When sitting, elected governments in poor, post-colonial societies like Belize are being challenged from below, so to speak, they feel the need to reassure the invisible power structure that they are fully in charge of things. The two-week old industrial action of the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) represents such a challenge to the United Democratic Party (UDP) government of Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Dean O. Barrow. The invisible, or low-profile, power structure which he must reassure includes, for argument’s sake, the banks, the Mennonites, Bowen & Bowen, the major foreign investors, the foreign churches, the British and the Americans, the big merchant houses, and some leading, wealthy native families.
As we write this editorial in the pre-dawn on Thursday, October 13, 2016, we do not know the outcome of a special general meeting held by the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) on Wednesday evening, October 12. That general meeting had the potential to become a game changer in the ongoing face-off between the Government of Belize (GOB) and the BNTU, because the one-day shutdown of businesses which was an agenda proposition of the BCCI meeting, if approved, would strengthen the BNTU’s hand when the leadership of the teachers meet with the Prime Minister on Thursday afternoon, October 13.
The striking teachers had showed surprising determination in their nationwide rallies in Belize’s cities and towns last week Thursday, October 6, surprising because the Papal Nuncio responsible for El Salvador and Belize had gone on the Belize media to call for an end to the strike the Wednesday evening, October 5, hours before the rallies.
The BNTU then showed even more determination the day following the rallies, when they announced on Friday, October 7, that the strike would continue into the new week. With Monday, October 10, being a holiday, the first strike day of the new week would be Tuesday, October 11.
By the time of the Friday announcement, a certain amount of government desperation was becoming evident on their UDP radio/television morning talk show. One of these talk show hosts, Alfonso Noble, then led his brother, Fortunato Noble, Brian “Yellow Man” Audinett, and Allan Kelly in a march this Tuesday morning to picket the BNTU headquarters behind Coney Drive on Belize City’s Northside. The indications were that this move was being organized by the UDP’s old Youth Patriotic Front (YPF) leadership. And we’ll leave that as that.
That same night, Tuesday, the vehicle belonging to Deputy Prime Minister/Minister of Education, Hon. Patrick Faber, was torched in his Lord’s Bank yard. Mr. Faber was asleep in his home with his two sons when the fire bomb attack took place. The fire was quickly extinguished by the Fire Department, the house was saved, and there were no injuries.
The following morning, Wednesday, October 12, UDP radio/television talk show hosts lashed out at the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) and accused them of being responsible for the attack. A surveillance camera had filmed footage of the arsonist in the act, but up until Wednesday night he had not been apprehended by police.
As far as we know, the PUP has not issued any statement disclaiming the arson attack. Another Faber vehicle was run into the sea in front of Marine Parade in Belize City just two months ago, and that previous vehicle attack was considered to have been related to a domestic dispute. In such a context, the PUP may have felt, in the first instance, that the UDP would not be able to make their accusations against them stick.
In any case, later Wednesday morning, October 12, UDP operatives proceeded to get a police permit to picket the aforementioned BNTU headquarters on Thursday, October 13, whereupon the BNTU leadership issued a press release condemning the proposed picketing as an attempt to intimidate their membership.
The UDP government line in their dispute with the teachers from early on has been that the leadership of the BNTU is a PUP leadership, so to speak, and that the BNTU aim is to topple the government. As a propaganda line for purposes of arousing and mobilizing their political base, this was pretty good stuff on the UDP’s part. The danger with this kind of thing, however, is that one must always be careful not to believe one’s own propaganda, and then careful not to proceed to act on one’s propaganda as if it is Gospel truth. The PUP is no doubt enjoying this UDP administration’s discomfiture, but eleven years ago pretty much this same BNTU went eyeball to eyeball with Said Musa’s PUP government. It is true that in 2005 the then BNTU leadership ended up blinking, but you can chalk that up in the assets column as valuable experience for the BNTU. The BNTU blinked in 2005, but, in retrospect, a death knell for the Musa government was sounding at the same time.
At this stage of the 2016 confrontation between GOB and the BNTU, it does appear now that there will have to be winners and there will have to be losers. Things have gone too far for some people not to end up with egg on their faces.
In an editorial a couple weeks ago we remarked that the teachers have now entered uncharted waters. The important thing now, with respect to the matter of the BNTU vs the GOB, is how Belize’s independent, non-partisan citizens are thinking. Our feeling is that UDP picketing of BNTU headquarters by known UDP militants would alienate independent-thinking citizens. Such Belizeans do not believe the BNTU to be PUP-driven. The smart money in the UDP, we think, knows this to be the case: the BNTU people are independent thinkers.
If the UDP begins to make this a muscle contest, then other elements of the Belizean society will be activated, and then it is the UDP which will have the most to lose. In poor, post-colonial societies like Belize, democratically-elected governments have to handle organizations like the BNTU with care. This is because there are many citizens with more urgent grievances than the teachers at the very base of the socio-economic pyramid, beneath the teachers. Poor, post-colonial societies are volatile societies. There are UDP elements which are itching to show off their Petrocaribe street muscle. Such elements would probably be well advised to think twice.
Power to the people.