“The reason being given for the unexpected and premature withdrawal of Ms. Vanessa Retreage, Attorney General and (since September 2016) Minister of Natural Resources, from the Barrow Cabinet is unreal and unreasonable.
“Announcing her resignation and replacement at a press conference in Belmopan on Wednesday, Prime Minister Dean Barrow explained that Ms. Retreage had only been on loan from her law firm of Reyes & Retreage to the government for a period of one year.
“This astonishing information came as a complete surprise, since only four months ago Ms. Retreage had agreed to accept the prestigious portfolio of Natural Resources which includes responsibility for Lands and Fisheries. For her to accept this portfolio, knowing that she could only hold on for four more months is, in our view, crass and disingenuous. We cannot believe that a woman of such intelligence and integrity would do such a thing! There has to be another reason.”
“For a while it looked like the UDP would renew itself from within by taking the high road, but now this expectation has been dashed. We feel genuinely let down.”
– pg. 2, editorial in THE REPORTER, Sunday, December 18, 2016
During the 1960s, the People’s United Party (PUP) won 51 out of the 54 House seats contested in the 1961, 1965, and 1969 general elections in Belize. During those years, a kind of sneering class superiority became more manifest amongst some of the frustrated middle class Belizeans who supported the National Independence Party (NIP). The NIP core felt that the PUP base was less educated, more vulgar than they were, that the PUP base was unscrupulous and dishonest, and the uppity NIP felt that PUP Leader, Rt. Hon. George Cadle Price, was exploiting the poor and the uneducated. When Mr. Price appointed a relatively illiterate PUP lady from Hattieville to the prestigious Senate, there was a great outcry from the NIP followers, who considered such a move to be disrespect, perhaps even mischief, on Mr. Price’s part, the type of move the NIP felt had become typical of him.
As the years went by and power began to corrupt the PUP’s leaders more and more in the 1970’s, a more sophisticated Opposition emerged in 1973, when the United Democratic Party (UDP) was formed, incorporating the aforementioned NIP, the People’s Development Movement (PDM), and the Liberal Party. The new UDP was more hard-nosed about its political campaigning than the NIP had been, and the new UDP actually included a faction of the divided, street-based UBAD Party, so that there was somewhat less of a middle class attitude in the UDP. At the same time, the PUP was becoming somewhat less roots, because its continued success attracted more middle class support.
After a smashing landslide victory in the December 1977 Belize City Council elections, the UDP was the odds-on favorite to win the general election of 1979. It did not happen, and the victorious PUP was able to lead Belize to political independence in September of 1981.
Increasing corruption, including drug trafficking, had become the order of the day at high levels in the PUP, and so it was that the PUP, founded in September of 1950, finally lost power for the first time in the December 1984 general elections. If one believed all the middle class hype from the NIP 1960s, the newly empowered UDP, unlike the wicked PUP, was supposed to deliver impeccably honest government to struggling Belizeans.
1984 was the heyday of the two Ronald Reagan presidencies (1980-88) in the mighty United States of America, and UDP Leader Manuel Esquivel’s new government in Belize dutifully began to follow instructions from Washington. Belize allowed the Americans to spray our marijuana fields with paraquat and established the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) as a Belizean arm of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Going the neoliberal route, the Esquivel government privatized Belize’s banana plantations, sold Belize passports by the bucketful, and alienated huge tracts of Belizean land to Chinese and Taiwanese investors. The 1984-89 UDP also introduced Michael Ashcroft into our economy.
The UDP lost power in 1989, but returned to office in 1993. Theirs was a bitter, vindictive administration between 1993 and 1998, and in the middle of that term of office, the UDP experienced its first major corruption scandal, which was a scheme involving the sale of permanent residency documents. There was also a scandal involving Malaysian loggers in the Toledo District. The sale of passports and Belizean lands continued. Certain UDP-affiliated attorneys now became multi-millionaires, building on their enrichment initiatives of 1984 to 1989.
Seen from a certain perspective, the PUP administration of 1989 to 1993 was a dry run for the financial corruption and excesses of their 1998 to 2004 years. Belize had plunged deeply into debt, with not much to show for huge loans incurred at commercial rates by the PUP’s financial guru, Ralph Fonseca, when the UDP returned to power in 2008 with the clear understanding that their job would be to clean up the PUP mess.
At what point the UDP began to create a massive mess of its own, we cannot really say. Gapi Vega was UDP Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Natural Resources from the time the UDP returned to national office in February of 2008. While Prime Minister Dean Barrow was dazzling Belizeans with his television wardrobes/jewelry and his rhetorical pyrotechnics, major funny stuff was going on in the Ministry of Natural Resources which was essentially flying beneath the radar of the Belizean media.
The astounding wealth generated by corrupt deals enabled the said Vega to become the source of ready cash for all his interested colleagues, a bunch of UDP cronies, and the party’s media organs and special event productions. The atmosphere of greed and corruption within the UDP became so pervasive and casual that a prominent lady attorney of one of the most historic, middle class, self-righteous NIP families from the 1960s, cut herself in for a $400,000 slice of the action. Amazing.
Under pressure in a public forum in Los Angeles in 2013 or 2014, Prime Minster Barrow sensationally referred to a “hot bed of corruption” inside the Ministry of Natural Resources. And, in naming his new Cabinet after securing a third consecutive term of office in the November 2015 general elections, Mr. Barrow took decisive action – separating the moneybags Gapi from his much loved and “much lucrative” Ministry of Natural Resources. In retrospect, albeit in slow motion, all hell then proceeded to break loose inside the UDP.
The uproar within the UDP has reached the point where last week The Reporter, a newspaper owned by Harry Lawrence, one of the UDP founders in 1973 and a consistent party loyalist, basically attacked Prime Minister Barrow in its editorial and accused him of dishonesty where his explanation for the demitting of office by Attorney General/Ministry of Natural Resources, Vanessa Retreage, was concerned.
There are other significant areas of corruption within this UDP administration. Ask the Embassy of the United States. Ask the Auditor General. Ask some leading merchants. The thing is, as we prepare to enter 2017, that there were different Belizeans who were talking the talk, as we would say, in 2016. The cane farmers talked the talk. The roots Rasta at Harmonyville talked the talk. The young activists at COLA talked the talk. The Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) and the Northern Territorial Volunteers (NTV) talked the talk. In fact, the BTV and the NTV even did some walking of the walk. At the end of the 2016 day, however, it was the teachers of Belize who really walked the walk.
And, it is for this reason that the teachers will be this corrupt UDP administration’s no. 1 target as the New Year opens. Power has corrupted the UDP leaders. Even their most faithful NIP-background followers now have to admit this. But the UDP followers will continue to support their party. This is how obsessed the party political system is here. For non-party political Belizeans, however, the Belizeans who decide between the red and the blue on election day, it is likely only a matter of time before they reach the conclusion that, in the matter of UDP corruption, enough is enough.
Power to the people.