“They killed a dreamer, thinking that it would make us stop dreaming. But for Berta, there will be no moment of silence, rather a whole life dedicated to the struggle.” -Reverend Raúl Suárez
On March 3, 2016, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center (CMMLK) of La Habana, Cuba was filled with international solidarity partners of all ages responding to the urgent call to action following the assassination of Berta Cáceres, Honduran activist and indigenous leader. Pictures of Cáceres were hung around the crowded room, where over 50 people gathered to pay homage to the founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). One by one, community activists, popular educators and religious leaders shared their memories of Cáceres, of the work they had undertaken with her and of the tremendous impact that she left on the CMMLK.
Cáceres first came to the CMMLK in 2001 to receive training in popular education. “The Center has worked for a long time to support COPINH…and [we] joined Berta in her struggle to protect the Lenca people,” recalled Lisette Govín, member of the Solidarity Department of the CMMLK. “They were always after her,” said Govín, referring to the years of death threats that Caceres received from the Honduran government as well as her placement at the top of the Honduran army’s hitlist.
“[Cáceres] was advised many times to come to Cuba or to go to another country, to protect herself,” stated Raúl Suárez, Reverend of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and member of National Assembly in Cuba, “But she preferred to be in the struggle with her people even if it meant giving up her life.” Despite the numerous protective measures that Cáceres took, her dedication to fight for human rights in Honduras ultimately led to her murder.
Human rights abuses, such as Cáceres’ assassination and the illegal appropriation of indigenous lands, in U.S. supported post-coup Honduras highlight the hypocrisy of U.S. policy towards Cuba. At this historical moment when Cuba and the U.S. are beginning the long process of reestablishing relations, the U.S. continues to cite Cuba for flagrant human rights violations. Raul Castro, in his encounter with Barack Obama, admitted that Cuba does not meet all of the articles laid out in the International Declaration of Human Rights. However, Castro added, no country meets all of these conditions.
The U.S. maintains that the main reason for keeping the half a century long blockade against Cuba in place is due to human rights violations on the island. However, Honduras continues to enjoy normal relations with the U.S. and even financial support despite a longstanding history of human rights abuses in the area. While the Cuban people continue to endure the effects of an unjust U.S. blockade that imposes punitive economic sanctions on the island, the U.S. government is providing $750 million in assistance to Honduras, among other Central American countries, to “address the violence, lack of opportunities and weak governance driving migration from the region.” Furthermore, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) directly funds DESA-Agua Zarca, the private corporation that is building a hydroelectric dam on Lenca territory.
With Cuba accruing over $1 trillion in accumulated economic damages as a result of half a century of the imposition of the blockade, the unequal approach towards Cuba not only carries grave financial implications. Since the passing of the Cuban Adjustment Act in 1966, any Cuban who migrates to the U.S. is immediately granted permanent residence. World Policy Blog cites Silvia Welhelm, former director of Puentes Cubanos, as stating that, “The Cuban Adjustment law is providing Cubans with an economic escape hatch that is unfair compared to our policy to other potential immigrants.” This is evidenced by the fact that, while Cuban migration is used by U.S. media as proof of human rights abuses on the island, Central Americans fleeing both institutional, governmental and social violence are criminalized and denied access to legal status in the U.S. Under current U.S. policy, people like Cáceres who flee grave human rights abuses are highly likely to be turned away at the border, while any Cuban who reaches U.S. soil is granted legal entry, regardless of their lived experiences.
These ironies are not lost on the Cuban people. “Obama comes to Cuba and says that in his country, human rights are respected,” argues Yaima Palacio, Popular Educator at the CMMLK. “What about the human rights of the many immigrants who arrive to the United States and are deeply disrespected after having been sold the American dream? Where is the respect for those human rights?”
While nearly all Cubans recognize the numerous benefits that lifting the inhumane blockade will have in Cuba, there are many who simultaneously fear that increased U.S. involvement in Cuba will result in the human rights abuses that in neighboring Latin American and Caribbean countries are manifested as extreme violence and lack of access to education and healthcare. “Part of the reason why there is more safety [in Cuba] in comparison with Honduras…has to do with the fact that…Cuba decides what happens in Cuba,” Palacios remarks. She points out that in Cuba, in contrast to Honduras, “the fact that transnational companies and the U.S. haven’t been intervening has allowed for the possibility to have less struggles in that regard. The Cuban people demand that the U.S. lift the blockade, as this is one of the ways that the U.S. destabilizes and erodes the morale of the Cuban people so that they will revolt against the revolutionary government; and the costs have been high. But living this way has also given us the slight advantage of freeing us in many ways from neoliberal domination that is placed at the center of the capitalist market.”
As the Witness for Peace International Team (IT) in Honduras points out, the U.S. Embassy in Honduras is cooperating with the Honduran government led investigation, despite the call for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to take over. Our IT in Honduras cites COPINH as stating that “the same government that criminalized Berta Cáceres….the same government that persecuted her, threatened her, and is responsible for her murder cannot possibly investigate itself.”
This raises the question: if the U.S. can cooperate with and financially support the Honduran government despite the atrocities committed against Cáceres and so many others like her, why is Cuba continuously punished and isolated?