This editorial is about the integrity breakdown in Belize’s public service, which used to be known as the “civil service” during colonial days in the first part of the twentieth century. But, before we look at the public service then and now, we want to consider a major aspect of British colonial rule here. That aspect was terror, in the form of hanging sentences automatically carried out on natives exactly 21 days after any murder conviction.
Several decades ago in the early years of this newspaper, when the newspaper archives were still in Belize City at the Bliss Institute public library, we did research on the murder cases in British Honduras during the 1950s. These cases were covered in detail in The Belize Billboard, which was a daily back then.
The thing that struck us about the cases was that natives were being routinely convicted for murder, and hanged, after matters which would definitely have been ruled self-defence today. The late Amandala columnist, Smokey Joe, always used to talk about one of his friends, Sydney Middleton, from teenaged days in British Honduras, who was hanged in the early 1940s after slaying a bully under extreme provocation. British colonial law didn’t give a damn about natives. British colonial law didn’t want to hear any explanations: you killed, you hanged. Story done. How different things are today!
In the civil service, the heads of department were British expatriates. This is how “long leave” every few years came into effect for heads of department: the four months “long leave” allowed British expatriates to take a ship home to Britain for holiday, and another trip back to resume work in British Honduras, in the space of four months. When Belizeans began to become heads of department in the 1950s, “long leave,” which was specifically designed for expatriates, continued. But, that’s another story.
The typical civil servant began his career as a teenaged messenger, usually out of high school. He worked his way up from promotion to promotion. There were very, very few ladies in the civil service. The civil service was British in its rigidity. If you messed with any dishonesty and you got caught, you went to jail and your family would be disgraced. Straight up.
The alternative to the civil service was hard manual labor at the sawmill or on the waterfront. (There were no containers and cranes back then.) When Panama became an option in the 1930s and 1940s, that was like a godsend for teenaged and adult natives in British Honduras. The colony was rich in resources, but we natives were quite poor. The British took the colony’s wealth back to England. It was done quite matter-of-factly, which is how the British do things.
When Hon. George Price became Maximum Leader in British Honduras in 1961, then led the colony to self-government in 1964, the public service was still a bastion of integrity and principle. Most of the public officers were hostile to the PUP, and now they had to take orders from natives like themselves in the form of PUP Cabinet Ministers. The thing is, in the beginning Mr. Price ran a tight ship with his Cabinet, but he began to lose some control in the 1970s. The politicians began to get cute, and the public service followed.
The first government department where the British colonial tightness began to loosen under self-rule, we think, was in the Customs Department. Perhaps there had been problems from colonial days, we cannot say. Certainly, Customs was always where opportunities for a fast buck existed, because Belize’s borders were and are so porous, and contraband was always a big game.
The next problem area became the police, because of the marijuana trade, which began in the 1960s but blossomed big-time in the 1970s.
Remember now, self-rule meant that the harshness of British colonial rule was relaxed. Hanging essentially stopped here after 1974: the hanging of the Jamaican, Seymour Thomas, in 1981 was clearly intended as a political message for Heads of Agreement protestors, and the hanging of Noel Bowers in 1985 was a phenomenon of Belizean socio-politics. Let’s put it that way. No one has been hanged here since Bowers.
Discipline began to lapse in Belize after self-rule because the blind lady of justice began to peep from behind her blindfold. This happened because Belize is such a small society, and we are all related to each other through family ties, the compadre/commadre business, religious affiliations, and secret societies such as the lodges, which were much bigger four, five decades ago. The British had made absolutely no exceptions with respect to natives where justice was concerned. After self-rule, we natives began to make exception for each other. We stopped hanging.
Around the same time, more and more rich and experienced immigrants began to pour in here from the Middle East and the Far East. They came from societies where money talked, and they introduced that culture here. The knees of public servants in departments like Customs, Lands, Traffic and Immigration began to wobble when they saw cold cash and felt its contradictory warmth in their hands.
The politicians of Belize had led the way, and our public officers followed suit. We suppose it is no excuse for the public officers to argue that their political bosses were/are doing it, and for sure the sins of the political directorate are worse than those of the public service. Again, corruption is not only infectious, in a culture of corruption it can actually be dangerous to be too clean. Sick s—t.