September 12, 2011

A step back in time with Wikileaks 2002-2004

Ricardo Maduro, Honduran president, 2002-2006A new Wikileaks-Honduras cable came through on a Google Alert the other day. "Oh, yeah, I forgot about Wikileaks," I thought to myself. So I clicked over to see what was new: Pages and pages of new Honduras-related cables, 50 cables per page. I went through at least 10 pages and still didn't arrive where I had last left off. These latest posted cables were from 2002-2004, when Larry Palmer was US Ambassador to Honduras, and Ricardo Maduro (photo) was president. The majority were "Media response to xyz event" and even though I skipped all of those, I still spent hours reading selected cables.

Some cables read a little like gossipy soap operas or tragic comedies. Juicy! But overall, as I was reading, all I could think was, "It has been a decade and only the names have changed." Honduras has had Nacionalista presidents and Liberal presidents. We've had hundreds of million in aid and loans as well as hundreds of millions of debt forgiven. We've had new laws and new 'watchdog' committees and organizations put into place. We've had foreign experts working on various problems. We've had plans and studies and dialogues and negotiations. And Honduras still has all the same problems, only in double or quadruple now!

US Ambassador to Honduras (2002-2005), Larry PalmerUS Ambassador Palmer (2002-2005, photo) was initially generally very optimistic about changes to be made under new President Ricardo Maduro. It's true, some significant laws were implemented. Personally, with my limited experience with government offices, I saw improvements in service. At least the government employees no longer flagrantly pulled out their wallets and deposited my fees directly into them right in front of me as I had seen a couple of times in my first year in Honduras. Most payments now have to be made at a bank.

Hope and changes in the law

In February 2002, the criminal procedure code was overhauled providing for oral presentations in public court instead of written presentations debated in private by the judges. A stronger anti-money laundering law was passed early in 2002. The election law was reformed and a government simplification law was passed. The Tribunal Superior de Cuentas (TSC) was created in 2002 as a hybrid general accounting and public ethics office but, according to the Embassy, had no visible affect on corruption. In almost two years of existence, the 600-employee TSC had not reported a single accounting discrepancy or recommended a single corruption charge. "Rather, the TSC seems to have become a jobs program for contacts of senior GOH (government of Honduras) officials in need of employment."

Immunity then, impunity now

Changing the constitution to revoke immunity for a long list of public officials was another success of the Maduro administration. Unfortunately, while politicians no longer have legal immunity from prosecution, in reality, they still do and are rarely ever even fired, much less prosecuted. Public employees can become millionaires seemingly overnight without even an investigation occurring. In many cases, they are merely shuffled to other government jobs in order to preserve their dignity. In some cases, they fade away only to be later resurrected under a new administration when the public has forgotten the scandal.

We'll see how the Zelaya, Flores Lanza, Bonano, Latinode, and other cases go, and I will happily eat my words if anyone goes to jail or even more far-fetched, are forced to make restitution. Just last week, (now former) Minister of Security Alvarez told us that he can't even fire police officers accused of crimes, narcotrafficking involvement, and corruption, that the courts restore them with full pay and that 10 high level police officials are "air traffic controllers" for the narcos.

In 2003, a minor congressman, Armando Avila Panchame, caught red handed fleeing the scene of a narco plane landing, was sacrificed to the anti-corruption gods and sent to prison for 20 years. Shortly after he claimed that he was going to implicate the "big people" involved with narcotrafficking, he was murdered in prison. To the best of my knowledge, he was the first and last politician to be convicted of anything, despite strong rumors that many in congress and high level government officials were and still are involved in narcotrafficking, money laundering, and other crimes, as are some of their family members.

Astronomical violent crime rate, endemic under-reporting

Central America homicides 1999-2007Truth scarier than fiction: That was the title of this August 2003 cable in which the Embassy lamented the shocking increase in murder rates but also expounded on the several ways in which they were certain that murder was vastly under-reported, particularly in areas where there is no morgue (most of the country) and where there are no journalists from the major news organizations (again, most of the country), since most statistics are based on morgue reports or the news.

Paragraph 15 of the cable pointed to a 50% increase in murders to date in 2003, but amazingly, the official 2003 statistics issued later by the government showed an unexplained 39% reduction in homicides! No doubt there was fiction in those numbers. The same statistic gathering problems apply in 2011, but now the homicide rate is estimated at 78-86 per 100,000, placing Honduras number one in the world of countries who report such statistics.

Same old, same old

High government salaries, teachers strikes (many cables), union pressures: Each of those issues were mentioned in several cables and are worse today than they were in 2002-2003. Current government salaries are stratospheric compared to 2001 despite at least a decade of constant pressure from the IMF to reduce them. One 2009 news report said that government salaries were 10 times what they were in 2001. Teachers unions have become so emboldened by the governments' lack of resolve to make politically tough decisions that they no longer think they should even have to work in order to receive paychecks and a whole generation of children have been robbed of an education. Those children, soon to become part of the workforce, will never recover that lost time.

Expropriation of private property

This cable discussed 13 cases of government expropriation or loss through corruption of US Americans' property, some of whom had been trying to get justice since the 1970's. One of those cases is actually a friend of mine. (Very strange to read about a friend's case in Wikileaks!) A 2005 update on these cases indicated no favorable results. Another entire cable was devoted to the shocking Roatan McNab-Anderson-Moore case in which the American citizens' caretaker was forcibly removed in handcuffs from their house by police while they were in the US. When they returned to Honduras a few days later, they were forced by a judge and police to remove their personal belongings from their home in two hours and they found others already living in it! Ambassador Palmer thought this case would be a test of the resolve of the Honduran government in the area of investor rights. Can anyone tell me how that case ended up or is this something that we shouldn't discuss?

For the rest of the story on the McNab case directly from one of the parties involved, see Roatán's McNab-Anderson-Moore case.

Open for business, 2002 style

This cable discusses Maduro's efforts to attract business, not so terribly different from the current "Honduras is Open for Business" One section is entitled "Hopes rest on CAFTA" — hmmm, that didn't work out near so well for most of Honduras as it did for US exporters. It then lists some of Honduras' challenges, which, unfortunately are still with us. One example was the then recent minimum wage hike (which brought wages at that time to less than half of what they are now). In another cable, Palmer discusses the case of a US citizen who believed that his cable company was being harassed and that he was personally and publicly being defamed as being a narcotrafficker by a politically powerful Honduran business rival.


Corruption and a frustrating lack of will for change was a frequent theme of the cables, despite Ambassador Palmer's initial hopefulness. But by December 2003, in a cable entitled "Good talkers, but Maduro Administration not seriously committed to fighting corruption", the embassy wrote this:

"In office for almost two years, President Ricardo Maduro's administration talks a lot about fighting corruption .... Upon close examination, however, one sees little demonstrable progress in breaking corruption's pervasive grip on almost all aspects of daily life in Honduras. Moreover, there appears to be very little genuine interest in addressing corruption's root causes or the venality of many Government of Honduras officials."
At that time (2003), Transparency International ranked Honduras 106 in corruption out of 133 countries (fourth lowest in the Western Hemisphere). In 2010, Honduras was in 134th place out of 178 countries, tied with eight other countries. Honduras' score fell from 2.7 (out of 10) in 2002 to 2.4 in 2010. Among many other actors, Palmer pointed to the congress, describing it as,

"riddled with tainted politicians who view their positions heavily through the lens of personal wealth creation. This year alone, three members of Congress have been arrested on drug trafficking charges, and many others continue to be involved in a wide range of other illicit activities."

By October 2004, Palmer makes his disappointment about the lack of progress on the anti-corruption front and with President Maduro crystal clear. Palmer reports on a heated meeting with Maduro in which:

"Maduro was visibly put-off by the Ambassador's suggestion that Honduras needed to do more on the anti-corruption front. Apart from the fact that Honduras could be found ineligible to receive future MCA funds based on its undistinguished anti-corruption record, Maduro appears more preoccupied with maintaining the political status quo."

And so it goes.

Honduras corruption
Cartoon: Dario Banegas
La Prensa, Honduras
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