As Diem procrastinated, the Buddhists burst a bombshell. On the morning of June 11 (1963), a motorcade pulled up at a busy Saigon intersection and an elderly Buddhist monk climbed out of one of the cars. He sat down on the asphalt and crossed his legs as other monks and nuns encircled him. One of them doused him with gasoline while another ignited him with a lighter. He pressed his palms together in prayer as a sheet of flame the color of his orange robe enveloped him. Pedestrians, amazed by the awesome sight, prostrated themselves in reverence, and even a nearby policeman threw himself to the ground. Trucks and automobiles stopped, snarling traffic. By the time an ambulance arrived, the old man had fallen over, still burning as the fire consumed his flesh. Only his heart remained intact.
– pg. 297, VIETNAM: A History, by Stanley Karnow, Penguin Books, 1984
It appears to the newspaper that this United Democratic Party (UDP) administration has arrived at its G-7 moment, so to speak, but there are two differences between the circumstances today, Thursday, August 31, 2017, and the circumstances on Thursday, August 12, 2004, when 7 People’s United Party (PUP) Cabinet Ministers reacted to the Social Security Board (SSB) scandal of late July that year by confronting the then Prime Minister, Right. Hon. Said Musa.
One difference between today and August 12, 2004, is that UDP Prime Minister, Right Hon. Dean Barrow, has on his own moved to address the Gapi Vega land scandals. His first move, after his election to a third consecutive term as Prime Minister on November 4, 2015, was to move Vega from the Ministry of Natural Resources, where Vega had set up shop immediately upon the UDP’s return to office in February of 2008. Remember, Gaspar Vega became Deputy Prime Minister when Dean Barrow became Prime Minister in February of 2008, and Vega represented the political balance from the two Northern Districts which Barrow’s Belize City-dominated Cabinet required. Gaspar Vega became the UDP’s Northern caudillo. ln addition, the indications are that some of the money the Vega family accumulated between 2008 and 2015 substantially assisted in the day-to-day operations of the ruling UDP by being made available to key party operatives, both inside and outside of Cabinet.
Gaspar Vega reacted to the November 2015 demotion by resigning from the UDP Cabinet and from his post as Deputy Prime Minister after a few months. But the size of the war chest he had filled between 2008 and 2015 was such that he remains massively powerful in the national ranks of the UDP, and it will be of interest to those of you readers who are UDP supporters to know that Vega is unalterably opposed to any leadership crowning of the man who succeeded him as Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Leader of the UDP – Hon. Patrick Faber.
Now Prime Minister Barrow has gone so far this week as to order a police investigation into the latest land scandal from the Vega era to hit the headline news. The Barrow reaction (several days after, “What it is, is what it is!”) came in the form of a dramatic press release issued from the P.M.’s Office around noon on Wednesday, August 30, a couple hours before Opposition PUP Leader, John Briceño, was scheduled to hold a press conference to launch an attack on the Barrow government with respect to the latest Vega scandal, in specific, and the cumulative Vega scandals, overall.
There is, of course, great skepticism in Belize about the ability of the Police Department to conduct investigations into political matters which have the potential to reflect ill on the UDP government, and we refer you specifically to the Citizen Kim/Elvin Penner matter of September 2013. Since then, there have been the matters of Minister Godwin Hulse’s son; Minister Edmond Castro’s sons; the fatal traffic accidents of Pakeman and Noble; and so on and so forth.
Permit this newspaper to remark, at this point, that all sane Belizeans should admire the career success of Commissioner of Police, Allen Whylie. Commissioner Whylie came from humble beginnings and made a big man of himself. In his situation, mind you, we would have resigned when the political directorate handcuffed him in the aftermath of Citizen Kim/Elvin Penner. But only Mr. Whylie knows what Mr. Whylie’s situation is. This newspaper has no malice towards Commissioner Whylie. What we know is that the ruling politicians have been bringing pressure on the police and the judiciary, and the political interference is making the job of the Police Department very, very difficult. The problem is a systemic problem. The elected politicians are too powerful. To make things worse, there are thousands and thousands of UDP members and supporters who are demanding that their party remains in power, by any means necessary, because their lives are so much more comfortable when their party is in power. So then, the party faithful pressure the politicians, the politicians pressure the police, and then the buck stops where? The lady of justice begins to peek from behind her blindfold to identify the color red, a color which must be mollycoddled, no matter the credibility cost.
It has taken us this long to reach the second difference between August 31 2017, and August 12, 2004. The second difference is that in August 2004 the PUP Cabinet was able to attempt self-correction. 7 PUP Cabinet Ministers (3 of whom, incidentally, consulted with this newspaper) faced the awesome power of their Prime Minister. It does not seem that such a courage, bravado or recklessness (take your pick) exists in the present UDP Cabinet. Prime Minister Dean Barrow’s press release of Wednesday, August 30, on the Vega matter was unilateral. There was no Cabinet consultation or consensus. The UDP Cabinet has often become a one-man show.
We say “has become” because the political question of the moment is this: how much does Vega have on the Dean Barrow Cabinet where possibly incriminating material is concerned? In other words, how sacred a cow is Gapi Vega? If Gapi Vega is as powerful today as he appears, then he would have been much more powerful in Cabinet between 2008 and 2015. So that, the UDP Cabinet of 2008 to 2015 would not have been a one-man show. Do you get the sense?
You know, if it were our intent today, we consider ourselves in a position to be very unkind in print to this Pharisaical administration. Instead, we prefer to end this essay by examining the G-7 episode in retrospect and from a new perspective. Inside that ad hoc group of “conscientious objectors” to Ralph Fonseca’s handling of Belize’s public finances were a couple Ministers who may have had a Lord Michael Ashcroft agenda, if we are to judge from developments afterwards. There was another Minister who may have been acting out of loyalty to the Deputy Prime Minster, John Briceño. There was another Minister who subsequently behaved in an opportunistic manner. But, when it came to Mark Espat and Cordel Hyde, there is no evidence to indicate that their intentions were other than to address what they believed to be financial indiscretions, at the very least, and financial abuses, if we decided to be blunt.
A few months after Prime Minister Said Musa recovered total control of Cabinet, Tourism Minister Mark Espat was made the scapegoat for G-7 and expelled from Cabinet. Housing Minister Cordel Hyde, Espat’s brother-in-law, resigned from Cabinet in order to express solidarity with Espat. The financial sacrifice these two men made, only they would be able to calculate. More than that, their intra-PUP political careers became controversial and turbulent, so much so that Mark Espat, soon after becoming PUP Interim Leader in October/November of 2011 and having that leadership endorsed by 30 of the 31 PUP electoral constituencies, began withdrawing from the PUP.
The point we want to make is that in our present political system, the political party giveth and the political party taketh away. For the electoral politician the party is like God Almighty. Once you begin to think independently of your political party, you enter a danger zone. In the case of the G-7 in August of 2004, they began to think with a national consciousness instead of a restrictive PUP consciousness. History will note that their challenge to the Prime Minister was a colossal exception, for sure: the rule in these matters is what we now see taking place in the present UDP Cabinet.
And, what do we see? We see spineless politicians cowering behind Wednesday’s press release from the Prime Minister’s office. The police are being asked to investigate. Everybody and his brother and his sister knows that there were crimes against the Belizean nation and people committed by Gaspar Vega’s Ministry of Natural Resources. Listen here, if there is this ballyhooed Cabinet collective responsibility, then there must be collective Cabinet guilt. In August of 2004, 7 PUP Cabinet Ministers took the bull by the horns and risked their political careers. In August of 2017, the UDP Cabinet Ministers who are so silent, by contrast to G-7, appear to be complicit in indecency because of their tacit consent.
Power to the people.