In statements made to the media following a meeting between himself and the leaders of the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) on Thursday afternoon, September 22, and a full-length broadcast speech on Sunday, September 25, the Prime Minister of Belize, Right Hon. Dean O. Barrow, has sought to portray the negotiating stance of the BNTU as inflexible and unreasonable. Mr. Barrow went so far as to accuse the teachers of Belize of holding the children and parents of Belize to ransom. The Prime Minister was able to point out that the other trade unions of Belize had essentially fallen into line with his administration, most notably on the way forward financially, while civil society partners, such as the business community and the churches, were not behaving as militantly as the teachers.
It may be said, then, that the Prime Minister was isolating the BNTU in the eyes of the public, and this was a raising of the stakes in the confrontation. In the days leading up to the national demonstration of the teachers last Monday, September 19, in Belmopan, the United Democratic Party (UDP) Cabinet had used Minister of Education/Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Patrick Faber in a similar attempt to isolate the teachers and turn parents against the BNTU’s decision to close schools on Monday and march in Belmopan. But now, after Thursday, it was the Prime Minister himself who was leading the charge. Urgency was becoming the order of the day.
The Prime Minister is Belize’s political master of the electronic media. On television, his cadenced speech, combined with ornate, deliberate, and hypnotic gestures, can capture the attention of listeners and viewers and make his administration’s critics appear, yes, inflexible and unreasonable. The bitter reality is, however, that this administration has been exposed as cynical in its corruption, while arrogant victimizations and character assassinations of their critics have become the characteristics of the UDP poster boys and girls in the media and public places.
Politically, there were at least two reasons why Mr. Barrow had to go after the BNTU after the Thursday meeting the way he did. One was the fact that the Belizean economy had appeared about to go on life support just before the September celebrations. The celebrations always feature a temporary spike in economic activity. The celebrations ended on Wednesday, the day before the aforementioned meeting with the BNTU. Recession reality had returned. Secondly, the teachers had displayed too much strength and solidarity in Belmopan on Monday for Mr. Barrow’s comfort. The teachers absolutely had to be brought on line.
This is a tricky situation for the teachers, because it is not their calling, after all, to be staring down governments. Needless to say, it is in their classrooms where they belong. When a similar situation developed in February of 2005, and the BNTU stood up to a corrupt and arrogant administration, a People’s United Party (PUP) one in the 2005 case, even though all the other unions were in alliance with the teachers, the teachers were quick to return to their classrooms.
When the scandals in the Social Security Board (SSB) and the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) led to the said instability of early 2005, the Belizean economy was actually flying high on high octane fuel from commercial loans. The present crisis has been years in the buildup, perhaps seriously beginning with the Elvin Penner passport scandal around September of 2013, but the 2016 storm is one which may end up being worse than 2005’s, because the fundamentals of this economy are not in good shape. The Belizean economy has become too dependent on tourism, which is a fragile industry, besides being one which brings only crumbs to the Belizean masses. The tourism cake looks delicious, but the hungry masses can only stare at the sweetness and imagine how it tastes. With the celebrations at an end, suffering is renewed, and it will become worse. The tourism arrival numbers will begin to grow next month. So what? When heaven is visible, but not edible, post-colonial societies become volatile. This is real. And the PM knows it.
There is a disconnection between the leaders/cronies of the present government and the Belizean masses. The optics contrast fat cat ruling politicians and challenged street people. This newspaper is located on Partridge Street, between the Lake Independence and Collet constituencies. Kremandala is the largest native business entity in this area. We know what is going on in the streets and how the people feel, because they bring their various emergencies to us. Kremandala is not trying to manufacture problems: problems are here, Jack.
In the case of Belize’s teachers, they are the working people who are personally affected by Belize’s poverty on a daily basis. They see it every day, in the eyes of their pupils and in the children’s demeanor. They are not expecting the elected politicians to work miracles, but our rulers have to show some love. While the teachers are certainly not in a desirable situation when they have to be facing the Government of Belize across a negotiating table, the leaders of the Government of Belize themselves will become more and more uncomfortable as the contrast between their jet set lifestyles, on the one hand, and the hard, harsh classroom lives of the teachers on the other, becomes more stark with each passing day.
The question is, are we all in this together or are some Belizeans more equal than others? At its core, the unhappiness of the teachers derives from the chronic, naked nature of Belize’s injustice. The ruling politicians and the politically connected have become abusive. The Llewellyn Lucas beheading was sensational in and of itself: the fact that the high profile UDP Minister of National Security was so close to the accused executioner blew filth all over the Belizean landscape.
The present disagreement between the Government of Belize and the BNTU is a problem for Belize, because we have confined ourselves to a monarchical constitution in this country which does not allow for any intra-term change in administration. At the same time, when the teachers are as unified as they are presently, they have the power to shut down the system, so to speak. Classically, the teachers have become an irresistible force, and the government represents an immovable object.
Power to the people. Remember Danny!