The Prime Minister and his government had every opportunity to postpone the referendum, and it was necessary that that was done because there were just too many things that were wrong about April 10, for it to proceed at that time. It is not impossible that the only legal reason for the delay is a procedural error. But there were a number of things that were just not right.
The Prime Minister has argued that a part of the urgency for holding the referendum on April 10 had to do with the funding of the OAS Office at the Adjacency Zone. We were made to understand that this vital office, which serves to mediate disputes on our western border, is not funded by a blank check, so it is suggested that we should not be forever about solving this dispute with our neighbor.
The UDP pushed hard to deliver the referendum on April 10, and at home there was the speculation that much of their effort had to do with the face of the party, appearances, for their immediate fortunes. They did not expect that the referendum would be stopped in the courts. The UDP had the high road to take in a number of areas, including allowing for the disenfranchisement of Belizeans at home to be remedied and, also, for reconsideration of the disenfranchisement of Belizeans living abroad. It did not.
In 2008, our present foreign minister, Honorable Wilfred Elrington, signed the compromis (Special Agreement) with the foreign minister of Guatemala, Honorable Roger Haroldo Rodas Melgar, which committed the governments of Belize and Guatemala to pursue the approval of their respective peoples, via referendum, to settle the Guatemalan claim to Belize per the articles in the agreement, at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
The Guatemalan architects of the compromis took the agreement to the Congress of Guatemala, to seek its approval, which it gave. Thereafter, the Special Agreement was presented to the Guatemalan people, and the voters who turned out (27%) voted overwhelmingly to support the initiative of their leaders to settle their country’s claim on territory and rights in Belize.
The Belizean architects of the compromis, for tactical reasons, took the agreement to the Senate, an unelected, largely powerless body which traditionally, unfailingly rubber-stamps government initiatives, after some sometimes robust debate.
The proper thing would have been for our government to take the compromis to the House of Representatives, which comprises the elected leaders of the country, for debate and a vote on its merits.
The Prime Minister has indicated that he will go to the House of Representatives on Friday to repair what the Chief Justice saw as possibly deficient in the procedure followed to get to the referendum. We do not know if this visit to the Chambers on Independence Hill will be confined to that procedural matter, or if it will include debate on the Special Agreement itself.
As it relates to our Constitution, it is difficult to pin down the Special Agreement. Some might call the agreement, slippery. Some argue that the agreement allows for the alteration of our borders, and so it needs two-thirds majority support of the House for it to proceed to referendum. Some argue that we don’t need a two-thirds majority vote on what hasn’t happened, and won’t happen.
It might be that the Special Agreement, to reach the referendum stage, needs to get the support of the House. If the Special Agreement is voted on in the House of Representatives, be it that it needs a simple majority or a two-thirds majority to reach the referendum stage, it will make for some electric moments, although the outcome of the voting might not be suspenseful.
The vote of the ruling party is a near given, as ironclad as it gets; they are a solid block, if they need all their votes. This has to do with the party’s “ideology.” The UDP claims a pro-poor philosophy (Food Pantry and Boost), and it snatched back major shares in our utility companies, BEL and BTL, but it invested heavily in first-world type infrastructure in sometimes questionable areas. The contracts for a number of these infrastructure projects were won by companies very close to the party.
The last might relate directly to their “ideology”, which is, above all else, to defeat the People’s United Party in elections. It is more likely for a company close to the ruling party to shore up the party’s finances, a vital component for any campaign to execute their program.
The UDP believes that the best thing they can do for Belize is to prevent the PUP from coming to power and gaining control of the nation’s resources. Their “noble” purpose, to stop the PUP, allows them, gives them license to use non-transparent methods to get the job done.
This assessment of the UDP is not conjecture. Anyone who needs to put their finger in the wound just needs to go to the Clerk of the National Assembly and ask for the transcript, any transcript of a House meeting, and they will see how much time the UDP representatives devote to what the PUP did when they were in government, over ten years ago, and what they would/will do if/when they win the reins of government again.
There are UDPs in government who are not as gung-ho as others on going to the ICJ, but the party’s ideology holds them fast together. They cannot afford a dissenting voice in their ranks, but if they don’t need all their votes they might consider a few strategic absences from the House.
The PUP is torn between its early past as a party sworn for social justice and its recent laissez faire past. The PUP of the past was a party that was pro- land reform, pro- just wealth distribution. The PUP of the recent past was on a fast ship to creating a country with a superrich class, and a classic capitalist trickle down economy.
This PUP, as it goes to the House of Representatives for the next meeting, is also divided on the ICJ issue. Some are pro-ICJ, some are Iukewarm about the ICJ, and some are totally sold against it. The glue for this party is the many failures of the UDP government, two of which were mentioned in the third paragraph of this essay.
The short of it is that if the House allows for a debate on the compromis, and then a vote on it, the UDP will easily hold serve with a simple majority, and if it’s a two-thirds majority that is needed, it is not impossible for them, with a few concessions, to win that too.
The interim injunction imposed by the Chief Justice allows for the re-registration process to be satisfactorily completed. It also allows for another necessary debate in the House of Representatives, this one on how to make it possible for Belizeans living abroad to participate in the referendum.
At the last sitting of the House of Representatives, last month, a motion was brought to the floor by the Caribbean Shores representative, an Opposition member, to have Belizeans living abroad included in the referendum that was set for April 10. The Prime Minister and his government repudiated the motion.
The Prime Minister said that a long delay could cause a strain on the budget for the OAS Office at the border, but if we need more resources we might consider that Belizeans abroad, to whom we look for “barrels” and other assistance, might help fill that gap. They will consider us more favorably if we do right by them.
The UDP could save some face by introducing a bill to allow for the participation of our brothers and sisters abroad. The only real work that has to be done is for us to decide on the criteria and develop the mechanism through which they can participate.
The Prime Minister said he expects a short delay of six to eight weeks to referendum day, but he also cautioned that it could be a longer time before another date is set. It is our opportunity to make right what was done wrong. The best place to do this is at the House of Representatives.