Editorial — 18 October 2017
Corruption, collusion, cronyism

All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts, but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.

–  Frank Herbert

It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about a politician, an entertainment mogul, a corporate CEO or a police officer: give any one person (or government agency) too much power and allow him or her or it to believe that they are entitled, untouchable, and will not be held accountable for their actions, and those powers will eventually be abused…

…However, it takes a culture of entitlement and a nation of compliant, willfully ignorant, politically divided citizens to provide the foundations of tyranny.

As researchers Joris Lammers and Adam Galinksy found, those in power tend to abuse that power, but they also feel entitled to abuse it. “People with power that they think is justified break rules not only because they can get away with it, but also because they feel at some intuitive level that they are entitled to take what they want.”

–  excerpted from an article by John W. Whitehead appearing on the CounterPunch website and reproduced in the Sunday, October 15, 2017, issue of the AMANDALA

It was less than two months ago that news broke that the Auditor General’s Annual Report for the year April 2012 to March 2013 had exposed some major shenanigans at the Ministry of Works involving almost a million dollars of missing tires, and the questionable targeted spending of $1.7 million with a specially favoured Belmopan-based businessman behind a dubious company called Special Effects.

The report revealed that tires had been purchased from the said Special Effects at prices well beyond what could be found at the various tire outlets in the country, and that in one case where the tires had been bought cheaper at a competitor, the tires were returned and the storekeeper public officer ordered to purchase from the Belmopan crony.

These special deals with Special Effects had cost the Belizean taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars, and when the Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Works was questioned by the Auditor General about these suspect arrangements, his answers were less than forthcoming, or at times not forthcoming at all.

It is Christopher Hitchens who once wrote that “Every day presents more and more subtracted from less and less.” He was not talking of Belize, but he could have well been. Every day the instances of corruption and the rumours and perception of corruption seem to take more and more from an already battered Belizean psyche, an already diminished socioeconomic sum, in a country akin to a burning house.

Like Moll Flanders who stole from destitute victims of a burning fire, our government seems intent on depriving the citizens while they are down, and in this case, again and again. Or like Napoleon and Squealer, the mammals in Belmopan have become what they used to always condemn. The news of official corruption and collusion and cronyism seem to know no end, with each passing day becoming an occasion to see which government department or ministry will top the others on the climb up that corruption greasy pole.

It is against this backdrop that the news of a Ministry of Works contract of $8 million to pave a little over a mile of Fabers Road in Belize City dropped, immediately sending up red flags, and immediately leaving Belizeans to wonder whether this was not another sweetheart deal, just months before an important municipal elections. It did not help that the following day after alarms had been sounded, that the said Ministry sent out a second press release trying to justify the cost of the contract, but the unintended consequence is that they seemed shadier.

And it probably did not help at all that the lucky contractor was Imer Hernandez, nephew of the now disgraced erstwhile Deputy Prime Minister Margarito Gaspar Vega.

That was Thursday and Friday of last week, and on Saturday, we were reminded of another road rehabilitation contract, this time in Works Minister Rene Montero’s hometown of Santa Elena. Signed in August of this year, that one was for a shade under 2 ½ miles for $7 million. More fodder for the perception or allegation that these are municipal-elections-friendly contracts…

Both contracts combined, or even each contract separately, are arguably more than GOB has spent on housing construction their entire time in office, and certainly more than they have been willing to spend assisting people who need dialysis care, even as the numbers of those on the waiting list and those dying continue to mount. Four streets total. 3 ½ miles. $15 million combined. Even as there are hundreds of streets in Belize City and the other eight municipalities that desperately need attention and uplift.

In the case of the $8 million Fabers Road contract, it is said it is a part of the Southside Poverty Alleviation Project Phase 3. It begs the question, is this the most pressing need on the Southside of the old capital, where poverty seems on the rise, and crime and violence are our “daily companions?”  Could this $8 million be spent more directly on the people as opposed to this singular street called Fabers Road? Are the motives unsavoury?

So who looks out for the taxpayers here? The CEO? Nah. In a time long past, the Permanent Secretary would have been able to pull the Minister’s coat that you can’t use selective tendering for a contract above $5 million – that the Finance and Audit Act requires such contracts to be subject to an open tendering procedure, and that such a violation could mean jail under the law. But the Permanent Secretary has been replaced by the CEO and all the CEOs are political appointees who owe their high living to the same political directorate they are expected to resist if an act is not in the public’s good.

So who? Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition? In our system they can make noise and they can march all they want, but that will not reverse the action; decisions of governments in our system are akin to acts of God. Immutable. Cannot be overturned. Plus this Opposition has not seemed willing to march as much as they can, or as often as they probably should. In the present, it has become clear to us on Partridge Street that it is only the people who can save the people.

But if we are to be frank with you, beloved, we have some blame in this game.

We have allowed too much to pass us by each day. We have been guilty of turning a blind eye to a lot of wrongdoings under this regime because we had collectively accepted that the past administration was as vile as ever. And we have been undisciplined; we have been seduced by material blandishments. Admittedly, poverty is a real condition.

The question to be decided in the months ahead is whether the people will continue to accept official corruption or whether they will strike a blow for Belize. Whether they are going to continue to be tolerant of wrongdoing just a while longer or whether they have had enough.

We cannot be sure as to what that decision will be; our people have learnt to be guarded where their political preferences are concerned, and understandably so. This government has not been afraid to act with malice. But we can submit that our nation state depends on us getting it right. Every dollar that is pilfered is a dollar less to end poverty, and every corruption scheme revealed is another stake in our collective lives.

The ruling party has been brilliant in identifying the splinter in the eyes of their political opponents, but they have not been willing to see the planks in their own eyes. But can we expect better? These men and women are the children of a culture that teaches them it is their turn to eat, that corruption is okay as long as they are the ones doing the eating. We cannot expect them to police themselves, neither red, neither blue.

We are a wounded people. We have been let down again and again. Our spirit is near broken. But if we are to follow the admonition of John W. Whitehead, “this culture of compliance must stop. The empowerment of petty tyrants and political gods must end,” no matter who is in Belmopan. The alternative is anarchy, and nobody wants that. Of that, we are sure. It is written. Power to the people.

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