Coincidentally, Christmas Eve 2020 AND 2021 saw the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) fire off press releases, and, as expected, sugar industry differences persisted into and lasted through 2021. As a result, the 2021/2022 sugar crop was marred with a delay, an impasse, and even violence. The latter occurred when Vladimir Puc, the chairman of the Corozal Sugar Cane Producers Association (CSCPA) was beaten by cañeros who had been ejected from the association. Because those cañeros had not been able to join another sugarcane farmers association, the Sugar Cane Production Committee allowed them to deliver their sugarcane under the arrangements established by the mill for members of the CSCPA. The ruckus started when their names didn’t appear on ASR/BSI’s delivery list when they attempted to deliver cane to the mill’s compound.
As to the start of the 2021/2022 sugar cane crop, for the first time the chairman of the Sugar Industry Control Board (SICB), the highest authority in the sugar industry, refused to gazette the start date, as required. December 20, 2021 had originally been agreed by all parties as the date for the start of the season. The delay was attributed to an impasse between the BSCFA and the miller, BSI/ASR, over a new commercial agreement. Upon the BSCFA’s request, Prime Minister John Briceño intervened. On Christmas Eve 2021, SICB chairman, Marcos Osorio, announced that the impasse was resolved and the crop would begin Monday, December 27, 2021. The parties were to sign an interim agreement in January with an expiration date of April 30, 2022. By then, the BSCFA and BSI should have signed a new commercial agreement. But then, there was that December 24th release by the BSCFA calling for an immediate signing of the interim agreement with an expiration date of August 1, 2022, given the crop’s end in July.
On Monday, December 27, a holiday in lieu of Boxing Day, deliveries started, but on Tuesday, when it was the BSCFA’s turn, the unaddressed request for an immediate signing of the interim agreement saw BSCFA block the mill with cane trucks. A breakthrough came Friday evening before 5:00 p.m. when, with the intervention of the Prime Minister, an interim agreement was signed with an expiration date of July 31, 2022. Deliveries were set to resume 24 hours later.
The start of 2021 saw the passing of Belize’s first female Governor General, the erudite Dr. Dame Elmira Minita Gordon, 90. She passed away on January 1 in the U.S. and was laid to rest with full state honours at the entrance of Belize City.
Multiple lawmen were detained at the start, and toward the end of, 2021, showing just how susceptible they are to the ever dangerous narco trade. Friday, January 29, saw the landing of a drug plane in Lemonal Village in the Belize District. Nine people, including the driver of the Belize Defense Force Commander and two police officers, were detained and accused of involvement. They were caught trying to flee the area by boat. Inside that vessel were two bales of suspected cocaine. Another 23 were located near the location of the plane landing.
On the health front, Dr. Marvin Manzanero, who served as the country’s Director of Health Services (DHS), entered the new year battling extended symptoms of a SARS-CoV-2 infection he contracted at the beginning of December 2020. He would not return to work until February 15, 2021. One week later, on February 22, it emerged that he had been accused of misconduct by Health CEO, Deysi Mendez. Her leaked letter contained the serious allegation that he contributed to the number of COVID-19 deaths because he had not accepted an offer from the Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA) to assist with COVID testing in April 2020. (Then Prime Minister Dean Barrow could not recall such an offer being made to the bipartisan National COVID-19 Oversight Committee.)
What followed was a series of critical remarks about Dr. Manzanero by Prime Minister Briceño and the Minister of Health and Wellness, Hon. Michel Chebat.
When Manzanero refused to leave the DHS post, after Dr. Melisa Diaz-Musa was named acting director during his sick leave, he was relegated to the office of the pool of secretaries and was given no assignments to carry out. He was then told he needed to choose another position, and finally, the groundwork was laid for his ejection with the passing in the National Assembly of 12 amendment bills to nullify any reference to the “Director of Health Services” wherever it appeared in the law. These were debated and passed at a House of Representatives sitting on October 26. The explanation was that the DHS position was being replaced by two new director posts and the Minister of Health and Wellness reported that one of the posts was offered to Dr. Manzanero but that he rejected the offer. The Public Service Union said no offer was ever put in writing. Finally, in mid-December 2021, Dr. Manzanero was given an internal letter about his expected departure, but since the termination had not been effected through the Public Service Commission, Dr. Manzanero didn’t budge.
On the COVID-19 front, we started out the year with such things as an 8:00 p.m. curfew and an inter-district travel ban in Orange Walk and Corozal. The latter was lifted on February 1, 2021 and was not repeated elsewhere. It came into effect on December 20, 2020 when the number of active cases in the country was over 1,500. Another heavy-handed COVID-19 measure was a 2-week lockdown that was instituted on July 2, 2021 in the villages of Conejo, Midway and Barranco. That, too, was never repeated, as the government started to indicate that it was leaning more toward balancing the measures to enable more business activity in an effort to grow the economy.
Probably the question most asked of authorities during 2021 was “when will the curfew end?” We ended the year with an 11:00 p.m. weekday curfew and a midnight start to the curfew on weekends.
At the close of 2020, Belize had recorded 248 deaths. The total number of recorded deaths on December 31, 2021 was 602 — 354 of which occurred in 2021.
One major change at the Amandala editorial desk was the official transition from long-time editor Russell Vellos to the young Marco Lopez on January 4, 2021.
That same week, some changes were announced on a national level. Belize would see the introduction of two new holidays. On January 15, the first ever George Price Day would be observed, and on August 1, we would finally observe Emancipation Day. Pan American Day, observed on October 12, was removed from the list of 2021 holidays, but it was added back for 2022 as Indigenous Peoples’ Resistance Day after a short snafu when it was being dubbed Dia de la Raza.
In our January 9th edition, we reported on the police raid at the Patchakan home of former Lands Commissioner, Wilber Vallejos, just days after he resigned from the post he held for almost 10 years. Reportedly found was BZ $69,800, $10,000 pesos and US $1,170, though it was explained that the money was proceeds from the cane farming business of his mother, who lives at the house. Police also took his computer. No other action was taken against Vallejos in 2021.
On January 7, 2021, the Commissioner of Police, Chester Williams, ordered an investigation into the hanging death of a mentally challenged detainee at the Queen Street Police Station. The 38-year-old, who had been detained for wounding, used his pants to hang himself. Williams said the diary at the station showed that officers did their hourly checks at the cell blocks as required.
In other news related to investigations, at a press conference on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, the Minister of Infrastructure Development, Hon. Julius Espat, made multiple allegations against former Minister of Works, Rene Montero, regarding use of public assets. The report was that several pieces of heavy equipment were found on land linked to Montero. As time progressed, charges were ordered against Montero, who denied all the allegations, calling them vindictive. However, the police could not locate Montero because he was abroad, and, to date, he remains at large, despite a wanted poster issued at the start of September 2021.
Another big announcement in January 2021 was the appointment of the first female Comptroller of Customs, Estelle Leslie. The appointment was challenged in court by Deputy Comptroller Ian Haylock, but the court ruled against him.
At the first working session of Parliament on January 8, area representatives arrived to a changed National Assembly that had been retrofitted with plastic cubicles for each member in order to prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
At that meeting, Hon. Cordel Hyde, Minister of Natural Resources, revealed that they had uncovered land scams perpetrated through identity fraud. He pointed to instances where UDP operatives had obtained the Social Security numbers of unwitting persons, most of them of humble means, and applied for huge tracts of land in their name without their knowledge. Hyde shared, “Huge tracts of land have been gobbled up by a tiny few…Huge beautiful, valuable, tracts of land sold for paltry sums by the Government of Belize.”
Such schemes reduced the available land but, based on the Plan Belize commitment to deliver land to first-time land owners, on January 14, 2021, the Hon. Hyde held the first of several mobile land clinics for deserving citizens to sign up for land and for others to get their longtime land issues resolved. That clinic took place in Dangriga. The Minister closed off the year with a full week on the ground, beginning December 13, in the constituencies of Corozal Bay and Corozal Southeast.
The Briceño administration, at the first House of Representatives meeting for the year, tabled a Good Governance Motion which was designed to set a standard for the ruling party, but it was criticized by the opposition as mere promises.
It has been reported that incidents of domestic violence have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. One such violent incident that angered the population was the attack by Joel Baldarez, 34, on his common-law wife, 28, in Alta Vista Village. The incident occurred in December 2020 but did not come to light until mid-January 2021. Baldarez was accused of using a hammer to hit his wife repeatedly in the head and face. She was left disfigured and required several stitches.
On January 26, the Prime Minister officially convened a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the sale of public assets prior to the November 2020 general elections. The first witnesses were former Prime Minister Dean Barrow and the Financial Secretary, Joseph Waight. Particular focus was placed on the sale of vehicles to Government ministers. The Commission is chaired by Senior Counsel Andrew Marshalleck and comprises PSU representative Luke Martinez and Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry representative, Marcello Blake.
The inquiry was famously interrupted on April 15, 2021 when Martinez read a prepared statement chastising the Briceño administration for engaging in the same kinds of irregularities the Commission had been set up to investigate. The Director of the Press Office, Mike Rudon, then had the plug pulled on the live Facebook stream.
The Commission has not yet concluded. It resumed sessions on August 16, 2021. According to Marshalleck, the proceedings have revealed that officials are not following the rules of procurement or sale of public assets and at the conclusion of the inquiry, there should be recommendations that should lead to effective changes.
At the end of January 2021, there was a huge win in the courts for two of six police officers who faced disciplinary charges for wearing their hair in a dreadlocks style. It was deemed a violation of their human rights. Subsequently, in April, the two women were fined for a talk show appearance to discuss the case.
A violent home invasion started off the month of February in Belmopan. Three masked, armed Hispanic men forcibly entered the home of well-known Asian businesswoman, Nan Cheng, 32. They injured her father, threatened a young boy with a machete and, on leaving, one of the assailants scooped up a toddler and ran with him out of the house but changed his mind and brusquely dropped the baby onto the ground before scaling the fence.
February 1, 2021 saw the reopening of the Corozal Free Zone (CFZ) to Mexican visitors after stringent COVID-19 measures were put in place. Following a hiatus of 10 months, some 800 employees of the CFZ returned to work. Throughout the year, there were little reports of cases of Covid-19 surfacing in that area.
On February 3, it emerged that COVID-19 patients had to foot the bill for the purchase of PPE’s at the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital. One patient’s PPE bill amounted to a whopping $1,800. The KHMH afterwards explained that the daily PPE cost per patient was $200, as they had run out of donations. They did say the matter would be reviewed.
At a House of Representatives meeting on February 5, 2021, Infrastructure Development Minister, Hon. Julius Espat, famously said, “We need to kill BIL!” He affirmed that the GOB-owned private company, Belize Infrastructure Limited (BIL), dubbed a special purpose vehicle by former PM Dean Barrow, was “set up against the rules and regulations of how companies are supposed to be run.” He later commented that “we spent over 100 million dollars without proper oversight” and committed to have contracts audited.
An increase in piracy at sea beginning in the second week of January and extending into February prompted the Belize Coast Guard to engage in more aggressive operations on the high seas to assist law-abiding fishermen in retaining their catch, and, in some cases, their boat engines. The incidents were occurring primarily in the south near Dangriga and Placencia. In one instance, 9 individuals were detained and handed over to Dangriga police. In March, six Belizeans were among 8 accused pirates arrested in Honduras.
From deprivation on the high seas, we turn to the deprivation of a portion of the salary of public sector workers. In the second week of February, the government began “budget consultations” about a proposed 10% salary cut with the three unions that represent public sector workers. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the prospect of such a salary cut led to countrywide demonstrations by the unions, which included motorcades and even the momentary blockade of the Haulover Bridge on April 19. Though the BNTU engaged in its longest strike — spanning 5 weeks, the unions could not muster sufficient membership or public support to get the government to desist from enacting the salary cut. The motion for the salary cut was passed in June 2021 in Parliament and was made retroactive to last for three years. In mid December 2021, the unions called for the Government to reinstate even a portion of their salaries, especially since it had boasted about an enhanced economic performance. Instead, all the public servants and teachers were given was a $100 bonus in December.
On February 11, under pressure about nepotistic appointments in his administration, the Prime Minister made a statement that will haunt him, likely for life. He stated that Belize has “limited talent.” The backlash was swift and persists to date.
Returning to the health front, Belize received its first donation of 1,000 COVID-19 vaccines from the Government of Barbados on February 24.
The vaccination campaign was rolled out on March 1. As of December 29, 2021, a total of 199,546 persons had been fully vaccinated, while 210,821 people had received a first dose.
March 1st also saw the murder of Gonzalo Rosado, 54. The former manager of the Western
Border Management Agency was killed on his return home in San Jose Succotz after picking up a woman in Benque Viejo. Witnesses report hearing three shots and then seeing a woman and two dark-complexioned men fleeing the scene. Three months later, a 17-year-old girl from Benque Viejo was charged for conspiracy and abetment to commit murder.
There was huge election news on March 3, when voters in the 9 municipalities voted for a second time in the pandemic, while residents of the Corozal Bay Division voted again to elect a representative, as a result of the untimely passing of Hon. David “Dido” Vega in December 2020. The People’s United Party won another decisive victory, crushing the UDP by reducing the number of municipal seats they held to 2 out of 67 seats. They also retained the Corozal Bay seat with. Hon. Elvia Vega.
Our headline story on March 17 was, “Belize on the brink, says IMF.” With Belize’s debt-to-GDP ratio at 127%, the Jewel was in sixth place for most indebted countries in the world behind Japan, Greece, Sudan, Venezuela and Lebanon. With the IMF pointing to a fine balancing act required to pull Belize off the brink, the prospect of devaluation entered the discourse. Fast forward to November 2021, and Belize had concluded some intense negotiations with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and holders of Belize’s 2034 U.S. dollar bond, the so called “Superbond” for a buyback of that debt. Negotiations started with The Nature Conservancy for the preservation of forests in the Maya Corridor under the Barrow Administration and an agreement was signed just before the November 2020 General Elections. However, the PUP had serious concerns about that agreement, even calling it a “nefarious” deal, in part, due to a 50-year tax break granted to TNC. One year later, the PUP vociferously celebrated the renegotiated agreement as a huge accomplishment that resulted in the replacement of the Superbond (that had grown to US $553 million) with the Blue Bonds (US $364 million) that provided Belize over BZ $500 million in debt relief. Minister of State Chris Coye affirmed, “The Superbond noose no longer exists. That was canceled on Friday [November 5, 2021] when the Superbond holders were paid off at a 45% discount.” The Blue Bonds will be repaid over 19 years. The deal gained Belize worldwide recognition for successfully employing an innovative way to restructure public debt (the debt-to-GDP ratio was dramatically reduced to around 115%) while at the same time ensuring the protection of our marine resources.
Money was at the center of another story in the same March 17, 2021 edition of the paper. The family of the gregarious Kenya Barona, 35, blamed BERT for contributing to her death due to a delayed response after being called while she was experiencing a hypertensive
crisis on Supaul Street in Belize City on the night of Friday, March 12. Forty-five minutes later, they got help from police at a nearby checkpoint, but within minutes she passed away. The family says the first responder on the line requested that they confirm the payment of a $20 fee. BERT later said in a release that service is not denied based on a person’s ability to pay.
A pair of Belize City men identified as Oliver Sutherland and his accomplice, Elvin Smith, 21, was charged on March 16 after a deeply disturbing social media livestream of a teenager being tortured. Both men were jointly charged with kidnapping and wounding. Sutherland was additionally charged with attempted murder and being the leader of a gang. The minor, 16, was further victimized by police, who mistreated him during questioning. The minor’s life was saved by a neighbor who called police and reported loud music overnight.
On the other hand, a father whose work companion was his son could not save him. Jevaughan Ramclam, 22, fell to his death while working on a 200-ft. SMART tower on the Benny’s compound in Belize City, something that should have been routine, as both were tower climbers.
In our Sunday, March 21st edition, we featured a report of a police investigation into Tropical Vision’s 7News for an unverified report of a plane landing. The Police Commissioner said the report was false. He denied that the investigation was an attempt to censor the media. He insisted that media houses also have a responsibility, and as such, the investigation was to determine if the news station should be charged, just as a few individuals had been earlier in the year, under regulations put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent fear-mongering.
During a trip to Port Au Prince, Haiti, the Belize Jaguars National “A” Team experienced a frightening ordeal when they were held up on their way to their hotel by bandits in the country afflicted by political turmoil. Luckily, the heavily armed group never entered the team bus and they were allowed to go on their way moments later.
The founder of the world’s Best Little Zoo, Sharon Matola, passed away on Sunday, March 21, after being hospitalized in Belmopan.
For the most part, when we report on fatalities due to domestic violence, the victim is a woman. Well, on March 26, police responded to a report of the brutal stabbing of a man identified as Omar Kantun, who had been stabbed over 50 times in the village of Silk Grass. Subsequently arrested for the murder was his common-law wife, Lesbia Alvarez, 53. The relationship was plagued with violence, but no report was ever made to police.
Another case of intra-family violence that shocked the community on Easter Sunday was the killing of Venecia Staine, 24, by her brother’s common-law wife, Leanne Davis, in Gracie Rock Village. It was said there was always tension between Davis and her in laws.
To be continued