It has not been unusual in the past couple decades of global economic instability, for our governments to face major crises nearing national elections that sometimes test the mettle of our democracy, with street demonstrations and strikes, acts of civil disobedience and threats of violence prompting the state’s response with police muscle in the streets to maintain “law and order;” but on each occasion, things have quickly returned to “normal” after a few days. However, it has never been the case this early in an administration for such polarization to be developing between government and the major unions; and the nation’s economic situation has never been more desperate and more in need of drastic remedial action. The current pandemic- induced economic crisis is therefore ripe for political fallout of significant proportions, and the long-term impact of whatever settlement is reached will depend on how well negotiations are managed and concluded by government leadership in the person of Prime Minister Hon. John Briceño. He and his government are at an important juncture, with potential major impact on the future course of our democracy. How will he handle this crisis?
It is an accepted fact that our economy is at a breaking point, demanding drastic action urgently, and this has been admitted by our former prime minister, our present prime minister, both major business sector organizations, and all the major unions. As Belize’s economy slipped into a recession over the past few years, the impact was most obvious in the private sector, where many businesses closed down and thousands of jobs were lost, resulting in scores of newspaper ads for auction of private properties and buildings. Neither is there much dispute on the major reasons for our present dire economic situation, although the year-old Covid-19 pandemic did cause the precipitous fall of our tourism-based economy from an already depressed state, to the absolute disaster we are now facing. Better economic planning and an end to government cronyism and corruption, have long been the cry from the electorate. The indisputable fact of the matter is that, with our nation’s debt to GDP ratio around 130%, there are not many options for new international loans, and the only potential lender knocking on our door, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is prescribing some draconian solutions as a condition for lending us any more money. And their usual prescription is directed at government’s large employee roster – salary cuts, wage increment freezes, and large-scale retrenchment of employees. It is a recipe that most pundits considered the doomsday call for the then UDP government in the 1998 general elections.
Democracy is supposed to be all about the will of the people; and the Belizean people made their will abundantly clear on November 11, 2020, that they were completely fed up with corruption — giving the boot to the same UDP government they had sent in a landslide to Belmopan in 2008 with a promise to clean up PUP corruption, and now transferring that same mandate to the landslide PUP winners at the polls to clean up the UDP corruption left behind.
However, party politics being what it is, about propaganda and winning elections, the PUP may have overreached in their grandiose campaign promises in 2020; in hindsight, it probably wasn’t necessary. Belizean voters had apparently already committed themselves to kicking out the UDP “crooks.” So now that the dust has settled, and with the PUP seeming to be dragging their feet on some of their campaign promises, and giving the pandemic and “bruk” government as their excuse, the now UDP Opposition is already seeing their chances to score political points. Could it be that, barely four months into their administration, the new PUP government could find themselves digging a political hole from which they cannot climb in time for the 2025 general elections? Or worse still, could they be pressured to call early elections? Not likely. If Briceño and the PUP can survive the rough waters of negotiations ahead with the unions, and also set our economy on a path towards health and stability, they will likely be rewarded by voters in the next general elections. The big question is, however, in what way will the PUP get through the negotiations with the unions? Will the unions become bitter and revengeful? Will the agreed remedies be sufficient to salvage and resurrect our crippled economy? Will they be true to the PUP’s campaign slogan: “Everybody fi win”?
Whatever they decide, however far government is willing to bend to satisfy the demands of the unions, it should perhaps be guided by a new mantra derived from their own, namely that “everybody fi eat.” And, following from one prominent local economist’s suggestion, it would probably be wise to consider how much of an individual’s salary equates to “a living wage” based on the cost of a required weekly “basket of goods for a family of five.” Any employee earning below that level is not to be considered for cuts; as the saying goes, it would be like “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” Then start at the top, removing all “luxury” earnings: meaning all earnings beyond the base salary that the ordinary, hardworking citizens have to budget to pay all their living expenses. (This will be temporary, of course, until our economy is back on its feet.) After thus leading by painful example, and only after the unions’ cost-saving recommendations and “confidence-building” demands for the end of stifling corruption are satisfied, can the salary percentage cuts and wage freeze be realistically considered.
Of course, because of the constitutional “monarchical”-type power enjoyed by our prime minister, Mr. Briceño can listen to all, and then just do as he damn well pleases — “ram it,” as a former UDP spokesman would say, and let the chips fall where they may, utilizing the police and another State of Emergency if necessary to keep “agitators” in check. After all, there is always the excuse of the existing pandemic. And then, the PUP could bear the slings and arrows of criticism for the next three years; and depend on the cool breeze of Belizeans’ forgiving nature to blow in their favor by 2025.
But there is still a risk, however small, that such an approach could so anger and energize the unions, that the sparks could inflame the general citizenry, leading to disturbances in the streets, notwithstanding a State of Emergency. And who knows where that could lead?
These are not the best of times to be in government. But the PUP asked for the job. And the man on the spot is their leader, our prime minister, Hon. John Briceño. Leaders come in many forms and different styles. Sometimes a leader’s strength is in his humility; but in times of great crisis, a decision has to be made before it is too late. How Hon. Briceño handles the situation in the days ahead may impact the very quality of our democracy going forward, depending on the concessions made and governance-improving measures taken. But for sure, there must be some serious belt-tightening in government finances. If he gets Belizeans to “believe in the process,” they will support. Whichever road our government takes, the going will be rough; and it will still be left to those Belizeans who have, to do whatever they can to help make sure that “everybody eat.”
Tighten up, Belize!