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The Honduran Dam Controversy and Micheletti’s Legacy

February 19, 2010

by Daniel Altschuler

Roberto Micheletti’s de facto government is back in the news. Last week, news broke in Honduras that the official newspaper, La Gaceta, published two different versions with the same number and date in the last days of Micheletti’s time in the Presidential Palace. The major difference? One version contained a controversial dam contract. After many months of Micheletti promoting his de facto government as the clean and honest side of the Liberal Party, the gacetazo (as the Honduran media has deemed the scandal) will further mar the legacy of Micheletti and his supporters.

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In their last days in office, presidents often sign controversial decrees that would have proved too controversial earlier in their term. In the United States, for instance, recent presidents have extended pardons to convicts and established vast natural reserves. Presidents must be careful, however, not to over-step in their last days, or else their legacy will be stained by controversy. President Clinton, for instance, went too far when he pardoned Mark Rich, sparking allegations that the wealthy Rich had purchased his freedom with political contributions.

In Honduras, it seems that Roberto Micheletti’s de facto government, with the Congress his party controlled, could not resist the temptations of the last days in office, either. Just before relinquishing power, Micheletti and the Congress rushed to approve a $160 million contract to operate and improve the José Cecilio del Valle Dam (better known as the Nacaome Dam). In January, the Honduran Congress sped through the process of granting the contract to a Honduran-Italian consortium. Then-President of the Congress, José Alfredo Saavedra, argued that Congress had recently fast-tracked laws, including the general amnesty passed in January, so the contract should not raise concerns. After the congressional vote, Roberto Micheletti signed the contract into law in his last cabinet meeting.

Almost immediately after Micheletti left power and Congress changed hands, however, the contract came into question. Only days after President Porfirio Lobo took office, the new government placed a hold on the publication of the decree in the country’s official newspaper, La Gaceta. Two weeks later, however, it became clear that La Gaceta had published two versions for January 22, 2010, with the same issue number. One version contained 16 pages, with no mention of the dam contract; the other included an additional 16 pages covering the dam contract and the creation of a new government office of criminal investigation. To make matters worse, the office in charge of publishing La Gaceta, Empresa Nacional de Artes Gráficas (ENAG), apparently only published 20 copies of the second version, and then denied publishing them at all once these copies had disappeared.

While the country awaits the results of an initial investigation by the Ministerio Público, all eyes are on the ENAG and the dam consortium for foul play. Saavedra, no longer president of Congress since the National Party took control, has backtracked and agreed to support the derogation of the contract. Questions remain, however, about the complicity of Saavedra, Micheletti and other powerful figures within the Liberal Party who pushed this contract through without sufficient public scrutiny.

Of course, this issue raises important issues about the transparency of the Honduran political process, long plagued by corruption. But, perhaps more importantly, it further undermines the reputation of honesty and integrity that Roberto Micheletti and his supporters in Congress sought to fashion for themselves after standing by the coup that overthrew Manuel Zelaya. Throughout his time in office, Micheletti presented himself as a humble public servant thrust into an unenviable but necessary position. His supporters (in Congress and the mainstream Honduran media) repeatedly contrasted his behavior with the innumerable accusations of corruption they leveled against Manuel Zelaya.

Congress granted Micheletti a congressional salary-for-life, and now the dam contract scandal has followed. Those in power since last June have continued to sow doubt regarding their credibility. In particular, recent events make it even more difficult to determine the credence of their claims that Zelaya’s government raided the country’s coffers for personal gain. If solid evidence exists, it will now become more difficult to convince the Honduran public and international observers. (Of course, none of this would change the reality of the coup, but it remains important for how the country remembers Zelaya’s term in office, events since June 28, and the role of Roberto Micheletti and the Congress.)

For now, the Honduran media and public have more questions than answers about the gacetazo. What cannot be refuted, however, is that this controversy will further stain the legacy of the de facto government that assumed power after the illegal ouster of Manuel Zelaya.

*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org conducting research in Guatemala and Honduras. He is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, and his research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.

 

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