Before dawn one morning early in March, gunmen burst into the home of Berta Caceres, the most outspoken environmentalist in Honduras, and murdered her in her bed. It was a tragedy on many levels, but also something more. This killing brings into sharp focus the horror that has been inflicted on Honduras since an American-approved coup there seven years ago. Because the American who approved that coup was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it also shadows — or should shadow — the American presidential campaign.
Many countries in the world are suffering the effects of American intervention. Those effects are vivid in places like Iraq and Libya, where most people lived reasonably secure lives before the United States attacked and unleashed the forces of terror and anarchy. Invasions and missile attacks, however, are not the only ways to shatter societies. In Honduras, we did it without firing a shot.
Honduras has been the quintessence of a banana republic — dominated by American fruit growers — for more than a century. Nonetheless, life in Honduras was relatively tranquil until the 1980s when the United States turned it into a military platform for our Contra war against the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua. We bolstered the Honduran military, which supported our policy, and turned a blind eye when it kidnapped and murdered dozens of human rights campaigners, labor leaders, and other dissidents.
That propelled Honduras into a vertiginous spiral. The next step down came with the forced return from the United States of young Honduran men who had grown up as refugees in Los Angeles. They brought gang culture to Honduras, which now has one of the world’s highest murder rates.
Honduras has, nonetheless, held regular elections. The winner in 2006 was Manuel Zelaya of the Liberal Party, which American leaders have always viewed as unfriendly. Americans deposed a Liberal president in 1911 after he chose to borrow money from European instead of American banks. The next Liberal to take power was deposed in 1963 after proposing a land reform law that would have affected interests of the United Fruit Co. Zelaya suffered the same fate.
Powerful Hondurans were repelled by Zelaya’s advocacy of populist reforms like subsidies for small farmers and increased minimum wages. Some in Washington disliked to him because of his ties to President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who was then a hot-button bogeyman. On the night of June 28, 2009, after Zelaya proposed a referendum to change the Honduran constitution, soldiers stormed his residence, captured him, and put him on a plane out of the country — in his pajamas.
This coup was a throwback to the bad old days when Central American generals deposed elected civilians at will. Nearly every country in the hemisphere condemned it. A resolution was introduced at the Organization of American States demanding the “immediate, secure, and unconditional” return of President Zelaya. The United States blocked it.
Republicans in Congress proclaimed the coup a victory for freedom. A handful of them even flew to Honduras to embrace the country’s new leaders. Secretary of State Clinton sided with them. She approved a new election in which the deposed president was not allowed to run. Her goal, as she wrote in her memoir, was to “render the question of Zelaya moot.”
Honduras was in bad shape before the coup, but it has become far worse. It is corruptly governed, plagued by violence, and servile to rapacious foreign corporations. Berta Caceres is among the most prominent victims of this new Honduras.
Caceres, 43 years old at the time of her death, was a tireless leader of the indigenous Lenca people. For years she had been campaigning to stop construction of a dam in her native region, one of many in Honduras that involve privatizing rivers and uprooting communities. Last year, she won the world’s most prestigious award for environmental activism, the Goldman Prize. “Her murder would not surprise her colleagues,” the citation said.
Honduras continues to receive generous military aid from the United States, but that does little to resolve the social catastrophe Americans helped create. Caceres did not shrink from pointing a finger of blame. “We’re coming out of a coup that we can’t put behind us, we can’t reverse it,” she said in one interview. “Hillary Clinton, in her book, ‘Hard Choices,’ practically said what was going to happen in Honduras. This demonstrates the meddling of North Americans in our country.”
The destruction of Iraq, Libya, and other countries where the United States has intervened plays out every day on our front pages. In other countries, like Honduras, the effects of our intervention are largely unreported. By accepting the 2009 coup in Honduras, we rid ourselves of a leader we didn’t like because he seemed too socialistic — even though he led a miserably poor country that could not possibly threaten us. Once he was deposed, we lost interest in Honduras. That helped create a situation in which a brave woman could be murdered for defending her country’s environment and native people.
It should not take a murder like this to focus our attention on the effects of our intervention in Honduras. Now that it has happened, it should make us pause. The lesson is clear: When we interfere in a country’s domestic politics, we often create as much of a mess as we do when we bomb or invade.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.