#43 Churchill Street
Benque Viejo del Carmen
September 17, 2019
The maxim “como llamarada de tusa” among the folks in Benque Viejo captures the essence of novelty. Indeed, when a dried corn husk is lit, it flares up and in a split second dies away. Such happens in Belize with events that momentarily capture the spotlight of the local media and the public at large. Then all returns to normal until the next sensational thrust.
In August this year, the Government of Belize, with one stroke of a pen, wrote off a student loan of $40,478.88 to Damian Perdomo, son of the Cabinet Secretary. Apart from a press release by the youth branch of the Opposition, and a reproval by Audrey Matura, the corn husk flare soon dissipated. News of the write-off, nonetheless, brought to mind the story of the now defunct Mount Carmel Credit Union (MCCU) in Benque Viejo, news of which also blew like a candle in the wind and soon got lost in the mayhem of the day.
From being one of Belize’s most consolidated credit unions, founded in 1958, MCCU went into receivership in 2006. Such an institution that once thrived came to hang on a thread as a result of an embezzlement of nearly half a million dollars, reported burglaries, and delinquent loan payments. On July 27, 2016, the Belize Credit Union League (BCUL) announced the dissolution of the credit union and informed those members present that the Development Finance Corporation (DFC), one of the credit union’s creditors, had started the process to foreclose.
Notice of Perdomo’s write-off moved me to check on the figures I annotated at the meeting on July 27. MCCU had an outstanding debt of $1.8 M, inclusive of $459,000 it owed DFC. Outstanding member loans amounted to $360 thousand. The notice of an imminent foreclosure by DFC moved the active credit union members to petition the Prime Minister to intervene in facilitating a write-off.
The intention was to continue operating from the credit union facilities and have a better prospect for a new start. I personally delivered the letter to the office of the Prime Minister, but up until today have not gotten a response.
In a letter dated November 25, 2016, the DFC stated its willingness to negotiate with the members and in bold letters urged us to continue servicing the loan as had been agreed.
Early in 2017, a notice was posted on the credit union doors that the credit union was closing indefinitely. The turn of events left more questions than answers, the salient one being why no one was ever convicted for the embezzlement. It seems to me that, despite its assurances, the BCUL did not have the willpower to safeguard the interests of the credit union members.
It is worth noting that the Administrative Report mentions the change in administration of MCCU over to another credit union. While MCCU struggled to keep afloat, this same credit union began recruiting members who were part of MCCU, nothwithstanding credit union policy that a person can be a member of one credit union only. St. Martin Credit Union opened in Benque Viejo soon after the closure of MCCU.
In his 10th September address this year, the mayor of Belize City, Bernard Wagner, spoke about the importance of not forgetting our story in order to have a better understanding of our future. The outcome of events at MCCU, just as in the Perdomo write-off, is a story that we cannot afford to take lightly or to forget easily. The truth is that the demise of a people’s institution such as MCCU was a rather agonizing process characterized by notoriety, cronyism, political interference, and unaccountability in successive managements and governing boards that chose to become corrupt down to the core – a story which leaders in the BCUL and our own government did not will to change.
The story has a human face to it — the many who lost lifelong earnings, including pensioners, elderly, widowed, and many more who toiled over the years for some kind of financial security. Are we to blame as members for our complacency in not demanding transparency from successive administrations which gave in to deceit and misrepresentation? Is this not a failure as a country to the principles of subsidiarity? Our leaders have much to account for.
Contrary to what Mayor Wagner said, the battle is not over. It is ongoing. The choice is a conscious one. In the story, we can be mere spectators who may sit around and marvel at novelty, or choose to be those protagonists who will live up to our responsibilities as stewards, knowing well that we will have to account to the degree of what has been entrusted to each and every one of us.
(Signed) David N. Ruiz