The patriarch of a renowned American political family is reported to have once stated his opinion that the three most important things in politics are: “money, money, and money.”
For the struggling Belizean people, “money” was never more at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts, with a burgeoning national debt threatening our very future livelihood; and from all that has been written and said in the public domain over the past four decades of our descent into this unhappy quagmire, it is corrupt politicians, blue and red, that are mostly held to blame for our present predicament. We were already at the precipice; Covid-19 just tipped us over the edge.
The sad irony of our situation, is that the particular politicians generally considered to be most guilty of this corruption that has led to our national financial crisis, they are all now said to be happy millionaires. And to add great insult to this national injury, no less than the former prime minister has categorized their actions as “morally repugnant,” but still not within the scope of our laws, as they presently stand, to make them subject to prosecution. In his words, “moral guilt” and “legal guilt” are two different things. And so, he went so far as to remove his former Deputy Prime Minister from Cabinet, when his tenure as minister saw the Lands Department descend into being a “hotbed of corruption.” Nevertheless, the said former minister was allowed to maintain his seat as a member of the House of Representatives, and continued receiving his member’s salary until the end of his term in office. And, like other members, he is now qualified to receive a handsome pension for life.
As the wheels of politics turn, and memories get dulled, it was quite amazing to learn last week of the not-so-secret converging of former disgraced personalities in the UDP in a manner that suggests a possible return of these persons to the political limelight. Where there is money, there appears to be “no shame in the game;” and the reported cordiality of a UDP Western Caucus meeting involving former UDP ministers Gaspar Vega and John Saldivar was casually brushed off by current UDP leader Patrick Faber as just the re-energizing of the grand old UDP party for its next run at national elections.
Belizean citizens are at a loss to deal with our corrupt politicians, because it is these same politicians that frequently give hand-outs to suffering and desperate citizens, who gratefully give them their votes at election time. There is perceived honor in the citizens’ feeling a debt of gratitude to “the minister;” but the sources of the minister’s funds may not always be above board, or may have “strings attached” that result in policies that end up “taking bread out of the mouths” of those same citizens.
The culture of patronage in politics is not about to end any time soon in Belize. It has become a way of life. But the tragedy and the crisis now facing the nation has forced a reckoning on the part of government, whose employees, in the aftermath of the painful loss of jobs and significant reduction of wages suffered by many in the private sector, are now being forced to endure a cut to their earnings.
Prime Minister John Briceno has opined that the average citizen does not support the Joint Unions in their current protest/strike against the 10% salary cut, since everyone needs to share in this great sacrifice. But neither is there any denying that the unions’ call for good governance, and a robust implementation of the UNCAC as the best vehicle to see that occur, have been well received by citizens across the board. And the reason is simple. No government, blue or red, has so far been able to really put a damper on the culture of corruption in government. And the evidence is clear for all to see. No government minister in Belize has ever been convicted of corruption, or gone to jail for such in Belize. Meanwhile, Belizeans have seen no less than a former president of neighboring Guatemala being sent to jail for corruption; and only because of UNCAC.
Our murder rate is one of the highest in the world; but the conviction rate is less than 10%. There have been many sensational murder cases over the years; but “getting away with murder” is more than just a saying in Belize. It is real. The “white collar” crimes at the top —political corruption that enriches crooked politicians and their friends at the expense of the people’s assets — are matched with the proliferation of “blue collar” crimes at the bottom: robberies, rapes and murders with impunity. It is all connected; corruption and wealth at the top leads to poverty and frustration at the bottom.
No less than former Prime Minister Dean Barrow has described the flow of funds from party donors in the months of campaigning before elections. And the “big boys” make big donations, in the tens, and some even in the hundreds, of thousands. Sources have indicated that one donor has on occasion even dealt a million dollars as its campaign contribution. And businessmen see campaign contributions as an investment.
How then, without specific laws in place, and the political will to enforce those laws, do we as a people stop political corruption in Belize, that is, if we now see corruption as the main cause of this humongous national debt that all of us citizens are now being told we have to pay?
There have been high-profile cases in Belize, where a minister has taken home the police file; or where the investigation seems to have been deliberately botched by elements inside the police force; or where, in the most glaring of instances, a Commissioner of Police has simply refused to carry out the instructions of the Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate and prosecute a sitting member of parliament.
There have been enough instances of things going wrong in the delivery of justice in Belize, for citizens to reach the point of believing that we may need an external, impartial agent to stand beside our local police investigators if we are to ever make real progress against corruption.
Perhaps we do not have to surrender our sense of national sovereignty by looking for outsiders to help us clean up corruption and bring good governance to reality in Belize.
Perhaps, we have a homegrown expert/technocrat in our midst; and it is time to heed his expert advice. Former Permanent Secretary, David Gibson has offered his wealth of experience in showing government a way to implement UNCAC in Belize with our own personnel and institutions playing their part. (See page 22 of AMANDALA for Friday, May 7, 2021 – “A Strategic Guide for Defining Civil Society’s Role in Implementing the UNCAC” by David Gibson.) It’s all there. As a people we need to hold our collective breaths, and pray that Mr. Gibson’s effort provides a breakthrough in the standoff between government and the unions, so that hope can be rekindled, a la the once popular mantra that “everybody fi win.”