Editorial — 29 September 2018
Referendum 2019 – existential or political?

We have expressed the opinion to you before that between 60 to 70 percent of the adult population of Belize consistently vote for the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) or the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) in elections. We have said, to break it down a little, that 30 to 35 percent of Belizeans will usually vote UDP and 30 to 35 percent of Belizeans will usually vote PUP.

Close elections are sometimes decided by one party’s superior ability to bring out its committed voters on election day, or the other party’s inability to do the same for its pledges. We speak of the election day machinery of each party, and these machines require financial fuel, increasingly sophisticated organization, computer analysis, and ultra-modern communications systems.

But when there is a big disparity  in the voting totals of the two major parties, it is because the independent voters, as much as 30 percent of the registered Belizean adults, decided, for whatever the reason(s), to swing overwhelmingly to one of the two parties on election day.

As Belize moves closer to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) referendum, the nature of our national conversation is changing. For a long time, officials of the ruling UDP were referring to an education campaign leading up to the referendum on April 10, 2019, but for some time now it can be seen that the referendum campaign is less of an education campaign than it is a propaganda campaign. It is clear that officials of the ruling UDP, and those public service officials who fall under their influence or control, have reached the point where they are insisting that Belizeans should vote yes to submit the Guatemalan claim to ICJ arbitration. That is why we feel justified in describing the present referendum campaign as one of propaganda rather than education.

For a long time the UDP line was that, while Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Dean O. Barrow, and his Cabinet were in favor of a yes vote, on referendum day the decision would be an individual one, a decision of conscience, where their UDP members and supporters were concerned. It was perhaps predictable that the UDP leaders would end up urging their members and supporters to vote as they, the leaders, intended to do, and as they, the leaders, wanted. After all, general elections are scheduled for a year and a half after April 10, 2019, and any indication that the UDP leaders are not in full control of their party people would likely have negative effects where UDP mobilization efforts for the 2020 general election are concerned.

What has happened inside the leadership of the Opposition PUP was less predictable. PUP Leader, Hon. John Briceño of Orange Walk Central, went on record a long time ago with his yes vote, but recently a majority of the twelve PUP area representatives in the House announced militant no votes. Apart from the twelve area reps, the PUP has sixteen constituency standard bearers who have not expressed an ICJ opinion, as far as we know. (There are three constituencies, all on Belize City’s Southside, where the PUP has not yet named a standard bearer.)

The leaders of Belize’s two major political parties almost never reveal the extent to which they come under pressure from regional and international powerhouses like the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. One example of our PUDP leaders admitting pressure on them from outside has to do with the death penalty. Belize’s political leaders have said that the Europeans have threatened Belize with sanctions if any of our convicted murderers are executed. Insofar as the existential ICJ referendum is concerned, however, no PUDP leader has admitted to being pressured, because admission of such pressure would make such leaders appear less macho in the eyes of the Belizean people. And, while it is a sub-surface thing in The Jewel, machismo does play a role in Belizean affairs.

Mr. Briceño is in a tricky spot. Fortunately for him, his most dangerous intra-party critic, former Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Said Musa, is also on record with a yes vote. On the other hand, it must surely be of some concern to Mr. Briceño that Florencio Marin, Jr., Corozal Southeast area representative, joined with the PUP’s Southern Caucus in publicly supporting the no vote. Insiders say that the retired but legendary Florencio Marin, Sr., is also strongly opposed to going to the ICJ.

The four Southern Caucus area representatives who have stepped out on the no limb are reacting, to a substantial extent, to pressure from their Toledo and Stann Creek District constituencies. Our sources say the two PUP Cayo District area reps are also inside the no camp. It is logical for the South and the West of Belize to be the most concerned about the ICJ referendum, because it is from the Sibun River to the Sarstoon that the Guatemalans have been focused.

More important than regional factors in Belize, however, may be the youth vote. No one is sure how Belize’s younger generations, the post-independence generations, if we may describe them as such, will react to the ICJ referendum. The Belizean generations of 1966, 1968, and 1981, reacted angrily to the Thirteen Proposals, the Seventeen Proposals, and the Heads of Agreement, respectively. But Belize has changed since then. One change in Belize which no one can measure has to do with the introduction of television in 1982.

 Finally, we turn to the independent voters. They have been reacting negatively to the supercilious rhetoric and agitated behavior of Foreign Minister Wilfred Elrington. This newspaper, and the radio station and television station which share the Kremandala yard with us, have been influenced by the reactions of Belize’s independent voters. At the same time, we believe we have been careful not to campaign for a no vote. We are being driven in that direction, but Kremandala has behaved like a responsible Belizean media institution. We believe that.

Unfortunately, we have not been treated with respect by the Barrow government. The UDP was very friendly with Kremandala when that party came to power in February of 2008. What has changed? Well, in the first instance, this has always happened with governments which are friendly to us on being inaugurated, whether red or blue, that as the years unfold those same governments become angry at us, and more, they become venomous and vindictive. There is a simple reason for that. As the parties become more arrogant in extended administration, their more savage and greedy elements begin to attack the public purse, with increasingly reckless abandon. Parties which campaigned on anti-corruption platforms become governments which are scandalously abusive of public funds. It is the independent voters who have the medicine for such pathology.

In the meantime, until such time, the newspaper seeks to represent itself with dignity in a pre-ICJ referendum climate which will only become more and more disturbed. The ruling politicians appear to have transformed an existential issue into a political one. Our first reaction is sympathy for those professionals in their portfolios whom they have enlisted in their yes campaign.

We are minded of the “Charge of the Light Brigade” in 1854 in the Crimean War. Hundreds of British soldiers died bravely, but senselessly, because there had been a monumental foul up in their officer corps. The opening lines of Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, include the following:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns,” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Power to the people.

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Deshawn Swasey

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