Saturday, June 19, 2010

Who's in Charge (and what are they doing)?

On June 14, Honduras' El Heraldo newspaper reported concerns about the informality of the arrangements for continuity in the executive branch of government while Porfirio Lobo Sosa is away in South Africa watching the World Cup.

El Heraldo reported that according to "lawyer and political analyst" Raúl Pineda, there should have been a formal written document naming the designate in charge. The media had been unable to get confirmation of whether any such document was written. Presidential designate Maria Antonieta Guillén de Bogran was quoted as saying that she was "fulfilling the responsibilities of the administration of the Executive power" in coordination with Víctor Hugo Barnica.

But her reassurances were not enough for the media and, reportedly, the general public. So, on June 16 El Heraldo reported the release of the text of an official statement saying Barnica was the official designate, a statement that La Tribuna printed.

The original article in El Heraldo includes a sentence that seems like a non sequitur, stating that Raúl Pineda also said
that the minister of Governance, Áfrico Madrid, shouldn't be left in command either because that is why the three presidential designates were elected.

But this goes to the heart of why the press, if not the general public, have been concerned: Madrid appears to have taken advantage of the vacuum in authority, building on his constitutional role as chair of the cabinet to push through new policy that Honduran sources questionable.

As described by Radio America, last Tuesday the council of ministers led by Madrid passed a decree "that approves the construction of various dams in Honduras, responding to a priority and to take advantage of the water resource in the country". Madrid is quoted as saying
"The exploitation of water is part, together with production, the export of bananas, coffee, shrimp and wood, it is one more of the fundamental pillars and the State is going to be obliged to simplify the administrative procedures so that the people or the State itself can invest in the construction of dams of different sizes in all the [national] territory".

So what's up here? Simplifying paperwork must be good for everyone, right? after all, as Radio America reminded readers, there have been repeated shortages of water in the capital city.

But dams are not primarily about providing municipal water. They are means to control the distribution of water for agriculture; and mechanisms for production of electrical power, today an international commodity, through hydroelectric plants. And so, they are in essence profit opportunities for private enterprise, if the burden of regulation is not too onerous. Opportunities to exploit national resources for private gain. Minister Madrid's announcement of the new decree, as reported by La Tribuna, emphasized that the new decree would authorize dams for the "capture of potable water, irrigation, energy generation and the control of flooding".

In another Heraldo article article, Madrid is quoted as saying
"In Honduras there are millions of cubic meters of water that are thrown out in the sea every year and that we don't use the water represents money, represents life and social development."

What is at issue in the building of public works like dams that can benefit private enterprise was amply illustrated by the concurrent debate in Congress about a contract for 250 megawatts of "renewable energy" that, El Tiempo notes, sparked a wave of accusations and counter-accusations:
The ex-representative of the Consejo Hondureño de la Empresa Privada (COHEP)in the governing committtee of the Empresa Nacional de Energía Eléctrica (ENEE), Jesús Simón, said that the renewable energy businessmen enjoy an excess of incentives and that the contracts will be granted almost in perpetuity, since they will have the concession of the rivers for 50 years.

At the same time, he questioned that the prices will be above the economic variables that the energy market would set....

Those opposed to these contracts also questioned why in the process of contracting the energy the marginal price that the Secretaría de Recursos Naturales y Ambiente (SERNA) sets in January every year was not taken into account.

Water use is one of the emerging global issues where economic disadvantages are being created or deepened. For a new "priority" on water projects to be set by the Honduran government in the absence of the supposed head of state, in order to streamline some undefined "procedures", raises concerns about creating fewer opportunities for advocates for a public good to ask questions like those debated in Congress this week. And more: it raises the ever present question, who will profit from the proposed dams?

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