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Wednesday, February 24, 2021
Home Editorial Politics and the people: a matter of trust

Politics and the people: a matter of trust

It is said that sports often mirrors life. There are popular sayings that some consider to be “Bible” truths in sports, and these tend to focus on the merits of winning. One says, “Winning is not everything; it is the ONLY thing.” In Kriol we often hear people say, “Dutty win betta dan pretty lose.” In the game of politics, which is commonly regarded as the quest for political power, the general outlook seems to go along those lines. It’s all about winning at the polls, regardless of what a party has to do or say to “get there.” As long as you can get away with it, and it will help the party’s chances to win an election, the general attitude seems to be, why not?

And then we wonder why crime is rampant in the country.

The world we live in today, is a result of that outlook and philosophy having taken root and spread across nations and cultures, like a cancerous growth that is not easily removed or uprooted.

Cancerous indeed, because it has not resulted in the noble ideal that all citizens intrinsically crave for, called simply “good governance.”

If winning was the ONLY thing in politics, then the past UDP administration, which recorded an unprecedented third consecutive general election victory in independent Belize, would have to be considered hands-down the best government we have ever had. And, as another saying goes, “even blind-eye Jamesie” could see that was not the case.

The first prime minister of Belize once said that “where leaders lack vision, the people perish.” Vision, or the lack thereof, is quite apparent to Belize City residents every day as we cross the Belcan Bridge and behold the beautiful spectacle of the new Civic Center, which reportedly cost taxpayers some thirty-three million dollars. Built to meet First World standards, this impressive edifice was designed for total air-conditioning, making the cost of operation out of reach for most sporting groups, who have chosen instead to host their events at the ($1.5-million?) Swift Hall auditorium a half mile away near St. Martin’s, or the similar SCA auditorium, another natural air-ventilated arena for sports that falls well within the budget of local sports entrepreneurs. That is just one of the many decisions made by the previous 3-time UDP administration that have come back to haunt them and us, and have led to questions about their methods used to secure victory at the polls a third consecutive time. Was “winning” again worth it?

When a leader has secured the people’s trust, that should be all that matters come election time. No gimmicks or skullduggery is needed.

Many expected a political nightmare for then Premier George Price, when in 1957 the British sent him back home to British Honduras supposedly “in disgrace,” after publicly accusing him of meeting secretly with the Guatemalan foreign minister in London, while attending a constitutional conference there. But Price’s loyal followers were unmoved, demonstrating a massive show of support for the returning premier at the Belize International Airport with signs that boldly declared, “Contact or no contact.” And Price’s PUP won another landslide election victory, 9-0.

The PUP were undefeated in elections before Independence. But subsequent governments, both blue and red, had repeatedly run into fiscal/budget problems, leading to losses at the polls. Indeed, following Independence it had become “one een, one out” with the PUP and UDP for two decades afterwards. (UDP 1984-89; PUP 1989-93; UDP 1993-98; PUP 1998-2003…)

For the first time since Independence, there seemed to be no money problems for the PUP government in 2003, and they won another big victory, 22-7 seats, in the first back-to-back general election victory of any party since Independence.

There had been no obvious gimmick involved in the PUP government’s back-to-back 2003 election victory, but there was a hidden fact that camouflaged the financial difficulties that had repeatedly been the determining factor in Belize’s elections. Large secret international borrowing at commercial rates had made things look good for the PUP government in 2003, but the “chickens soon came home to roost” when the massive debt was revealed along with the need to negotiate a Super Bond to keep the ship of state floating.

Figuring most prominently in the PUP financial quagmire was their minister of economic development and budgetary planning, Hon. Ralph Fonseca. (See Amandala editorial, “Public finances, private domain” of Tuesday, September 24, 2004.) Trust was gone in the PUP; and the UDP, led by new leader Dean O. Barrow, won a landslide general election victory, 25-6, in 2008 on a platform of rooting out corruption. The new UDP prime minister famously said in a post-election rally that at the slightest “whiff” of corruption, he would take out his “machete” and cut it out. From then on it was supposed to be “honesty, transparency and accountability,” sweet music to the ears of the Belizean electorate.

With debt servicing of the inherited Super Bond to deal with, things were not looking rosy for the new UDP government in 2008, but it quickly improved, as they were beneficiaries to a first-time bonanza that no previous Belize government had enjoyed: hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from the new oil well in Spanish Lookout, and also hundreds of millions of dollars available from the Petro Caribe deal with Venezuela.

With that kind of financial cushion, it was a bit surprising when the UDP government called elections early in 2012. Indeed, they were not in any serious fiscal crunch, as previous governments had been; and the opposition PUP were caught off guard, in the midst of a leadership squabble which saw them change leaders three times in a year – from Mark Espat, to Johnny Briceño, to Francis Fonseca. So, the UDP retained power with their own back-to-back victory at the general elections in 2012, but surprisingly only by a 17-14 margin.

With cries of corruption, beginning in 2013 with passports and soon including the airport and lands, becoming louder and stronger, and the oil well slowing down in production, and the once popular nationalization of BTL demanding more financial attention, and as well other Ashcroft debts including the UHS loan, the UDP government was in need of a gimmick to stop the inexorable swing of the tide of trust which seemed to be moving in the direction of the opposition PUP. The Super Bond having grown much larger, and government revenues bleeding from various quarters through rampant corruption, and oil and Petro Caribe funds dwindling, P.M. Dean Barrow made a brilliant political move, a master gimmick, if you will, to dodge defeat and turn it into a victory. And this he accomplished in a 3-pronged offensive. First, he called elections early again, a full year and four months ahead of time, to catch the opposition PUP flat-footed. He got the Belize Sugar Industries (BSI) to delay for two weeks their announcement of second payment figures to the hundreds of cane farmers, knowing that the very disappointing payments would have seriously hurt the UDP popularity at the polls. And then, in the biggest move of all, that clinched the game, he announced the finale of all problems with BTL and Lord Ashcroft, as he, P.M. Barrow had personally brokered a reportedly very nice deal that would forever end the BTL payment saga. With that home-grown electoral gimmick, the UDP was able to turn back the political tide, and manage an unprecedented third consecutive victory, 19-12 seats, in the November 4, 2015 general elections.

So, the UDP won; and Dean O. Barrow has gone down in history as the only post-independence prime minister of Belize to record three consecutive general election victories.

But how sweet was it, and how long-lasting? Already, with oil revenues drying up, and the Petro Caribe deal soon to be over, and no new blossoming industries generating revenue, with the days of being “awash with cash” having all been spent on beautiful infrastructure, and with corruption rampant in many ministries, the old financial/budget problems were coming back like a ton of bricks, with the Super Bond now even much bigger than before.

Had the Barrow gimmick in securing the UDP victory in 2015 in fact laid a massive blow against the people’s trust? The evidence would seem to indicate that the Belizean electorate, having been hoodwinked in 2015, voted with absolute vengeance when they next got the chance on November 11, 2020.

The writing on the wall was already clear from late 2019; and by the time the Covid-19 virus landed in Belize in mid-March of 2020, it was all over for the UDP.

In hindsight, it would have been better for Belize, if the UDP had not engineered a “dutty win” in 2015. Almost immediately after that election, when the caneros realized that they had been “had,” and the very disappointing details of the so-called “sweet deal” with the Ashcroft payment for BTL were made public, many Belizean voters lost trust in the UDP. And for five long years they waited, while the country’s economy went from bad to worse. It is recorded, that Belize’s economy was already in a recession by December of 2019.

Is winning worth it, when all trust is gone? In a landslide washout on November 11, 2020, Belizean voters dealt the UDP, under new leader Patrick Faber, a 26-5 seats shellacking at the polls in a general election that saw an 81.9% voter turnout, with the PUP, under new leader John Briceño, garnering 59.6% of the votes cast.

There was new leadership in both political parties for the recent general elections. But a pattern has developed over the years, where the Belizean people have shown that their trust in their leaders is sincere, but not to be taken lightly. The economics are a driving force in all elections, and Belizeans are human; but a factor not to be overlooked, is that even in times of crisis, if the Belizean people have trust in their leadership, many of them will hold fast to the wheel, even though some can be swayed by outside forces and the hardship from difficult financial times.

The current government has begun their administration amidst the worst financial debacle any Belize government has ever faced; and with Covid-19 to deal with too; but it is not to be an excuse. The days ahead will not be easy. The test of this government, whether through these upcoming hard times it will be able to maintain the trust of the Belizean people until the next general election, will depend on how well they can convince Belizeans by their example that we are all in this together; how much they can demonstrate that they are willing to share in the pain and the necessary financial cut-backs; how serious they are about the sacrifices that the well-off will have to endure so that the worst-off of us can at least survive; how committed they are to implement anti-corruption legislation (invite UNCAC, release the Police Commissioner from political subservience, resolve to no longer have just an “Acting” Chief Justice, empower the Auditor General, etc.). It will also depend on how effective are their consultations and strategies to stop wastage and dramatically improve efficiency in the huge fleet of government vehicles and machinery, and in the collection of revenues, especially in the very important Customs Department; and how clear is their vision and how sincere are their efforts to embrace and engage the tremendous reservoir of Belizean talent at home and in the diaspora, eager to join in this struggle for the life of our nation…

Not for the PUP’s sake, but for the sake of all of us, we urge and pray, and must all keep our eyes open and our hands and hearts ready and willing to assist this present government to chart a good course that will see the Belizean ship of state through these rough and turbulent waters ahead. Regardless of how hard the times, if we honestly do our duty and stand together as one people, we will suffer some together, but we will survive together, and we will see a brighter tomorrow for our children. And in that way the trust will remain with this government until the next general elections. If not, then the Belizean people will know what to do.

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