It appears that better sense has prevailed. This afternoon, less than 24 hours before confrontation in Belmopan, Prime Minister, Hon. Said Musa, has been forced to back down from proceeding with the Universal Health Services motion in the National Assembly. He announced at the eleventh hour on Thursday that after consulting widely with Belizeans, the ruling People’s United Party parliamentary caucus, which met in the capital city this afternoon, decided unanimously not to proceed with the debate and vote for the motion, scheduled for tomorrow morning, Friday, May 25.
With this development, Musa managed to avoid an all-day shutdown of business Friday, and the cash drought that would have come if Belizean businesses had been pushed to make good on their threat on Wednesday evening to not pay taxes for a month if he were to proceed with the settlement of the UHS debt. Soon after the GOB announcement of the UHS motion withdrawal Thursday, the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry withdrew calls for the nationwide shutdown and the withholding of tax payments.
On the other hand, both the Opposition United Democratic Party and the trade unions are not backing down with their protest plans for tomorrow, because they want to make sure that the Prime Minister fully gets the sense that they never want to see the UHS motion resurrected in any shape or form in the National Assembly.
Opposition Leader, Hon. Dean Barrow, said that the announcement by P.M. Musa is clearly a victory for the people, and the unprecedented unity that has been demonstrated by various sectors of the community has precipitated the victory – particularly the resolutions made by the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which, Barrow said, “drove a dagger through [Musa’s] heart.”
When we asked Barrow whether the Opposition would withdraw its protest plans for tomorrow, he replied, “Full steam ahead!” Protesters are expected to converge on Belmopan by the busloads. Barrow said that now the main objective would be to celebrate the victory, because Musa has turned back, at least for the moment.
But even with that, Barrow said, Musa has completely lost credibility as a national leader, and his leadership is “completely in tatters,” as he has not only lost the trust of the people, but also the confidence of some National Assembly members in his own party.
Several PUP members in the National Assembly, though not a majority, had indicated they could not support the UHS motion, and Musa’s own Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Johnny Briceño, had been threatening to resign over the issue. Thursday’s decision also allowed those “sitting on the fence,” so to speak, or those who would have voted against the clear wishes of the people, to breathe a sigh of relief.
Cautious observers emphasize that Musa’s Thursday evening statement did not categorically say that the UHS motion was dead and buried. Barrow noted that it only said that the Government would seek to work with the private sector to develop a new proposal that would not be a burden to taxpayers.
There has been marked decay in trust for the Musa administration with all that has come to light with the UHS issue and the public’s vigilance will be higher than ever – a major reason why protestors are not backing down. Musa’s statement strongly indicated that despite his change of plans, he is expecting the protest to continue in Belmopan tomorrow.
“I know that this decision will disappoint those who are hell-bent on getting power through disorder and violence,” said Musa. “They are all geared up for that tomorrow. They now have no excuse.”
While that may be his opinion, the opinion of the Leader of the Opposition, as well as some trade union leaders, is that the Prime Minister may be simply buying time by not presenting the motion tomorrow.
Trade unionist, George Frazer, spoke with Amandala late this evening. He informed us that in a meeting this evening between social partners and the Opposition, there was a strong resolve among those present to continue with Friday’s protest. He said that they fear that Musa is playing political games. They don’t want to be bluffed or be tricked into backing down on their stance.
Musa’s statement also makes it clear that while the motion may be frozen, the UHS debt is still very much on the books.
“He [Musa] is insisting there is a debt to pay, while he talks about a proposal with the private sector, and they don’t appear to be hard and fast,” Barrow added.
Musa indeed declares that there is a debt owed to the Belize Bank. He goes on to claim that the people with whom he had consulted this week, “understand how and why the debt was contracted with the Belize Bank, and that it must be honored.”
He added that private sectors investors could be found to take over UHS, so that Belizeans do not have to bear the burden of servicing the loan. He said that the $29 million loan over a 25-year term at 10% could be effectively serviced without taxpayer involvement.
Of course, what Musa did not say in his statement is that from north to south, east to west, a vast majority of Belizeans have for weeks been telling him and other members of the National Assembly that they reject the notion of Government cutting any deals with the Belize Bank for taxpayers to pay the UHS debt. Up until Tuesday, Musa did not listen. In fact, he fired two Cabinet members who had indicated that they could not endorse his plans to saddle Belizeans with the UHS debt.
What has changed since then? Government’s plans to keep protesters away from the National Assembly have collapsed. The police had refused to grant permits for UDP and other protests in Belmopan on Friday morning, May 25. On Wednesday evening, May 23, the Supreme Court ruled that an attempt by the police to ban any protest on Independence Hill violated the people’s right to protest, as the police did not give valid reasons for denying them that right. At the close of business Wednesday, Opposition forces, trade unions, and concerned Belizeans nationwide got the green light via an order from the Chief Justice, Dr. Abdulai Conteh, to proceed to Belmopan. Based on the momentum built up for protest from various quarters, this Friday’s protest was sure to surpass anything that has ever been seen on Independence Hill.
In addition to the risk of unrest erupting among angry protesters on Friday if the Prime Minister tried to get the UHS motion passed, there was the added risk of growing dissent in the House and Senate over the UHS issue and a political meltdown with some of Musa’s own party members saying no to the proposal.
The P.M.’s declaration that he would not pursue the UHS motion is one win for Belizeans, but there are still two ghosts lurking in the darkness – a loan note and a settlement deed Musa secretly signed, without parliamentary approval, on March 23, 2007. The bank has already attempted to collect payments on that loan, and our sources suggest that the bank may be pressing for Musa to make good on the payment on the loan note now that the UHS motion has been put on ice.
Such a development could, however, put him squarely in trouble with the courts, since the UHS loan guarantee, note and deed are being challenged by the Association of Concerned Belizeans in the Supreme Court, and the Solicitor General, Edwin Flowers, has promised the court that Government will not pay a penny to the bank until the court has had a chance to rule on the matter. The case is still pending.
Barrow told us that with the Prime Minister making no clear commitment to void the UHS motion, and saying only that it won’t be proceeded with on Friday, he has effected a deliberate ploy, leaving the door ajar so he can bring back the motion in the future.
Senator Godwin Hulse will address the unions Friday morning at the Belmopan Civic Center, after which they plan to converge on Independence Hill.
While the Prime Minister had much to say about UHS in his statement Thursday, he did not mention Cordel Hyde and Mark Espat, whom he fired from Cabinet on Tuesday, and who should now be vindicated by Musa’s sudden enlightenment on the UHS issue.
While there has been talk that they should be invited back to Cabinet, at press time our understanding was that they were not invited to return to Cabinet. There was also some indication, however, that they would have second thoughts about returning.