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Exit Johnny! Enter Mark!

On Friday, October 7, three and a half years into his term and just shy of the one-year anniversary of his re-endorsement as Party Leader in Dangriga Town at a national convention, Leader of the Opposition and of the People’s United Party (PUP), Juan Antonio (John) Briceño, tendered his resignation to the party’s National Executive at a meeting held in Belize City.
  
Around 11:00 Friday morning, Mr. Briceño emerged from the room where the meeting took place and read a brief prepared statement, which appears verbatim below:
   
This morning I came and I tendered my resignation to the National Executive. It is a decision I made on my own and it has been because of personal health reasons and health issues that I have been dealing with for the past few months. The National Executive has decided that they have set up a process; they unanimously recommended that Senior Deputy Party Leader Hon. Mark Espat be the interim leader.
           
“A process has been set that probably within the next 30 days the party will hold a convention to elect a new leader. I want to take this opportunity to thank the members of the national executive, and the thousands of supporters across this country that have supported me over the past three and a half going to four years as the Party Leader of the greatest political party that this country has ever had. It has been a privilege and an honor to be able to serve the People’s United Party.
           
“We are all convinced that Belizeans know more than ever now that the direction that the UDP has been taking this country as a wrong one. Record unemployment, crime spiraling out of control, people losing hope and faith in the future, and we believe that only a government of the People’s United Party can, can turn this around.
  
Later in the week, we are going to hold a press conference, where we are going to be able to answer each, all of your questions, and may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours, Belize. Thank you very much.”
           
He took no questions, and soon thereafter departed for Mexico City, Mexico, where he is said to be consulting with medical professionals.
   
Friday’s events brought to an end a troubled 3½ years of leadership of the PUP for Briceño, who was deputy to former Prime Minister Said Musa until Musa stepped down following the party’s devastating loss in the February 2008 general elections. Particularly in Musa’s second term as Prime Minister, Briceño was seen as a moderate reformist, participating on the sidelines of the G-7 movement in August of 2004 and later in a Cabinet revolt against the actions of Musa and former Attorney General Francis Fonseca in signing five clandestine agreements with the Belize Bank over the course of 2004 to 2007.
  
Briceño later defeated Fonseca in a hotly contested contest for the party leadership in March of 2008 in Belmopan.
  
Almost immediately, trouble rose up in the form of concerns over the party’s assets – the Belize Times newspaper, Vibes Radio and Independence Hall, headquarters of the PUP. What has consistently been referred to in the local press as a schism between the party’s more conservative elements (the so-called “Old Guard”) and its more moderate and even liberal elements has plagued the party for much of Briceño’s term.
  
Not helping matters was the party’s failure to rebound in the 2009 municipal elections, in which it just missed a majority in Briceño’s hometown of Orange Walk and failed everywhere else, and the 2010 village council elections, in which UDP slates ruled the day.
   
Then, six days before Friday morning’s resignation, at a meeting of the National Party Council, an address from Said Musa in which he called out the current PUP leadership, principally Briceño, for making excuses for the party’s failures and told them to “stop crying broke”, prompted Briceño, in reply, to make reference to “individuals” who became “millionaires” during the two Musa terms, and to call for those persons to bring back their money from abroad and help in funding the PUP so that they could defeat the UDP in the next general elections.
  
Briceno said, in commentscarried live on Vibes Radio, a PUP media organ, and reported widely in the local press, “First of all, I agree with the former Party Leader where he said that we can’t continue to use the issue about money as an excuse, but I want to ask where are those millionaires, those people that made millions of dollars over the 10 years when we were in government? Where are those people that benefitted and made millions? I could give you all names, but I won’t call out names. They need to write out checks; they need to bring money back to the PUP! Money so we can run our People’s United Party. That money does not belong in foreign bank accounts! Bring it here, so we could fight once again and we could take down Barrow and the UDP!”
  
Briceño later downplayed the issue. In speaking with our Adele Ramos last week, he said he was referring specifically to certain “business people” who have been “talking so much” about the state of the economy under the current administration, and said he had not been casting any aspersions with the “foreign bank accounts” reference.
  
He admitted that the party is sorely lacking in finance, with the 2012 municipal and 2013 general elections coming up; one news station has reported that even Social Security payments for party workers were being withheld, at least temporarily.
  
Police Minister Doug Singh and director of the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), Marilyn Williams, both indicated that the comments were worthy of investigation, but also said that since no names were called and because the then-Leader of the Opposition did not indicate how those “benefits” were obtained, whether legally or illegally, any investigation would be difficult.
  
Taking up the reins in the wake of Briceño’s departure is one of the three Senior Deputy Leaders he appointed at the end of April of this year, Hon. Mark Espat, area representative for Albert since 1998. Espat and Briceño were both in the G-7 and Briceño resigned from Cabinet two weeks after the second firing of Espat by Musa, due to both of them publicly opposing the UHS takeover deal.
   
Mark Espat, a former Tourism Minister, has increasingly been seen as a rival to Briceño for the leadership of the PUP. In fact, he had originally been nominated as a candidate in February of 2008 but stepped aside prior to the convention.
 
The PUP’s Belize Rural North standard bearer, attorney Arthur Saldivar, a former campaign manager for Sam Waight and Max Samuels before stepping up in his own right earlier this year, has indicated publicly that he wishes to stand for the leadership race against Espat.
  
Today, after a PUP National Executive meeting, we spoke with PUP Deputy Leader Carolyn Trench-Sandiford. She has indicated that she has no interest in the position of Party Leader at this time.
  
The nomination process has begun and candidates must be nominated by any one of the 5 governing units of the PUP – a national convention, the Executive, the Party Council, any one of the four regional caucuses, or any one of the constituency branches. Alternatively, they can be nominated by one of the party’s standing units, such as the Order of Distinguished Service (ODS), Belize Youth Movement (BYM), Marshalls and United Women’s Group (UWG). The nomination must be accompanied by a letter indicating the nominee’s consent.
  
No candidate, including Espat and Saldivar, has been formally nominated or has accepted nomination, as is required. They will have until October 19 to do so. If there is only one candidate, he or she will be endorsed at a meeting of the National Party Council on October 29, in advance of the planned convention date of November 5, 2011. If the leadership convention is contested, voting will take place on November 5.
  
Trench-Sandiford confirmed that a majority of constituencies are supporting a possible Espat bid, as all four members of the Southern Caucus, six in the Western Caucus and eleven of twelve in the Eastern Caucus so affirmed following meetings this week.
  
The Northern Caucus, led by Briceño, is expected to vote on Saturday. (The sole dissenter in the Eastern Caucus was Belize Rural North.)
  
Trench-Sandiford told us that as far as anyone in the Party knows, Friday’s move was not expected. Briceño had met with members of his family on Thursday night, and then with his advisors and the Senior Deputy Leaders prior to the National Executive meeting where he made his announcement.
  
With the recent passing of the Rt. Hon. George Cadle Price, Trench-Sandiford said, there is renewed interest in the PUP and its philosophy, and an opportunity to rebuild a party whose image has been tarnished in the last ten years. The party has to move on, she said, even while acknowledging Mr. Briceño’s contributions.
  
Speaking with Amandala via telephone this afternoon, Mr. Espat said that in this “time of transition” for the PUP, he was “humbled” to accept the post of Interim Leader, with the support of the National Executive, to guide the PUP ship through the coming days.
  
But when it came to whether he wanted the job in the long term, Espat would only say that he “will be making a decision on or before October 19,” and in the meantime, he was working on ensuring party “continuity,” as municipal conventions are still ongoing, as well as laying the groundwork for the contest, if there is any, to succeed Briceño.
  
Espat paid tribute to Briceño’s legacy as Leader thus: “All officers, supporters and sympathizers of the PUP owe John Briceño a huge debt of gratitude for his labor over the past three and a half years. (He) assumed the leadership at a low point in the party’s history, and has restored the hope that the party can once again be an attractive alternative to govern Belize.” 
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