Why a Georgia Congressman is Fighting to Stop Security Aid to Honduras

Rep. Hank Johnson talks about the struggle for human rights and the future of U.S.-Honduras relations.

Parker AsmannAugust 11, 2016

Forces stormed Berta Cáceres’ home in the Lenca community of La Esperanza on March 3 and shot her. (Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos/ Flickr)

Envi­ron­men­tal rights activist Berta Cáceres feared for her life and for the lives of her fel­low activists in Hon­duras. She trav­eled to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., in April of last year to voice those con­cerns, and plead­ed her case to var­i­ous law­mak­ers, includ­ing Geor­gia Rep. Hank John­son. Less than a year lat­er, her fears became a reality.

'We’ve got to understand what we’ve been robotically doing over decades—and the fact that it’s not working.'

Forces stormed Cáceres’ home in the Lenca com­mu­ni­ty of La Esper­an­za on March 3 and shot her. Cáceres and her col­leagues were out­spo­ken about their oppo­si­tion to a hydro­elec­tric dam being built on the Gual­car­que Riv­er, sacred land to the Lenca peo­ple, by pri­vate ener­gy com­pa­ny Desar­rol­los Energéti­cos SA (DESA). News of her death was wide­ly con­demned through­out the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, prompt­ing some law­mak­ers to take action.

In June, John­son intro­duced the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Hon­duras Act,” call­ing for the sus­pen­sion of U.S. secu­ri­ty assis­tance to Hon­duras until the gov­ern­ment there inves­ti­gates reports of human rights vio­la­tions and opens an inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tion into Cáceres’ death. The bill is sup­port­ed by some 40 orga­ni­za­tions and has gar­nered more than 30 co-spon­sors in the House so far.

In These Times recent­ly spoke with John­son about the bill and the future of U.S. rela­tions with Honduras.

His inter­view has been edit­ed and con­densed for clarity.

How did you get involved with craft­ing this bill and intro­duc­ing it?

I’m very much con­cerned about human rights issues across the globe, here in Amer­i­ca as well as in oth­er places. I first became involved in Hon­duran issues back in 2012 when there was a drug oper­a­tion that involved Amer­i­can mil­i­tary per­son­nel — and four inno­cent civil­ians were killed at the hands of Hon­duran secu­ri­ty offi­cials, mil­i­tary or inter­nal secu­ri­ty. I wrote a let­ter at that time ask­ing for inves­ti­ga­tions by the attor­ney gen­er­al of the U.S. and also by the State Depart­ment. That is what led me to start pay­ing atten­tion to Cen­tral Amer­i­can issues.

My inter­est has con­tin­ued about Hon­duras and then I was able to meet Berta Cáceres in April of 2015. She came to my office and we talked about the sit­u­a­tion — the human rights issues going on down there in Hon­duras in so far as indige­nous peo­ple who are fight­ing to retain their land, which is being expro­pri­at­ed. On the Gual­car­que Riv­er, there’s the Agua Zarca Dam that a transna­tion­al com­pa­ny was build­ing down there, which actu­al­ly was stop­ping the indige­nous peo­ple who have lived in the area for cen­turies from being able to sus­tain them­selves. These human rights activists, who were led by Berta Cáceres, were protest­ing against the con­struc­tion of the dam on that riv­er and they had been suc­cess­ful in stop­ping the con­struc­tion. But there were also a lot of deaths of inno­cent human rights activists down there that Berta was con­cerned about when she came here.

Those deaths are at the hands of peo­ple involved in the Hon­duran mil­i­tary and our coun­try sends a lot of mon­ey for train­ing Hon­duran mil­i­tary forces who also end up being secu­ri­ty, inter­nal secu­ri­ty forces down there. These peo­ple are killing their own cit­i­zens and are using weapons that Amer­i­ca pro­vides. There’s a sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship between their mil­i­tary and our country.

This leg­is­la­tion seeks to with­hold Amer­i­can sup­port for the Hon­duran mil­i­tary until such time as the Hon­duran mil­i­tary can clean up its act and get rid of its cor­rupt offi­cials, and those involved in human rights vio­la­tions, to become the type of mil­i­tary that would uphold the ideals that our mil­i­tary upholds. So, that’s what the leg­is­la­tion would do — it would with­hold mil­i­tary assis­tance until such time as our pol­i­cy­mak­ers are sat­is­fied that they’re com­ply­ing with basic human rights norms in Hon­duras. When you with­draw mil­i­tary assis­tance, what it does is it influ­ences the best prac­tices of the Hon­duran mil­i­tary so they can reform them­selves and become a bet­ter part­ner to the Unit­ed States and a bet­ter ser­vant to the Hon­duran people.

Why would the Unit­ed States want to con­tin­ue sup­ply­ing secu­ri­ty aid to Hon­duras? How does it ben­e­fit the Unit­ed States?

We have to go back to the Cold War to see why it is the Unit­ed States has the poli­cies that it has towards Cen­tral and South Amer­i­ca. Back dur­ing the Cold War, Amer­i­ca did not want com­mu­nism to take root south of our bor­der. Mil­i­tary assis­tance to dic­ta­tors and gov­ern­ments of oppres­sion became our norm. When you get peo­ple addict­ed to our mil­i­tary equip­ment, it’s part of the mil­i­tary indus­tri­al com­plex — you keep peo­ple pur­chas­ing our weapons and ammu­ni­tion. We have con­tin­ued to feed our mil­i­tary indus­tri­al com­plex by arm­ing nations south of our bor­der. The rea­son that we’ve been giv­ing (secu­ri­ty aid) is to com­bat the war on drugs, but I think it was prob­a­bly first as a war against com­mu­nism. So now we have this war on drugs, which (Pres­i­dent Richard) Nixon declared back in 1971, and our coun­try has been fight­ing this drug war, which has not worked south of our bor­der, and it cer­tain­ly has not worked here at home.

What we’ve been doing is mak­ing the world a more vio­lent place, and we’ve been prop­ping up dic­ta­tors and gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion south of our bor­der through try­ing to fight a drug war. We’ve been try­ing to stunt pro­duc­tion south of the bor­der while we’ve been mil­i­ta­riz­ing the streets of Amer­i­ca in an effort to fight demand. It’s a war on two fronts, fight­ing pro­duc­tion and fight­ing demand, and nei­ther war has been suc­cess­ful. It’s real­ly time for our gov­ern­ment to start look­ing at a new pol­i­cy for fight­ing drug addic­tion in our coun­try. It’s a pub­lic health issue as opposed to a crim­i­nal jus­tice issue, pri­mar­i­ly. We’ve got to under­stand what we’ve been robot­i­cal­ly doing over decades — and the fact that it’s not working.

If the bill were to pass, what sort of impli­ca­tions would that have for Hon­duras and the Unit­ed States? What type of mes­sage would the Unit­ed States be sending?

It would be a total reboot of our rela­tion­ship because right now any­thing goes as far as the Hon­duran mil­i­tary and its cor­rup­tion and lack of pro­tec­tion of human rights and its involve­ment in actu­al­ly vio­lat­ing the human rights of its cit­i­zens. So it would be a restruc­tur­ing of that rela­tion­ship, a change in that rela­tion­ship, and it would ben­e­fit the Hon­duran peo­ple and ulti­mate­ly the Amer­i­can people.

Why should the Amer­i­can peo­ple care? With all that is going on in the world, why should the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Hon­duras Act” be a priority?

Well, it’s a small step in a new direc­tion that pro­motes human rights as opposed to send­ing weapons of war across the world. In oth­er words, if Amer­i­cans want to see a more peace­ful world it means that we have to change some of the poli­cies that we pro­mote through­out the world. One of those poli­cies has to do with pro­vid­ing weapon­ry to gov­ern­ments that then turn around and use that weapon­ry against their own peo­ple. We would­n’t want that to hap­pen in our coun­try. If we lived in Hon­duras, we would not want that to be hap­pen­ing in our coun­try. We have to some­times step back … and take a look at what’s going on in the lives of oth­ers and what cre­ates con­di­tions that pre­vent oth­er peo­ple from being able to ful­ly con­tribute to the glob­al economy.

If Amer­i­cans are so con­cerned about ille­gal immi­gra­tion, this is one of the caus­es, one of the dri­vers of peo­ple to our bor­der. Vio­lence caused by human rights abus­es and the war on drugs south of the bor­der, it dri­ves ille­gal immi­gra­tion and so Amer­i­cans that are con­cerned about ille­gal immi­gra­tion should look at this as some­thing that will help stop it. And for oth­er Amer­i­cans, who are con­cerned gen­er­al­ly about how our mil­i­tary assis­tance helps to pro­mote either war and vio­lence or peace and pros­per­i­ty, this is a step for­ward to make the world a more humane and safe place — even if that’s hap­pen­ing in anoth­er coun­try. We’re con­cerned about that because we under­stand that we live in a glob­al com­mu­ni­ty and peo­ple are inter­re­lat­ed and inter­de­pen­dent upon each oth­er. We under­stand the big­ger picture.

Park­er Asmann is a Sum­mer 2016 Edi­to­r­i­al Intern at In These Times. He is an Edi­to­r­i­al Board Mem­ber for the Chica­go-based pub­li­ca­tion El BeiS­Man as well as a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Yucatan Times locat­ed in Meri­da, Mex­i­co. He grad­u­at­ed from DePaul Uni­ver­si­ty in 2015 with degrees in jour­nal­ism and Span­ish, as well as a minor in Latin Amer­i­can Studies.
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