The constant rains and the muddy grounds of San Ignacio’s Macal River Park could not deter the more than 500 teachers from the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) Belmopan, San Ignacio and Benque branches. They came out here to express themselves on Friday morning, as the BNTU continues its month-long, countrywide rallies.
Gathered under six tents, some lining the perimeter of the park, decked out in their lime green T-shirts with the slogan: “Teachers gat yu back,” the teachers appeared to be in a jovial mood, as speaker after speaker castigated the Barrow administration and, in particular, Education Minister, Patrick Faber, who bore the brunt of their indignation after his controversial remarks on Wednesday during the House meeting.
The BNTU, when it announced its month-long rallies, had said that the union rallies would also address national issues, apart from the salary adjustment issue it has been negotiating with the government for years.
During his New Year’s Message, Prime Minister Dean Barrow had indicated that the teachers’ salary adjustment would be paid in August. The date, Barrow would later admit, was a mistake. But that slip-up of the salary adjustment date appeared to be another provocation the negotiation-weary BNTU used to add more legitimacy to its decision for teachers to leave the classrooms and rally around their salary adjustment and other national issues, such as crime and corruption in government.
Speaking early at the rally, Luke Palacio, the BNTU National President, set the tone for what was to follow from the more than one dozen persons who spoke. Palacio said that the teachers are fighting for every single Belizean when they carry out their rallies.
“We are fighting for the children who come to school without food. We are fighting for the children who come to school without pencils to work. We are fighting for a better Belize for everybody,” declared Palacio.
In a direct reference to Minister Faber, Palacio said that when he (Faber) visits schools he likes to tell children, “Don’t let anybody tell you that you cannot be what you want to be.” “And now he wants to come and tell the teachers what he wants us to be? Something is wrong, terribly wrong,” Palacio remarked.
One of the more recent issues to have gained traction and resonated from the BNTU speakers was PM Barrow’s explanation of the behavior of the Belize Airports Authority’s board with respect to a number of checks made out to, or associated with, Minister of State Edmond Castro.
Prime Minister Barrow told the House of Representatives: “I find it utterly and completely distasteful and I think the Airports Authority and the Minister are both wrong. So don’t think I am here making any apology for anybody, but call it what it is, man. It is not corruption.”
Leandra Chulin, the BNTU Benque branch president, got much laughter from the crowd when she drew attention to the strange semantics, parodying the P. M., “Distasteful and wrong, an error of judgment, a bad decision, a wrongdoing and we can go on with such other terms. So then I can say we are not absent from school, teachers. We are attending a professional development exercise.”
Chulin added: “We know that there is corruption in government.”
George Frazer, the retired teacher and trade unionist who is now the senior advisor to the BNTU, said that Minister Patrick Faber’s arrogance will bring down the government of Prime Minister Barrow. Frazer scolded the Minister, who, before he became a Minister, was on Frazer’s side, telling him, “Patrick, you da boy to wi!”
A number of concerned citizens and social activists also spoke in support of the teachers’ salary adjustment cause.
Wil Maheia, the People’s National Party leader and founder of the Belize Territorial Volunteers, said that a lot of money is being wasted, but the government is not looking out for the teachers. Maheia told the teachers that they should not be intimidated.
As the speeches came to an end and the teachers lined up to take to the streets of San Ignacio, Luke Palacio told Amandala that he is certain that the union has gotten the attention of the government.
“We are basically saying to the government that we are not going to tolerate disrespect. We can sit down and dialogue, but it cannot be a one-sided outcome. If the government is prepared to listen, we are prepared to do what is necessary to get justice for our cause,” he said.
Palacio said that the Prime Minister has asked the unions to meet with them. He said that he would have to discuss the matter with the other union presidents. When the rallies are over, Palacio said, they will meet and evaluate before deciding on their next move.
The BNTU’s next rally stop will be on Thursday in the South.