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Strange Senate, strange country

EditorialStrange Senate, strange country

Belize is a strange country in several ways. One of the most intriguing ways in which Belize is strange has to do with what appears to be the reality that Belizeans from certain classes and backgrounds, Belizeans with certain connections, cannot go to jail. We say this even as the New Jersey courts this week were sentencing two of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s staffers to jail time for a so-called Bridgegate scandal. A Republican, Christie not only ran for the Republican presidential nomination last year, he is in the good books, a confidant of, the man who eventually won that nomination and the presidency itself – Donald J. Trump. No matter, no matter. In America, no one’s too big to go to jail. And they are the richest and most powerful country in the world. In tiny, poverty-stricken Belize, however, there are so many sacred cows and special arrangements.

Today is the first time we are editorializing on the Senate special inquiry into the immigration scandals which has been going on in Belmopan for two months or so. Witnesses testify under oath, but it is now clear that witnesses have been lying, which is to say, they are really not afraid of being indicted for perjury.

It reached the stage this week Wednesday afternoon where a key witness testified that he was scared for his life. Senator Aldo Salazar, the chairman of the inquiry, did not press on with the inquiry in quest of details, but instead quickly shut down the session early Wednesday afternoon. Our understanding is that there were two other witnesses scheduled to testify on Wednesday, but more importantly, there will be no resumption of the Senate inquiry until April 26. In other words, there will be a month of recess at perhaps the most critical juncture so far in the inquiry.

So then, why a month of recess when most Belizeans are on the edge of their seats waiting for more information now that the inquiry has reached the point of life and death, so to speak? This month of recess was arranged, to be sure, before the questioning of the witness in question, Barton Middleton, began this morning, and the recess is to allow for the Easter holidays.

Now, strictly speaking, the Easter holidays are from Good Friday until Easter Monday, a period of four days. But the more wealthy class of Belizeans will vacation for a full week, and some for two weeks, with their entire families. Fair enough; it’s nice work if you can get it. That still does not adequately explain why there has to be a whole month of recess in the Senate inquiry.

During colonial days, incidentally, government workers, who were in the majority in the colonial economy, worked until 4 p.m. on Holy Thursday to fulfill their obligations to the government. Nowadays, in sovereign, independent Belize, a lot of places, such as statutory boards and municipal government offices, shut down from 1 on Holy Thursday afternoon. In fact, thousands of Belizeans begin travelling from Thursday morning, mostly north to Chetumal and other destinations in Quintana Roo. More than that, if you go to the northern border on the Wednesday before Holy Thursday, the place will be jammed and congested with Belizeans trying to enter Mexico.

For months before this particular Senate hearing was actually agreed upon, as a result of serious allegations by the Auditor General about Immigration Department matters, the attack dogs of the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) were making serious personal attacks on the Integrity of the Auditor General in their newspaper and on their radio and television stations.

Essentially, the UDP’s line was that the Auditor General’s report was much ado about nothing, and there was one particular phone caller of high UDP rank who made the point, over and over, that nothing that he saw in the report was compromising in any way to any Cabinet Minister. The UDP fought very hard to prevent such an inquiry as we now have from being held. In the midst of this UDP stonewalling, the sore thumb that was Elwin Penner, the former Cayo Northeast area representative and Cabinet Minister, was sticking out for all the Belizean people to see. Penner was the big fish whose sordid saga made it impossible for the Barrow administration to block the hearing, although the UDP did influence the makeup of the Senate select committee in order to reduce its biting ability.

The UDP problem where the one Elvin Penner was concerned was the fact that the Chief Justice of Belize had actually ordered the Commissioner of Police to investigate Penner’s role in the Citizen Kim passport scandal, and the Commissioner of Police, under severe duress from the ruling political directorate, had refused to do so. The Penner/Citizen Kim scandal was one that broke in late 2013. Since then, it has hung over the Barrow administration like a pall.

But, lo and behold, Mr. Penner had reached a level of comfort and confidence by early March of this year where he was giving on-air interviews to local radio stations in which he was pointing out how active he was in Cayo Northeast for the UDP, and how popular he was. There was absolutely no public response from the Prime Minister/UDP Leader, Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, where the Penner statements of Monday, March 6, 2017 in Belize City at the end of La Ruta Maya were concerned.

It may be that none of the media has confronted Mr. Barrow with this issue of political aggression from the Penner camp, but the question has to be who or what is encouraging Elvin to the point where he is giving radio interviews. In another country, Mr. Penner may well have been behind iron bars.

In conclusion, we return to Wednesday’s session of the Senate immigration hearing. Some of these bright attorneys need to explain to the Belizean people why it is that nobody really believes anything will come out of the Senate inquiry. What is the constitutional or political problem in Belize why, when it comes to certain white collar crimes, no one can be held accountable: no one has ever been held accountable. And so, when the Social Security Board (SSB) and Development Finance Corporation (DFC) inquiries of 2005 showed us how the politically connected had ripped off millions and millions of dollars from the aforementioned two institutions, that was the end of that. All you heard about after that was something called “natural justice.” In roots Belize, what we understand this “natural justice” to mean is that the rich can steal from the poor, and everything is copacetic. When the poor attempt to steal from the rich, that is a whole other matter. Then, the justice is swift and brutal. We think in a society where the justice for the rich is different from the justice for the poor, such a society is not justified in referring to itself as a sovereign democracy: this looks more like monarchical fascism.

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