Editorial — 20 March 2019
PM’s legacy, free spending, and abuse  of the power disparity

During the period when the Wong Hong Kim scandal and other scandals were rife, Prime Minister Barrow famously, or infamously, declared that he didn’t lead the country with a concern for his legacy.

He had a moment when he must have recalled his years in opposition, a period when he championed transparency and accountability at monthly meetings in the House of Representatives in the face of what he called whitéd sepulcher/retirement-plan-for-the-boys’ type corruption in the PUP government. In that moment he wrung his hands and warned that his wayward ministers would cause the downfall of the government.

His anguish was brief.  He might have considered the spoils he was in charge of, and his memories of being on the other side of the aisle, and possibly he decided to hell with transparency, accountability and decency, it’s all about his party. He has not looked back.

The UDP government has stayed away from governance reforms as if they were the cholera. What little reforms have taken place since 2008, when the UDP came to power, have come about with the PM’s back pressed against a wall and a boot from the BNTU in his chest.

History, if it is written by a PUP scribe, will record that after the Wong Hong Kim scandal he proceeded to preside over the most corrupt government in the history of our little nation. History, if written by a UDP scribe, will say it was a time of overwhelming ‘party first’. An independent scribe might agree with both.

The Prime Minister seemingly put away all ideas of honest government, and what has emerged is that he and his party have decided to pursue a legacy written in cement, steel, and asphalt. They have committed to transform Belize’s landscape, and the multilaterals and bilaterals have accommodated them to the fullest.

Some of the projects the UDP government has embarked on are essential to the development of the country at this time. The upgrading of the Coastal Road and the Orange Walk-Sarteneja Road are improvements that any government thinking about the development of Belize had to tackle soon.

Some projects are out-of-this-world high-minded. They are signature pieces done mostly to give lift to the legacy of a Prime Minister who betrayed good governance to secure his party’s narrow interests. The spectacular roundabout and fountain in the heart of the country, is a signature piece. The Belize City Civic Center is also a signature piece. The first can be excused, if it doesn’t cost the millions that they say was spent on it, and the second will prove to be too expensive to run and to maintain in the long run.

The Caracol Road and the PSWG International Airport to Mile 8 Road are extravagant expenditures. Honorable Orlando Habet, the Cayo Northeast area representative, said at the House meeting on Friday that the people in his area would have preferred that some of that money was spent on their farm roads.

For the nearly 180 million dollars we will be investing on this Caracol Road, we could have macadamized, and paved single lanes on a couple hundred miles of farm roads. That would have a major impact on the cost of food production. That would have helped farmers.

The Leader of the Opposition, Honorable John Briceño, questioned the price tag of the roads. He suggested that corruption, kickbacks is the likely cause. With little transparency and accountability in government , no one can argue against that. But if what we saw on the George Price Highway between Roaring Creek and Santa Elena applies to the Caracol Road, then climate-change resilience is a huge part of the explanation of the exorbitant cost.

Inexplicably, little always-strapped-for-cash Belize is constructing climate-change resilient super highways in regions more than 200 feet above sea level. All the ice in the Arctic and Antarctica can melt and the sea level will not be a concern in these parts of the country. These parts of the country are areas where people who live on the cayes and on the coast run to, to get shelter from hurricanes.

Climate change is a fact, but we have some serious questions about how our experts are processing the data and formulating our response to it. The government is going along with their recommendations far too happily.

These expenditures, the Caracol Road and the PSWG to Mile 8 Road, are justified as essential vehicles to enhance our tourism product. Too many of our eggs are being put into that basket. The Caracol Road and Mile 8 to PSWG Airport are, in 2019, totally futuristic. The Caracol Road, as Representative Habet said, is a road in the wilderness.  The Prime Minister said it is a pristine area that is considered one of the most beautiful areas in our country. Environmentalists would tell him, if he had consulted them, that the best way to puncture the pristine bubble is to put a super highway through it.

The PM can’t appreciate how regular Belizeans are living, and those around him must be afraid to tell him. The Statistical Institute of Belize keeps reporting that the cost of living is stable, but in the food line they keep their focus almost exclusively on what is produced locally.

People, however, also shop at grocery stores and there the prices keep going up. It’s not like Belizeans can stop purchasing at grocery shops, because many of the goods in those shops are considered essentials. The Boost and Food Pantry are just about keeping our noses above water. But all around us we are seeing top of the line projects at extraordinary cost.

The Prime Minister was loud in the House of Representatives on Friday, about the European Union putting pressure on Belize for our failure to comply with regulations related to the International Business Companies Act and the International Financial Services Act, despite our following all their previous recommendations. He described the European Union’s decision to blacklist us as “outrageous”, “rank contempt”, and “injustice.”

We should all rally around our country. But we can’t ignore the occasions when the Prime Minister does at home what he berates abroad. What happens when the UDP under the Honorable Prime Minister stomps on the vehicles that were designed to allow opposition parties to scrutinize his government’s activities?

A recent US State Department report pointed out some failures of the government, including police excesses, government corruption, abuse of minors while in detention, lack of official reporting on crimes of discrimination, and an assault on press freedom. Regarding the assault on press freedom, the report specifically referred to the fact that the “state-owned telecommunications provider (BTL), stopped advertising with all KREMANDALA companies.” The report said BTL “explained it was a general cut on all advertising, but it did not reduce advertising with other media firms.” It is a fact that other media, notably the party newspaper of the UDP, and their radio and television stations, continue to get advertisements from the telecommunications giant.

The US State Department pointed out those things. Should we ignore them because they are foreign?

There seems to be no one in the UDP who is brave enough to point out to the Prime Minister and his government ministers that they have been corrupted by power. The PM said “the power disparity” allows the EU to bully us. At home, he and his government are accused of using the power disparity to run over the systems that were designed to keep them in check, and to put pressure on those they consider to be their enemies.

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Deshawn Swasey

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