To a substantial extent, March 7’s national municipal elections in Belize will be a referendum on the leadership of the Prime Minister of Belize, the Right Hon. Dean O. Barrow. Mr. Barrow’s United Democratic Party (UDP) has been on a winning streak since 2003, and he has led the UDP to three consecutive general election victories, unprecedented in Belize’s post-independence era.
The UDP’s most successful leader ever, Mr. Barrow enjoys iconic status in his party, and rightfully so. He has delivered their bacon. The UDP is very confident entering the March 7 elections. They have not lost in 15 years, and their election campaign and election day machineries are well-oiled, experienced, and formidable.
For many years the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) refused to believe that the Said Musa/Ralph Fonseca template had to be revised. And in fact, even without a basic revision, the PUP came very close to returning to power in the 2012 general election, the UDP winning by only a 17-14 margin in seats and by just 70 popular votes overall. The UDP, however, taking full advantage of PetroCaribe loans at very concessionary interest rates, went on an orgy of infrastructural activity and increased their margin of victory in the November 2015 general election, having already won the 2015 national municipals some months earlier.
March 7’s national municipals will be the first real opportunity Belizeans have had in almost two and a half years to say what they think about this UDP administration. If Belizeans’ strong support of the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) national strike of October 2016 is any indication, the people of Belize are not happy with Mr. Barrow’s style of coddling corruption.
As flashy and debonair as he appears on television, Prime Minister Barrow is a safety-first, percentage-playing man when it comes to his politics. His seemingly ballsy decision to remove then Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Gaspar Vega, from the filthy Ministry of Natural Resources came in the immediate, euphoric aftermath of his third consecutive general election victory in early November of 2015.
The way Mr. Barrow had botched the Citizen Kim passport scandal which featured one of his Cabinet Ministers, Elvin Penner, in the leading role, must have played a role in his Gapi Vega decision of November 2015. When the Prime Minister covered up for Penner and obstructed the course of justice in September of 2013 and thereafter, he only held the aforementioned 17-14 margin in seats. The Kim/Penner scandal caused Mr. Barrow to become jittery. In the Penner matter, Prime Minister Barrow seriously tarnished his carefully crafted personal reputation for probity and integrity. The Belizean people were extremely angry about the Penner matter.
Two years later, with an increase in seat margin to 19-12, the Prime Minister attempted to salvage his reputation by removing Gapi from Lands, which he had personally described in Los Angeles as a “hot bed of corruption.” The move essentially backfired, because not only was Gapi too wealthy and too powerful inside the ranks of Barrow’s Cabinet Ministers, but when Gapi, in a huff, chose to resign as Deputy Prime Minister, the UDP lost its ethnic and religious balance between Prime Minister and Deputy. As it is now, both Mr. Barrow and his new Deputy, and presumably his successor as UDP Leader and Prime Minister, Hon. Patrick Faber, are Belize City Creoles and Anglicans.
Mr. Barrow was supposed to be grooming Mr. Faber to lead the UDP into the 2020 general election, but the succession process has not been going smoothly. Gapi Vega is unalterably opposed to a Faber leadership, having openly supported John Saldivar in the convention to choose his successor as UDP Deputy Leader and Belize’s Deputy Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister’s attempt to salvage his personal reputation, smeared by the Penner matter, was short-lived. Barrow’s leadership has become scandalized because of all that he has done, and all that he has not done, in order to protect his corrupt Ministers, UDP cronies, middle level party leadership and apparatchiks. The thing is, at one point it had appeared that it was Patrick Faber who was supposed to take all the heat while Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow was sailing off into retirement sunset. Not so.
It is the said Mr. Barrow who leads the UDP into March 7. The Prime Minister’s handling of the $90 million UHS debt, growing at the rate of $40,000 each calendar day, is designed to impress Belizean voters with his machismo before March 7. For the UDP leader, nothing matters much after March 7 and his royal swan song, because his electoral legacy would be intact with a victory.
The UDP’s UHS propaganda strategy is built around the tried and proven tactic of zeroing in on Said Musa. Mr. Musa’s decision to float a leadership trial balloon for his son, Kareem, failed miserably. That failed trial balloon has worked to the distinct advantage of PUP Leader, Hon. John Briceño, because he is now in a position to go all out at the PUP’s national convention, now scheduled for Sunday, January 28. With that convention, if all goes well, Briceño will be able to put the Musa and Fonseca ghosts in the closet.
Even if the UDP is as strong on March 7 as it has been over the course of the party’s 15-year winning streak, the reality is that the PUP will be stronger than it has been since the G-7 of August 2004. The UDP will bring out their voters, and the PUP will bring out most of theirs.
The joker in the deck is Belize’s independent voters. Remember, their percentage of the national total of voters has been growing with the proliferation of the electronic media over the last quarter century and the explosion in social media conversations over the last decade. The evidence of the BNTU strike is that Belize’s independent voters are unhappy with the Prime Minister’s coddling of corruption. As happy as the UDP faithful are with that coddling of corruption, by that same measure are independent voters outraged.
Mr. Barrow and the UDP had come into power in March 2008 under ideal circumstances. The UDP’s roots are in the self-righteously honest, British-trained middle class of the 1950s. Their previous two terms in office, 1984–1989 and 1993-1998, under Dr. Manuel Esquivel, had not been marked by excessive corruption. Yes, they sold passports and alienated national real estate. Then there was the high profile permanent residency scandal of the mid-1990s. Dr. Esquivel’s UDP was mean-spirited but not greedy. The connected UDP attorneys did become wealthy. But by contrast, Mr. Barrow’s UDP has gotten out of control.
The 2008 circumstances for Mr. Barrow were ideal because all he was supposed to do was return some level of honesty and restraint to government. Infatuated by the era of globalization and privatization, Said Musa and Ralph Fonseca had introduced growth economics. There was a lot of money in Belize between 1998 and 2008, but the interest rates on that money were excessively high. Then, there was Lord Michael Ashcroft, the 1000 pound gorilla. In the House recently, former P.M. Musa said that he had tried to fight Ashcroft. Although the UDP side guffawed, there was a modicum of truth there. By the time of that “fight in the early third millennium, however, Ashcroft was out of control, and it was the PUP which had facilitated him in 1993: the PUP gave Ashcroft the key to Belize’s telecommunications treasure. Whatever the debatable benefits of the growth economics era, the Social Security Board (SSB) and Development Finance Corporation (DFC) commissions of inquiry produced damning evidence of corruption. No one went to jail, but those inquiries spelled doom for the Musa/Fonseca regime.
So yes, Dean Oliver came to power under ideal circumstances. The circumstances under which he will leave, however, are only ideal where his personal and family bank accounts are concerned. The economy of Belize is a wreck. Law and order has broken down. UDP corruption is shameless.
The people of Belize are bloody, but unbowed. The teachers showed the way in October of 2016. The time has come to right this ship.
Power to the people.