Friday, June 14, 2013

Health Minister's Suspension Casts Light on Corruption in Honduras

The recent suspension and investigation of Honduran Health Minister Roxana Araujo provides the perfect illustration of the deeply entrenched nature of corruption in the Central American country. But despite the government’s claims, there is reason to believe she’s an anti-corruption crusader rather than the ineffective and corrupt public figure the Lobo administration makes her out to be.

On June 7, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo announced that Araujo would be suspended for a period of 30 days, and administration of the country’s Ministry of Health would go to a specially appointed commission.  According to Lobo, the move was necessary because a lack of effective management had contributed to a “crisis” in the Honduran health system. Also, El Heraldo reported that it had obtained a copy of internal government documents showing that some 2.5 million dollars meant for dengue medication had been unaccounted for during Araujo’s 2010-2012 term as head of Honduras’ national anti-dengue program.


Araujo’s case seemed like an open and shut case of official corruption. That is, until a report from high profile anti-corruption NGO Transformemos Honduras released a statement vouching for her as a public figure who has cooperated with them repeatedly to denounce fraudulent activity related to medication purchases in the past. While Transformemos Honduras said it welcomed an honest investigation into the allegations against Araujo, the group also praised her for taking steps to address abuses “which no one else had to courage to stand up against,” including the sale of low quality medication at inflated prices and theft.


According to the NGO, Araujo appeared with some of its representatives to meet with Lobo in the days before her suspension was announced, in order to address concerns about high-level corruption in the Ministry. From Transformemos’ press release:

There is strong evidence that those responsible for the irregularities found include economic and political groups that have historically used the Ministry of Health to profit by selling overpriced, poor quality drugs, in addition to abusing the internal procedures of the institution to place representatives of their interests. Among the partners of the main drug suppliers to state firms -- who have provided overpriced, low-quality drugs -- are people linked to mass media, others of the largest companies in the country, as well as senior politicians.
In light of their evidence, Transformemos has launched a new campaign to speak out against these activities, known as “Pare el Robo” (Stop the Theft).  Araujo has backed the campaign, and accuses President Lobo of suspending her because of his administration’s ties to the illicit racket. By way of response, she has announced her resignation and is fighting back against the administration in the public arena.  

“One of my main mistakes was firing the woman in charge of buying medications, who was very close to someone in power,” Araujo said in an interview on Monday. “There are many interests at stake; there are economic interests, but also individual and family interests,” she added. When asked if she meant family members of President Lobo, Araujo nodded. “That’s right.” On Wednesday the former minister told La Tribuna that the ministry was obligated to purchase certain medications at exorbitantly high prices from pharmaceutical companies with ties to the government, even though the quality of their products were inferior.


Lobo, for his part, has coolly denied any wrongdoing. On Tuesday El Heraldo reported that, “although he does not like to address such matters after ending relations with an employee, the president made an exception to quell rumors.” According to Lobo, Araujo was simply dismissed because she was not handling administrative tasks like paying her employees on time or a shortage of medications in hospitals.


Meanwhile, the committee overseeing the ministry in Araujo’s stead has submitted its first report to the Lobo administration on suggested reforms to the health system. El Tiempo reports that its contents were not made public, against the request of Transformemos Honduras.



News Briefs

  • An Argentine court yesterday sentenced former President Carlos Menem to seven years in prison for smuggling weapons to Croatia and Ecuador between 1991 and 1995 during his term in office, Clarin reports. The court found evidence that Menem, who is currently serving as a senator, sent over six tons of weapons to both countries despite the fact that they were subject to arms embargoes at the time. As the AP notes, the court has asked the Senate to vote in favor of stripping him of his immunity as a lawmaker when the sentence is final, but because Menem’s lawyers have appealed the decision to the Supreme Court this will not happen anytime soon. According to La Nacion, Menem has been a dependable ally to President Cristina Fernandez, and even though she has criticized his administration in the past her party will vote against removing his immunity.
  • Brazilian journalist Jose Roberto Ornelas de Lemos, was killed in a town bar in Nova Iguacu on Tuesday in an apparent attempt to silence his reporting for local newspaper Hora H. According to O Globo and the L.A. Times, relatives say he received threats constantly because of his work, and police say that is their main line of investigation. The fact that authorities are taking the threat seriously is noteworthy, as earlier this year the Committee to Protect Journalists criticized Brazil for failing to pursue serious investigations into journalist murders.
  • Thousands of people in Brazil’s two largest cities -- Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro -- took to the streets to protest an increase in bus fares last night, with Folha de Sao Paulo reporting that clashes extended into the early hours of this morning. The New York Times notes that the rate hikes come at a time when inflation is on the rise and growth is sluggish, but the Rio Gringa blog makes the interesting contention that the protests actually reflect dissatisfaction with the state of Brazil's middle class and a reduction in quality in life.
  • The Economist profiles the launch of a new police in the industrial city of Monterrey, known as the “Fuerza Civil,” which is made up of individuals who have never worked in law enforcement before. The police force enjoys widespread support of locals, and cooperates closely with the private sector in the city.
  • Investigators in Paraguay have ruled out foul play in the death of presidential candidate Lino Oviedo in a February helicopter crash, finding that the incident was caused by strong storm winds.
  • Although details about the project are scarce, Nicaragua’s Congress has approved a plan to allow a Chinese firm to develop a $40 billion canal which will rival that of Panama’s and be twice as long. As the L.A. Times reports, however, opposition politicians are skeptical that the project will get off the ground. Ronald Maclean, an executive involved in the operation, told The Guardian it is “the largest project in Latin America in 100 years.”
  • Yesterday Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced that he is creating a new anti-corruption investigative unit, over which he will personally preside. El Universal reports that Maduro gave no further details about the project, though he did say he intended to “organize young people” to participate in it.
  • The Washington Post’s Juan Forero looks at the “extraordinary lengths” that residents of the crime-plagued city off Caracas will go to in order to adjust to insecurity, which range from forming group running clubs to carrying “decoy phones” and installing bulletproof armor on their cars.
  • After a mass student protest was held in Santiago yesterday intended to increase pressure on the government for education reforms ahead of primary elections on June 30, AFP reports that a violent broke out between Chilean police and masked “encapuchados,” resulting in at least 30 arrests.
  • BBC Mundo profiles the blue-helmeted “cascos azules” who volunteer to serve as the watchdogs of police abuse at student protests in Chile, filming demonstrations and monitoring police behavior.