In Honduras, 26-year-old Bertha Zúniga Cáceres, the daughter of the murdered Honduran indigenous and environmental leader Berta Cáceres, has survived an attempted attack by a group of unknown assailants wielding machetes. The attack comes just weeks after Cáceres was named the new leader of COPINH, the group formerly led by her mother. Cáceres is also campaigning in support of pending U.S. legislation to suspend all U.S. military aid to Honduras. We speak with Bertita Zúniga Cáceres about the attempt on her life. We also speak with Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, longtime friend of Cáceres and her mother. He is a member of La Voz de los de Abajo, one of the founding groups of the Honduras Solidarity Network.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
On Friday afternoon, there was an attempted assassination on Bertita Zúniga Cáceres. She’s the daughter of the murdered Honduran indigenous environmental leader Berta Cáceres. Bertita and two other members of the indigenous rights group COPINH, Sotero Chavarría and Asunción Martínez, were driving back from a community visit in central Honduras when a black pickup truck blocked the road and forced them to stop. Three assailants then jumped out of the truck and attempted an attack. But Bertita Zúniga Cáceres and her colleagues narrowly escaped.
The attack comes just weeks after Bertita Zúniga Cáceres was named the new leader of COPINH, formerly led by her mother, Berta Cáceres. Bertita has stepped up her political leadership in recent months and continues to call for a full and independent investigation into her mother’s assassination, that happened on March 2nd, 2016.
For more about the attack, we go to La Esperanza, Honduras, where we’re joined by Bertita Zúniga Cáceres. We’re also joined in Chicago by Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, a longtime friend of Bertita and her mother, Berta Cáceres. He [has done solidarity work in support of and translations for COPINH over the last 17 years.]
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We’re going right to La Esperanza to Bertita. Welcome to Democracy Now! I am so glad you are safe. Can you tell us what happened on Friday?
BERTHA ZÚNIGA CÁCERES: [translated] So, I’d like to give my greetings to you, Amy, and to everybody. And as you mentioned, on Friday, June 30th, when we were returning from a community where COPINH has continually worked, we suffered an attack on our way back. And we were traveling in a vehicle that belonged to COPINH, and it’s a vehicle that is recognized as belonging to COPINH. And we believe that the attack had to do with a conflict over water and water sources in the region. In that conflict, we also know that USAID has played a role.
So, we didn’t expect the attack. We were traveling back from the community, when a vehicle passed us at high speed and blocked the road in front of us. And men jumped out with machetes and also threw rocks at us, trying to attack us. And then, as we escaped, they pursued us.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain driving and then who the people were who came up behind you, as best as you could ascertain. And then, what happened, what they came out with, what their weapons were?
BERTHA ZÚNIGA CÁCERES: [translated] So I was traveling back from the community with Sotero Chavarría, who’s the coordinator of organization for COPINH, and he was also the driver of our vehicle, as well as Asunción Martínez, who’s the secretary of COPINH, and he was sitting in the back of the car. And the people that attacked us, we don’t know them. There was four of them. Three of the attackers had machetes, and the fourth one was the driver of their vehicle, who was actually the most aggressive.
AMY GOODMAN: What did they do when they came out of their car, when they came out of their vehicle?
BERTHA ZÚNIGA CÁCERES: [translated] So, the three men with the machetes, they came out of their car, and they stood in front of where we were coming, to block our vehicle from continuing forward. And they put their machetes in a position of attack to try to attack the car. But the driver, he swerved—you know, our driver, Sotero, he swerved the car to the right, and we were able to go around the men with machetes. But then the driver of their vehicle, when he saw that we were swerving and the attack wasn’t going to be successful, he then threw a rock at the window of our driver, of our vehicle.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Bertita, were you injured in any way?
BERTHA ZÚNIGA CÁCERES: [translated] So, we weren’t injured, and we were also able to, you know, escape with the vehicle intact, as well. But it was a big surprise and a big alert for us, because it could have had very different consequences. In many ways, it was luck that we were able to escape in the way that we were.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you say they tried to—once you got back in your car and they chased you, they tried to push you off the road?
BERTHA ZÚNIGA CÁCERES: [translated] So, yes, the car—then, once we passed the men with the machetes, they got back in their car and then, at high speed, caught up to us. And they put their car right alongside our car. And the road that we were traveling on had a cliff next to it, and so we were forced to the very edge of the cliff. And they put their car as if they were going to, you know, bump us off the cliff. But our driver was able to continue forward and not stop.
AMY GOODMAN: Bertita Zúniga Cáceres, this comes just weeks after you were named the head of COPINH, the organization that your mother, the leading environmental indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres, headed before she was assassinated. Do you think there’s a link between your heading up COPINH and what happened to you this weekend?
BERTHA ZÚNIGA CÁCERES: [translated] I think that the COPINH assembly process, which we just had, is a process that not only names the new leadership of the organization, but it’s also a process that has reorganized and has strengthened the communities that make up COPINH, as well as our work. And so, obviously, the strengthening of the organization and of the communities is something that the economic and political powers that are—you know, that don’t like our work are obviously concerned about, and so that could very much have to relate to this attack.
AMY GOODMAN: It also comes right after you made a video calling for support for Congressman Hank Johnson’s bill that would cut off all U.S. military aid to Honduras.
BERTHA ZÚNIGA CÁCERES: [translated] In particular, the law mandates a suspension of all military aid that the United States gives to Honduras until the murder case of Berta Cáceres is solved in an effective manner, but not just that case, but other cases that have been representative, like the cases in the Bajo Aguán region, like the cases of Honduran environmentalists who have died defending life in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: Last year, Democracy Now! spoke to Congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia shortly after he introduced the bill to suspend all U.S. military aid to Honduras—the bill, of course, as we were saying, called the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act. Congressman Johnson explained what the pending legislation would do.
REP. HANK JOHNSON: This legislation would suspend financial aid to the republic of Honduras for military operations and training and also weaponry equipment. It would suspend U.S. financial assistance to Honduras for those purposes until such time as the republic of Honduras can demonstrate that it has adequately and transparently investigated and taken action on the many killings, unlawful and extrajudicial killings, of human rights activists, environmental activists, LGBT activists, human rights defenders in Honduras.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson, who’s introduced a bill that would end U.S. military aid to Honduras for now. In addition to Bertita Zúniga Cáceres in La Esperanza, Honduras, who just survived an assassination attempt, we’re joined by Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle in Chicago. He’s a longtime friend of both Bertita and her mother, Berta Cáceres, the murdered Honduran environmental indigenous activist. He’s done solidarity work in support of and translations for COPINH for the last 17 years. He’s a member of La Voz [de] los de Abajo, one of the founding groups of the Honduras Solidarity Network.
Matt, welcome to Democracy Now! Your first response when you heard about the attempted assassination of your friend Bertita, who’s on with us by Democracy Now! video stream from La Esperanza?
MATT GINSBERG-JAECKLE: I mean, it’s extremely worrisome. It was a response of really fear for her well-being, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t a response of surprise. This is predictable. As long as money continues to flow to the Honduran security forces, as long as these conflicts are allowed to rage, and no—and in a complete state of impunity, we can expect these kind of attacks.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the significance of the bill we just heard Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson talking about, and the fact that Bertita had just been on a video talking—calling for support for the cutoff of U.S. military aid, not to mention, a few weeks ago, elevated to the leadership of COPINH, the same position her mother, Berta Cáceres, held when she was murdered?
MATT GINSBERG-JAECKLE: That’s right. There’s no excuse at this point. So, what House Bill 1299 would do is cut off, as Congressman Johnson explained, all military and police aid to the repressive, illegal regime in Honduras that continues to assassinate activists. This is not a new call. This is something people have been calling for since 2009 and the coup d’état, since the assassination of the first people in the resistance who were killed by Honduran security forces, young people like Isis Obed Murillo. This is something that was called for again in 2012, where a hundred congresspeople signed on to a letter calling for a cutoff to aid to this brutal regime. By that point, the body count was in the hundreds. And this is a renewed call. And this bill is new in response to the assassination of one of the most high-profile activists in Honduras, a woman who was fearless, a woman who was visionary, a woman who was tireless in her efforts to defend the rights and the territory of the Lenca people and the rights and the future well-being of all of us here on this planet.
AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about these men with machetes, what happened to the people who murdered Berta Cáceres, and then what you see this latest attack as part of?
MATT GINSBERG-JAECKLE: Yeah, so, the importance is not who’s at the front line of carrying out the attacks, although, of course, that’s part of the issue. The importance is who’s giving the order for these attacks. You know, behind Berta’s—in Spanish, we talk about the distinction between the "intellectual authors" and the "material authors" of crimes—right?—those who call for the crimes, those who finance the crimes, those in whose strategic interests these crimes are carried out; and those who actually pull the triggers. And so, they have eight people detained in the assassination of Berta Cáceres. Those are the people that pulled the trigger. Those are the people that helped to carry out the actual assassination. Those are not the people that called for the assassination. Those are not the transnational corporations whose interests were being defended by the assassination. So, these four people with machetes are the latest line in the folks that are—not pulling trigger in this case, but wielding machetes, trying to carry out damage, but at the behest of powerful, powerful economic interests both in Honduras and in the United States of America and in Europe.
AMY GOODMAN: Who are those powerful interests? What corporations are you talking about, Matt?
MATT GINSBERG-JAECKLE: We’re talking about transnational mining corporations. We’re talking about transnational banks, like Finnfund. We’re talking about U.S. security corporations. You know, it’s interesting. Just a week before this assassination attempt against Bertita, U.S. Southern Command was carrying out a training exercise with the Honduran police in this same region. One of the police officers quoted in their press releases is from the exact community that Bertita was driving to when this assassination attempt was carried out. So, you can’t tell me that the aid that’s going to those police forces being trained is going to protect human rights defenders. It’s going to train the very people that are overseeing these kind of attacks. And it’s at the behest of the corporations that want to have dams in order to produce more electricity for their projects, for—whether it’s multinational corporations producing clothing in the area, whether it’s multinational corporations exploiting mining resources in the area or whatnot. Those are the folks that this is being done at the behest of. And it’s being done under the command of very high, powerful forces within the Honduran security forces and, I’m afraid to say, within the U.S. forces, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Berta Cáceres, Bertita Cáceres’s mother, speaking in her own words in 2015, when she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s leading environmental award. She was speaking in San Francisco.
BERTA CÁCERES: [translated] Let us wake up! Let us wake up, humankind! We’re out of time. We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction. The Gualcarque River has called upon us, as have other gravely threatened rivers. We must answer their call. Our Mother Earth, militarized, fenced-in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated, demands that we take action. Let us build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way, in a way that protects life. Let us come together and remain hopeful as we defend and care for the blood of this Earth and of its spirits. I dedicate this award to all the rebels out there, to my mother, to the Lenca people, to Río Blanco and to the martyrs who gave their lives in the struggle to defend our natural resources. Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Berta Cáceres, who won the Goldman Prize, environmental prize, in 2015. She was assassinated in her own home in La Esperanza. We’re speaking to her daughter right now, Bertha Zúniga Cáceres. There was an attempted assassination on her life this past Friday. As you listen to your mother, who took on the Agua Zarca Dam, Bertita, can you tell us the state of that struggle now and the significance of this dam, for people who haven’t heard of it? What corporations are involved? And what’s happening?
BERTHA ZÚNIGA CÁCERES: [translated] So, with respect to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, there’s very little actual construction activity right now, but there continues to be activity to try to influence the communities in the region, especially trying to convince the people who live in the region to accept the project. And this tells us that the company building the dam has not yet given up but wants to continue building the dam in the future. And we consider this project to be a project of death and murder and destruction.
The banks that finance the Agua Zarca Dam—the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, the Dutch development bank FMO and Finnfund from Finland—these banks have stated that they have the intention to stop funding and to leave the project. However, the banks have not yet formally left the project. And so we continue to demand that the banks formally withdraw and exit and stop financing, once and for all, the Agua Zarca project.
On the one-year anniversary of my mother’s assassination, we presented a constitutional challenge to the Honduran Supreme Court alleging that the Agua Zarca—that the decrees that granted permission for the Agua Zarca Dam are unconstitutional. However, the Supreme Court has rejected that constitutional challenge, and so we are continuing with different legal measures. But we denounce the complicity of the institutions in Honduras, especially the judicial system, that they have—the Supreme Court has not been willing to declare unconstitutional a project that very clearly violated the rights of the Lenca people.
AMY GOODMAN: And why is the Agua Zarca Dam so threatening, Matt? I mean, there are attacks on the people who are opposing it, but the dam itself?
MATT GINSBERG-JAECKLE: Yeah, so, all of these dams, despite oftentimes being promoted as, quote-unquote, "clean energy," involve the mass clearing of forests. They involve the destruction of crops. They involve the displacement of communities. They involve creating all kinds of conflicts, conflicts within the region. And so, this one, in specific, is trying to dam up the Gualcarque River. It’s one of the more important rivers in Honduras, and especially for the Lenca people. It’s a river of extreme spiritual significance for them. And it’s a river that they depend on. They depend upon it for water for their crops. They depend upon it for water for their livelihood and their well-being. They’ve depended on it for thousands of years. And now, in order to dam it up to generate electricity that’s not even for them or for their communities, but for the service of multinational corporations and the private investors behind these projects, they are willing to literally kill people to get them out of the way to do this.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Bertita, can you directly address the men with machetes who attempted to kill you last Friday?
BERTHA ZÚNIGA CÁCERES: [translated] So, I would tell them that we are going to continue forward in our struggle. And part of our struggle is to break this cycle of impunity, so that the people who carried out this attack, they should be held responsible for their actions and for what they did.
AMY GOODMAN: Bertita, how old are you, if I might ask?
BERTHA ZÚNIGA CÁCERES: [translated] I’m 26 years old.
AMY GOODMAN: What makes you so brave?
BERTHA ZÚNIGA CÁCERES: [translated] So, I was born into a people of great dignity and of great strength. And my mother, Berta Cáceres, instilled upon us, from a very young age, that the struggle is rooted in dignity and that we must continue forward defending the rights of our people.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much. And I’m so happy to be talking with you, Bertita. Please be safe. Bertita Zúniga Cáceres, speaking to us from La Esperanza, from her home in Honduras. And Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, a longtime friend of the Cácereses, speaking to us from Chicago. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.