I got the opportunity to be a card-carrying member of the United Democratic Party in 1998, after their massive defeat by the People’s United Party in a landslide victory that saw only three UDP ministers hanging on to their constituency. Those were: Dean Barrow of the Queen’s Square Division, who took over leadership from Manuel Esquivel; Michael Finnegan for the Mesopotamia area, and Erwin Contreras of Cayo West.
I was courted to join the party, as they were in shambles after the voters turned against them because of massive corruption amongst the ministers. Manuel Esquivel, who I believe was our best Prime Minister yet, because of his sound approach to economic policies, sadly did not know how to keep control over his Cabinet. Moreover, unknown to him there was a vibrant, ambitious fellow who behind the scenes undermined him and always then stepped in to save the day. This is a story I still need to write about from my perspective as a journalist. However, back to those days.
At the time of this 1998 defeat, Manuel Esquivel’s administration had seen scandals upon scandals, from the massive sale of Belizean passports, to questionable logging concessions, to unaccounted money at the DFC (Development and Finance Corporation), to accusations that a number of his ministers seemed to be stealing from just about every fund they could steal from. However, then, like now, no leader wants to admit that they are really leading a band of thieves like Ali Baba and his forty thieves.
Esquivel may have had in my view sound economic policies and may have sought to balance the budget and reduce the deficit to strengthen the economy, but I assure you his ministers of government were not on the same page. The names of many of Esquivel’s ministers were called out in scandals. At that time, the Elrington brothers could not work along with Dean Barrow, and the resentment between them was patently obvious. This animosity between them is another story by itself. Suffice to say, Esquivel also had to deal with these internal fights.
I joined that party at the time Dean Barrow took over as party leader and remember that historic morning after the election results came out, when defeated PM Manuel Esquivel held a meeting at the Biltmore Plaza and thereafter he made his announcement that he would retire. Barrow immediately announced that he would not make anyone accused of or involved in corruption play any role in the new UDP!
John Saldivar back then
I remember clearly, as if it were today, that one of the persons Dean Barrow made clear he did not wish to hold any kind of office under his leadership, was John Saldivar. You see, while the system to date has never allowed for the proper audit and investigation to provide the proof to substantiate the claim and charge of misappropriation of funds, it was no secret back then that there were allegations of corruption with which John Saldivar’s name was associated.
I will say from personal knowledge and from my association with those within the party, that John Saldivar wanted to stay involved in the UDP and wanted to play a massive role, but he, like a few others marked, was rejected. Dean Barrow wanted to carve a NEW and re-vamped party. He did not want to have the old baggage of the past ministers and cronies, whose names were associated with corruption that brought down the Esquivel regime. I was convinced to join and serve the party on this very promise and premise, because it was a new leadership and a new era under Dean Barrow. Even those at and around the then UDP secretariat were shunned… these were people like Kenworth Tillett, Herbert Panton, Alberto August, Juliet Thimbriel and Ryan Swift, to name a few, as Barrow brought in his own people, in the persons of Audrey Wallace and Philippa Bailey. I must say, the old guard were defeated, but they did not want to let go of power, and the UDP had to show it was revamping. I was to be one of those new faces, but time showed that I left, and the same “rejects” formed the core of the party, which proves the point that every party needs those willing to dirty their hands for you!
Barrow wanted people unblemished and with much credibility, and I was to be one of those with credibility. I was only 28 years old when I was appointed Senator and leader of Opposition business in the Senate along with my now dearly departed friend, Senator Oscar Ayuso. Dean Barrow did not want any of the old faces to represent his new party, and I clearly remember at one of our party council meetings, he, in no uncertain terms, let John Saldivar know that he could NEVER hold any office under his administration. I witnessed that firsthand!
I also witnessed first and how John Saldivar tried his best to stay in good graces with Dean Barrow, who would have none of it. I was a journalist when John Saldivar was “king” around Belmopan and when one scandal after another surfaced from RECONDEV and DFC and any project involving the Belmopan area. John Saldivar’s name was always at the centre of it all, and Esquivel had no control over it all. Then, unlike today, there was no social media and one relied solely on newspapers, and radio and television news to be updated on what was happening. The news was not instantaneous then, as it is now.
John Saldivar had no bargaining chips around Dean Barrow then, and so he had to exit gracefully, and I recall him even seeking financial support from the party to go away to study as his exit plan. If I could trust the words of the bag woman, John was willingly assisted with money to go away because they were glad to get him out of the way, but I cannot confirm this, although it made sense and supports the fact that he did go away, out of the country. Nevertheless, in his inner circles which included Herbert Panton, Juliet Thimbrel and Patrick Faber, I recall our discourse about John promising to come back and take over the party. His ambition was always, to de-throne Dean Barrow. Ironically, his best friend was Patrick Faber then, and now Faber is his competitor.
The Patrick Faber Factor
Now, to understand the context of Saldivar, it helps to understand the role of Patrick Faber, who was younger, but involved with the party alongside Faith Babb from his early teen years. Unlike Saldivar, who has spent his political currency in having his name embroiled in scandals, Faber was just an up-and-coming youth, who during my time also became one of the “NEW” faces of the UDP! He was the chosen one, the golden boy. I can say from firsthand knowledge that Dean Barrow pushed and encouraged Patrick Faber to develop politically, and as such supported his political career. I recall as a senator walking the streets in Collet with Faber as we campaigned for a municipal election and then as we visited party members to give them hope that the party would rebuild.
Also, it is no secret for those of us who were around then and at the table for the party’s council meetings that Dean Barrow openly and unequivocally made it known that Patrick Faber would be groomed for leadership. In many of his speeches he did “big up” Faber and told the public that there was a succession plan for leadership in the UDP and Patrick Faber was part of that plan. Of course, much has happened since 1998. For one, Saldivar came back, and I tell you he worked his way back into the party and was especially willing to do anything to please Dean and gain favour with him. Ironically, Saldivar and Faber were, or maybe still are, BEST friends, but it mattered not to Saldivar that Faber was marked for leadership, because he has always wanted it!
In the meantime, we may recall that in 2005 to 2008, Faber gained notoriety in the party and public for his bold stunts —defying the police and being dragged off, as he embodied Barrow’s call for civil disobedience. I personally was shocked when Barrow took on back John, who by then had shown Barrow he could win elections —that is all Barrow wanted, it seems, and all he still wants.
Faber, in my books, sadly has become a disappointment, because his conduct as leader in his ministry has shown him to be petty and vindictive and not able to be magnanimous. He, I would describe as a “spoilt brat” who loves throwing his tantrums, especially at teachers. He lost himself and strayed from being the little lad I once knew and campaigned with. Saldivar, on the other hand, I do not think he has changed his ways. He has only become more strategic and able to promise people what they want. He is winner over more colleagues because, I am confident, he knows how to promise them position and power. I personally do not trust him, and my lack of trust deepens each time his name is still called, in some of the most horrific allegations of wrongdoing in this country. When his name got associated with William Danny Mason, his previous business partner, associate, financier and friend, my fear reached a new level, as he was also Minister of National Security and responsible for police, so I called for his removal!
Then, more recently, the news broke today, confirming that it is the name of John Saldivar that has been cited in USA court documents in a fraud case involving Lev Dermen for fraud and bribery. Dean Barrow held a press conference and assured the public none of his ministers were involved. Saldivar even issued his own statement, stating: “For the record, I met American businessman Lev Dermen in 2013 and last saw him sometime in early 2015. Mr Dermen was known to many in Belize as a wealthy businessman. I interacted with Mr Dermen on several occasions and did so publicly, including as is already public knowledge at the Gold Cup in 2013. However, I categorically reject any suggestion of my involvement in any act of fraud or bribery with Mr Dermen. At no time have I used my office for any such vile quid pro quo activities as the political propagandists suggest.”
Well, the evidence to be presented in the Utah Court suggests otherwise. But as we say in Belize Kriol, IF DAH NO SOH, DAH NAILY SOH! So what will Dean Barrow do? Will he stand by Saldivar? Does Saldivar have any leverage over Barrow? Should Saldivar be allowed to continue as Minister of National Security? Should he be allowed to run for the post of Party Leader? Isn’t it too much coincidence that it is always Saldivar’s name involved in these scandals and allegations? Is this the kind of person we want to continue in a leadership position in our country? If yes, it tells a lot about us as a people and society!
Having been close and up personal with Dean Barrow, John Saldivar, Patrick Faber and many in the inner circles of the UDP, I have my own conclusion as to the relationship between Dean Barrow and John Saldivar. I believe that when it came down to wanting to win an election, Dean Barrow was desperate for persons willing to do anything to secure a win. John Saldivar, I am sure, was instrumental in that, because I know he has that savvy and killer instinct and is willing to do anything to consolidate power. He has proven it! Unlike Faber, he sees the bigger picture. John is able to develop transactional relationships and associations to advance his ambition, and he does not care what is said, once he gets what he wants. His approach and attitude are driven by a vicious hunger for power. Also, Dean Barrow may know of or even turn a blind eye to the wrong doing in his party, but only so that he can come forward and pretend he never knew. It’s like guilt by omission, but in a way that he ensures nothing goes back to him directly, although at the end of the day, in my books, all goes back to him. He is leading a corrupt party and keeps making excuses at every press conference.
The Dean Barrow I knew and worked with was shrewd, and totally a control freak. He has loyalists who bring him news of everybody’s business in the party, even who is sleeping with whom. I know he knows of all these scandals, but hopes it is not made public. There are those who curry favour with him and so squeal on others. He either cannot be outing all the fires, or turns a blind eye to the fires for the expediency of staying in power.
Just think about this one thing: Dean Barrow knows the budget and capacity of every ministry and its income-generating powers and areas of possible abuse of power. He knows functioning and systems at the Ministries of Lands, Immigration, Forestry, Fisheries, Health, Education, etc.… and that each and every one of these ministries does not have proper check and balances. He knows how any corrupt minister or government appointee or official can work the system to benefit financially. He also knows the income of these ministers and their net worth before coming into office, so when he sees them living “large” and beyond the lawful monies paid to them, isn’t he smart enough to know the figures are not adding up? When he sees them with campaign financing he did not give them, doesn’t he know they are getting it from somewhere? Come on! Dean Barrow is smart, and seeks to explain away everything…. He is in denial! However, I know he knows he is running one of the most corrupt governments we have ever seen, in comparison to the corruption under the Esquivel administration.
Dean is so blind to corruption now and so good at explaining it away, that when he is involved he cannot admit his own wrongdoing. I will never forget the most blatant abuse of power and corruption of the law, when he changed the law to legalize his illegal act, and he did this using the powers of parliament. Let us never forget the meaning of corruption. Do readers remember when PM Barrow violated as Minister of Finance the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act by making over $10 million in PetroCaribe loans, without approval from Parliament as is required by the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act? That was a violation of the law and illegal, and he was to be tried like any other criminal, as no one is above the law. Instead, he passed the PetroCaribe Loan Act and made his illegal conduct legal by making that law retroactive to days before his illegal act and in so doing he legalized his illegal conduct. Now if that is not corruption, then what is?
I, knowing this about Dean Barrow as leader and Prime Minister, cannot expect any better from his ministers. The only problem here is that one by one they are being caught. This week it’s Herman Longworth and John Saldivar… let’s wait as more of the chips fall!!