This column is dedicated to my grandfather, who passed away some quarter-century ago on August 1, Adolphus E. Noralez: and an ancestor of mine, Private J. Noralez, who fought in World War I in Europe under the British West Indies Regiment.
I’ve long had discomfort with receiving gifts from people — not the thoughtful ones that make you warm and fuzzy inside; I love those. I’m talking about the ones that you know must be repaid sometime down the road of life. With that perspective and life principle you can deduce that I have a problem with many things in Belize: the way scholarships are awarded, paying for votes, and corporate philanthropy. Today’s thoughts will focus on the last of these three. If you were educated here in Belize, you know what philanthropy is, because we’ve had a March holiday to celebrate the person who we are told is our greatest benefactor, Baron Bliss — a man who left a huge chunk of his bequest to Belize after never stepping foot on our mainland. A love so strong that we reciprocated it in the Constitution of Belize in the substantive laws Chapter 306, the Baron Bliss Act. I thought much of the Baron on my walks on Marine Parade some weeks ago as I saw the yacht of Lord Michael Ashcroft anchored just off Fort George in Belize as he sheltered from the tyranny of COVID-19 in our haven.
Lord Michael Ashcroft’s name is no stranger to our vernacular, and his name is probably just as common as a good morning greeting. From anecdotes, we know that he has over the years funded both major political parties in Belize and has numerous investments in the jewel. These range from the banking industry through Belize Bank and probably ScotiaBank, which he is in the process of acquiring; the media via Great Belize Productions (Channel 5), and storage management of Belize’s goods through the receivership of the Port of Belize Limited via Waterloo Investment Holdings Limited (WIHL). The latter is an investment that the investor Ashcroft hopes to expand:
“Following completion of our feasibility study for building a cruise port and expanding bulk handling at Port Loyola in Belize City, we have put together a development team consisting of marine and dredging experts, port operators and project finance specialists. We are in the process of performing environmental and social impact studies, including those needed by development banks that have expressed an interest in financing the debt portion of the project. We have also initiated discussions with the Government of Belize to obtain the necessary licenses to charge tariffs and passenger taxes, as well as obtain duty exemptions and tax holidays. Cruise lines have indicated that they will be less likely to make Belize a destination if they cannot dock their increasingly bigger ships on land. WIHL owns all parcels connecting Port Loyola to the Western Highway. Together with the Port of Belize, which British Caribbean Bank has in receivership, WIHL is actively seeking equity partners to own and operate this expanded port in the future.” (Waterloo Investment Holdings Limited, 2019)
Of course, I don’t need to remind Belizean readers of what happened at the Port of Belize Limited (PBL) on July 22nd 2020, but for the benefit of those outside these borders, I’ll put it in a few words. Unionized Port of Belize staff members, supported by their sister unit, the stevedores, were teargassed and shot at with rubber bullets while engaging in peaceful sit-down protest in an effort to retrieve their 10% salary deduction and push back on the claim of redundancy by the managers of PBL, which carried out both salary reductions and terminations without consultancy or negotiation. That use of force was unauthorized, according to the Prime Minister of Belize, the Minister of National Security and the Commissioner of Police, and we still do not know who gave the order. In the same breath, this investor has also donated considerable sums of money to the Lord Ashcroft COVID-19 Relief Fund, which is being dispersed across the Belize Red Cross, The Ministry of Health, The Ministry of Education and the Belize Police Department. The Belize Police Department awarded him an Outstanding Citizen Award on July 16th 2020 for his contributions. Mr. Ashcroft has also joined as a party to the Belize Peace Movement’s redistricting case, which seeks to correct the practice of unequal voters rights across the 31 constituencies. He is currently paying for the services being provided by the expert witness.
Next, we examine the Feinstein family — an extremely successful Belizean family who have had numerous investments here at home as well. These investments of the Feinstein Group of Companies (FGC) include the Bacab Eco Park, Benchaela Imports, Blackbird Caye Resort, Fort Point Security, M&M Citrus Grove and Ocean View Realty, Fein Catch and the Stake Bank Project. This Stake Bank project is described as follows: “The duty-free Stake Bank Island proposal is every bit as ambitious and sweeping as its companion project, Ocean View Grand. The crown jewel of this project is a deep-water cruise port capable of hosting an impressive four Voyager-class cruise ships at any given time. Located four miles from Belize City, Stake Bank will provide visitors with high-quality services and amenities including a marina, shops, restaurants and other entertainment venues. There will also be an independent entertainment and shopping area for cruise crew members and an exciting Mayan-themed water park. Stake Bank and Ocean View Grand will be connected to each other via a vehicular causeway and another causeway will connect Ocean View Grand to the mainland. The Feinstein Group of Companies is proud to be the architect of these 100% Belizean projects.” This is a project that presents itself as a direct alternative to, and competitor against, the Waterloo Project by the Ashcroft Group.
From my direct involvement, I know that the Feinstein Group has contributed to several youth engagement activities across the youth development landscape in Belize. Separate from that, there is SMVNF Investments, which is chaired by a member of the Feinstein family. That company owns Grand Caribe Property Management, Rain Restaurant and Aqua Restaurant, and is the operator of an off-campus venue, Losers Bar and Grill Belize. They were also involved in the hosting of the large Grand Caribe fishing tournament, where, from the photos I saw, very little regard was given to the COVID-19 precautionary measures of mask-wearing and social distancing. That event was coined as a “super spreader event” by the Director of Health Services. SMVNF Investments also was the developer of Belize Medical Associates on San Pedro and were recent co-funders through an alliance of private sector companies that donated a vehicle to the Belize Police Department to patrol contraband hotspots.
I attempted here to lay out the Jekyll and Mr. Hyde nature of those who wield financial power in Belize, the corporate philanthropists. Those who have made very large investments in Belize but have also made some questionable decisions that have put, or could have put, many lives in danger, be it at the Port of Belize or the island of San Pedro. I have a major discomfort with that type of duality that feels like genocide at any degree, whether overt or covert. That feels like “they were kicked out and replaced by people who loved their country more violently than they did.” (Hyde, 1978)
You see, as a child that has been a physical science academic, I found that symbiotic relationships always felt like a good thing to read about, and predatory and parasitic ones always felt bad. I should’ve known then that I was a social scientist. This is where we are, in some ways who we are: the gazelle in the unfair game with the lion on the savannah. You see, we must understand that while some people have good intentions, when a hand is being stretched out, there is often a knife in the other hand. We must understand that some colonial capitalists have never left; they simply come back as investors, or maybe that’s just my trauma talking.
Thank you for allowing me a space to vent.
“The English capitalist class is charitable out of self-interest; it gives nothing outright, but regards its gifts as a business matter, makes a bargain with the poor, saying, ‘If I spend this much upon benevolent institutions, I thereby purchase the right not to be troubled any further, and you are bound thereby to stay in your dusky holes and not to irritate my tender nerves by exposing your misery. You shall despair as before, but you shall despair unseen…this I purchase with my subscription of twenty pounds for the infirmary!”- Friedrich Engels