Editorial — 22 April 2017
The significance of the BNTU election

After the December 1984 general election defeat of the People’s United Party (PUP), Assad Shoman, the socialist Health Minister of the PUP during its 1979 to 1984 term of office, broke with the PUP and exited electoral politics. Said Musa, the PUP’s Education Minister during the aforementioned 1979 to 1984 PUP term, who had been Shoman’s loyal ally, began to move into a relationship with two neoliberal second-generation PUP leaders – Ralph Fonseca and Glenn Godfrey. But for more than a decade, Mr. Musa’s change in philosophy took place beneath the radar. When he became PUP Leader in 1996 and then Prime Minister in 1998, Mr. Musa was still enjoying credibility amongst social justice Belizeans. He finally began to lose such credibility in August of 2004.

It would have been ideal if we could have waited for the results of the presidential election of the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) to come in from Corozal later today, Thursday, April 20, 2017, before we wrote this editorial, but this would have been a difficult proposition for us. We are writing early Thursday morning, therefore, as we usually do, and we do not know what the results of the election will be: we only know that the BNTU’s presidential election is of enormous significance in Belize’s public affairs.

It is difficult to appreciate all the events involving the BNTU last year, to analyze these events properly and in detail, and then to seek to communicate to our readers the facts and the ramifications of those facts. What we can say for sure is that the teachers defied the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) and went on strike in October of last year, demanding some basic commitments to good governance on the Dean Barrow administration’s part. During the BNTU’s 11-day strike, and for weeks afterwards, the Barrow/Faber government huffed and puffed, but they could not blow the BNTU’s house down.

We have said to you that it was the Opposition PUP which belonged in the streets where the teachers were, because the galvanizing issues which brought the teachers out of their classrooms were issues of national political importance. These included, of course, the issues of massive UDP Cabinet corruption and the matter of Belize’s national territorial integrity and sovereignty. The high profile role of Said Musa in the 2016 PUP may have meant, however, that the PUP, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, could not shake its neoliberal image enough, if it really wanted to in any case, to spark enough spontaneous roots support to march against the UDP’s disgraced rule.

Before we discuss some relevant PUP history, let us say that if the UDP is unable to prevent the election of Senator Elena Smith to the BNTU presidency this Thursday, it will mean great pressure will come on the PUP to move from Musa/Fonseca neoliberalism closer to traditional PUP social justice. One of our brilliant contributing columnists has raised the possibility of a real labor party emerging in Belize, which would, we think, allow the PUP to remain in its neoliberal funk. But, we would have to see that labor party before we believe it, and what we mean is a credible labor party. As it is, the Belize Progressive Party (BPP) describes itself as such, pro-labor, but the BPP’s electoral arithmetic has hitherto not established credibility. An adjustment in the PUP has to be seen as the most likely response on the national political landscape, we think, as opposed to the emergence of a real labor party or credible BPP. All this assumes that Senator Smith can hold serve, and there is no guarantee of that.

In any case, the early history of Belize’s modern politics is noteworthy and relevant, because the PUP was the original, real labor party in Belize, built in 1950 on the foundation of Clifford Betson’s General Workers Union (GWU). The first serious threat to PUP political power came with the establishment of the pro-American, neoliberal UDP in 1973. And, it was renewed loyalty from the trade unions which saved the PUP in the 1979 general election, the election which led, finally, to Belize’s political independence in 1981.

There has been very little public discussion of critical moves Premier George Price made, under pressure from the mighty United States, to weaken the more militant sectors of Belize’s union movement in order to assure Washington that Belize’s left wing would not become a threat if the U.S. supported Belize’s independence. This American pressure came in 1980 and 1981, before independence. Belize achieved its independence, but the union movement had been so crippled that when Said Musa, still basically socialist at the time, challenged the right winger Louis Sylvestre for chairmanship of the PUP in 1983, the incumbent Sylvestre easily defeated him. The left wing which had enabled the PUP to achieve independence by saving the PUP in the 1979 general election, had been sacrificed before the actual achievement of independence in September of 1981.

Belizeans have been in a love affair with the United States of America for many decades. All indications are that Washington is happy with this UDP government, and little will change in Washington’s perspective when Hon. Patrick Faber succeeds Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow as UDP Leader. While its macro economic policies are neoliberal, the UDP has done a good job of public relations with social welfare initiatives such as “food pantry” and education scholarships. The PUP has hoped for Belizean voters to swing from the red to the blue because of manifest UDP corruption. It has not happened. The PUP has been hesitant to embrace the party’s foundation unionism and social justice, because the PUP respects the awesome power of neoliberal Washington, which is hostile to Third World unionism.

Thus it was that the BNTU last year actually stepped into a large socio-political vacuum in Belize. The masses of the Belizean people welcomed such an activism. During and after all the BNTU successes, we have warned you that the teachers’ union was not designed and organized for such a role. We have warned you that the BNTU could not possibly sustain such a militant role in Belize’s public affairs: we have insisted that such a public affairs militancy is, constitutionally speaking, the role of the official Opposition, which is to say, the PUP.

The new Floyd Neal presidency in the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), the umbrella organization to which the BNTU belongs, has begun with rhetoric which suggests support for the type of good governance initiatives on which the BNTU has embarked. Late in 2004 and early in 2005, when the naked neoliberalism and corruption of the Said Musa PUP government was being exposed, BNTU leaders were the star performers in popular rebellion, but they were definitely operating under the umbrella of the NTUCB. In October of 2016, on the contrary, the NTUCB was missing in action.

It is important for the political fortunes of the UDP leaders for them to break the back of the BNTU, one reason being that continued BNTU successes will motivate and energize the NTUCB. In 2005, all the UDP, then in Opposition, basically had to do was be patient: the trade unions of Belize had marched to condemn the Musa PUP administration in a definitive manner.
In 2005, however, the then Opposition UDP was not as branded with the neoliberal ideology as the PUP now is. In Belize City’s Southside, which, because of its population density, controls more House seats than any area of similar size in the nation, UDP leaders such of Michael Finnegan and Boots Martinez had successfully played a populist game. The neoliberal core of the UDP was not exposed in 2005.

With national municipal elections less than a year away, the PUP, in the constitutional service of the Belizean people, needs to do some strategizing. ASR, Santander, and Norwegian Cruise Lines are not all that popular. We do not believe the people of Belize want to go the route of Guatemala and Honduras.

Power to the people.

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Eden Cruz

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