Most times, people don?t care where the money comes from, as long as they are paid with genuine, bankable bills. That?s become the way of the world. The biggest corporation in Belize, the Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL), traded almost $200 million Belize dollars for US dollars on the ?parallel market,? apparently without worrying about the source. BTL defends that decision with the claim that it needed the money to pay for goods and services, and there was nowhere else it could get it.
This is no different from what is happening today with the average man and woman in the streets. Sure, many people work hard and long shifts to earn money. Many times, the money runs out before the next payday, and some breadwinners often have to come up with some rather ingenious ways of ?making ends meet.? Some do the undesirable, and resort to heinous crimes, claiming that they must do so to survive.
Purists will say that there is really no excuse for this level of compromise?to knowingly do the illegal on the mere claim that there is a need that has to be met and that the dirty, illegal way was the only way.
The point is, no one follows the money trail, and that is the simple reason why we find ourselves tangled in a web of corruption and compromise that spans both the public and private sectors. Some of us who have the cleanest hearts have the dirtiest hands, simply because we have never followed the money trail. Some of us don?t care to. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss!
Let?s backtrack a little. Leading up to the March 2003 elections, there was heavy campaigning. The political machines were working overtime. ?Blue note? giveaways had people in as big a frenzy as a gold rush. People got their utility bills paid, received scholarships, new appliances, yard filling, vehicles?you name it. Did we bother to question what the source of the vote-buying money was? The overwhelming answer, we think, would be a ?no.?
Earlier this year, when the unions were protesting against the rise in taxes, they exposed a million-dollar cheque from business mogul Barry Bowen to the ruling People?s United Party. Though there had been rumors that big people like Barry Bowen and Michael Ashcroft had been financing the ruling party?s political campaign, there had never been any public disclosure of this campaign financing.
Currently, there are no mechanisms in place to ensure disclosure on campaign financing. There are also no mechanisms in place to ensure that once an area representative is elected to office, that his or her constituents don?t suffer at the hands of those who cut them from the budget, simply because the people or their constituents don?t tow the administration?s line.
There is a need to change the undemocratic policies of Government that enforce hardships on constituents or area representatives who don?t tow the line of those who run a particular administration.
There is also a need to change the undemocratic practices of vote buying and secret campaign financing. Together, these policies make it impossible for a truly democratic system to exist ? that is, governance by the people and for the people.
As the current system is set up, it is nothing more than disguised tyranny. A very influential financier can decide the fate of a poor voter?how much that voter suffers under 5 years of tyrannical rule, when, in fact, that voter should benefit from 5 years of democratic rule.
In this system purists can?t get into politics, because, by the very nature of the system, hands will get dirty, though hearts may battle to stay clean.
The Group of 7 Cabinet ministers (G-7) who confronted Prime Minister Said Musa in August did something unprecedented?they challenged him over the issue of public financing. There was much skepticism as to their motives, and we know that that skepticism has not gone away.
Today, we have serious allegations of political corruption against one former G-7 member, Hon. Godfrey Smith. He is accused of giving a multi-million-dollar contract to himself, another minister and close affiliates, though he has fervently denied the charge. Naturally, there are now many more who questioned whether Smith was sincere in August, when he said he was resigning over Musa?s alleged maladministration.
Another current and burning issue of the day is the imminent return of Hon. Cordel Hyde and Hon. Mark Espat to Musa?s Cabinet?even on the heels of more allegations of GOB corruption, including Musa?s decision to waive $2.25 million in stamp duties for Mr. Michael Ashcroft.
Remember the money trail: campaign money comes from financiers, pays voters; successful campaigners get voted in; voters are taxed, pay Government; then Government pays back financiers, plus interest. For a campaign financier, politics is nothing but business, and this business continues whether you?re in the blue camp or the red camp.
This is why we need disclosure of campaign financing. We want to know how much profit these financiers make off taxpaying voters. If they budget $100 a voter, how much more do they get back in return from tax perks, write-offs and sweetheart deals? We can count at least $20 million that Mr. Ashcroft has gotten from GOB in this year alone: $17 million tax write-off for Belize Bank in the sale of BTL shares and $2.25 million stamp duty exemption for the sale of more BTL shares. The employed labor force is 95,000. In respect of the two BTL transactions alone, taxpaying voters have paid back $210 a head.
When a candidate contests the elections on a party ticket, does he or she know where the money comes from to finance his or her campaign? Does he or she follow the money trail? Again, the heart may be pure, but the hands will be smudged by dirty money. The voters who sell their vote also get their hands messy. The Government that is elected under such a scenario builds on a messy foundation, because voters will expect to continue to get their sweets in one form or the other, and furthermore, financiers will expect payback on their investments. They have employed a simple principle: use a little money to chase big money.
There is nothing mystical about GOB?s tax write-offs for select individuals. There is also nothing mystical about GOB?s strapping funds that should go to all Belizeans, who all pay taxes, while funneling money to their favored constituencies that stay predominantly blue. This is how the masses are controlled. We all become puppets, in a sense, unless we defy and reject this game.
Mark and Cordel, if they do decide to go back to Musa?s Cabinet, are going back into a body that would regard them as personae non gratae for ?blowing the whistle? on the Musa administration, for defiantly voting against the Prime Minister?s tax-heavy budget, and for judging his tax increases as being too punishing to the poor. They would be going back into a Cabinet that is perceived to be marked by entrenched corruption. They would be returning to a Cabinet that has simply lost the trust and confidence of the people?one that has little, if any, credibility left. Is this compromise worth it?
What?s in it for the PUP? What?s in it for Mark and Cordel? What?s in it for their constituents?
What the PUP is concerned about, at the end of the day, are 9,000 registered voters in Albert and Lake I, who the ruling party wish to vote blue in the March 2006 Belize City Council elections. Mark and Cordel may also think they stand a better chance at re-election if they stay with the PUP.
Additionally, Mark and Cordel would get ministerial portfolios, which supposedly put them in a better position to bring ?the sweets? to their constituents.
In a true democracy, this should not be the case. Area representatives should not be put in office for 5 years to simply talk, but to work in their area. The proposal by the Hon. Boots Martinez to get a specific constituency budget must have sounded ridiculous to some, but the concept should be seriously considered and implemented in a viable form by the next political administration. All constituents should have to present their plans and proposed budgets to the National Assembly, and get approval for what is spent from the public purse. This should be based not on the class-profile of constituencies, but on the basis of need, priority, and social goodwill.
Area representatives in high crime areas, for example, should be able to implement a program to combat crime at the root levels. Work would be focused on the ground, where it would be most effective.
There would be no reason for any area rep to say that they have to lobby to be in Cabinet to properly serve their constituents. Moreover, this would allow ministers to use their portfolios strictly to run their ministries, looking out not just for those who voted for them, but for Belizeans across the country, without fear or favor! This is the duty of a minister. But then again, there are those who are not sincerely interested in being true servants of the people, but a servant only to themselves.
A true democracy, where the masses of Belizeans come first, would take tremendous muscle from those who enjoy wielding their power and influence, to control us. On the other hand, there would be a lot fewer poor people, a lot fewer beggars and a hell of a lot less crime!
Until democracy reigns, the story will continue to be one of corruption and compromise.