BELIZE CITY, Wed. Jan. 21, 2015–Prime Minister Dean Barrow, leader of the United Democratic Party, taunted Opposition Leader Francis Fonseca in the House of Representatives on Monday, talking about Fonseca’s “political death foretold” and claiming that Monday would have been Fonseca’s last appearance in the National Assembly as Leader of the Opposition and today, Barrow presented a political newcomer – a woman with a stellar professional reputation on both local and regional fronts – as the UDP’s preferred candidate in Freetown to depose Fonseca in the next general elections.
That political hopeful is Dr. Carla Barnett, who was last year installed as chair of the Belize Tourism Board for the period 2014 to 2016. Barnett previously served from March 2012 to May 2014 as the vice president of operations at the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) in Barbados. Her BTB appointment in Belize was announced before her resignation from the CDB, suggesting that she resigned from that post to serve on the BTB board.
Starting in 2008, Dr. Barnett, who had resigned from her position as Financial Secretary (for the PUP administration) in 2007 amid scandal over the signing of a secret government guarantee for Universal Health Services, served as financial advisor to Prime Minister Barrow, leading budget consultations which Barrow had commissioned at the start of his term in office. She obtained her Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees in Economics, but her doctorate degree is in Social Studies.
She has also served as chief executive officer at the Ministry of National Development, under the Musa administration; deputy governor of the Central Bank of Belize; deputy secretary-general at the Caribbean Community Secretariat in Guyana; and director of Belize Telemedia Limited.
“To have Dr. Carla Barnett commit now to becoming involved in electoral politics and under the banner of the United Democratic Party is indeed for us a wonderfully energizing accomplishment. It is indeed for Belize a development that is greatly to be welcomed. It is very rare that somebody like Dr. Barnett, who is this brilliant professional, brilliant academic, whose record is so outstanding, it is rare that you find somebody like that prepared to get into the ‘rough and tumble’ world of politics,” Barrow said, adding that her candidacy is a continuation of her trajectory of public service, only at a different level.
While she comes with many professional accolades, the fact is that Barnett has never been involved in electoral politics, she told us, “Every position that I have held probably in the last 20 years has involved being political – not party political [but] …working hard to get things done.”
“I don’t have experience as a political candidate, but I have experience and ability to work with a political process. I have done it. I have done it successfully and so I am prepared to do that… Nobody is pretending that it’s going to be easy…,” Barnett conceded, pledging that she is ready to tackle the “hurly burly” of political combat.
The last time a woman ran in the Freetown division was in 1998, when the then UDP candidate, Marisa Quan, was beaten by the PUP’s Jorge Espat by a margin of nearly two to one.
But no one will forget the tragedy that befell Quan in the months leading up to that election. She was raped at her home in April 1998. At the time, the UDP had alleged that her rape was connected to persons hostile to Quan’s candidacy.
They had also reported on armed threats, bribery attempts and harassment by stalkers directed at Quan during her candidacy. Barry Robinson of Belize City was later convicted for the rape.
The PUP had rebutted allegations that the party was somehow involved in that incident.
Today, we asked Dr. Barnett if she had considered the tragic reality of dirty politics being played in Belize – and while she said that her strategy to secure her personal security is not up for discussion, she did say that she has apprised her family of what is at stake and has asked her family to remain composed in the face of inevitable personal attacks against her.
“There is no way in which you can prevent others from behaving in that way. You can only respond to it in the best possible way,” she said.
Barnett said that this is not the first time she has been approached to engage in political pursuits, but because her children are all grown and she is semi-retired, she feels that she is at the right juncture in her life to accept the challenge.
The current UDP caretaker for Freetown, Lee Mark Chang – who Fonseca defeated at the 2012 polls by 150 votes – publicly supported Barnett’s candidacy by appearing at the head table when the announcement was made this morning at the UDP headquarters in Belize City. Chang will step aside for Barnett, but the two will reportedly be working together in the months ahead, leading up to the party convention, which Barrow hopes will be an endorsement convention for Barnett.
Barrow said that if there are other persons interested in becoming the UDP candidate for Freetown, there is no way he would deter them, but he added “we would wish to dissuade them…”
According to the UDP leader, they hope to hold those party conventions in the next few months to fill the last vacant seat for the UDP for the next general elections, due in 2017.
“All of us in this party are prepared to work extra hard, are prepared to go above and beyond the call of duty in ensuring a successful Freetown candidacy for Dr. Carla Barnett,” Barrow said.
He said that of all Barnett’s talents, of all her qualities which she brings to the UDP, the most outstanding is an “absolute rock solid integrity.”
“It was that integrity that caused her to, in fact resign her office as Financial Secretary after it turned out that it appeared that the Government of the day had concealed matters from the Financial Secretary,” Barrow said.
Barnett’s resignation came after the secret guarantee to Universal Health Services, a $33 million arrangement, had been discovered. Her resignation, Barrow said, is “consistent with her creed and credo of integrity.”
We noted that corruption and transparency issues often come up during these sorts of political campaigns, and Barnett’s past role as a public servant and member of that administration may be raised.
“I resigned and would do that again in a similar kind of situation,” she said, asserting that, “I don’t think anybody is expecting me to change, because that is not going to happen…”
Barnett said that even while she presses ahead with her political campaign in Freetown, she will continue to serve out her tenure as chair of the BTB board.
After the press conference, we contacted Fonseca, the incumbent area rep in the Freetown constituency, but he told us that he has been in Dangriga and had not heard the announcement by the UDP. He said that he would be prepared to respond tomorrow to our request for comment.