General — 18 November 2008 — by Aaron Humes
As they promised last Wednesday during a press conference in Belize City, the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) sponsored a protest of some 200 supporters in front of the offices of the Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA) this morning on the Hummingbird Highway.
The normally two-lane highway’s northbound lane leading to the junction with the Western Highway was shut down for an hour as the supporters, mainly from the Cayo area, marched and chanted to show their dissatisfaction with the firing of 4 workers from BAHA a week and a half ago.
The chants of “Queremos justicia!” (We want justice!) rang out alongside the traditional “PUP all the way!” and taunts directed at Minister of Agriculture, Hon. Rene Montero, called “a monster,” and chairman of the board of BAHA, Escandar Bedran.
After the first pass near the BAHA building, which is set well back in the compound near the Forest Drive entrance to Belmopan, the protestors paused for a singing of Belize’s national anthem, “Land of the Free,” directed at the workers still inside the building.
One of the most prominent protestors was Indira Gentle, one of the fired BAHA four, and a seven-year administrative assistant who allegedly has a kidney ailment.
Gentle, who considers her firing politically motivated, dismissed the idea that today’s protest was an attempt to make political mileage out of the issue, as the ruling United Democratic Party has suggested.
“I am here in support of my fellow victims of the UDP… we are making a point and demanding that the government hear this message: the victimization and firings must stop!” She told Amandala at the start of the protest.
The highlight of the protest came when the crowd, led by PUP Opposition Leader, Hon. John Briceño, successfully petitioned the police to let them enter the BAHA compound after promising they would not touch anything or attempt to interfere with anyone.
After 15 minutes inside, during which the leaders of the march took questions from the media, the crowd exited and were dismissed with parting words from PUP chair, Carolyn Trench-Sandiford, Ms. Gentle, Hon. Cordel Hyde, and Hon. Briceño.
Preemptively answering charges that the PUP “rented” today’s crowd and are playing politics with the issue, Lake Independence area representative and PUP deputy leader, Hon. Cordel Hyde, told us, “The people decided on February 7 to vote out the People’s United Party because they felt we had been unfair. But that was then. We have tried to be fair and offer constructive criticism, but the UDP must be made to step up and take responsibility for their actions as the government.”
“How much longer are they going to justify their behaviour by saying ‘the PUP did it before’? Until the end of their term?” Hyde questioned.
PUP leader Hon. Johnny Briceño told the gathering that their fight to return to the seat of power begins with the ongoing conventions to elect candidates to contest the 2009 municipal elections in March.
One of the few non-PUP elements in today’s march was the former CEO of the Ministry of Agriculture, Hugh O’Brien, who served under former Minister Dan Silva.
O’Brien expressed concern that BAHA, which was formed in the first term of the PUP (1998-2003), was setting a “bad precedent” and sending “the wrong message” to the international community with its actions.
According to O’Brien, in his term as CEO special care was taken to announce any vacancies and have prospective applicants go through a “transparent” selection process. O’Brien feels BAHA is risking its international credibility by allowing Minister Montero to intervene in the authority’s work, which involves certifying Belize’s agricultural exports to the European Union and elsewhere.
Conspicuously absent from today’s march were representatives of the Public Service Union (PSU), who first brought the cases to light. According to Hon. Hyde, the PUP and PSU agreed that the Union would pursue its own strategy with regard to the fired workers and not risk charges that the Union was being politicized. PSU president, Jacqueline Willoughby-Sanchez, confirmed this in a telephone interview this afternoon.
However, the PSU this evening took aim at the Government in a press release, accusing the Minister of the Public Service, Hon. John Saldivar, of a “knee-jerk response” to the disclosure of the firings. The PSU accuses him of “distortion of the facts” and of “implied threats against the president of (the) PSU”, allegedly made on an appearance on the WAVE Radio morning show last Wednesday, November 12.
According to the press release, the PSU’s Council of Management authorized President Willoughby-Sanchez to make the issue public after a number of meetings to resolve the problem proved unsuccessful.
The PSU concluded that the Belizean people are waiting to see if government will “seriously reconsider the situation and do the right thing.”