It is hard to say whether the docility present amongst the trade and labor unions in Belize is attributable to superior politicking by the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) or inferior practice of same by the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP). Given all the accumulation of seriously negative economic indicators on the Belizean landscape, topped off this week by another cynical hike in fuel prices by the Ministry of Finance, it should be the case that there is visible dissatisfaction in the ranks of labor. Not so. There was a half-hearted stirring in a section of the Belize Communications Workers Union (BCWU), reference a lunch break meeting of BTL workers last week, but overall the organized Belizeans who will be most affected by the present and projected downturns in the Belizean economy may be characterized, on the instant, as wide awake in a dream. The question is why.
Belize’s governance system is what is called a constitutional democracy, featuring national elections every five years or so which decide which political party will form the government and control public funds. The UDP has won three consecutive general elections – 2008, 2012, and 2015, and what seems evident is that the Opposition PUP has not been able to galvanize the working classes enough to win a majority of seats.
In fact, the landslide defeat of the PUP by the UDP in the February 2008 general election may be ascribed to the fact that the working classes of Belize, as organized in the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), had actually become outraged with the Said Musa government by early 2005, primarily because of scandals in the Social Security Board (SSB) and Development Finance Corporation (DFC), and were eager to vote out the PUP in 2008.
But the PUP’s early history had been one of definite affinity with the workers, evidence being the fact that the PUP won its first two national elections, in 1954 and 1957, in open, formal coalition with the General Workers Union (GWU). In those days, the Opposition National Party (NP) was considered as being the tool of the giant, oppressive British company – Belize Estate and Produce Company (BEC). The National Independence Party (NIP), which replaced the NP in 1958, developed more appeal for workers when Hon. Philip Goldson, a former PUP hero, became NIP Leader in 1961, but still, the PUP clearly continued to dominate the labor vote in the 1960s. When the UDP replaced the NIP in 1973, the PUP continued as the workers’ favorite.
Because of this pro-labor history, it was assumed by many observers that after the PUP lost favor with workers in 2004/2005, and was voted out of office in 2008, it would be relatively easy for the grand old party to right itself and resume command of the labor vote. The results of the 2012 and 2015 general elections suggest that this has not been the case.
At the base of the pyramid, on Thursday, February 25, Belize remains unusually quiet socio-politically, although all our economic news have been bad ever since the Barrow government raised fuel prices on Christmas Eve of 2015. It may be that the movers and shakers amongst the working classes are waiting for the 2016/2017 budget speech to assess the situation statistically. One reason for the unusual quiet was no doubt the fact that the PUP was involved in intense leadership convention campaigning for the whole of January. Plus, the new PUP Leader, John Briceño, seems to be moving cautiously, presumably because of the fact that his defeated rival/previous Party Leader, Francis Fonseca, had commanded the support of 8 of the PUP’s 12 House area representatives prior to January 31, when the PUP’s convention delegates replaced him.
The fact that Briceño defeated Fonseca so easily confirmed the widespread opinion that an insider group had been ruling the PUP without the endorsement and enthusiasm of the party’s rank-and-file. But there is no real evidence that the new PUP Leader, a multimillionaire businessman, will be able to light a fire at the base of the Belizean pyramid. After all, he had led the PUP before (2008-2011) and had not been able to do so.
The Belize Progressive Party (BPP), an amalgam of third parties and regional movements which formalized itself last year around the time the general elections were being called in October, is a socialist party if you listen to its Leader, Patrick Rogers. Its small share of votes on November 4 indicates that the BPP is not yet considered a credible option by labor. In other words, labor continues to hope for something good to come out of the PUP.
So it is that this UDP administration has gotten away with massive corruption in office, wasteful spending of public funds for most of 2015, and is able now to turn the fuel tax screws even tighter on labor with no reaction from the streets. In such matters as public funds and budgets, the Belizean base traditionally looks to the political Opposition for expertise and leadership.
In early February of 2005, Belize’s union leadership, as organized in the NTUCB, had brought the Musa PUP government to its knees. It may well have been the case that at that specific point in time, the NTUCB was more powerful than the Opposition UDP. The question is purely academic, however, because we will never know the answer. The point we wish to make is that the NTUCB did not move to take power and the NTUCB did not know how to take power, because they are not constitutionally organized for the purpose of taking power. The UDP, which has become so dominant in February of 2016, was only a shell in February of 2004. The UDP returned to power in 2008 because the NTUCB had had enough of the PUP.
Today, the NTUCB is a shell of what it was eleven years ago. It would not be a wild surmise to think, in retrospect, that the Francis Fonseca PUP actually wished to return to power without the NTUCB, or without a muscular NTUCB. Francis’ PUP really did not woo the workers. Shell or no shell, wherever the organized workers of Belize decide to go politically, there is where the power will be. But the organized workers of Belize are no fools. They do not involve themselves in party politics on frivolous levels.
The base of the Belizean pyramid awaits the new estimates of revenue and expenditure. It appears that hard times are up ahead, and the Belizean base is in no mood for either comedy or melodrama. It is this circus which needs to be changed. The color of the clothing worn by the clowns is immaterial.
Power to the people. Remember Danny.