The ruling United Democratic Party’s mismanagement of the resources of this country and their failure to improve our democracy have to be considered among the worst betrayals. The labor unions and people of Belize gave their all for a change of government in 2008, and then the UDP stole it.
No political party ever got an easier ride to power than the UDP got in 2008. The ruling PUP government, 2003 to 2008, couldn’t resolve a major rift inside the party that was primarily caused by its economic policies. The faction in control insisted on staying on a so-called “growth economics” course, and a rival faction, called the G-7, demanded that the party rein in its spending because we were taking on too much debt. There were also accusations of improper handling of the country’s finances in the Social Security Board (SSB) and the Development Finance Corporation (DFC).
The PUP did make attempts to be more fiscally prudent over the last half of their 2003 to 2008 administration, but the party has not been able to forward a united front on its economic policies when facing the electorate since. Accusations of corruption associated with their 1998 to 2008 administrations have also dogged the PUP to this day.
Labor in Belize took an embarrassing blow in 1997, when one of their proudest members, the Public Service Union (PSU), watched helplessly as about 800 workers from the ranks of the Public Service were given the pink slip by the 1993-1998 UDP government in a restructuring exercise. This “retrenchment of public officers” was one of the factors when the UDP faced the electorate in 1998, and they were swept from power, losing to the PUP 26 seats to 3.
The PUP, 1998 to 2003, came to power on a promise to grow the economy that had let down many, including the 800 public officers, and to improve governance in the country. Putting aside all that transpired during that party’s first term, midway through their second (2003 to 2008) the labor unions tried them and, finding them wanting of integrity, challenged them in the streets.
There were a number of irregularities that concerned the labor unions, and the force they showed in public hadn’t been seen since 1981, when the Heads of Agreement was introduced. Probably the greatest prize the labor unions extracted from that PUP government was the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act of 2005, which introduced strict controls on loan agreements of $10 million or more.
Their efforts must have exhausted the labor unions, and the UDP of 2008 to 2012, and 2012 to 2015, and 2015 to the present, were the beneficiaries. Unfortunately, they took advantage. The UDP arrogantly claimed the 2008 victory for itself, and forgot all the others who sacrificed to change a PUP government that had lost its way. The ungrateful UDP became as corrupt as their predecessors, and they trampled the important check-and-balance institutions that protect our democracy and our resources.
The UDP was able to get away with their disrespect and corruption because the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) and its ten members, for the most part, remained dormant.
During the twelve years of UDP rule, from 2008, there were rumblings from various unions under the umbrella of the NTUCB, but it was only the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) that stepped out and forced the government to pay attention to the nation’s needs. In 2016 the BNTU, under the banner “Stand up for Belize”, went on a strike that ended after 11 days when the government acceded to a number of their demands, some of which were Senate hearings on the immigration scandal, signing on to the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), and the appointment of the 13th senator that the government had promised back in 2008.
Today, the scandals in the UDP government come thick and fast, seemingly without end. When the people said they had had enough of the corruption, that they just couldn’t take anymore, the Prime Minister responded that corruption will always be with us. No one believes that corruption could ever be completely wiped out, but the Prime Minister’s response came across as abandonment of the people’s cry, a bad thing in a government that was seen as rotten to the core.
The allegation by a confessed fraudster that a UDP government Minister had accepted money from an accused fraudster who is on trial in a US court, may be described as the straw that broke the camel’s back. It isn’t easy for the leaders of the labor unions to take their followers to the streets. They prefer to meet at the negotiating table; however, enough is enough.
The PUP, promising to be reformed from the corruption they were accused of when they were last in government, has also decided to take to the streets. The party actually announced that they would take to the streets before the NTUCB did, but the NTUCB announced the date for their demonstration first. On Thursday the NTUCB march through the streets of Belize City under the banner, “Only the people can save the people”, and on Sunday the PUP is set to march against the party in power under the banner “Save Belize”. Both organizations are making more or less the same demands.
The NTUCB’s six-point bulletin says they are demanding the implementation of campaign financing laws, reconvening of meetings for the UNCAC steering committee, tabling of the Senate report on the Immigration Department, restructuring of the Integrity Commission and the Public Accounts Committee, implementation of sanctions for persons who contravened the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act of 2005, and an independent investigation into alleged wrongdoing by former Minister of National Security, Hon. John Saldivar, and other public officials.
The main difference between what the political group (PUP) and the civic group (NTUCB) are calling for is the timing of the next general election. The PUP insist that the government should dissolve so that a general election can be held, as a government in a Parliamentary Democracy should when it collapses or is disgraced, and the NTUCB wants the government to use the next several months on its mandate to deliver on the six demands it has made.
Meanwhile, as the NTUCB and the PUP are on the march, the Belize Peace Movement, which is affiliated with three of Belize’s third parties – the VIP, the BPP, and the PNP – is in the Supreme Court demanding that the Elections and Boundaries Department do a redistricting exercise to comply with Section 90 (1) (a) of Belize’s Constitution, which states that “each electoral division shall have as nearly as may be an equal number of persons eligible to vote.”
It is to be seen how far the challenge for redistricting before the next general election will go, but in the meantime it is all about anti-corruption, anti the scorn-the-people corruption that has taken root and overgrown the governing UDP.