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Thursday, July 9, 2020
Home Editorial Belize can’t gloat about her democracy

Belize can’t gloat about her democracy

Our neighbor to the west and south, Guatemala, tried democracy and if we are to judge by recent developments in that country, they don’t like the taste of it. In the 1950s, when Guatemala had set up a government that was trying to correct the imbalances created in an economy dominated by the banana industry, there was collusion between some Guatemalan politicians and American interests and the progressive government was toppled.

Later, as a direct result of the coup that replaced the progressive government, Guatemala would sink into a terrible and tragic war, from 1960 to 1996, that would see 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly Maya, dead or disappeared by their military.

It is a great thing to have a good neighbor. After a truce was brokered in 1996, Guatemala’s leaders tried to reform, and for a time they were making definite strides in the right direction. But it seems that the progress has ground to a halt; it seems that there’s a strong push to turn back the refreshing tide.

Guatemala has been a signatory to UNCAC (the United Nations Convention against Corruption), since the early 2000s, and it is through this organization that it was able to get special help from the United Nations to address human rights issues and difficult- to-handle corruption cases in their governance system. The CICIG (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala), was agreed to with the UN in 2006, and has been functioning in that country since.

In Belize, we know of the work of this CICIG because some very high-profile Guatemalans, as high up as their presidency, have been under heavy scrutiny, and a few have even been punished severely for wrong things they did. Belize has been far from blind about these developments.

It is accepted in Belize that when America (USA) sneezes, we catch a cold. What happens in the countries around us also impacts Belize. The heat from CICIG might have been, no, had definitely risen too high for some politicians in Guatemala. Those at the top were not ready, weren’t able to handle that level of democracy, and so their government moved to have the organization expelled.

Guatemala’s internal affairs are Guatemala’s business, but we have to be concerned because, yes, what happens there impacts us. Guatemala is not that long removed from being a near dictatorship, a state run by their military. Now, we have reports that they are stripping power from CICIG, and even worse, that human rights activists are being threatened, even murdered.

Our present government seems to find democracy bitter to the palate too. Belize’s political leaders put a stranglehold on the checks in the system, and thus they have opened the field to run wild, act with impunity with national monies. The present government found a way to skirt legislation (Finance and Audit (Reform) Act 2005) won by the trade unions, that all government loans/expenditures over BZ$10 million (aggregate for one year) had to pass through the scrutiny of the House of Representatives. The Government and people of Venezuela had provided soft loans that amounted to 400 or 500 million dollars, over time, but the government in power somehow escaped the scrutiny of the National Assembly.

The Contractor General’s office, which is to provide oversight of all public projects so that the politicians in power don’t award the fat contracts to party favorites and incompetents, is non-existent. The government created a special vehicle, called BIL (Belize Infrastructure Limited), and this body has had the full run of government projects. The last Contractor General was let go in February 2018.

For veneer, the present government flirts with democracy, but their business is to warp democratic institutions, bend them in the service of their party. At times, far too many times, the government is cynical.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is as cruel a joke as any. This committee, whose business is to scrutinize critical government expenditures, doesn’t function. The futility of this essential body was completely exposed in a meeting where there was some back and forth which led to nowhere – the opposition party wanted to go over the books when the new government got into power, and the new government insisted that the inspection begin when the opposition party was in power – hence, impasse.  It’s only the people’s business.

By law this body has six members, four from the government, and two from the opposition party in the National Assembly, one of whom chairs the committee. The present configuration doesn’t work. The Prime Minister agrees that the committee could use some fresh blood from the social partners, but insists that the government must maintain a majority, because all Commonwealth countries do it that way. There it is, if anyone needed an explanation for the government’s insistence on its majority. It matters naught that this PAC is a dud; it doesn’t work for our nation.

In this near absolute strangling of our democracy, which has been described by some as beginning and ending on election-day, which is once every five years, the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU), in 2016, went on strike to force GoB to respond to a number of demands. These included the strengthening of anti-corruption laws, and improvement of governance with the implementation of a promised “13th senator”.  They weren’t thanked for their interest in improving governance in Belize. In fact, the Prime Minister accused them of exceeding the boundaries of a trade union.

Traditionally, and maybe legally, a trade union’s business is about wages/salaries and working conditions for its members. But a trade union could make a strong argument that corruption and other bad governance directly impacts the earnings of workers. Historically, Belize’s trade unions have been at the fore on national issues. The BNTU and other trade unions were on the front lines when the Belizean people had serious problems with the governance of the government previous to the one now in office. And trade unions have been prominent whenever Belizeans have reservations about decisions our governments have made with Guatemala.

In the face of increasing arrogance, disrespect, and dishonesty, the BNTU and other organizations set up a clamor for Belize to become a signatory to UNCAC, the body under which the CICIG entered Guatemala’s affairs about a decade ago, and Belize actually became a signatory in 2016. But the government, masters of the art of thwarting democracy, has found the escape hatch to leave the people waiting for better governance again.

Attorney General, Senator Michael Peyrefitte, pointed out recently that the implementation of “UNCAC” is not an overnight process. Indeed, the United Nations Convention against Corruption is a 240- page document, containing 59 articles. But, as Giacomo Sanchez of the BCCI told him, “it’s a slow and gradual process, but that is not a substitute for us not doing anything in the interim…”

The truth is that our signature on the 240-page document is not worth zilch if the government insists on playing games with the people. As the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre explains, UNCAC “is not a blueprint for anti-corruption reform; it is a mere compilation of important measures…Reform must be designed as to address country-specific forms, manifestations and dynamics of corruption…”

If there is one certain A for this present government it is for frustrating our democracy. The laws in our country cover most everything that is included in the 59 articles of the UN convention, so all that is lacking is the will. We don’t have that. Belize is in no position to gloat about our democracy. It is just a system set up to choose the party that will run roughshod over the people for five years. This present party certainly has.

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