For us, focus shifted from Cayo Northeast’s Elvin Penner, conspicuous by his presence, to Belize Rural North’s Edmond Castro, conspicuous by his absence, on Wednesday in the House of Representatives when Hon. Prime Minister Dean Barrow actually told the House, and the nation, that what had been going on at the Belize Airports Authority was “distasteful” but was not “corruption.” Glory, glory be.
As we understand it, and this is a story broken by Channel 5 and The Belize Times, the Belize Airports Authority, under the chairmanship of one Kenworth Tillett, who has been refusing to speak to the media, has been in the habit of making out checks to Mr. Castro for various and sundry expenses which appear personal and/or frivolous. According to Mr. Barrow, these checks were approved by the board of the Belize Airports Authority, and, again according to the Prime Minister, this is a time-honored practice engaged in by Ministers and statutory boards within their portfolios.
An interesting aspect of what has been going on with respect to Mr. Penner and Mr. Castro is that although anti-UDP elements in the media (Exhibit A – Channel 5: Exhibit B – Belize Times) have been essentially leading the charge, it is not as if the energy building up over the last few months has been under the control of the Opposition PUP. The energy building is exposing the fact, once again, that we have a flawed system of democracy in Belize, and the most troubling of the flaws is that the system allows, encourages, and perhaps forces political parties which are in government to put the interests of their party above the interests of the Belizean nation. This is the real bone in the throat of the Belizean people.
On Wednesday, the disgraced Penner appeared in the House for the first time in months, and, isolated from his former UDP colleagues, he seemed practically furtive, for sure a fish out of water. At the time of the G-7 challenge to Ralph Fonseca’s public finances rule in August of 2004, then Prime Minister Said Musa had been audiotaped telling a PUP Belize Rural Central committee in Ladyville that, “Dis wahn blow ova like wahn lee breeze.” The comment has been quoted over and over since then, but by now Mr. Penner is realizing that, even if the Musa comment was correct with respect to every previous incident in Belize’s political history, it is not correct with reference to Penner’s Citizen Kim predicament. For Elvin Penner, bad has gone to worse. The worst, may be yet to come.
In the bigger picture, what we have seen in Belize has been the emergence of an acute consciousness where abuse of public finances and public assets by UDP officials, their cronies, and their underlings is concerned. The abuse has been highlighted by the fact that teachers and other government employees have been having a hard time getting a raise of pay for years. The people of Belize are not happy with this UDP administration.
So now, even though Mr. Barrow, as a trained attorney, was able to tell us with a straight face on Wednesday that the diversion of public funds to Mr. Castro’s hands was merely distasteful, and not corruption of the kind for which his government has been refusing to investigate and indict Mr. Penner, this is nothing but a big joke for Belizeans, and the problem is that this is a joke which is not in the least bit funny.
We are, inevitably, reminded of the tragic UDP administration from July 1993 to August of 1998. This was a vicious and vengeful government which began life with a chip on its shoulder, and ended up so manifestly bitter as to actually refuse to end their term of five years on time. This was a bogus government, firstly because the UDP had lied to NABR in throwing together the UDP/NABR coalition, and secondly because 2,000 more Belizeans voted for the incumbent PUP than for the UDP/NABR, led by Dr. Manuel Esquivel. Yet, UDP/NABR, in a major upset, won in seats, 16-13.
Between 1993 and 1998, the party-dominant realities of Belize’s democracy meant that the UDP, which ruled without any functional consciousness or respect of the NABR, became absolutely determined to remain in power for their term of office. This selfish determination was conceived, in the first instance, because there was no way anyone could do anything about it, and, in the second instance, because this is how you are supposed to behave in Belize’s parliamentary democracy: the party has to feed. The people are the sacrifice.
So then, Mr. Barrow is determined to have his party serve out their term of office. Since the arithmetic indicates that he cannot afford to lose two seats, then he has pretended to be stern with Mr. Penner. But now, for all the world to see, he must drink the gall of mollycoddling Mr. Castro. The party has to remain in office, you see, because the designers of our system, whoever they really are, decided that the government must always seem to be strong, even when it is a joke which is not funny.
In real terms, democracy has been derailed, because the people of Belize are fed up with this tomfoolery. There were at least two individuals sitting in the House on the government side on Wednesday (and remember, Mr. Castro was absent) whom the people of Belize consider an insult to ourselves. These two individuals can sit there, protected from the will of the people, because the Prime Minister has to play political games with them.
At this newspaper, we have said to you that there is a solution to this foolishness: our solution is proportional representation. Almost two decades ago, our “As a layman ….” columnist correctly diagnosed the problem with our present form of government, and proposed what he described as a “modified republican model.” A few years later, a group of reformers came up with an “elected Senate” solution, which is a feature of some republican models. Personally, we go with proportional representation. Change them when they sin.
If some kind of change is not made, then the people of Belize, as patient as we are, will be forced into the streets, and then the party will call out the police to fight the people. This is not necessary. Why is it that we cannot adjust our system of government so that we can change administrations when we feel like it, without having to wait for years? Is it because Belize is ruled by the Queen of England?
Power to the people.