In the morning and the afternoon of Wednesday, July 5, during the Senate Select Committee inquiry into the Auditor General’s report of scandalous transactions at the Department of Immigration, two different Cabinet Ministers of the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) gave sustained displays of insolence and arrogance which were broadcast on national radio and television.
In Belize, you know, there are adult citizens who are committed adherents of the UDP, on the one hand, and of the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP), on the other. Committed UDP adherents will vote UDP no matter what, whereas committed PUP adherents will do the same for the PUP.
In the beginning of party politics in British Honduras in 1950 and 1951, the difference between the two political parties, the PUP and the National Party (NP), was manifest and very clear to see. The PUP wanted to end British colonialism; the PUP wanted self-government and independence for Belize. The NP wanted the colony to continue being run by the British; the NP was pro-colonial. The PUP had a prominent workers’ base, whereas the NP supported the giant industrial employer/landowner of the time, the Belize Estate and Produce Company (BEC), and the huge mercantile houses such as Brodie’s and Harley’s.
In 2017, the difference between the ruling UDP and the Opposition PUP is not so easy to discern. Both the UDP and the PUP call for foreign direct investment; they both support Belize’s church-state educational system; and they both believe in the present political system of governance, wherein they have both historically expanded the executive in order to neutralize the legislature. Both UDP and PUP Cabinets intimidate personnel in our system of justice when they are in office.
There have always been independent voters in Belize, and it is not so much that they have grown in their proportion of the total amount of registered voters, although the likelihood is that they have. It is that independent voters now enjoy many more sources of information and opinion than they had access to back in the decades before free radio in 1989, the introduction of television in the 1980s, and the Internet in the 1990s. As a result of being much better informed and educated than their predecessors, Belize’s independent voters of 2017 are significantly more confident than they used to be. Not only that, Belize’s independent voters today have a sense of themselves as an entity and as a force.
Strictly speaking, the credit for the fact that a Senate Select Committee inquiry into the Immigration Ministry scandals even took place must be given to the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU). In a larger sense, credit for the Immigration hearings may be given to Belize’s trade union movement, because, while the other unions gave scant support to the BNTU’s October 2016 strike, that being the specific action which pressured the Government of Belize to agree to the inquiry, our trade union movement, with the history of 2005 in mind, had provided an enabling background for the BNTU.
When the UDP Cabinet Ministers behaved as they did in the National Assembly building on Wednesday, July 5, 2017, they were behaving as they did in order to appeal to their UDP base and in order to insult their PUP opponents under circumstances which were difficult and challenging, humbling even, for the two Ministers. They were being questioned under oath by individuals whom the two Ministers considered their constitutional inferiors.
The UDP, in fact, had taken the position, if we are to judge from remarks made by high-ranking UDP officials (such as one of the aforementioned Cabinet Minsters) and spokesmen on their official media outlets, that the Senate Select Committee inquiry was and is a “circus.”
But there were many, many Belizean citizens listening to the hearings and watching the hearings who did not view the inquiry as worthless. More than that, real indications were that the Embassy of the United States believed that information coming out of the inquiry could help Belize get its immigration house in order. The Embassy of the United States believes that any corruption in Belize’s Immigration Ministry creates dangers for the national security of the United States. That is the sense this newspaper gets.
Even in wealthy countries, electoral democracy is often a messy business. In poor countries, absolutely no rules of ethics govern the doings of political parties. In most cases, the leaders of political parties consider matters primarily from the standpoint of “what we can get away with.” Political parties elected to power are a law unto themselves in countries like Belize. In response, the voters of Belize voted out the party in power every general election from 1984 to 2003, when they returned the PUP to power for a second consecutive term. That did not work, so Belizeans replaced the PUP with the UDP in 2008, and gave the UDP a third consecutive term in November of 2015.
UDP Leader and Prime Minister of Belize, the Right Honorable Dean Oliver Barrow, has presented a side of his party to the Belizean public which portrays probity and righteousness. On Wednesday in the Senate inquiry, Martinez and Castro gave Belizeans another side of the UDP to examine and consider. The question now has to be: which side of the UDP is the real side, or, perhaps, which side of the UDP is in the ascendancy?
Insofar as insulting the PUP flock and putting them in their place, Martinez and Castro, at that exact same time, were alienating many independent voters. In war, this type of thing is referred to, and excused as, collateral damage. In electoral politics, however, the calculation is arithmetical: how many independent voters does one lose when one seeks to put people in their place who will vote against you anyway?
The long and short of all this is that more independent voters are reaching the conclusion that the UDP has been in power for too long. The behavior of Martinez and Castro on Wednesday was not spontaneous: that behavior was deliberate, determined, and damned disrespectful.
If you dig deep enough, you will understand that this is a BNTU inquiry, an inquiry which is taking place because the teachers of Belize made sacrifices and took risks on behalf of the people of Belize. In disrespecting the inquiry, UDP Cabinet Ministers were disrespecting the teachers of Belize and the people of Belize. At some point, there is a political price which the UDP will have to pay for this.
Power to the people.