More than 1,000 days ago, former President Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002) put away his airplane reading, “The Life of Pi,” and stepped down off of what would be his last flight for years.
Rodríguez, who had just taken office as the first Central American Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), had landed back home in Costa Rica, where he was being investigated for corruption allegations.
Though he knew he had come home to face the charges, what he didn’t know was that police and members of the press were waiting at the airport to snap photos of him being led from the plane in handcuffs.
It’s been nearly three years since that October day, which Rodríguez calls “a public lynching.” Charges were finally filed against the political heavyweight last month (TT, Aug. 3).
From day one, the former head of state has maintained he is innocent of the charges. Exhausted from spending years in investigative limbo – during which he served five months in jail and seven more in house arrest – the 67-year-old grandfather welcomed the charges in hopes they’re the beginning of the end of his long wait for justice.
Since The Tico Times’ last interview with Rodríguez (TT, June 10, 2005), charges have been filed against him and 10 others in a corruption scandal in which executives of French telecommunications firm Alcatel are accused of paying top Costa Rican officials huge sums in connection with a contract with the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) to operate 400,000 cell phone lines. Earlier this year, a former Alcatel executive confessed in U.S. federal court to having dished out $2.5 million in bribes to high-level Costa Rican officials (TT, Feb. 9).
Rodríguez, who is being put through a justice system he helped reform in 1996, says he now regrets changes to the country’s criminal code that he supported, as they are coming back to haunt him.
The Tico Times recently met with Rodríguez in his fourth-floor condominium in the western suburb of Escazú. (He and his wife Lorena Clare rented out their luxurious Escazú home to help ease the financial burden while he was in jail.)
Wearing his signature suit and tie, Rodríguez leaned back on his sofa and talked about the latest John Grisham book, what it’s like to lose a friend, and how the professor of international trade suddenly developed a renewed interest in criminal law.
TT: What have you been doing in your free time?
MAR: I studied criminal law when I studied law, but I was never really interested in it. I never paid as much attention to it as I should have.
I wrote a review of a book by John Grisham. He’s a lawyer and author of 18 fiction novels. Last year he wrote his first nonfiction novel, “The Innocent Man,” a real case of a man who was wrongfully sentenced to death. One of the things he says is that in his wildest imagination he wouldn’t have been able to imagine something as powerful as this real case.
I’ve been studying a lot about the Criminal Code that was reformed in 1996. I feel personally responsible for that code because I was leader of the opposition at the time and we believed in those reforms we were pushing. Now, I’m very worried this code isn’t good for the protection of innocent people in this country.
You supported the reforms?
We supported the reforms to strengthen the power of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office. Now, the Prosecutor’s Office has the records and procedures. We don’t have the balances you have in the Common Law system, in which you have a grand jury. An indictment can’t occur without the grand jury’s approval, and then you have the jury at the time of the sentencing.
Now that you’re experiencing the justice system firsthand, what reforms would you make?
I’ve been giving that a lot of thought. In a system of law, it’s very important that the records be clear for all parts. In the system we have in Costa Rica, the prosecutor keeps the records during the investigation stage.
In my case, when I went to make my first declaration, lots of info that the prosecutors already had weren’t presented to us.
Papers and documents came to light more than a year after the prosecutor’s office got it. This shows how difficult it is to have a fair defense.
In the previous system, there was a year limit for the investigation, and charges had to be made or the case closed. As part of the 1996 reform, prosecutors were able to extend the investigation because it was considered a complex process. They doubled the statute of limitations. Also, it’s not clear when you can appeal. Previously, it was very clear when you could appeal. Now, it’s left to the judge to decide if you can appeal.
Since we last spoke, former Alcatel employee Christian Sapsizian has confessed to administering bribes…
Sapsizian has never mentioned me in anything. If you look at declarations he made to France, he made it clear that he had never had any contact with me.
He said in U.S. federal court that bribes were given to a top government official.
He hasn’t said he gave it, so there’s nothing clear on that. There’s been not a penny that has come from Alcatel in any way to me. I never had any contact with them.
You were in La Reforma penitentiary the same time as former President Rafael Angel Calderón, Jr. (1990-1994). What kind of interaction did you have?
We talked, we would have something to eat together, sometimes we watched the soccer game together. Most of all we talked. We tried to support each other.
Are you still in contact?
No, because he has been called as a witness in this case so I can’t talk with him.
You were once opponents in the same party.
Yes, and we were friends.We were friends and then opponents and then we were friends (smiles).
I understand that you and José Antonio Lobo, the ICE board member who made a confession in which he accused you of receiving bribes, used to be friends. How did you meet, become friends, and what’s your relationship now?
We were in the same political party. He was a congressman from 1986 to 1990 and when I started running for President, trying to obtain the (party’s endorsement), he was one of the few congressmen in the party who gave me support. Most went with Calderón. After that, he worked on my political campaigns for an extended period of time.
I have had no contact with him, of course, after his strange behavior.
The Prosecutor’s Office granted him immunity for a confession. Fifteen days after the trial ends, if they’ve decided he hasn’t acted as they want him to act, they can bring him back to trial. They have a gun to his head, saying you have to do this and this and this.
Can that be taken as real truth? Can that be taken as a real testimony?
Do you feel like you lost a friend?
As part of the criminal case, the Government Attorney’s Office and ICE are filing civil claims against you and others. The Attorney’s Office has said it was considering holding Calderón and yourself responsible for the highest abstention rates in four decades in the 2006 elections. What do you think about that?
I think that’s crazy. I think that’s nonsense.
Putting aside your innocence or guilt, do you feel these corruption scandals have disillusioned voters?
If you look at the numbers, the changes occurred way before this happened (in 2004). If you look at the elections of 1998 and 2002, you already see diminishing voter turnout.
You recently won a case against former Public Security Minister Rogelio Ramos and Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese because they gave the press too much access to cover your arrest at the airport (TT, Dec. 22, 2006). You’ve said the Prosecutor’s Office has too much power.What about the press?
We have problems all over the world with prosecutors and media coming together to create public opinion.
Alan Minc, a political scientist and journalist, in his book “La Borrachera Democratica,” says that the traditional three branches of executive, legislative and judicial have been changed by the powers of prosecutors, media and public opinion in modern democracies. Accusations in the media against politicians are immediate condemnations in which there’s no way out.
Some countries have means to deal with this. In the United States, for instance, if a case becomes too publicized in one county, then the trial is moved somewhere else.
How can we have a fair trial in Costa Rica? Why did I come back here, why did I renounce my position in which I was unanimously elected to lead the OAS? I came to defend myself in court. It is 1,033 days later and I haven’t been able to do this. At least now there’s an accusation and someday the charges will be presented to a judge and someday I’ll be able to defend myself in court.
The second part is getting a just trial, a fair trial, and this is my fight today.
How do you explain what the daily La Nación recently reported, that charges against you also include allegations you received illegal payments from the government of Taiwan?
There’s no basis for those charges. They’re talking about money going between private companies. It does appear that those charges are included in the accusation, though.
In your short stint at the OAS, what did you find to be the biggest threat to democracy in Latin America today?
Inequality. To alleviate it requires growth and good public institutions. Inequality makes it difficult for growth to be shared by different groups. We should diminish inequality without destroying the market mechanism. That means a combination of better tax laws, anti-monopolistic policies, and creating a fair and efficient public sector.
My main concern in Costa Rica is that the private sector is like a jet going full speed, making all the changes in the tourism zones and free zones. And the public sector is like an oxcart in which the ox is no longer tied to the cart and the cart is stuck in the mud. What’s the result? More inequality. Those attached to the private sector improve; those who depend on the public sector are left behind.
When am I going to end this? There are people in the ICE-Alcatel case that are also involved in the Caja (Social Security System corruption) case. So the ICE case perhaps can’t be judged before the Caja case. Well, in the Caja case there are more than 300 witnesses.
Though there’re only 60 witnesses in the ICE case, it may not end until 2012 or 2013. I’ll be 73 or 74. It would be 10 years of my life.