The Government of Belize announced late Friday that it would be making the moves necessary for the recovery of a total of $800,000 paid to Sharon Pitts and Andre Vega as compensation for private lands the Ministry of Natural Resources had sold to them in what may be described as land scams.
As has been the case with most high profile disputes between the Government of Belize and private individuals and groups in the modern era, this attempt to recover the compensation money looks like yet another case where some attorneys in Belize will make a lot of money.
When Belizeans began to fight for self-rule in 1950, you could count the amount of native attorneys on one hand, and almost all court cases were criminal ones. Today, it seems everyone, and his brother and sister, is an attorney, and ours has become a highly litigious society since political independence in 1984. Multimillion dollar civil cases abound on the legal calendar in Belize. “Civil” is where the big money is.
The big law firms are mostly linked with one of the two major political parties – the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) and the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP), and many of them have become multimillionaire law firms through handling all the major briefs having to do with land, immigration, and other transactions which involve the Government of Belize. The UDP lawyers get very fat when their party is in power, and the PUP attorneys have their turn when the blue party is in office. Unfortunately, for whatever the reason(s), Belizean attorneys do not involve their wealth in the social and business life of our nation. They bank their moneys in overseas and offshore accounts, and they purchase luxurious homes in the United States, Canada, and other foreign territories. It’s nice work if you can get it.
With that said, the newspaper should say that the gesture on the Prime Minister’s part to recover the $800,000 is welcome, and it may even be honorable. In an honorable world, Pitts and Vega would have offered to give back their respective $400,000 in dirty money, but they will not: they will no doubt fight to keep their moneys. Still, Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Dean O. Barrow, looks good on this one, and it has to be said, even though it may also be said that he is in a hole of his own digging. This, in the words of Hyman Roth, was the business Mr. Barrow chose.
In his personal political career, Mr. Barrow has lived a relatively charmed life. On his graduation from the University of the West Indies law school, he returned to Belize in 1974 in time to join Dean Lindo’s law firm just before the UDP’s impressive performance in the October 1974 general elections, wherein the UDP came within 17 votes of throwing the House into a 9-9 tie. This was the best performance ever by a political party in opposition to the PUP. Moreover, in December of that same 1974, the UDP defeated the PUP, 6-3, to win the Belize City Council (BCC). It was the first time the PUP had lost the BCC.
Mr. Barrow’s maternal uncle, the aforementioned Dean Lindo, was the Leader of the UDP, and the UDP’s electoral run from 1974 to 1979 was almost spectacular. Dean Barrow became a poster boy for the flashy UDP in the streets of Belize City, although he was not a UDP candidate for office. He became close friends with Michael Finnegan, Uncle Dean’s confidant. Around 1978, Mr. Barrow contracted a brilliant marriage with the young attorney, Lois Young, who was in good graces with the ruling PUP at the time.
Then in the 1979 general elections, the UDP suffered a devastating upset loss which fractured the party for years. The UDP began rebuilding in early 1983, under the new leadership of Manuel Esquivel, and Mr. Barrow made the critical decision to become a Belize City Council candidate for the UDP in the December 1983 elections. The UDP won a landslide victory, with Mr. Barrow topping the polls.
In early 1984, he defeated Hubert Elrington in a convention to decide the UDP candidate for the Collet constituency. Later in 1984, when the ruling PUP essentially divided Collet into three different divisions – Lake Independence, Queen’s Square, and Collet, Mr. Finnegan advised Mr. Barrow to choose the new Queen’s Square constituency for himself. Of the three divisions, Queen’s Square contained the greatest concentration of UDP voters. Mr. Barrow easily won the seat and Mr. Esquivel’s UDP blew out the PUP in the December 1984 general elections. This was the PUP’s first ever defeat in national elections. Mr. Barrow went on to win the Queen’s Square seat in nine consecutive general elections.
In 1998, Mr. Barrow became UDP Leader when Dr. Esquivel resigned. After losing to the PUP in 2003, he has led the UDP to three consecutive national election wins, unprecedented in the post-independence era.
Today, Mr. Barrow is in position in which no other Belizean has ever been. He is Prime Minister of Belize in an administration in which he can afford to make principled decisions, because this is his last term as Queen’s Square area representative and as Prime Minister, at least so he says. He does not have to make narrowly Machiavellian, mean-spirited political decisions. He can behave like a “big man,” as the streets would say.
It was in a spirit of principled decision-making that Mr. Barrow decided to remove Hon. Gaspar Vega from the Ministry of Natural Resources portfolio after the UDP’s third consecutive national election victory in November of last year. We spent much of last weekend’s editorial showing you how that decision has created all kinds of political problems for Mr. Barrow within his own party.
In a sense, Gapi Vega had become Mr. Barrow’s version of Said Musa’s Ralph Fonseca: Mr. Vega, because the UDP constituency leaders were always in need of money, had become too big, because he always had money to give them. Mr. Barrow had to know most of what was going on, but he had acquiesced in the behavioral irregularities. Finally, granted a third term wherein he did not have to ensure a fourth for himself, he decided to take the Vega bull by the horns. The result is that the UDP has ended up being gored, or goring itself.
Mr. Barrow has an appointment with history, because there are moves he can make to prove to the Belizean people that he is real. The power of the Prime Minister’s office is almost monarchical. Mr. Barrow has always, from his entry into electoral politics in 1983, sought to create an image for himself as a man and leader of principle. The business of politics, however, is unprincipled, by definition. That is why Machiavelli wrote the book.
Too many of Mr. Barrow’s rhetorical statements of the past on the matter of his personal integrity have now gone up in smoke. What you envision and wish for yourself as an individual in electoral politics is of little account. The system is a fraud, and, just as important, it is all about collective responsibility. The “I” cannot be separated from the “we”. If the Ministry of Natural Resources was a “hot bed of corruption,” and you knew it was a hot bed of corruption more than two years ago, you were given the constitutional power, as Prime Minister, to deal with the problem. As it is said, he who hesitates, is lost. Mis-steps have followed upon mis-steps. To be, or not to be. That is the question.