It is often said that politics is the art of the possible. By contrast, newspaper editorials, we would suggest, are normally academic exercises. In other words, nothing tangible occurs as a result of editorials. One exception was, of course, the decision of Belize City voters on March 7 to send a message to the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP), as editorials in this newspaper had been urging.
Belize’s municipal bodies, nine of which were elected nationwide on the said March 7, are far less powerful than national governments, as represented by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet Ministers. The annual budget of the Belize City Council, which runs the nation’s population and financial center, is, for example, in the region of $24 million. That is the largest budget of Belize’s nine municipalities. But the Prime Minister and his Cabinet Ministers, as the executive arm of national government, control a budget in the neighborhood of a billion dollars.
By financial comparison, sending a message to the national government by means of municipal elections may itself have been an academic exercise, because nothing much is going to change in the lives of the vast majority of Belizeans. We may therefore consider the vote of March 7, where the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) made up a lot of ground on the ruling UDP, as a symbolic gesture.
The violent outbursts just 10 days after the March 7 national municipals on Belize City’s Southside were not academic, and they were not symbolic. The murderous urban gunfire between Friday night and Saturday night last week indicated that we are looking at a humanitarian crisis here. Because it appeared that the Belize Police Department had been overmatched, the Government of Belize, led by Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Dean O. Barrow, made the decision, amongst other things, to return elements of the Belize Defence Force to the streets of the Southside. This was Sunday, March 18, and the Prime Minister held an emergency press conference to announce his decisions.
Sunday, March 18, was a sad, perhaps confusing, day for Belize from at least one perspective. Our Cabinet appears extremely reluctant to send our army to defend our Chiquibul and Sarstoon River borders, but Cabinet moves swiftly and decisively to introduce the Belize army into poor Southside neighbourhoods. The Belize army was not designed or commissioned to patrol city streets. This is a UDP Cabinet measure to allay the fears of the neoliberal oligarchy which gives instructions to the Prime Minister. The instructions are to keep the gun violence confined within “emergency areas.” Mr. Barrow’s government has never seriously looked at addressing the socio-economic conditions which generate the civil war violence.
At this newspaper, we have said in times past that Belize City’s humanitarian crisis originates with a flawed, irrelevant, broken educational system. It does not appear that the education problem can be specifically blamed on the weak Belizean economy. We say that because Belize spends more on education than on any other portfolio area. Yes, it may be argued that we are uneducated because we are poor, but it may just as well be argued that we are poor because we are uneducated. It’s the old chicken and egg thing: which came first? What does it really matter?
This week the Mennonite community of Belize celebrated their fifty years of residence in Belize. Their community members came here in March of 1958 from Mexico and Canada. The Mennonites have been very, very successful in Belize. It does not seem to us that the Mennonites send their children to our schools, certainly not past the primary level. They insist on having their children do hard work, which is now something outlawed by “progressive” Belize legislation. The Mennonites are also very strict with the moral precepts by which their members must abide. But, we don’t want to consider all the areas of discipline, culture, and religion in which the Mennonites are different from the rest of us who live in Belize. We want to focus on Mennonite education, and we want to argue that all the evidence indicates that Mennonite education is more relevant and productive in our modern reality than Belizean education.
Okay, so we Belizeans don’t want to be Mennonites; so we prefer our own education. Well, as a direct result of our Belizean education, in the first instance, our Southside community has collapsed socio-economically to the point where our government leaders are bringing in soldiers with high-powered rifles to patrol our streets. The startling, incontrovertible fact is that every year half of our children, thousands of children, leave school without any marketable, productive skill, and they are therefore mostly condemned to become criminals of some kind or the other.
Amongst those Belizeans who do have an income earning skill, on the other hand, there is a lot of waste and excess. Next weekend, which is the long Easter weekend, thousands of Belizeans will spend $25 million to $30 million to spend that long weekend in Chetumal, Merida, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and Cancun. The 2018/2019 budget proposals read by Belize’s Prime Minister and Minister of Finance in the House of Representatives on Friday, March 9, indicate clearly that Belize’s finances cannot afford an outlay of that kind of cold cash. Who cares? In Belize, apart from the Mennonites and others here who are not roots, our approach is: eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
Which brings us right back to Friday night and Saturday night, March 16 and 17, in Southside Belize City. There is something madly wrong here. We have described it as a humanitarian crisis. So, what are the Prime Minister and his Southside Cabinet Ministers doing about that humanitarian crisis? What have they been doing during the ten years they have been in power? Mr. Barrow and his Southside Ministers asked for the job, you know, and they assured all and sundry that things would get better under their stewardship.
If we are to judge by the socio-economic crisis in which Belize finds itself, we would have to say that Mr. Barrow’s approach to Belize’s finances and economics, not to mention his approach to Belize’s education and skills training, has been a failure. Re-introducing soldiers into Southside streets is no kind of solution. Declaring poor roots neighbourhoods to be “emergency areas” for the purpose of security operations is no solution. The evidence in 2018 indicates that what the Prime Minister and his Ministers wanted was to accumulate personal and family wealth. There was no real love for the people.
The people of Belize City took a long time to turn away from the Barrow UDP because the memory of the one Ralph Fonseca and his “bloated contracts” had been too searing. The searing evidence is still around us. And Belizeans never gave Jorge Espat enough credit for blowing the whistle on these contracts within weeks of his being elected to the Freetown seat in a January 1993 bye–election. Jorge called no names and gave us no figures. He didn’t have to, but he should have. Still, he did the next best thing, a heroic thing. He walked away from a sure seat in the Freetown constituency and never looked back.
Well now, the voters of Belize Rural Central dealt with Ralph in February of 2008. On March 7, 2018, the voters of Belize City sent a message to the UDP. People are going hungry and being killed out here, Jack. If you don’t understand what “we can’t eat streets” means in the Southside, it’s because you are dealing with credit cards and government-purchased, air-conditioned sports utility vehicles (SUVs). And when the SUVs “crawl” into the sea or catch afire, why, sign another government voucher and let the good times roll.
Power to the people.