June 28, 2011

Comments on the UCD Open Letter to President Lobo

Poll: Honduras on the wrong pathConfidence: Lobo does what is best for the country?
Cid-Gallup poll taken between June 14 and 20, 2011

Always: 6%
Almost always: 33%
Almost never: 46%

Never: 15%

No response: 1%

UCD made some good points in their open letter to Honduran President Lobo. We cannot figure out where this country is headed or who is directing the journey. In the June Cid-Gallup poll, 78% of Hondurans believe that the country is on the wrong path. On the one hand, we have a huge 'Honduras is open for business' event, making promises of investor security and ease of doing business. On the other hand, we have government condoned invasions and expropriation of business and private property, huge new tax packages, more violent crime than ever, and a general belittling of businessmen as if they are the enemy.

Where are jobs to come from if not from businesses? The government cannot hire every Honduran, though they certainly try their best with a hugely over-bloated bureaucracy that spends so much on salaries that there is nothing left for programs.

President Lobo and several members of his administration have made broad accusations to the media that slander and discredit large groups of people. Besides promoting division in the country, this "dirties" everyone in that class and does nothing to address the real problems (whether criminal or ethical) that he vaguely implies. Lobo has done that many times, including making wild comments that the 'elite' want to/are/will plan a coup against him.

No, I'm not suggesting that corruption, tax evasion or illegal acts should be swept under the rug — just the opposite. Rather than making vague statements to the media, and using disrespectful terms like "fat cows", "crybabies", and "los ricos" (the rich), which only serve to divide, not reconcile the population, I think that these public officials with access to official documentation have a duty to file formal denuncias and ensure that legal action is taken against corrupt government officials and businessmen. But in Honduras, no one is ever held accountable for their actions, and that feeds the general perception that everyone in Honduras is corrupt.

Lobo's inaugural day statement which received the most applause — and the one I feel most foolish for believing — was "No more corruption! Corruptos are going to go to jail, period!" During this year and a half of his administration, there has been no evidence of that at all, not even a baby step in that direction. What we have seen is Lobo pressuring the courts and the congress to ensure that certain corruptos do not receive justice and that laws are ignored when it is convenient.

Poll: Corruption in HondurasFrom the Cid-Gallup poll, 42% believe there is more corruption in this government, 42% believe it is the same, and only 13% believe there is less corruption.

We have also seen President Lobo passing the buck to underlings instead of taking a public stand on alleged corrupt acts, like the recent diplomatic scandals (one in which a diplomat transported US $450,000 in cash from Mexico to Panama). No, the President does not run the Ministerio Público or the courts — or at least he isn't supposed to — but a strong statement from the president about diplomats that he himself has appointed would be welcomed by the population who want to see some real action taken against these officials, not just removal from their positions. When the worst anyone needs to worry about is a slim possibility of being fired, but still being allowed to keep their illegal gains and no chance of criminal charges, that makes corruption a win-win prospect.

It isn't just Lobo who promotes division in the country by smearing broad groups of people. There seems to be an epidemic in his administration. Minister of Finance William Chong Wong has made frequent claims that many large businesses do not pay taxes and that large law firms are involved in falsifying documents. So? Isn't it the government's job to ensure that taxpayers pay what they owe and that appropriate action is taken against tax evaders? Hundreds of small businesses are closed every month for tax evasion and paperwork irregularities. Why aren't the big businesses treated the same way?

Director of the DEI, José Oswaldo Guillén claims that corruption among port authorities results in under-valuation of imported vehicles with the cost to the government of L. 400 million in lost taxes. If that is so, isn't it his job to report these crimes and press for criminal action against those who committed fraud and falsified government documents? Why isn't criminal action taken against government employees who accept bribes and commit fraud?

President of the Congress Juan Orlando Hernández claimed that many congressmen violated the law regarding tax exemption of their personal imported vehicles, sometimes using the same exemption three or four times and sometimes using forged documents. But he did nothing to expose the individual congressmen or to propose legal action against them, instead merely implying that many in congress were guilty without naming names.

These aren't new accusations. Most of these claims have been made for years and in prior administrations. In my mind, if officials have evidence of all of these crimes and do nothing, that makes them accomplices to the corruption.

Poll: Pepe Lobo approval ratingSo what is the general public to think? That all government officials, all congressmen, and all businessmen are guilty of corruption and that no one will ever do anything about it. It's no surprise that citizens have no respect for their government or the laws. That is not good for the country. If the population were to see real action on the corruption front, applied equally to members of all political parties and all individuals regardless of their economic status or personal connections, Hondurans might start believing in their government again. (Poll: tendencies in the opinion of Lobo's performance.)

During Pepe Lobo's 2009 presidential campaign, he refused to give his opinions on even the most basic issues, such as "Who is the president of Honduras?", consistently stating that he needed a 'gran dialogo nacional' (grand national dialogue) first. Now he says that he was given a mandate and that he can't be bothered with getting public opinion. He is publicly dismissive of opinions coming from anyone who he considers of the "right". Lobo gives the impression that 'reconciliation' to him means kowtowing to the radical FNRP, the teacher unions, and the international community while ignoring the views and the serious issues of the rest of people of Honduras.

President Lobo has made some popular decisions which have been cheered by most of the population — but unfortunately, he invariably seems to backtrack on those decisions in the interests of reconciliation. One example is his position that "a day not worked is a day not paid" for the teachers. The Ministry of Education began deducting for "strike days" from the teachers' paychecks. In an emergency proclamation it was declared that teachers who did not return to work by a certain day would be suspended without pay and some were.

But now it has been announced that the suspensions will be reversed and that all teachers would be paid for all days whether worked or not. Apparently this was a negotiation concession, but rather than having the intended effect, the union leaders immediately remarked to the media "what a weak president we have", and teachers in several schools went on strike again! Lobo's threats will never be taken seriously again and teacher unions will continue to hold the children of Honduras hostage, because they know they can win.
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