“Sometimes it’s better to not open your mouth and confirm that you are a fool. There is absolutely no misuse involved in using public resources to help a basketball team and I am absolutely prepared to go down believing that!!! If it is acceptable to use BTL and BTB funds to sponsor a Machel Montano concert, how can it be a misuse of public resources to assist a basketball team with transportation to San Pedro?”
– Honorable John Saldivar’s, Facebook post, May 29th 2017
In 1995, as the Executive Officer of the BDF Maritime Wing, I received instructions from the Commandant of the BDF to provide a boat to take some people to Caye Caulker and then on to San Pedro. The instructions, according to the Commandant, were directly from the Minister of National Security and therefore I was to ensure that we did not “screw up”.
I in turn, instructed Lieutenant Valerio to command the vessel and to report to the Fort George pier in good time and in good order. Shortly before the vessel was due to depart, I got a call from Lieutenant Valerio that some people had arrived to be transported to Caye Caulker but that they were all wearing political tee shirts. He inquired what to do. My training has always been that the BDF serves the people of Belize through the democratically elected government of the day but that public resources must never be used for political purposes. On the basis of this training, I instructed Lieutenant Valerio to inform the persons at the pier that they could not ride the BDF vessel wearing political paraphernalia. They therefore had two options: remove the political tee shirts and replace it with non-political attire or be denied access to the vessel. Some people were able to place another top over the political tee shirts and some of the men reversed their tee shirts so that the political slogans were not so obvious. Satisfied that there were no glaring displays of partisanship, and after I had consulted the Commandant, the vessel departed.
A few hours later, I received a call from Lieutenant Valerio who advised that when it was time to leave from Caye Caulker to San Pedro, he was approached by the Minister of National Security (Dean O. Barrow) who inquired about what had happened in Belize City and why the people could not wear their political attire. Lieutenant Valerio explained that it was upon my instructions that he acted. The Minister reportedly erupted and proceeded to give Lieutenant Valerio a tongue lashing. He declared that he was the Minister of National Security and that he was countermanding my instructions and that the people will be allowed onboard the vessel in whatever attire they wished. On the way to San Pedro the crowd was riled up, chanting continuously “UDP all the way!” as if to humiliate and intimidate the loyal members of the Belize Defence Force. That incident was to leave a lasting impression on Lieutenant Valerio, the sailors and myself.
A few weeks ago, a local newspaper broke the news that Minister John Saldivar had on several occasions used Coast Guard vessels to transport his private basketball team to San Pedro. This was a clear abuse of public resources and a practice that harms Belize’s maritime security if not its national security. We have not heard any public consternation from the Prime Minister (the self same Minister of National Security circa 1995) in relation to this abuse of already limited public resources. We were, however, to hear from the donor of the Coast Guard vessels, the US government, through its Embassy in Belize. The US Embassy clothed their warning to John in diplomatic terms, but make no bones about it, John was told to cease and desist! Belizeans may not know but gifts such as the Coast Guard vessels remain the property of the US Government and cannot be disposed of without their expressed consent.
Minister John Saldivar would subsequently attempt to justify the use of the Coast Guard vessels by way of a post on Facebook which was later taken down. In his post he compared the use of the Coast Guard vessels to the BTB and BTL sponsorship of a Machel Montano concert. Such an argument is of course ad absurdum. Firstly, BTL, though owned fully by the people of Belize, is a private company with a marketing budget approved by its Board of Directors and administered by its management team. In fact, so insulated is BTL from the public sector, not even the Prime Minster could tell the House of Representatives how much its CEO was being paid (insert sarcasm here). Secondly, the BTB is a statutory board with a clear mandate to promote Belize’s tourism product. The BTB too has a marketing budget that is approved by its Board of Directors and administered by its management team. Thirdly, the Coast Guard is a disciplined force as described in the Belize Constitution. It reports directly to the Minister of Defence and it has no mandate to provide such assistance to private entities and worst: it has no marketing budget!
What the Hon. John Saldivar has done is akin to the Prime Minister ordering BTL to sponsor his private team or the Hon. Manuel Heredia ordering the BTB to sponsor his. Surely both such occurrences would be a conflict of interest and would be unpalatable!
Setting the optics aside, the “assistance” provided by the Coast Guard to John’s private basketball team came at real costs to the public purse. It seems rather obscene that at a time when the average Belizean is being subjected to austerity measures, that the Minister of National Security could squander almost $5,400 of public resources on his private basketball team. I recognize that these sporting ventures are expensive. They require significant financial investments and often times they subject their owners to financial pain with very little return on their investments. Was it not such financial pain that led Minister Saldivar to the infamous Mason?
The misuse of public funds in this manner should be condemned by every right-thinking Belizean. Belize, a developing nation, cannot afford to squander our already limited resources. I am reminded of when, in 2011, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey took his official helicopter to his son’s baseball game and how he came under serious flak for misuse of public resources. So fierce were the criticisms, Gov. Christie would offer to reimburse the State for his ill-advised trip.
What the Hon. Minister has done is in effect, to raid public funds for the pursuit of his own personal fantasies; this should not be countenanced! The Hon. John Saldivar, to use the lyrics of the streets, did Admiral Borland a low. Firstly by “requesting” that he provide these vessels for non-military purposes and secondly by the suggestion in his press release that the deployment of Coast Guard assets is the sole province of the Commandant. On the other hand, Admiral Borland did himself a low when he, in defence of the Minister, tried to justify to the Belizean people their misjudgment with the hollow argument that the Coast Guard had done it before for others. The use of the Coast Guard to assist other government departments is not an abuse of public resources, nor is any assistance given to NGOs, particularly those involved in the protection and conservation of our marine resources. None of the foregoing is of a similar nature to what amounts to the private use of public resources by the two Johns.
Finally let me say how troubled I am that the Commandant of the Coast Guard did not find the fortitude to say to the Minister that his “request” to use the Coast Guard vessels was inappropriate and that it would come at the expense of our maritime/national security. In fact, I would argue that the Minister had no lawful authority to order the Coast Guard on such a mission. It appears to me that it is more important for the heads of our security forces to maintain a “good relationship” with the Minister than it is to defend the interests of the Belizean people. In 2017, it seems that things are as they were in 1995. Scenes of the Senate Special Select Committee therefore play in my head. I am worried!
Major Lloyd Jones