When South African revolutionary Nelson Mandela passed away in 2013, most media outlets commemorated him solely as an anti-apartheid activist.
While he certainly played a leading role in the movement to end racial segregation in South Africa, so many of his other important contributions were left on the back burner. For example, his work organizing thousands of South African workers with the Communist Party and his campaigns against Western imperialism with the Non-Aligned Movement.
Mandela, despite being involved in countless realms of revolutionary activity, was mainly remembered by mainstream media for his work in one compartmentalized area of activism. Such is the case for slain Honduran revolutionary Berta Caceres.
Caceres, who was murdered a year ago this Friday, has since become an icon for the Indigenous environmental rights movement. In 2015, she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for leading a campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam on the Gualcarque River, a river in the traditional territory of Honduras’ Lenca people and considered sacred in its Indigenous spirituality.
A Lenca herself, Caceres also founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations, known as COPINH, which defends the environment of territories belonging to Honduras’ native peoples. Moreover, she’s been involved in campaigns to increase government regulations on companies extracting natural resources and producing industrial crops like sugar, coffee and palm oil with consequences for local communities.
After the 2009 coup that removed democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya, Caceres began receiving death threats because of her activism. In 2013, she began an intensive campaign against the construction of four hydroelectric dams along the Gualcarque River, exposing the environmental crimes of multinational dam corporations. As she continued to defend the river, the death threats intensified.
Eventually, around midnight on the morning of March 3, 2016, she was shot dead by gunmen who are suspected to be connected to the ruling U.S.-backed right-wing government.
Caceres’ death was widely covered in mainstream media, eliciting positive responses from Indigenous environmental activists across the world. But what many of these reports left out was her unequivocal opposition to capitalism and her decades-long battle against the oppressive economic system.
In 1993, the same year she founded COPINH, Caceres and her husband Salvador Zuñiga began working closely with trade unions in the Intibuca department fighting for better wages. Working alongside public sector miners and railroad workers, Caceres participated in dozens of strikes protesting then-President Rafael Callejas.
Callejas, representing the right-wing National Party of Honduras, or PNH, implemented neoliberal economic policies that cut government institutions, boosted foreign monopolization of Honduran industry and laid the foundation for the country’s sweatshop economy. Caceres brought together Indigenous, feminist, and LGBTQ organizations to challenge Callejas’ collaboration with International Monetary Fund advisers to privatize the economy.
When Callejas left power in 1994, Caceres relentlessly protested the subsequent administrations of Carlos Roberto Reina, Carlos Roberto Flores and Ricardo Maduro. All three presidents continued Callejas’ neoliberal economic reforms, creating greater poverty and inequality across Honduras.
Throughout this time period, Caceres mobilized workers and Indigenous people across the country against trade agreements being signed by the administrations, like the Central America Free Trade Agreement. She also organized popular education forums about the dangers of capitalist globalization, which skyrocketed in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Although Zelaya, elected with the Liberal Party, chipped away at the neoliberal consensus after taking office in 2006, Caceres protested the PNH-dominated National Congress that blocked most of his progressive measures throughout his tenure. In 2008, she led massive COPINH protests outside of the legislative branch, which passed laws easing taxes on foreign corporations building hydroelectric dams.
A year later, at the onset of the coup that ousted Zelaya, Caceres became a key leader in the National Popular Resistance Front, or FNRP, which describes itself as anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. Alongside thousands of COPINH and FNRP members, Caceres led daily protests against the coup government and its dismantling of 30 years of democratic institutions and social progress under Zelaya. The FNRP, founded in clear class politics, also fought for radical demands, namely the refounding of the Honduran state through a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.
At the time, Caceres also supported socialist peasant groups like the Unified Campesino Movement of Aguan, which ramped up its fight in the wake of the coup by taking over farm lands owned by wealthy pro-coup elites and transformed them into worker cooperatives.
In 2011, Caceres played an important role in the creation of the Liberty and Refoundation Party, known as Libre, a democratic socialist party founded by the FNRP leadership. She advised the newly-inaugurated party on matters related to Indigenous communities and environmental policies.
While Caceres began playing a secondary role in Honduras’ socialist electoral movement in 2013, when she began the campaign against the four hydroelectric dams, she remained active in revolutionary politics until her death.
“While we have capitalism, this planet will not be saved. Capitalism is contrary to life, to the environment, to human beings, to women — to all forms of life,” Caceres said during a 2013 Movement of Women for Peace protest against U.S. imperialism in Latin America, SOB Honduras reported.
“We must end capitalism to protect the planet and the human species.”