Early in Hillary Clinton’s primary contest against Bernie Sanders, Berta Cáceres, an indigenous environmental leader in Honduras, was murdered by a coup regime that Clinton, as secretary of state, helped consolidate in power. Apart for one quick statement denying any wrongdoing—“simply nonsense,” a spokesman said of the charges that Clinton was in anyway responsible for Cáceres’s killing—the Clinton campaign largely ignored the issue. As far as I know, the only journalist who asked Clinton directly about Honduras was Juan González, during Clinton’s interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News. Clinton provided a wordy and vague answer. She admitted that the situation was bad, that activists were being slaughtered, but insisted that at the time she “managed a very difficult situation, without bloodshed, without a civil war, that led to a new election. And I think that was better for the Honduran people.” For the most part, criticism of Clinton on Honduras largely stayed on the margins of the primary process, even as the killing in Honduras continued and evidenced mounted that Washington was once again was funding old-school death squads (see the invaluable investigation by Annie Bird).
Now, having beat back that part of the Democratic rank-and-file that cares about dead feminist activists in small Third World countries, the Clinton campaign has gone full Sun Tzi, turning its Honduran weak point into a strength, or, à la Karl Rove, its vulnerability into a virtue.
In picking Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate, the campaign has front-and-centered Honduras—not as a victim of Clinton’s realpolitik neoliberalism but as a sacred space of healing poverty.
Kaine, a Catholic, spent nine months in Honduras, from 1980 to 1981, in the Jesuit mission in El Progreso, very close to the company towns and plantations of the storied multinational banana company, United Fruit.
The sojourn, Kaine says, changed his life. Honduras “was really the turning point in my life. I was at Harvard Law School and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. And I took a year off and worked with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras,” Kaine told CNN’s Candy Crowley. “Every day I think of the lessons I learned from my friends there,” Kaine said elsewhere. The experience, he says, set him on his life’s journey to fight for social justice. Honduras “made him who he is,” said Kaine’s mother, Kathleen.
As soon as Clinton announced her pick, the liberal press converged, following the Clinton campaign’s talking points that spun Kaine as a progressive. “A Pope Francis Catholic.” Fine. To be expected. But that Honduras—Honduras!—is being highlighted as the beginning of Kaine’s conversion narrative truly is audacious.
Kaine, then 22 years old, showed up in Honduras during an especially consequential moment. The country in 1980 was quickly turning into the crossroads of Cold War. A year earlier, next door, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas had won their revolution. Father James Carney, a Chicago-born Jesuit priest who was executed in Honduras in 1983, recalled the moment in the Spanish-version of his memoir (published in English as To Be a Revolutionary): “If Nicaragua won, El Salvador could win, and then Guatemala, and then Honduras could win.” Carney said that in early 1980, El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, himself soon to executed, had declared that all conditions had been met for Christians to join the revolution: Life had become intolerable; all non-violent avenues of reform had been tried and failed; and, considering the misery in which most people lived, it would have been impossible for the revolution to produce injustices worse than those that already existed. “The popular war for liberation in Central America was one single war,” Carney wrote.