We can’t say for certain who pulled the Prime Minister’s coat on the case of the illegal Belize passport for South Korean national Won Hong Kim. What we know for sure is that while sitting in a Taiwanese prison, awaiting extradition to face embezzlement charges for hundreds of millions of dollars, Kim was granted Belizean citizenship and later purportedly applied for and got a Belizean passport.
We must acknowledge that Prime Minister Barrow acted posthaste in ousting Elvin Penner from his post as Minister of State in the Ministry of Immigration. That was within his right and responsibility as the head of Cabinet, and it is a responsibility he arguably could have abdicated.
No doubt the Prime Minister must have been exasperated: this is a man whom he appointed to the post of second-in-command at the scandal-ridden Ministry of Immigration even after he was caught on camera days before the last general elections personally organizing scores of immigrants in the Belmopan parking lot of the Immigration offices.
Despite public concern at the time, he appointed this same man to this same ministry, a government ministry where even monks would be tempted.
But outside the immediate dispatching of Penner from Cabinet, the Prime Minister has not gotten much else right where this brewing passport scandal is concerned.
We have been watching for some time now as the Prime Minister routinely and sometimes casually – sometimes aggressively – comments on matters before the court and on the criminality or lack thereof of issues before the police. Just as recent as his annual Independence Day speech less than two weeks ago, in thinly veiled language, he weighed in on a highly charged matter awaiting a decision in the Belize Supreme Court.
The PM’s insistence on commenting on these live judicial matters at times comes across as a subtle or not-so-subtle attempt at badgering or bullying the courts and/or the police. He is a successful and substantive lawyer, but we think he must be reminded that we didn’t elect him to be lawyer-in-chief. He is the prime minister of a democratic, law-abiding country; but he is not the top cop. The top cop is the Commissioner of Police.
And so, in keeping true to form, the Prime Minister has been insisting since last Friday in the House of Representatives and again on Wednesday, October 4, in the parking lot of his Belize City office – and this time forcefully so – that Penner has no criminal case to answer to. This, even as everyone “and their granny” can see that something is wrong, that it smells and looks like laws were broken.
We would have been surprised earlier in the week if the Police Department had started a criminal investigation into the passport scandal in the wake of KREM WUB’s Mose Hyde’s official complaint that something appears to have gone terribly wrong at the Immigration Department.
We would be shocked if after hearing the Prime Minister’s comments on the matter Wednesday, the police would summon and question former Minister of State Penner. That’s not been their wont, or their history. The police tend to serve their political bosses dutifully: what the bosses want, the bosses get. That’s just the way it’s been; it doesn’t matter who is in power.
And in this case, the self-appointed top cop, the Prime Minister, has declared emphatically that Penner has no case to which to answer. But this is the year of our Lord, 2013, and this sorry state of affairs cannot continue. The tax-paying citizens of this country believe something has gone wrong and that a criminal investigation needs to be conducted. Last we checked, it is taxpayers who pay the politicians and the police.
In the meantime, Penner can sleep well at night. The cops won’t be beating down his doors. But the political wolves will. That’s because the Opposition appears to have awakened from their long slumber.
The PUP’s decision to demand that Penner resign, or be recalled, is big. It has been over 15 years since the PUP took to the streets or initiated any mass movement of people outside of elections, and for a while there, it seemed that they were going to stay true to form.
For two long weeks they did or said nothing, really, except for a press release from the Party’s Western Caucus, and when Leader of the Opposition Francis Fonseca raised the issue in the House meeting last Friday as a matter of urgent public importance.
Fonseca called for bipartisanism. We were shocked. Fighting crime calls for bipartisan action. The Guatemala issue calls for bipartisanism. Fighting poverty calls for bipartisanism. Protecting our children does. But no, no, no, not a passport scandal …if ever the Opposition needed to sharpen their proverbial political knives, it was now, we thought. If ever they needed to mobilize the people, it was now.
Well, it seems Her Loyal Opposition has finally gotten the memo, and now it’s on. In the words of the wily Bugs Bunny, “Of course you know, this means war!” We are sure, as night follows day, that Penner will not resign, and the Opposition Leader and his party will have to move to recall him. That’s their stated position.
The government holds a razor-thin margin of 17-14 in the House of Representatives, and Penner’s Cayo Northeast seat was won by the thinnest of margins, 17 votes. Additionally, the PUP says they have been canvassing the area for the last 10 days, and they have reason to believe that the people are ready to remove Penner. Who knows? We shall see.
What we do know is that the UDP will not take this sitting down. They cannot. If the PUP is able to clear the very steep threshold of 65 percent of electors in the Recall Referendum (and that’s a big if), and garner at least 51 percent of those votes, Penner would be a goner and bye-elections would be imminent, the first in exactly 10 years.
(In the September 2003 bye-elections, John Saldivar beat the son of deceased Cayo South representative Agripino Cawich. Pino had beaten Saldivar just 6 months earlier in the elections of March 2003 by only 24 votes, after beating him in 1998 by over 1500 votes.)
If the PUP can win those bye-elections, the UDP will be holding on to the government by one, solitary seat. That is no place any government wants to be. Any number of things could happen then. But we will resist the temptation to speculate.
At this point, all we will say is that the game has only just begun. We will strap up and sit back and watch how these elephants rumble. We never thought we would see this. For all the saber-rattling of opposition parties, in Belize the story has always been that they never cross the Rubicon. This may well be another such case. The Opposition PUP did not want to have to do this. But people power is another thing, and it may well be that the PUP is only a passenger on this public transportation.
All power to the people! Power in the struggle!