SAN ROMAN, Corozal District, Thurs. Apr. 20, 2017–Shortly after 6:00 this evening, candidates and counters at the national election of Belize’s most militant union – the Belize National Teachers’ Union (BNTU) – emerged from the counting room on the campus of Escuela Secundaria Tecnica Mexico in San Roman Village, Corozal, in a somber mood, walking towards the stage area, even as the word began to spread that Senator Elena Smith had captured the presidency, despite alleged political interference from the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) to usurp control of the BNTU by installing their man at the helm.
Smith was asked if she thinks the political interference is real. “We have seen certain things, certain texts going around, and we have heard of certain meetings, and so, there is a saying in Creole, ‘if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck,’” Smith answered, as the crowd around her erupted in shouts of “Solidarity Forever!”
Maybe I should thank the government for what they did. It has strengthened us even more
– Ruth Shoman, the BNTU’s new national secretary
This is the first time in its history that the BNTU membership has elected a woman as its national president. Smith, a long-time educator, union leader and activist, won convincingly, garnering a total of 349 votes, beating out two male aspirants by substantial margins. Troy Coleman, a teacher who heads the Stann Creek branch, garnered 197, while 140 votes went to Mario Mesh, president of the BNTU’s Corozal branch who is considered the favorite of Acting Prime Minister Patrick Faber, UDP deputy leader and minister with the education portfolio.
While the BNTU’s constitution prevented Luke Palacio from seeking a fourth term as president after 9 years at the helm of the BNTU, Palacio was uncontested in his bid to serve as the BNTU’s first vice president. Palacio’s term as president ends on June 30 and Smith is due to take over the reins of the union on July 1.
Meanwhile, the national treasurer, Jorge Maheia, has been returned to his post for another term. In the race for national secretary, Ruth Shoman defeated Adelaida Guerra by a slim margin of votes, 336 to 328.
Prior to the casting of ballots for the various executive posts, the Council of Management of the BNTU met this morning in an emergency meeting to discuss the allegations of political interference from UDP operatives, against which the BNTU had staged a successful strike last October, closing down the country’s school system for 11 days.
Following the meeting, Palacio told teachers that they were to divide themselves into groups by district branches, and only members whose union dues are not in arrears would be eligible to cast ballots in the elections. The eligible members amounted to over 600.
Palacio also told the BNTU membership that they were also to discuss and then vote among themselves on whether they should proceed with the elections today or postpone it for 21 days.
As he addressed the teachers, they began to spontaneously sing the union’s anthem: “We shall not be moved!” Palacio stopped speaking briefly and joined in singing the union song.
After the brief meeting of the branches, however, the BNTU membership voted to hold the elections today. The balloting started after 1:00 p.m., more than two hours after initially scheduled.
Almost everyone Amandala spoke with was critical of the perceived government interference in the BNTU’s electoral process, which was evidenced by the presence of known UDP operatives, including a minister’s driver with no connection to the BNTU, who turned up on the scene.
Rumors quickly began to spread that some of the teachers would be bused to Chetumal after they had cast ballots in the election and were given spending money if they voted for the UDP’s favorite candidate.
Smith told reporters: “I was not overconfident, because people tell you that they would vote for you and then vote another way, but I was sure of my members from my branch.”
One reporter asked Smith if the union would continue in Luke Palacio’s way; Smith replied that there is no “Luke Palacio way;” it is the BNTU way, she asserted.
“I will work for BNTU and our members. It’s not about me, it’s about the BNTU,” she said.
Smith stressed that she will emphasize the use of technology: “My focus will be education and communication.”
Smith said she is not afraid to stand up and speak out “…as long as my membership gives me the mandate; I am not afraid to speak out.”
Smith, who had been in the union for over 20 years, said that she has grown into the union: “My members have seen that and that is what pushed me over the edge today.”
Speaking on the occasion of her victory today, Mrs. Shoman, wife of former Social Security Board chair, Yasin Shoman, said: “I thank everyone who put their faith and trust in me.”
Shoman, who is the new national secretary, added that, “The BNTU is the vanguard of our democracy, and that is what we need to keep. For me, that’s first and foremost. If we do that, then we can do everything else, taking care of our teachers, taking care of our students and taking care of our nation. Maybe I should thank the government for what they did. It has strengthened us even more.”
Daniel Smith, a physical education teacher at Ladyville Technical High School, told Amandala, that he thinks Elena Smith is the right person to lead the BNTU at this time. Politics should not play any role in this election, he said.
Vesta Alvarez, a teacher at San Isidro Government School, Toledo District, told us: “I think the electoral process is democratic, but it was kind of confusing, due to the political interference.”
Alvarez said that certain teachers were paid to vote a certain way: “They wanted Mr. Mesh to win so they took us to the Free Zone last night and told us to vote for Mr. Mesh,” she added.
Joel Wade, a teacher at Our Lady of the Way RC School in Ladyville, told Amandala: “The tension was actually caused by political interference. I can say that categorically. When asked if he could elaborate on the political interference, Wade said he would rather await the result of the elections before commenting further on the political interference.
The vice principal of Stella Maris School, Danna Staine, said: “I came to the convention yesterday. We know today is the voting day. The process took a while, but we were able to cast our ballots.”
The voting was carried out on the second day of the BNTU’s National Convention, held under the theme: “BNTU –Advocating for a Better Belize by Defending Collective Bargaining and Freedom of Association.”