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We hear the word “corruption” regularly, and have come to use it loosely and frequently, so much so that in Belize without hesitation Belizeans have consistently referred to the government and country as corrupt, but in so doing they forget they too are a part of the government and country and thus by extension are saying they are corrupt. The usage is so over-abused that to say one is corrupt or that there is corruption is not as impacting as it ought to be.

Recently, Plus TV owner Louis Wade received a letter threatening legal suit for libel because of the words uttered on his station by Leader of the Opposition, Francis Fonseca, in relation to the Lands Department being corrupt and by extension the Minister with responsibility for it, Gaspar Vega. For libel, which is the broadcast form of a defamation, to be proven, the person offended must show that what was said is: “an untruth about another which will do harm to that person or his/her reputation, by tending to bring the target into ridicule, hatred, scorn or contempt of others.”

I am sorry to say, but my opinion is that if such sentiments are being expressed about the Minister of Lands and the Lands Department, it did not come about because of this statement on Plus TV. Rather, those sentiments existed long before and just grew stronger with every land scandal that emerged. Think about how many Belizeans recently have been finding out someone else owns their land, and when the root of the deal is uncovered it is traced right back to some government official or Minister. Do people understand that from the Minister to their CEO, to the attorneys, to the Lands Officer, from government to government, have found ways to take choice land from unsuspecting Belizeans? Sadly even the court is used to sanction some of these transactions, or by the time the victim realizes what has happened, they can never recover their land. OR some just don’t have the money to mount a challenge or just don’t know better.

Land scandals

For example, recently we heard about one of the latest victims, a humble resident of Corozal, Lennox Garbutt, Sr., who found out that his lease was cancelled after he had already started developing it and put road through it… then to top it off, he finds out that the new leasee is no other than Ada Luz Romero, the sister of the Minister of Health, Pablo Marin.

Garbutt spoke with the media and had this to say”

“I contacted Minister Pablo Marin one evening and asked if I could have a word with him and he said sure. I told him that I heard that he recommended to cancel my land. He told me that he would never do such thing. When I pull out the files with his sister’s name on it, then he said that he already done that. That’s what he told me and that got me more upset.”

“I invested a lot of money in the land, so surely I want back my land and the next step I am going to take from here is to try to make an appointment to see the Prime Minister and if within a week or two I don’t get any kind of feedback from his office then I will seek legal advice. I won’t go ahead to seek an attorney because I was registered in the PM’s area before I moved to Corozal. I will try to speak to him first and after that if they don’t come to a solution then I will seek legal advice.”

Sadly, Mr. Garbutt does not realize political connection to the Minister trumps his previous position as an ordinary constituent. It’s hard for any citizen to accept, but he does not mean anything to those in power: his land means more to them. And if I had any doubt, this is what Channel Seven reported about their contact with the very “honourable Minister.” “… we contacted Pablo Marin, and he told us that Garbutt’s allegation is completely misconceived. According to Marin, the recommendation to cancel the lease granted to Garbutt was made by Hugo Patt, the Corozal North Representative, whose constituency the piece of land sits in. Marin said that his sister, Ada Luz Romero, is about to retire and she approached Hugo Patt for a piece of land to start a farm. He added that he did indeed make a recommendation to Patt on her behalf, and she was given the lease. Marin told us finally that Garbutt only has himself to blame for why he lost the land because he was issued with an intent to cancel the lease due to non-development, and he didn’t comply, and neither did he go back to the Lands Department to present his case as to why that was.”

Poor Minister – he doesn’t see a conflict of interest in him making a recommendation for his own sister… and really, does he really think that it makes it any more legal and ethical because Garbutt’s cancellation was done by Hugo Patt, the Corozal North Area Representative and the Minister of State in the Ministry of Natural Resources? It’s like I said, corruption has become so rampant and so much the order of the day that I honestly believe that those who practice it just can’t see what is wrong with their action.

Now I will not be able to list all the known land improprieties, scandals, illegalities, and outright thefts of land, but I can at least remind readers of some of the most blatant, bold-faced land stories we have heard.

Who can forget the March 2013 report of the choice property in the Placencia Lagoon, that locals had already marked as a potential reserve, but which unknown to them was sold to Dominique Gomez, of Orange Walk from Orange Walk, not Placencia. When asked about her, Minister Vega, the very honourable Lands Minister said: “She is the girlfriend of my son … I don’t remember exactly what they had paid for the land and what the compensation was for since I am not directly involved in that, but one thing I can tell you is that they definitely did not get any market value for the land that they returned to government.”

Tsk tsk, tsk, he just doesn’t want to get it … Ms. Gomez, as just an ordinary Belizean would have never gotten that choice land, and at such a low price … NEVER! It is her connection to him and his influence over the decision that made it possible, and I challenge the Minister to prove otherwise … show me the application processed and even how she even knew the land was available. If the locals did not decide to reveal the source of the political stench in the Placencia Lagoon, it could have gone by as just another deal. Of course to date no one has revealed to this nation the amount paid in compensation to Dominique to give back what she should have never ever owned to begin with. But she made a profit, because in return to hand back what she should have never even received to begin with, she was compensated, instead of the local residents.

This reminds me of when the PUP had Berbey Garcia buy out Vista Del Mar for a few thousand dollars and then he went on to speculate to make millions in return. The irony is that, like Pablo Marin, the Lands Minister too just can’t seem to process that holding Ministerial office means you act above board and beyond reproach, because a conflict of interest, even a bias, is not about wrong doing but about appearances, about being just and fair to all concerned!

What is corruption?

So what is corruption? When I think corruption, I think about it in two parts… Moral corruption, wherein a person has lost their morals and sense of right and wrong, and legal corruption, wherein a person uses his influence, office, to get something done and in so doing acquires a personal gain for himself or herself or the gain of someone close to them. It is usually done under the cover of secrecy and away from questioning glances. However, it has been known to be done openly and even with the sanction of the state, or under the guise of law.

According to Panorama.Com: “Corruption is an issue that affects all countries around the world. It can refer to the destruction of one’s honesty or loyalty through undermining moral integrity or acting in a way that shows a lack of integrity or honesty. It also refers to those who use a position of power or trust for dishonest gain. Corruption undermines democracy, creates unstable governments, and sets countries back economically. Corruption comes in various forms such as bribery, law-breaking without dealing with the consequences in a fair manner, unfairly amending election processes and results, and covering mistakes or silencing whistleblowers (those who expose corruption in the hope that justice would be served).”

International Anti-Corruption Day – December 9 was celebrated in Belize, yet it is alarming that the UN Convention Against Corruption was officially launched ten years ago in our front yard, at Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 31st October 2003 by Resolution 58/4 and it was opened for signature in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, from 9–11 December 2003, and thereafter at UN headquarters in New York City. It was signed by 140 countries. As of September 2013, there are 168 Parties.

If we as a people and our government as our representative would get serious about doing the right thing, there would be more benefit to the society at large rather than to a few select persons … individually and collectively we need to change our attitude towards our own lack of integrity, as many are guilty of accepting election bribes, political patronage and favoritism. We make the demands on our politicians and expect election bribes for votes, handouts year round and we like to rely on “who we know” rather than “what we know.”

This doesn’t mean they – the officials, politicians and holders of offices are not equally responsible and are not to be held at high standards … But if we ourselves do not possess the high standards, how can we in all earnest hold others accountable? Or is it that we have come to accept that for us… corruption is a way of life?

God bless Belize!

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