Editorial — 21 September 2017
Mr. Barrow’s real bosses

“Their lives were a study in contrasts. Robert Sidney Turton was an ultra-capitalist, womanizer and irreverent iconoclast. George Cadle Price was an ascetic, bible-quoting bachelor, detached from material possessions who never owned a television set in his entire life.”

“Turton’s own childhood had been very difficult. Unlike George who had enjoyed a privileged and comfortable middle class childhood until the family’s fortunes were reversed by the hurricane of 1931, young Bob had a very deprived childhood. He was born on December 9, 1877 at the corner of Barracks Road and Hyde’s Lane. His father, Robert Straker Turton, was an English military officer who had been posted to British Honduras as head of the local militia. He had on one occasion acted as Lieutenant-General for a short period. His mother was an uneducated Creole woman, Almira Gibson, who worked as a domestic in the homes of colonial expatriates. Robert Straker Turton returned to England leaving behind mother and son and when he died in 1889, nothing was in place for the rearing and maintenance of his son, Robert Sidney. Almira had to perform a number of odd jobs in order to survive and see to the upbringing of her young son. Things were so difficult for them that in 1886 at the age of nine, Bob dropped out of standard three, the equivalent of a grade five, to be able to assist his mother eke out a livelihood.”

– pgs. 45, 46, GEORGE PRICE: A Life Revealed, by Godfrey P. Smith, Ian Randle Publishers, 2011

On Thursday morning, September 21, 2017, which will be the 36th anniversary of Belize’s political independence, Prime Minister, the Right Hon. Dean O. Barrow, will tell a live audience of Belizean dignitaries and foreign diplomats in Belmopan, and a nationwide audience via radio and television, how good things are in Belize, relatively speaking, and how well the economy is doing.

Prime Minister Barrow will highlight and extol all the investments his government has been making these last few years in constructing public buildings and improving national infrastructure. The financing for these investments in buildings and infrastructure has come mainly from the controversial Petrocaribe loan agreements, involving Venezuelan petroleum products for Belize at preferential consignment rates with extended periods for payback.

Prime Minister Barrow will tell us about his three most prominent foreign investment projects over the last few years – American Sugar Refining in the north, Santander in the west, and Norwegian Cruise Lines in the south. He will speak glowingly of investment contracts recently signed for the Michael Feinstein Stake Bank cruise port project and another, more murky cruise port project just a few miles west of Stake Bank along the Belize District mainland near the Sibun River outlet to the sea. Prime Minister Barrow’s heavyweight propaganda punching, in fact, will focus on the tourism industry in Belize, where visitor arrival numbers continue to increase each year.

Apart from the Mennonite agricultural, manufacturing and hardware businesses in the west, the north to a lesser extent, and Belize City, and the supermarkets and grocery distribution centers all over the country owned by Chinese and Indian immigrants, however, the reality is that the sectors of the Belizean economy featuring local investors and entrepreneurs have been shrinking for years, and many, many local businesses have shut down, crushed by onerous taxation regimes and Belizean fuel prices which continue to rise steadily, against the regional and international grain.

Our experience at Kremandala, which is the largest native employer on the depressed Southside apart from the Barry Bowen empire, has been depressing. We have lost many jobs. Of late it has occurred to us that our media house’s losses in jobs have been simultaneously matched by an increase in employment at the ruling United Democratic Party’s (UDP) media house businesses – the Guardian newspaper, WAVE Radio, and WAVE Television. The extent to which the UDP media businesses’ surge in size can be traced to government advertising revenue and UDP crony executive leverage on the private sector cannot be quantified. Suffice to say that our sales people at Kremandala are aware of what we can now see was a Barrow government strategy to fatten their party media house’s bottom line with public funds and political influence peddling. We can discuss this situation further, and we will in the coming months. But, Kremandala’s is only a private entrepreneurial experience, and it may not be the rule.

In order to get a sense of what is the rule at the medium and small size native sectors of Belize’s private economy, we think we need to offer a historical analysis of Belize’s economy since the anti-colonial movement began here with the birth of the now Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) in 1950. It may be safe to say that the PUP’s iconic leader and Belize’s greatest national hero, Right Hon. George Price, was “made” politically by his original patron – the Robert Sidney Turton business empire. By the time Mr. Turton died in 1955, Mr. Price was well known and entrenched politically, and it may be possible to say that his main patron may have become the Roman Catholic Church, an institution in which he had once trained to become a priest.

When Mr. Price was finally defeated politically, his successor, the Right Hon. Manuel Esquivel, we would argue, had been “made” on the local political landscape by the Santiago Castillo business empire. In his first term of office, between 1984 and 1989, Mr. Esquivel went hard line pro-American, opening up the Belizean economy to passport sales, real estate transactions, tourism, and an overall foreign investment climate. Mr. Price, on the contrary, had been openly leery of tourism, the alienation of Belizean lands, and giant foreign investment interests. Mr. Price had concentrated on small farm productivity, fishing cooperatives, and credit unions.

When Mr. Price returned to power between 1989 and 1993, he was not his pre-1984 self, and Belize’s economic decisions began to be directed by a troika of second-generation PUP leaders which included Glenn Godfrey, Ralph Fonseca, and Said Musa. It was this troika which had allowed the British billionaire investor, Lord Michael Ashcroft, to establish a firm foothold in the Belizean economy by the time Dr. Esquivel’s UDP returned to office in 1993.

Mr. Esquivel’s second term was a confused and confusing one, perhaps because he had modified some of his pro-American neoliberal views, perhaps because he saw that Lord Ashcroft had become a predator presence in Belize, and, in fact, that Ashcroft was dangerously hostile to his government. The indications are that the late Barry Bowen, Belize’s largest native industrialist, was also hostile to Mr. Esquivel’s 1993–1998 term of office.

The upshot of this, we would like to argue, is that all the governments since 1998 till now — the two PUP terms of office of the Right Hon. Said Musa and the three UDP terms of the Right Hon. Dean Barrow, were led by two St. Michael’s College graduates, Musa and Barrow, whose political careers were made and consolidated by the Barry Bowen and Michael Ashcroft business empires. Those two empires have laughed all the way to the bank since 1998, and, wherever they are on Independence Day on Thursday morning, the principals of these two empires will be smiling happily at Mr. Barrow’s typically flowery presentation. We guarantee this.

Way back in Belize’s anti-colonial history in 1950, our energizing mantra was that we Belizeans could achieve a better standard of living for our African and Indigenous masses if we shed British rule and began to make economic decisions for our Belizean selves. This was Bob Turton’s dream. Mr. Price and the PUP did not gain control of the colony’s public funds until 1961, so that we can focus on Mr. Price’s decisions between 1961 and 1984 where Belize’s economy was concerned. In retrospect, this newspaper really likes Mr. Price’s perspectives and decisions on human progress for our core populations which had experienced British and Spanish slavery and colonialism.

A major problem for Mr. Price was that Belize’s majority African population did not look favorably on farming, because of some historical aspects of Belize’s history, and that African population was heavily attracted to urban job opportunities in the region’s richest economy, just a few hundred miles away – the United States of America. The reality is that African Belizeans, generally speaking, were not enamored with Mr. Price’s development approach, and when migration opportunities to the U.S. opened up after Hurricane Hattie in 1961, we packed our bags and left. The country of Belize has changed massively since the 1960s.

We have often said to you that this newspaper is an anomaly, because we were born and survive amongst that said African population which became a decided demographic minority three and a half decades ago, a demographic minority which has not made any significant economic progress (except for our diaspora workers) since independence in 1981. In other words, Amandala really does not speak for the power structure in Belize. So, there is a mystery as to how we have survived.

Whatever has been the case, the stark reality is that the Barrow administration and Kremandala are clearly on a collision course. This was not a fight we chose. But, it is a fight we should have been preparing for. All our experience with the ruling party and its Maximum Leader should have told us that Prime Minister Barrow, a man who actually came back here to Partridge Street to thank some of our major talents in February of 2008 after his first general election victory, would not be able to resist disciplining Kremandala once he got on top of things. And, so it has been. Our point is that those with eyes to see, can see that the UDP administration is representing interests other than the remnant roots masses of Belize City’s Southside, even though, fundamentally, it is those remnant roots Southside masses which were primarily responsible for the UDP’s ascension to power in 2008.

The reality is that Mr. Barrow always worked for the Bowen empire, from the time he first came to office in 1984. Then, he began to work for the Santiago Castillo empire. Alas, he began to work for the Michael Ashcroft empire in 1989, and there are skeptics amongst us who wonder if anything has really changed on that score. Lord Ashcroft continues to smile, and the Southside masses continue to moan. Something does not make sense here. There is only one small group on the Southside which has always offed some hope: none of those empires which control the UDP has ever controlled Kremandala.

Power to the people.

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