libertarian policies promoted by many American conservatives, the Honduran cardinal who is one of Pope Francis’ top advisers said Tuesday that today’s free market system is “a new idol” that is increasing inequality and excluding the poor.

“This economy kills,” said Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, quoting Francis frequently in a speech delivered at a conference on Catholicism and libertarianism held a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

The pope, Maradiaga said, grew up in Argentina and “has a profound knowledge of the life of the poor.” That is why, he said, Francis continues to insist that “the elimination of the structural causes for poverty is a matter of urgency that can no longer be postponed.”

“The hungry or sick child of the poor cannot wait,” the cardinal said.

Crucible of Courage

IN THE PRESIDENTIAL election in Honduras last November, ruling party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández was declared the winner despite serious irregularities documented by international observers. Violence and intimidation marked the campaign period, including the assassination of at least 18 candidates and activists from Libre, the new left-leaning party.

Hernández, past president of the Honduran National Congress, supported the June 2009 coup. His record of operating outside the rule of law includes bold measures to gain control over the congress, judiciary, military, and electoral authority. He helped establish a new military police force in August 2013, deploying thousands of troops to take over police functions. Hernández ran on a campaign promise to put “a soldier on every corner.”

Honduras has been named the “murder capital of the world,” with relentless violence coming from crime, drug cartels, and police corruption. Attacks on human rights defenders and opposition activists have been brutal and have allegedly involved death squads reminiscent of the 1980s. Those working to reverse poverty and injustice receive death threats, priests and lay leaders among them. They are bracing for even greater repression under Hernández’s administration.

The growing militarization of Honduran society, justified as a way of fighting crime, is fueled by U.S. support for the country’s security forces—forces reportedly involved in widespread human rights violations. By denying the repression against social movements, and congratulating the Honduran government for its supposed progress on human rights, the U.S. Embassy has made it possible for rampant impunity to continue.

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From the Archives: March-April 1999

IN A CROWDED auditorium [in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch] that served as a shelter for 900 people, the scarce supply of drinking water was kept in a bucket and labeled with a sign that said "Do not use your own cup." Five bored, mischievous children, however, could think of nothing better than to try to stick their cups in the water. Then one relief worker gave them a special assignment. "This water is very important," she said. "I need you to be the guardians of the water so that no one dips in their own glass." And they, feeling respected and needed, became the fierce, undaunted protectors of the water supply.

Similarly, countless Hondurans are saying, "If not us, then who?"—righting their relationship with themselves, assuming the task of rebuilding their homes and communities, recognizing that progress occurs when they participate. Women, who have never even valued their never-ending activity as work, are speaking up when the pay sheets are evaluated. "I planted a garden. I rebuilt the wall of my house. I earned my corn and beans."

What other relationships are being righted? First, Hondurans of all stripes in communities marked by division and distrust are working together in local emergency committees: men and women, evangelicals and Catholics, Liberals and Nationalists—debating ideas, prioritizing projects, participating in work crews. Mutual support and mutual respect are the expression of Jubilee.

Jennifer Casolo was coordinator of the Women's Pastoral Center in San Isidro Labrador Parish in Tocoa Colon, Honduras, when this article appeared.

Image: Water bucket, Dawn Hudson / Shutterstock.com

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