As we write this editorial early Thursday morning, the national football champions of Belize, the Belmopan Bandits, are preparing to defend Belize’s honor this evening against a visiting football club from Nicaragua. This is the home end of the home-and-away two-game series which are characteristic of these regional football tournaments. The Belize team was losing narrowly in Nicaragua last week Thursday night, but gave up two goals very, very late in the game which made the final score Nicaragua 4, Belize 1. The Bandits will therefore have a tough three-goal hill to climb in Belmopan on Thursday night.
At this newspaper, as supporters of sports and Belizean nationalists, we are saddened by the ambivalence with which we have to view tonight’s game. We are unable to support the Belmopan Bandits with the patriotic intensity the team’s players and management deserve, because the football club is John Saldivar’s personal fiefdom. He used his political power to bring both his football team and his basketball team to 2017 national championships in The Jewel.
As a high ranking electoral politician in the United Democratic Party (UDP) since he ran in the 1998 general election and lost in Cayo South, and a UDP Cabinet Minister since 2008, by now Mr. Saldivar should have withdrawn to the background of his sports franchises. Party politics is a divisive thing in Belize, and the ruling UDP is embroiled in many controversies which feature naked corruption. But sports is a consuming passion in Belizean communities, and John Saldivar became a Belmopan hero precisely because of his Belmopan sports programs. John Saldivar’s sports and John Saldivar’s politics became one and the same. The line between John Saldivar’s sports and John Saldivar’s politics became one he refused to draw because his Belmopan sports activities are the foundation of his political power.
On August 1 last week, Belmopan celebrated the 47th anniversary of its official opening as a municipality and as the new capital of Belize. The headquarters of all Belize’s government departments had to move from Belize City to Belmopan in 1970, and all the meetings of the House of Representatives and the Senate began to be held in the new capital, which had been built because it was felt that Belize City, the old capital from the beginning of the settlement of Belize, was too exposed to hurricanes.
In the beginning, Belmopan was only a civil service community (public officers were referred to as “civil servants” back then), and it was a boring place where many civil servants refused to live. They commuted back and forth to Belize City. There were no bars, no gambling dens, no houses of ill refute, no exciting activity in Belmopan. One had to go to Roaring Creek if one desired any excitement.
A quarter century after Belmopan was founded, John Saldivar began making Belmopan “big time,” and he used sports to do it. First, he brought Belmopan into the semi-pro basketball league which was based in Belize City between 1992 and 1997, before it folded. The UDP won a surprise general election in June of 1993, returning Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel to office. (Esquivel had been Prime Minister between 1984 and 1989.) In charge of the Reconstruction and Development Department during Esquivel’s second term, John Saldivar became Esquivel’s sports guru, especially in the area of semi-pro basketball, where the Kremandala Raiders had become a sensational success.
It is a painful to recall the targeting and victimization of the Raiders which John Saldivar did in pursuance of Dr. Esquivel’s vendetta against Kremandala. The Raiders first folded in 1995, then came back to rescue the semi-pro basketball league in 1996, after which they folded again. The semi-pro league then had one final season in 1997, after which the league itself folded.
What was very, very interesting was what then happened in 1998. Esquivel, as Minister of Finance, put John Saldivar in charge of hundreds of thousands of dollars in unaudited public funds in order to host a CARICOM basketball tournament in Belize and to make sure Belize won. General elections were due in June of that year, you see, and the same Esquivel government which had smashed the Raiders and destroyed semi-pro basketball, now wanted to use basketball as a campaigning tool. Saldivar got the job done, Belize won the 1998 CARICOM tournament gloriously, but the voters of Belize were no fools.
1998 was the year when a Belize government refused to call scheduled general elections until almost three months after their allotted five years in office. The UDP lost in the worst general election landslide since 1969, and Mr. Esquivel retired from politics.
John Saldivar, however, has gone on to UDP stardom, beginning with his bye-election victory in 2003 in Cayo South. He had lost to the PUP’s Pino Cawich in the March 2003 general election (as also in 1998), but when Pino died a few months later, Saldivar defeated his son and has held the Belmopan seat ever since.
With his Belmopan sports programs as the foundation of his popularity, Saldivar became so big that he was considered a serious candidate to succeed the retiring Rt. Hon. Dean O. Barrow as UDP Leader and Prime Minister. In a leadership campaign last year against Patrick Faber, John Saldivar was endorsed by the large majority of UDP Cabinet Ministers. But, Faber won, and then the William Danny Mason scandal broke.
On Thursday night, we will be supporting the Belmopan Bandits as they defend Belize against the invading Nicaraguans. The problem is that one cannot support the Belmopan Bandits without supporting John Saldivar, and our Kremandala experiences with John Saldivar have all been unhappy ones. John Saldivar is not our friend.
Power to the people.