Features — 24 January 2014

If there ever was a time when Belizeans have been feeling used and abused by the system of politics of our country, I opine it is now. This sentiment is coupled with feelings of frustration and injustice and a sense that we are in a spiral of deceit and corruption we just cannot seem to get out of. Those of us who have been voting for the past three to five decades have factors and events from which to compare, and know sufficient local political history to cause us to believe that indeed there is a PUDP System. Ironically, the new generation voters have also come to quickly realize the very things the older voters now know for a fact, and this is because in just this decade alone sufficient has happened that has caused them to unmask the PUP and UDP.

There is no difference

This is my analysis of the situation: there is no difference between the two most powerful parties: and the parties change at elections, but the system does not. Thus the promise of change in politics is rhetoric. The true change of policies, processes and operations cannot come about until there is change in the method by which we elect our political leaders.

For example, the amendment to the Referendum Act and the introduction of the Recall Act are not true change. Rather, they are masking change to say power is being given to the people to be able to tell their elected officials what it is they want. On the surface, this sounds good, and we the people raise our hopes just to be dashed down lower than the ground.

So why is it that these supposed changes in the law are not bringing about the substantial change and people power they promised? The answer is rather simple: it’s because they are written to ensure that the final decision-makers are the very people whom we, the people, seek to challenge. Look at it this way – the only thing or people these laws are poised to challenge are the political leaders. The Referendum Act is to tell a local or national leader what the people want on a particular issue; while the Recall Act is to tell a duly elected politician you want him out of office. If designed to really work, these Acts could indeed be the changes needed for a democracy by the people.

But I say they are only words on paper because none of them was ever intended to work. Rather, they were intended to frustrate the people. For example, after all the mobilizing to get people to sign a petition asking for a referendum on an issue, the decision on whether or not there is an actual referendum will never be in the hands of the people or an independent authority or an impartial vetting process. Rather, the final decision on whether or not there is a referendum lies in the hands of the politically appointed and motivated, and manipulated, Chief Elections Officer. This public servant is an employee of the very government the people are seeking to challenge, and is beholden to a system that puts him or her there, not to us, the masses.

Re-registration of voters stalled

Further, the success of these people-led initiatives depends totally on several key decisions and acts of the government. The most important right thing that needs to be done, if any of these will ever work, is to have re-registration of voters, to clean up the list of voters held at the Elections and Boundaries office. Now this is a condition precedent, if the people’s petition is truly to ever pass the test and reach the actual stage of going to the polls. But, sadly it has not reached, and will never reach, such stage.

Belizeans need to understand that no matter which party comes and goes, none of them want to do the re-registration of voters, because that means they have to clean the voters’ list, remove the names of the dead, those who have relocated, and those who absolutely do not even live in the country and even those that cannot be found. The information at the Elections and Boundaries Office would be updated and the signatures on the cards, especially, would bear a closer resemblance for those who registered when they were teens, unmarried or now have a new way of signing their name.

But if this is done and the media gets hold of the information, we would know how padded is the list of voters and how that has helped some area representatives to never lose an election. In Belize City alone, during my experience with the offshore oil referendum – it became worrying when I found names on the list in a division but when I visited, those people are no longer there, the house is no longer livable and the neighbors haven’t even heard of them. For example, in Queen’s Square division many could be traced to residence in the USA, but it must be that they come home to vote because when the election results are analyzed, it becomes obvious that in order to reach those final figures, plane-loads had to have come in, or they have been deported by election day, or someone is voting for them. The funniest situations, however, are the ones where up to 50 or more voters are registered at the very same address, when it is either an empty lot or the cemetery of some dilapidated house which once had its glory days.

… No recall can work!

So during the reign of the PUP they put off the re-registration that should be done every ten years, citing finances as the main reason. Then the UDP comes in and they too by law put it off for another 5 years. Thus, the lack of updated signatures to use to verify the petitions is not as a result of fraud by the people: it is as a result of the manipulations of both political parties. None of them want to clean the list because both are equally benefitting from the padding. This stalling is intentional and we the people seem unable to force their hand to do the right thing!

Now it may be that the lists were never updated, intentionally so, because they want to benefit from it at election. But it has also served to benefit Elvin Penner, who, the PM says, is “politically dead” and has been fired. Well, this gives a new meaning to firing, because it is only the people who elected him, who put him in office that have the power to fire him … no one else. When the recall petition was declared as not meeting the threshold, the voters had to realize the system was never designed to give them the true power…..

My view is that the PM, after having his political party launch a “No Recall” campaign favoring Penner, had to realize it did not look good to publicly condone his unethical and illegal behavior, especially as more and more evidence surfaced that he is not squeaky clean. To save face the government had to have seemed to be supporting the recall, after the fact. When I saw the change of tune on that matter, I knew something else was amiss because I could not see the government taking the chance to have Penner lose his seat to a PUP. There had to be a trump card in the back pocket… and there was!

It is an obvious fact that no matter how many signed the petition, that the ultimate power to determine the authenticity of those signatures lies with the very government you are seeking to challenge. So the government was right: why lose face publicly defending Penner when you can let the process go through, knowing that at the end of the day the cards are stacked in your favor? Why?

Elections and Boundaries can explicitly or implicitly be guided as to the outcome. This charade was déjà vu the offshore oil referendum, same modus operandi by the Chief Elections Officer – you could have just replayed her previous interview on the issue! Mark my words…. As many recalls or referendums come in… this will always be the end result…. And all the more reasons why the voters’ list will never be cleaned up by the sitting government administration.

Penner gets away with murder!

However, the other trump card is that the recall law does not allow you a second bite of the cherry, so it’s not as if you can go back and correct this petition. I am a bit concerned at the very slow reaction to the rejection of the recall by the Opposition, PUP! I would have expected that by now all their top-notch lawyers would have been lining up at court filing for review, declarations, and quashing of these… but instead they seem slow to anger! The Belizean public don’t even have the energy to get angry anymore, and the latest announcement by Prime Minister Dean Barrow only adds salt to our wounds! His exact words, uttered January 22, 2014: “It doesn’t help to crucify Penner all over again. He is politically dead; he has been fired as a Minister.”

I have never seen a fired man turn up back to work as if nothing has happened, use the resources of his employer as if nothing happened, and get paid his salary as if nothing happened. So sorry, Mr. Barrow, but you cannot change the meaning of firing. Penner has only been stripped of his duties and responsibilities: back on the job and getting all benefits… to do what? Nothing!

Again, he is not politically dead. To have killed him politically we needed the recall election so the people could cast the executioner’s vote to end his political career. Rather, he has gotten a stay of execution, since with the help of the decision from Elections and Boundaries his neck has been spared and he has been removed from death row and placed back in society. Truth be told, Dean O. Barrow could not afford his execution and narrow the divisions won by the UDP in 2012, which had already been narrow. This was an even more damning scenario when on the heels of it all, the Edmund Castro visa hustling erupted. That would have meant two seats gone and his government toppled. And to him that is the worst legacy that could follow him … but his words will yet come back to haunt him.

Penner treatment for immigration officers

“The public servants that are left behind in my view cannot be allowed to escape by employing the excuse…well it was Penner who asked me to do this. If it was wrong, you should never have complied with Penner’s request to do what was wrong.” Adds Dean Barrow with such conviction – no pun intended.

So Penner could escape, but the public officers cannot. If the PM really believes that public officers can stand up against any Minister, then put the law in place that protects their job when they refuse to follow these directives, since when they do not comply they are fired for insubordination. I agree public officers must not follow these unlawful directives, but if and when they do they must make up their minds that they will NEVER be left to grow in the public service, because you must be part of the corruption or blind to it in order to survive.

I once worked in the public service over 23 years ago, and I know because I questioned the veracity of a press release I was asked to write and could have proven the key facts were a lie, I never got seconded and had to resign and forgo my benefits…. My superiors said I was insubordinate!

But since on this issue our very own Prime Minister says Penner is fired – I want when the public officers are also fired for this wrong-doing, that they get equal treatment as Penner in all aspects:

1. There should be no police investigation of them – just like Penner;

2. There should be no going after them publicly by the UDP – just like Penner;

3. They should still be allowed to show up at work – just like Penner;

4. They should be allowed use of government vehicle and assets – just like Penner; and

5. They must still collect a salary from out of our taxes – just like Penner.

After all, we are all equal under the law….. they are no less than Penner and he no better than they!

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