Mon. Oct. 4, 2021
After years of being scolded and ridiculed in the House of Representatives by then UDP prime minister Dean Barrow for the previous misdeeds of his PUP colleagues, current PUP prime minister Johnny Briceno is now enjoying his turn at bat, and scoring big with his “Plan Belize” in the very area, the economy, for which he had long endured the most scathing verbal smears by the eloquently insolent Barrow. But, even as it may be his time to gloat, P.M. Briceno may well be advised to take heed that he doesn’t end up imitating the worst attributes of his erstwhile critic. After all, “power corrupts…”
Considering the dismal economic situation inherited by his landslide PUP government in November of 2020, Briceno’s administration has unquestionably delivered for Belize in many areas, with a talented pool of resourceful ministers leading the charge in agricultural initiatives, infrastructural development with an eye on cost/efficiency, electrification and water supply for a number of villages, a countrywide effort to address land registration issues, E-governance and digitization of services to facilitate the public, its battle against Covid-19 through the reorganization of strategies and securing vaccines despite difficulties in achieving full public buy-in, etc; and of course, the greatest achievement of all, solving the “Gordian Knot” of the dreaded Superbond through enlightened and effective negotiation with bondholders and the Nature Conservancy. We are not there yet, but as P.M. Briceno triumphantly noted in his Independence Day address, Belize’s dollar is now safe from any devaluation, and the only obstacle on our path to brighter days ahead is the lingering battle with Covid-19, for which he urged all Belizeans to comply with the vaccination program and safety protocols.
One of the negatives that so far Plan Belize has not been able to erase, is the crime and violence situation, which has recently escalated since the third wave of Covid-19 with the Delta variant stormed over Belize. While the P.M. has praised the macro-economic numbers and the healthy state of our Central Bank foreign reserves, the real “on the ground” situation in Belize is that many are still unemployed, and the repercussions of that 10% salary cut for public officers are no doubt having a ripple effect across the country; that, coupled with the extended curfew hours due to the Covid surge, has led to an increase in robberies and other violent crime, the most notable being recent incidents in which innocent minors were targeted. Belizeans are all fed up with the crime and gang situation; but all must admit there is no easy fix, when even senior “gang” members are lamenting the wave of violent crimes, including murders, apparently committed by an upcoming crop of unaffiliated youths. It may well be that, while the authorities had corralled a large bunch of suspected gang leaders in detention at the Kolbe prison for a month of counselling, things may have gotten out of control among younger men with guns in the streets of Belize City.
It is not an easy road for any government; the raging Covid-19 crisis and our serious crime situation are matters that will require “all hands on deck.” Government can’t do this alone; and as much as the temptation may be to “get tough” with stubborn individuals, we must still be careful that law enforcement does not go too far in violating individuals’ human rights. As frustrated as the former champion of community policing may have become following the recent heinous murder of an innocent youth, it is important that law enforcers do not react like the criminals themselves and proceed to violate the rights of citizens. Respect begets respect; and then trust can follow. It is precisely now, when some wary citizens are expecting the police to resort to “animal” behavior, that they must exercise great restraint and professionalism, to win back the confidence and trust of a traumatized community. Reckless police brutality may only lead to the escalation of an already bad situation.
There is no magic wand to wave here; but as Jah Art says, “One thing leads to another thing, leads to the other thing…” And we could consider a start, at the top.
If we agree that we have a law and order problem in Belize right now, it may well be connected to a deep-rooted problem in “how we are governed.”
It had been observed in the past, that former P.M. Barrow would refuse to renew the contract of a Chief Justice that he was not happy with, perhaps because of a decision handed down by the said Chief Justice. In a system of so-called parliamentary democracy, where the three branches of government – the Legislature, the Executive, and the Judiciary, are supposed to be equal pillars, the best interest of all is served when the head of the Judiciary, the Chief Justice, has what is described as “security of tenure.” When Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh handed down his memorable judgement on the Maya land rights issue, his contract was subsequently not renewed promptly by the P.M., and Conteh did not wait until the appointed moment. He left. And on another occasion, another highly respected expatriate judge also packed up and left our shores, rather than work with a one-year contract extension.
In Belize, the P.M. sends his nomination for Chief Justice to the Governor General for approval and signature, and he is never denied. In some other Commonwealth jurisdictions, a judicial appointments commission is established, so it is a more independent process.
P.M. Briceno has voiced his full support for police efforts “to combat the crime and violence and to get the gangs off the streets;” but he could make one symbolic act that would send a message to everyone that he is committed to the rule of law and our parliamentary democracy.
Recently, two practicing attorneys, Michelle Trapp and Richard “Dickie” Bradley, have publicly lamented the fact that the current Chief Justice of Belize, Michelle Arana, is still “Acting” after over a year in the post.
It seems very strange, considering the PUP United Women’s Group president Osiely Mendez’ recent address on the 71st Anniversary of the founding of the People’s United Party, in which she observed that “…Prime Minister John Briceno appointed more women to leadership roles than ever before. In Belize today, women aptly hold posts as CEOs, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, Governor-General, Minister of Government, Mayor of a City, Speaker of the House of Representatives, President of the Senate, Attorney General, Heads of Department…”
Could it be that P.M. Briceno feels that one more woman in charge would be just too much? Surely, it couldn’t be that it is because she was appointed by his predecessor.
The current circumstance, where our Belizean woman Chief Justice, Michelle Arana, has been “Acting” for over a year, does raise some questions about the motive behind P.M. Briceno’s delay in confirmation. Is he intentionally following in the arrogant footsteps of P.M. Barrow? Is it the case that Briceno, like Barrow before him, has succumbed to the intoxicating aroma of unlimited P.M. power in Belize? For the health of our democracy, and the optics of the rule of law, this waiting game is not helping us, P.M.