One observer has suggested that Prime Minister, Right Hon. Dean O. Barrow’s threat in the House of Representatives last Friday to take his United Democratic Party’s (UDP) third consecutive term to its constitutional limit of five years and three months, was directed towards the twelve Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) House members seated on the other side, and was not a statement of defiance intended for the masses of the Belizean people. Well, the Prime Minister said it in public and on national radio and television.
If this was some kind of a joke on the PM’s part, there was no laughter amongst the Belizean people. There may have been smirks amongst the UDP faithful, for sure, but “five years and three months” reminds Belizeans of the unhappy UDP term of June 30, 1993 to August 27, 1998.
During that unhappy and vindictive term, the Prime Minister was Right Hon. Dr. Manuel Esquivel, but his Deputy Prime Minister, often referred to during the latter part of that term as the “Minister of Everything,” was Mr. Dean O. Barrow.
When that venomous administration was swept out of office and Right Hon. Said Musa became Prime Minister, his first term ushered in a period of significant optimism, creative thought, and articulated opinions amongst Belizean thinkers. During his two terms as a PUP Minister of Education (1979-1984 and 1989-1993), Mr. Musa had earned a reputation for relative enlightenment. His first term as PM of Belize featured the most public discussions about political reform ever in Belize’s modern political history, and the discourse, led by people like Godwin Hulse, now an appointed, second-term UDP Cabinet Minister, was considered fruitful.
This newspaper did not participate in that enthusiastic discourse on political reform, because we are pessimistic when it comes to any proposition which expects Belizeans in electoral power to sacrifice any of that power because of a commitment to greater, more meaningful political democracy. Here is the crux of the matter. It is only those who are in elected office, those who control the majority of the area representatives in the House, who can make any real change to how we have been and are now being governed. All everybody else can do is talk, and write. And those in Opposition, awaiting their turn to take power in our two party-dominated system, can make promises. In this newspaper’s cynical view, promises, as it is said, are comforts for fools.
The average Belizean citizen does not realize how powerful the Prime Minister is under our constitution. Every appointment to every board in every public sector institution of the Belizean society is controlled, in real terms, by the Prime Minister. Directly or indirectly, he controls thousands of jobs. Any appointee worth his or her salt will ensure that the Prime Minister approves whenever he or she is making any important decision. The party politics is pervasive in Belizean life, and, for the duration of his term, the Prime Minister is like a monarch in Belize.
Again, remember, the Prime Minister is always the Minister of Finance, and he makes or controls every single money decision of government. The PM can make or break businesses and companies. He can heal you when you are ailing, and smash you even when you are strong. This is what those who come here from foreign countries to do business absolutely understand, and so they worship in the Prime Minister’s shrine. People of foreign origin who do business in Belize do not care one iota about issues like the health of the Opposition party, the free press, or the sports and culture of our community life. All they care about is making sure they enjoy the goodwill of the administration, which is to say, the Prime Minister.
The “big people” in Belize also know how powerful the Prime Minister is, and they make sure they cater to his office. Anyone can see how anti-democratic the Belizean system can be when you watch the Prime Minister unilaterally rule on matters such as the Thirteenth Senator, the Public Accounts Committee, and the Integrity Commission. You can see how flawed our system is when you examine the travesty that was the Elvin Penner passport case, or when you watch the games played when planes appear, land, and disappear, or when they burn after they are unloaded in public places by individuals unknown and mysterious. Police officers suddenly become deaf and blind and dumb when politically connected cronies discharge firearms in public. But, if a poor, ghetto family finds itself in a yard where a single bullet of some kind is found by the law, woe be unto them: automatic remand to Kolbe for every single family member, no matter how aged, no matter how young. The Prime Minister can change the gun law. He has not. It is what it is. We will not even discuss the weed law and how it victimizes the poor and the powerless in Belize.
Belize’s so-called democracy is much closer to being a monarchy of five-year terms than to being a democracy. It is for that reason that Belizeans welcomed the fact that the present Prime Minister called general elections after four years and one month in office in March of 2012, and after three years and eight months in office in November of 2015. The more elections, the more participant Belizeans feel in what there is of democracy here. For the Prime Minister, in the first working House session of his historic post-independence third term, to hearken back to the unhappy “five year, three month” past was disappointing.
The 1993 to 1998 UDP term began as a coalition between the UDP and Philip Goldson’s National Alliance for Belizean Rights (NABR), a coalition which was not honored by the UDP once Dr. Esquivel became Prime Minister. The 1996 Belize City Council election established what most political observers could see: the Esquivel government was massively unpopular. The 1997 Town Board elections confirmed what the 1996 Belize City Council election had established: Esquivel had to go. The UDP spitefully extended their term past the five-year mark. They won only 3 seats out of 31 in August of 1998. Mr. Barrow barely held on to his. Dr. Esquivel immediately resigned as UDP Leader. 1993 to 1998 is not a period of which the Belizean people wish to be reminded.
Power to the people.