Fight with Joy: Remembering Bertha Cáceres
I lost it at the one about the crab in the laptop case.
Laughter filled the little room and floated out into the dirt courtyard of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) office. Bertha Isabel Cáceres Flores and another longtime COPINH organizer were regaling me with tales of all the pranks he had pulled on her over the years.
One time he slipped an empty crab shell left over from someone's soup into the front pocket of her laptop case for her to find when she reached in to get the mouse. That particular prank didn't turn out as intended, which somehow made it that much more hilarious. She didn't use the mouse anytime soon, and ended up wondering where the funky smell was coming from. Another time, when they were hiking in the mountains to get to a community affiliated with COPINH, he carefully slipped rocks into her backpack one by one along the way until she finally realized that it wasn't just a sensation. Her backpack really was heavier.
When I heard that Bertha had been killed, that laughter-filled conversation was the first memory to come rushing back. It was followed by other memories from a decade ago, during the four and a half years I lived in Bertha's hometown of La Esperanza, Intibucá.
I crossed paths with Bertha periodically in the ensuing years, on the highway between military roadblocks in El Paraíso following the June 2009 coup d'état, at massive street demonstrations in the capital, up on the coast, and in various places in between. But when I found out she had been killed, I was flooded with those earlier memories of her laughter – not that little sort of scoffing chuckle of hers, but the unbridled laughter that would fill the room. It's the laughter of those everyday moments of joy and camaraderie amidst all the threats and struggles and death and hope. Bertha's laugh is as infectious as her conviction that another world – a world in which many worlds fit – is possible.
Was. Her laugh was as infectious as her conviction.
Bertha was killed in the early morning hours of March 3. Armed assailants broke into the house where she was staying in La Esperanza, and they shot and killed her on the spot. The co-founder and coordinator of COPINH, she had been receiving death threats related to her involvement in Lenca communities' struggles to protect their lands and rivers from hydro-electric dams in the region.
One hydro-electric project in particular, the Agua Zarca dam under construction on the Gualcarque River, has been the source of intense conflict in recent years in western Honduras. DESA, the company behind the dam, has received financing from several international institutions, including Dutch and Finnish government funds, and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration.
Local Lenca communities and COPINH oppose the project, and have faced militarization, death threats, and criminal charges as a result. In July 2013, Río Blanco community leader Tomás García was shot and killed by a soldier in the area. Bertha had personally received countless threats, and in 2013 and 2014 she faced charges – later suspended and dismissed – of land usurpation, possession of an illegal firearm, coercion, and property damage.
“We know with absolute certainty that the motives for her despicable murder were her resistance and struggle against the exploitation of nature's commons and in defense of the Lenca people,” her family said in a March 5 statement.
“Her murder was an attempt to put an end to the Lenca people's struggle against all forms of exploitation and plunder. An attempt to quash the construction of a new world,” continues the statement by Bertha's mother Austra Bertha, her son Salvador, and her daughters Olivia, Bertha, and Laura.
One of the last times I interviewed Bertha was in November 2013. Elections were just around the corner, and things were hectic in the capital, where we crossed paths. She spoke of the ongoing threats related to the struggle against the Agua Zarca dam and how she expected the situation to intensify regardless of who won the election.
“The ruler will change, but real power will remain in the hands of those who have it now and they're not going to let go of the structures they have created,” she told me. “Like we've always said, they didn't carry out a coup just to hand over their intent and efforts to institute a project of domination.”
Bertha also spoke of the importance of autonomous spaces for grassroots organizations to coordinate mutual support and actions. She played a key role in the construction of several national, Mesoamerican, and Latin American networks and alliances that were not devised by or beholden to any foundation or political party. With regard to networks of resistance to dams and on many other issues, she worked closely with Mexican activist Gustavo Castro, the founder and coordinator of Otros Mundos Chiapas.
Gustavo witnessed Bertha's murder and suffered gunshot wounds himself. When he presented himself to Honduran authorities to give his statement, he was detained. After his release, he was stopped by immigration officials at the airport early in the morning on March 6, when he was attempting to fly home. Mexican diplomatic officials drove him back to the country's embassy in Honduras, according to Otros Mundos Chiapas. Organizations around the world continue to demand safety for Gustavo and justice for Bertha.
Like the letter H in her name, there are so many things for which Bertha is less known. A few years back, she got in touch out of the blue, looking for contacts to help support an intersex Lenca youth fleeing the country due to threats. A staunch feminist, she was unwavering in her support for the LGBTI community and in her understanding of the intersection of capitalism, imperialism, racism, and patriarchy. On a personal basis, she was active in the network of women from all walks of life all over the country who support and protect women and children fleeing male violence at home.
My thoughts are with Bertha's mother and her four children. She is also survived by siblings, friends, and the countless thousands of us throughout Honduras, Latin America, and beyond whose lives she touched during her time here on the planet. That time was cut far too short. Bertha would have turned 45 the day after she was killed.
“Let's wake up! We're out of time,” she said when she accepted the 2015 Goldman Prize for her role in the community-based struggle to defend the Gualcarque River. “Mother Earth – militarized, enclosed, poisoned, where basic rights are systematically violated – demands that we act.”
Action – including action to ensure justice for her murder – is the clearest way to honour Bertha's life and memory, but so is embracing the laughter of those everyday moments of joy and camaraderie amidst all the threats and struggles and death and hope. That joy keeps people going, she reminded us: “Even though it's very hard and very painful, we have learned to fight with joy.”