Amazingly, the structural disaster and structural emergency that is the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital (KHMH) is, if you think seriously about it, flying under Belize’s consciousness radar. There are at least three reasons why this is so. The first two reasons have to do with the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) and the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP), and we will explain in the body of this essay. The third reason why the KHMH crisis is not getting the attention it deserves, yea demands, is that the story requires massive, expensive, investigative research, and Belize’s independent media is struggling to survive right now, while public funds continue to be used to subsidize private media organs owned and operated by the leadership of the ruling party.
To the best of our knowledge, work was begun by a Spanish company on the KHMH building in 1992, under a PUP administration led by Prime Minister, the Right Hon. George Price, but that work was later completed under the UDP administration led by Dr. Manuel Esquivel which ran Belize from 1993 onwards.
Around 1992 several construction projects of dubious integrity were taking place under a PUP administration which had returned to power in 1989. The situation with regard to the aforementioned construction projects was so alarming that when Jorge Espat was elected the Freetown area representative in a bye-election in January of 1993, and joined the PUP Cabinet, it was only a matter of weeks before, conscience-stricken, he delivered his historic “bloated contracts” speech, attempting to put his own government in check.
It was felt at the time that Hon. Jorge was looking at the contract for the Commercial Building where the old market stood next to the Belize City Swing Bridge; he was looking at the contract for the new Fire Station across the street from the Freetown Road Atlantic Bank building; and he was looking at a contract for a Customs House somewhere we don’t remember. The KHMH contract/construction did not come under the microscope, if we remember correctly. But remember, Hon. Jorge did not provide details. The Civic Center contract/debacle would become exposed when the 1993 semi-pro basketball season began in Belize City in February of that year.
For younger readers, we have to explain that in 1992 Senator Ralph Fonseca had effectively taken over the Ministry of Finance from Mr. Price, who was supposed to be substantive Minister of Finance. The laws of Belize say that the Minister of Finance must be an elected member of the House of Representatives. Ralph was not. Mr. Price, a stickler for discipline and probity, remained Minister of Finance from September of 1989 until June of 1993, but it was Senator Ralph, a man given to wild spending and questionable contracts, who began handling Belize’s public finances sometime in the early 1990s. It was an unbelievable situation.
The UDP has probably gotten as much propaganda mileage as they could out of all the Ralph Fonseca shenanigans, but there are two things we should note here. One is that Ralph is never excoriated by the loudest and most abrasive voice in the UDP, that of Hon. Michael Finnegan, because theirs (Ralph and Finnegan) is a close and abiding personal friendship. The other thing is that Ralph’s financial antics during the 1998 to 2004 period, when he was an elected member of the House and therefore legally Minister of Finance (under Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Said Musa), have gotten more attention than the early 1990s on the third millennium media landscape, perhaps because Ralph was not de facto Minister of Finance in the early 1990s and because his operations during that period were somewhat more murky. In addition, it was more important to the UDP to smear the third millennium Musa than the retired national hero, Rt. Hon. Price.
So then, presently we have no reason to believe that the Esquivel administration of 1993 to 1998 can come in for blame, in the first or any instance, for the KHMH contract and construction. We are saying that, however, in the absence of a serious, thorough investigation.
But, it is a matter of eight, ten years now, as we understand it, early in and during the present UDP run, that structural problems at the nation’s most important hospital began to surface. And the Barrow governments did nothing, or as little as possible. In 2015, we must remind you, Mr. Barrow UDP’s government had almost $400 million in Petrocaribe loan funds to spend on anything they wished, and they paid no attention, or practically none, to the KHMH structure. Yes, it may not have been the UDP’s baby where 1992 contractual/construction responsibility was concerned, but from 2008 to the present day, the UDP government is responsible for all public buildings in the nation-state of Belize.
We spoke to an engineer friend of ours lately, and he confided, casually, that in the Caribbean at the time the KHMH project was on the table in the early 1990s, the question was being asked about the siting of the KHMH, because the KHMH was to be built on a flood plain, as it is said. Now that’s another kettle of fish.
We have mentioned that conversation in order to highlight to you how politicians in countries like Belize routinely, consistently and insolently overrule engineers when it comes to public construction contracts/projects. The result of political arrogance and corruption in Belize is that we, the people, almost never get true value for our taxpayers’ moneys. And in the case of the early 1990s, not only was the KHMH being built on a flood plain, the flood gates of public financing had been thrown wide open, due diligence abandoned, because of an unprecedented set of circumstances which still require investigation.
Belizeans should have gotten four or five good, worry-free decades out of the KHMH building. Instead, problems began in fifteen years. These were problems, to the best of our knowledge, caused by the PUP. It is for sure that the UDP refused to address the problems. The situation at the KHMH is frightening, and it is abominable.