Behind the scenes, the Government of Belize will be going all out to undermine the march of the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) scheduled for this Friday, May 13, in Belize City. The march was announced at a press conference on Monday, May 9. It’s very short notice, but this is the BNTU: they can kick up dust in the twinkling of an eye. BNTU is campaigning against the Sarstoon River Statutory Instrument on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.
When the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) attempted on Saturday morning, April 30, to defy Government’s ban on civilian travel to the Sarstoon, a couple of the BTV’s most militant supporters, that day, were BNTU executive members. Government used Belize’s security forces to stop the BTV expedition from embarking in boats at the pier in Barranco, Belize’s southernmost village.
The BNTU is the single most powerful trade union in Belize with respect to its ability to challenge and shake up governments here. This was pretty much established in late 2004 and early 2005.
At what specific point the BNTU became this powerful, I really can’t say. My sense is that the BNTU emerged as a juggernaut in the 1990’s during the partnership between the presidency of the late John Pinelo and the secretariat of George Frazer.
Remember now, the BNTU was not formed until 1969 or thereabouts. Anti-colonial British Honduras had been all about the General Workers Union (GWU), on whose foundation and in coalition with which the early People’s United Party (PUP) won national elections in 1954 and 1957. The GWU base was mostly manual workers, such as forestry workers, sawmill workers, stevedores, shipwrights, and dock yard workers. (I believe Clifford Betson founded the GWU in 1944 or thereabouts.)
The PUP politicians succeeded in replacing the power of the GWU with that of the Christian Workers Union (CWU) during the PUP’s heyday in the 1960s. The CWU power base was on the Belize City waterfront. The PUP basically controlled the CWU.
The civil servants of British Honduras were anti-PUP in the 1950s and the 1960s, even most of the 1970s. They were represented by the Public Service Union (PSU).
And then, the teachers became organized in 1969.
I am no kind of expert on the unions of Belize. I only tried to set the historical stage in previous paragraphs for the coming of the BNTU. I regret the fact that there is no published research material on the history and doings of the BNTU available to us for reference in this essay.
Moving forward, let me say that little Belize is a society which is so divided in so many ways I often think of us as a cantankerous people. We are divided by ethnicity, color, class, religion, wealth, personality, and so on and so forth. When a political party is elected to government, they receive a little more than 50 percent of the votes cast by 70 or 75 percent of the registered electorate. For that one day of general election, every five years, our internal divisions as a people become less important than peacefully choosing a set of rascals to handle our public finances. After general election day, we return to our sulking and bickering.
50 percent of 75 percent is clearly less than half of the overall adult population. In other words, the majority of our electorate has no real commitment or loyalty to the Government of Belize, whether the administration is blue or red. If an issue or grievance is powerful enough at any moment in time, an elected Government of Belize can be placed on the defensive. But, it takes a serious issue, and it takes real political jerks in government to unite the people of Belize against them. In late 2004 and early 2005, we saw Ralph Fonseca and Glenn Godfrey unite the Belizean people against the ruling PUP because of their abuse of public funds. Prime Minister Musa may have sacrificed Godfrey by not going all the way with Intelco, but he held on to Fonseca and protected him. That was Musa’s mistake in political judgment. Clinging to Ralph, has led to a PUP losing streak which has lasted more than a decade. The BNTU was in the eye of that storm in 2004/2005 which had the ruling PUP running for cover.
The Social Security Board (SSB) and Development Finance Corporation (DFC) issues of late 2004/early 2005 first blew up, relatively suddenly, in July of 2004. On the other hand, this Sarstoon River issue has been on the boil since February of 2015. The Belizean people continued to vote UDP even after the Guatemalan military kidnapped Belizeans at the mouth of the Sarstoon and forced them to Livingston at the end of February of 2015. Belizeans went to the polls in March of 2015 and voted for the UDP in national municipal elections. They went to the polls in July of 2015 and voted for the UDP in Dangriga bye-elections. And finally, they went to the polls in November of 2015 and returned the UDP to national government for a third consecutive term, unprecedented in the post-independence era.
So then, it should be that the Dean Barrow UDP administration is at the top of its game in May of 2016. The BTV was not really a problem. The media was not really a problem. Even the PUP was not much of a problem. But then the BNTU went to the border at Jalacte. Then the BNTU marched to the border at Benque. On Friday, they will march in Belize City. Sarstoon has become a sizzler. When the teachers of Belize say, we have a problem, then the country of Belize says, we have a problem.
The PUP, which elected a new Leader in a national party convention at the end of January this year, is fighting to assert leadership of the Sarstoon River campaign, and surely, as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, they have a constitutional advantage over the BNTU. In early February of 2005, however, there were a couple days when it appeared that the leadership of the BNTU could overthrow the PUP government. The issue back then, to repeat, was public funds. And in 2004/2005, the then Opposition UDP was able to assert its leadership of the dissidents. In 2016, to repeat, the issue is the Sarstoon. The PUP is not in absolute control of the dissidents.
The UDP in 2016 may be weaker than the PUP in 2005. This is a controversial opinion, but the fact that both Prime Minister Barrow and Deputy Prime Minister are “lame duck” at this precise moment in time, surely must contribute to some uncertainty in the ruling party. On Friday, when the teachers of Belize march, there are some people high up in the UDP who will not be as arrogant as they have been since November 4 of 2015. There has not been excitement like this in the streets of the old capital for a long time.
Power to the people! Ya da fu we, Belize.