This is an unprecedented time in the young life of our Belizean nation, which faces an economic crisis of gargantuan proportions, and there is no easy way out. If the current stand-off between the Joint Unions and the PUP government led by Prime Minister Johnny Briceño doesn’t come to a resolution before too long, things could get worse than they need to, much worse.
In his budget speech on Friday, April 9, the first of his new administration, P.M. Briceño did not tell the unions and the Belizean people much that they didn’t already know about the state of our economy. He just spelled out more of the gory details. Former P.M. Dean Barrow of the UDP had painted the sad picture long before the November 11, 2020 general elections, publicly lamenting the crisis and the financial challenges to be faced by his successor.
But where the nation stands today in regards to ongoing negotiations between the Joint Unions and the Briceño government’s negotiating team, has a lot to do with where we were on the night of February 7, 2008. On that night, following months of union agitation, demonstrations and civil disturbances against perceived corrupt government dealings with the nation’s finances and assets – DFC, Social Security, UHS, BTL, etc. etc. — newly elected UDP Prime Minister Dean Barrow made a public pledge that the scourge of corruption would be dealt with decisively by his new government.
Belizeans are an intelligent people, but we tend to be forgiving; so, as a former PUP leader had famously observed, political scandals and bad actions tend to vanish from the consciousness of Belizean voters, “like wahn lee breeze.”
There are many sayings that apply to our present predicament — notably, “once bitten, twice shy,” and “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
In terms of heartbreak and disappointment, Belizean voters have been burned more than twice over the years, by both major parties. Our Constitution allows for a three-quarters majority in the House of Representatives, which should represent an overwhelming mandate of support from the electorate, to be is enough to actually change the very Constitution itself, upon which our system of government is based, and on a number of occasions, Belizean voters have given just such a mandate to a new party in government. Still, the poverty rate has ballooned, the crime rate soars, our national assets keep falling into foreign hands, and the debt burden keeps getting bigger and bigger, while accusations of corruption, from one party to the other, remain the order of the day. All it has boiled down to, is a few “rotten rich” individuals who entered politics with modest means, and a nation carrying a burden of debt that is almost frightening.
From the perspective of the man in the street, the union member, the Belizean voter facing rising costs of fuel and basic items on the supermarket shelves, the analogy that best suits our collective consciousness, is that “every day carry bucket to the well, one day the bottom will drop out.” And the bottom has certainly fallen out of the Belizean economy. As P.M. Briceño plainly declared, “We bruk.” Government is only able to pay its huge salary bill by borrowing a million dollars a day, a situation that cannot continue.
But the bottom may have fallen out of more than the Belizean economy, and the quicker the new PUP government grasps this reality, the better the chances that this all may end better rather than even worse for Belize. The bottom has fallen out of the bucket of faith that Union members have had in elected governments to act decisively and conscientiously on the issue that has bothered them most each time they have given such a massive mandate – CORRUPTION! Their unceasing cry and clamor has been for “GOOD GOVERNANCE.”
It will never be the same again. The perception of a “massive mandate” from the Belizean people in the general and then municipal elections, is not real. As has happened in a number of times past, when Belizeans en masse have gone to the polls with such vengeance, it has been all about voting “OUT” a party from government, rather than voting “IN” the new party.
Union members, many of whom undoubtedly voted “blue” in order to remove the blatantly corrupt “red,” are not in die-hard love with any political party.
P.M. Briceño’s team has made some meaningful concessions in the negotiations with the unions, but they are not “there” yet. He still has a mandate, and a five-year term if he can keep the lid on this boiling cauldron of frustration and sense of betrayal among union members.
Expressing his own frustration about the intransigent unions in a media interview following his budget speech, Briceño remarked that even if his ministers were to take a 100% salary cut, the unions would still be refusing to accept the 10% cut his advisers had recommended as necessary. Maybe he is onto something.
The unions are presently in a position where, with their employer proposing a salary cut, they have a legal right to enter into an industrial dispute stance. They have repeatedly been at the forefront of initiatives that have resulted in landslide governments, with promises to root out corruption; and they have been repeatedly disappointed. With the nation and government’s finances at its most vulnerable, they may see this as the best opportunity to “force” the hand of government to finally take meaningful action against corruption and towards good governance.
On the matter of inviting in the UNCAC, both UDP and PUP governments have sneered at the idea as somehow impinging on our sovereignty. But the UNCAC agents would only be involved in investigation and prosecution along with our own police officers. Why do both UDP and PUP governments seem so scared of the UNCAC? Is it because their disgraced heroes, the PUP’s Ralph Fonseca and the UDP’s Gapi Vega, are still big-time players behind the scenes in their respective parties?
We pray for progress in the continuing negotiations, because nobody wants to see our already dire economic situation get worse with strikes and demonstrations, and even more strict police enforcement of state of emergency regulations.
“Good governance” is a just cause for the unions to fight for in the name of Belize, and with an offer from P.M. Briceño to promptly implement UNCAC, they might be moved to willingly accept the bitter medicine of the salary cuts and wage freeze. Without the offer from the P.M., the blame for the repercussions of industrial action by the unions could land squarely at the feet of the PUP government.
Let us pray, Belizeans, that our leaders do the right thing.