BELIZE CITY, Thurs. May 18, 2017–President of the Public Service Union (PSU), Eldred Neal, came under public fire this week, after recordings were leaked to the media and via social media in which he was heard making offensive comments against the Garifuna people, portraying them as people who will do anything to maintain power; and more specifically, members of the public service whom Neal, as PSU president, is supposed to represent.
When we spoke with him on Monday, Neal said that he is neither a racist nor a bigot and he maintained that he did not say anything against the Garinagu. He also told us that he will not step down but will offer himself again for office.
It is alleged that during the controversial discussion, which ran about an hour and a half long while Neal was having drinks back in early March outside of the Wahaha in Belize City with two other union leaders – Marvin Mora and Lorelie Westby, the PSU president also called out Garifuna Minister, Frank “Papa” Mena, Minister of State for Public Service, Energy & Public Utilities, accusing him of using his political influence to bring his people into the public service.
Speaking with Amandala after the release of the snippets of recording, Neal’s former campaign manager, Margaret Suazo, a Garifuna woman of Dangriga, expressed outrage and told us, “Eldred Neal has to resign because that is not what we put him there for!”
Suazo added, “At this time, we shouldn’t be having this problem between Garinagu and Creole people; we are all Black people!”
The leaked recordings emerged at the same time that a letter from a majority of the PSU’s Council of Management was released, in which 9 of 15 members who sit on the body with Neal called for his resignation before the PSU’s August AGM.
Neal received a copy of the letter last Thursday, but when the Council of Management met on Friday, they did not discuss the letter or the issues raised in the letter, which charged that Neal was on a rampage to purge the union of Garinagu people.
Two of the signatories to the letter were dispatched to approach Neal in Cayo on Monday, while he was on union business there, in order to hear what his reply was. Our newspaper is informed that Neal rejected the demand, and so persons from among those demanding that he remove himself as president decided to come public, sparking public outrage over the comments.
Although no public statement has come from the other unions, president of the Belize National Teachers’ Union (BNTU), Elena Smith, wore a Garifuna skirt on Tuesday, expressing her solidary with the Garinagu, many of whom are her friends.
Neal, too, has had many Garifuna friends and supporters, who have told us that they are very surprised to have heard the comments attributed to him, while others claim that it is no news to them.
Amandala understands from PSU sources that there have been some messages posted in the union’s group chat on the issue, and in one case, a ‘red-skinned’ Garifuna male had claimed that he had heard offensive comments against the Garinagu made in his presence.
The recordings released this week, implicated both Neal and former president of the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), Marvin Mora, who, in an interview with the media on Tuesday, told us that he said nothing offensive against the Garinagu and apologized for the hurt caused by what has unfolded. Both Mora and Neal were telling Westby, who was born and raised in Dangriga, about a rule that the Garinagu people could not be in Belize City after 6.
It was said that: “There was …a law that was enacted in Belize City that did not allow the Garifuna to be here after 6:00…
“So after 6:00 they #$*! had to hit the bus and haul they r#$*! outta town!”
Mora admitted to making the first statement but insisted that it was Neal who interjected with the second statement, but Neal has denied saying so. Mora told us that the conversation came up when he and Westby, representatives of the utilities union, were pressing Neal to support their bid for PSU executive member, Fayne Nicasio, a Garifuna woman, to become the new president of the NTUCB. Neal was supporting Jackie Willoughby.
Nicasio became ineligible after she was removed by Neal as delegate for the PSU on the NTUCB. However, we are told that Nicasio, who had been recently elected to serve as deputy secretary general of the NTUCB, although courted for the position, did not have interest in the presidency. Willoughby lost the bid for president to Floyd Neal of the Christian Workers Union.
Edmund Zuniga, the head of the Belize District branch of the PSU, said that race is being used as a cover for a bigger problem. He disputed assertions made by Neal in the recording that there is a “culture war” involving the Garinagu. “A bigger problem is looming—and it is bigger than race,” he said.
Zuniga, one of the persons who heard earlier versions of the recording, said that some of the snippets from the conversation were moved around, but he said that the thrust of the conversation was the same and he was too hurt to listen to any of the clips in their entirety.
Hubert Enriquez, whose name was also raised in the comments against Garinagu, in relation to his work with the Southern Workers Union, commented via social media: “As a trade unionist and former President of the Public Service Union, I find it utterly disgraceful and offensive that a sitting president of the said union would make such remarks instead of putting forward proposals where workers can advance on the basis of merit instead of race or blind loyalty and political patronage.”
In a release issued this week, the National Garifuna Council roundly condemned the statements as well. NGC president, Sandra Miranda, told our newspaper that some of the aggrieved members of the PSU are also members of the NGC, and the NGC was copied on the letter in which members of the PSU’s Council of Management demanded Neal’s resignation and asked him not to run for office at the upcoming election.
The Council of Management meets tomorrow afternoon, and Zuniga said that they hope to get a commitment from Neal this time around that he will step down. Meanwhile, petitions are reportedly being circulated at the branch level to seek Neal’s removal. We are told that depending on the outcome of tomorrow’s meeting, some branches may canvass their membership for their position on the issue.