2015 has been year jam packed with events that have shaped the country’s psyche, its understanding of itself, its appreciation of the journey we’ve travelled as a people, and history being made. It was a loaded election cycle with two bye-elections after PUP parliamentarians decided to leave the fold, a municipal election that served as a litmus test for the United Democratic Party administration of Prime Minister, Hon. Dean Barrow, and a general election which saw more than 71,000 residents give their stamp of approval to Prime Minister Barrow’s policies of social development, infrastructural transformation, and ensuring equity, transparency, and democracy alive and well. It was also a year for citizens to get actively engaged in the charting of the course in which our nation will take going forward, expecting only the best from our leaders – and certainly from ourselves. The Guardian revisits some of the most important stories of 2015, an exciting election year, a year of the youth, and a year of citizen participation especially through social media.
The first major event of the year came with the United Democratic Party’s resounding victory in the Cayo North bye-election of January 5. The election came about after the resignation of the People’s United Party representative, Hon. Joseph Mahmud on December 10, 2014. The UDP got into an active campaign mode and rallied its troops from Corozal to Toledo in support of the candidate, Dr. Omar Figueroa, a leader expert in endangered species conservation, with a particular focus on the majestic jaguar. Staying true to its name, the Red Hills of Cayo not only solidified its support for Prime Minister Hon. Dean Barrow and the UDP’s policy of social transformation, but resoundingly elected their son, Dr. Figueroa to represent them on Independence Hill in Belmopan. After the final tally at 9:00 p.m. on January 5, Dr. Figueroa polled 2,662 compared to the PUP’s Richard Harrison’s 1,340. There were 61 rejected ballots for a total of 4,063 votes cast, reflecting a 62% voter turnout. Dr. Figueroa would be appointed a Minister of State in the Office of the Prime Minister. Hon. Dr. Figueroa cited land issues, infrastructure, education and sport as issues he would pay particular focus on.
Another important development in the month of January came when – after a lengthy impasse -- the key players of the sugar industry came together to hammer out a compromise. On January 14, The Belize Sugar Industries Ltd. announced that they have begun to sign commercial agreements for the delivery of cane with farmers who are not affiliated with the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA). Initially, at least two groups of farmers signed with BSI while the others including the United Cane Farmers Association headed by Wilfredo Magana signed up shortly after. Later on, all cane farmers signed agreements with BSI to officially get the crop going.
January also saw more evidence that the United Democratic Party was getting ready for general elections. It announced Dr. Carla Barnett as its standard bearer in the Freetown constituency, a seat the UDP has only won once in 1984. On January 21, the Party Leader and Prime Minister, Hon. Dean Barrow called the announcement “a historic day” for the UDP. Dr. Barnett comes from a professional background having risen to great prominence both in Belize and in the Caribbean Community. In Belize, she has served as the Financial Secretary when the PUP administration was at its lowest having been recruited to reestablish credibility to that office. She was also once the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank among other prestigious offices. In the CARICOM region, she has held various positions most notably being the Deputy Secretary General of CARICOM as well as holding high office at the Caribbean Development Bank. Even though she was not successful in the elections later in the year, Dr. Barnett serves as the Vice President of the Senate as well the party’s caretaker in Freetown, vowing to return in the next general election cycle and continuing her work in the area.
Weeks after the signing of contracts with the various cane-producing groups, BSI announced that the crop season finally got underway. February 1 marked a full week operations; however, the crop was six weeks late even though there were efforts being made to get the crop started on December 15. That delay caused significant losses in production as experts reported that at least 1.477 million tons were in the fields and had they gotten the December start, more than 300,000 tonnes would have already been milled up this point. But with the shortened season, BSI anticipated that the farmers would have been able to mill 1.2 million tonnes, essentially wasting 247,000 tons of the sweet product.
Also in February, the nation saw the discussion continue to the hot-button topic: decriminalization of marijuana. Readers will remember than in July 2012, the Ministry of National Security appointed a committee, led by former Minister Douglas Singh, to examine the pros and cons of decriminalizing marijuana in Belize. The committee, after more than two years, submitted a comprehensive report to Cabinet on their recommendations. This remains an important part of discussion on the regional level as many countries in North, Central, South America and the Caribbean have either enacted (in part) legislation of decriminalizing or legalizing the substance or are continuing the discussion taking into account the social, legal, and political ramifications or benefits (depending on whom you ask) of these measures. Belize’s approach has been to generally take its time for the issue and discussion to evolve over time.
In February, the calls for the then area representative for Orange Walk East, Hon. Dr. Marco Tulio Mendez to resign were coming from within his People’s United Party and without. While he would announce that he would not seek reelection, the Doctor was under scrutiny after allegations mounted that he engaged in sexual misconduct with at least two minors. The two girls had filed their reports with the Police and Social Services Departments and an active investigation was opened. Dr. Mendez would end up completing his three-year term when the House of Representatives was dissolved into the run-up of the 2015 general elections. He has been making court appearances, but as the year comes to an end, no decision has come from the court on his fate. He met a $5,000 bail at his arraignment on charges he sexually assaulted the two girls – now in their late teens -- in 2005 when they were all of 7 and 8 years old. We will monitor the developments going into 2016.
Dr. Mendez was not the only PUP politician from Orange Walk going to court in February. Hon. John Briceño, the former Deputy Prime Minister and longstanding area representative for Orange Walk Central would also appear in Magistrate’s Court on charges of running over the foot of the current Deputy Prime Minister’s driver, footballer, Christopher Hendricks. The driver alleges that Briceño ran over his foot as he was driving unto the compound of the Belize High School of Agriculture in Trinidad Village, Orange Walk. Briceño appeared on charges of driving without due care and attention, failing to report an accident, and harm. A final decision on this matter has also not been forthcoming.
What would 2015 be had it not been for four exciting election cycles? Indeed, these cycles proved most successful for the United Democratic Party and the choice was clear from the jump. After the party nominated all nine mayoral and 58 town and city council candidates on February 11, it was sure that given the policies of the central government and the commitments of the transformation of the municipalities, the UDP felt confident in its team of 67 in the two cities and seven towns going into the elections held on March 4. Thousands of people in the nine municipalities rallied behind the Red Machine on Nomination Day.
At the end of February, the nation witnessed another important promise by the UDP come to fruition: 2015 being the year of technology with the distribution of tablets for each of the students who attend a junior college or university in Belize. In his New Year’s Day address, Prime Minister, Hon. Dean Barrow made the important announcement and it translated to the Government’s purchasing over nine thousand tablets from the ASUS parent company in Taiwan for distribution to junior college students in an effort to “bridge the digital divide”. On February 24. Minister of Education, Hon. Patrick Faber, handed out the devices to some very appreciative students beginning at the University of Belize Campus in Belmopan.
Feeding from the energy of a vibrant electorate in those rallies to nomination, the United Democratic Party secured convincing victories in the vast majority of the municipalities. On March 4, the residents in the towns and cities voted for transformation to continue when it elected 62 UDP municipal leaders. The party captured clean sweeps in Corozal, led by Hilberto Campos; in Belize City led by Darrell Bradley; in Belmopan led by Khalid Belisle; in San Pedro led by Daniel Guerrero; in San Ignacio-Santa Elena by Earl Trapp; in Benque Viejo del Carmen by Heraldo Ramcharan, Jr.; in Dangriga by H. Francis Humphreys; and in Punta Gorda by Fern Gutierrez. In Orange Walk, however, there was a mixed council, led by the PUP, but featured Shantel Casimiro and Luigi Gomez as candidates for the UDP. Of the 105,634 registered electors in this election, 60,533 or 57% participated.
The PUP by this time had already lost two major elections: the bye-election in Cayo North and the municipal elections indicating a serious problem with electability and the party’s aptitude to garner any serious support of the electorate. It was painfully obvious that Hon. Francis Fonseca was having trouble drumming up resources and drafting a serious agenda to attract voters. However, another nail in the party’s coffin came when a damning audio recording of immediate past leader, Hon. John Briceño discussing the slipshod job of the People’s United Party government under which he was Deputy Prime Minister. Apparently in his bid to secure a victory for the PUP in Orange Walk, Briceño approached and had a meeting with PUP stalwart in Orange Walk East, Julian Chell. What he did not know is that the one he considered his friend was actually his worst enemy. And so it was that after an hour and five minutes of talking, Briceño, laid bare in gory detail what the public already knew, the PUP during their maladministration sacked the coffers of the government without a shred of regard.Briceño went as far as saying “That cancer that came and stole millions and millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars from the people. I’m not talking about a little bit of money…millions, tens of millions of dollars they stole, that had this been another country they would have been in jail right now…”Party Leader Fonseca’s position was that it was an internal party matter. It would turn out to a most dreadful political season for the PUP later in the year.
March would also see an important addition to the UDP general team of 31: Tracy Taegar-Panton. The former Director of the Belize Tourism Board and former Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Tourism, Civil Aviation, and Culture, would decide to run in the Albert Constituency. She was endorsed as the party’s candidate by the Party Leader, Hon. Dean Barrow, and most importantly by the two men who originally wanted to seek the position: Hon. Herman Longsworth, the sitting area representative and Minister of State at the time and Belize City Councilman, Philip Willoughby on March 25. She would be one of four women featured in the general election lineup later in the year along with Dr. Carla Barnett, Beverly Castillo, and Guadalupe Magaña-Dyck.
April started with continued PUP opposition to the use of the Petro-Caribe funding from Venezuela. The charge was led by Hon. Julius Espat, the area representative for Cayo South, who mounted a legal challenge in Supreme Court. However, as we pointed out in our April 5 edition, Espat’s duplicity would come to fore after he would first dump on the program and then say he would participate in the Government’s offer. Meanwhile, Prime Minister, Hon. Dean Barrow proceeded with passing legislation which is specifically designed to address the nuances that present themselves through the Petro Caribe initiative. The legislation specifically allows for the program to continue as it is currently operating where the proceeds of the program can be converted into a loan without it having to go to the National Assembly. As the PUP jumped high and low to condemn the legislation, PM Barrow pointed out that in fact what was being done is in complete consonance with the Constitution of Belize. Prime Minister Barrow would later introduce an amendment to the Petro-Caribe Loan Act that will specify the usage of the funds and make requirements for quarterly reports of acquisition and spending of Petro-Caribe funds.
April also featured the most important event on the sporting calendar: the Holy Saturday Cross Country Cycle Classic. April 4 saw 107 riders leave the starting line from in front of Leslie’s Imports on the George Price Highway at 6:00 a.m. sharp.After5 hours, 54 minutes, 39 seconds, Belizean-American, Justin Williams crossed the finish line, just seconds before American, Scottie Weisse.Shortly after Williams and Weisse crossed the finish line, Belizean David Henderson managed to hang on and come in third. Fourth place was Mexican Yahir Jimenez Godinez, and Justin’s brother, Corey, placed 5th in the race. He declared to the press that the objective had been achieved; he rode the race as hard as he did so that Justin Williams could conserve energy for a sprint to the tape. Sixth to tenth were as follows: Byron Pope, Christopher Harkey, Manuel Rodas, Jose Choto, and Jose Robles Lopez. Tenth to 15th were as follows: Rashawn Bahati, Hector Rangel, Bill Elliston, who won the race in 2005, John Delong, and Luis Alberto Avila Balam. Rounding out the top 20 were Leroy Cassasola, Tarique Flowers, Richard Santiago, Shane Vasquez, who won the race in 2006, and Guy East. 2013’s winner, Darnell Barrow was just out of the top 20 placing 22nd.
The heated public discourse on Petro-Caribe continued, but it also served as an opportunity to highlight the Government’s proper handling of this low-cost funding. For example, the National Bank of Belize highlighted that many public officers have benefited from loans, which attract the lowest interest rates than any other bank in the country. Funding in the bank came from the Petro-Caribe initiative. The National Bank was originally capitalized with 20 million dollars from Petro Caribe and later 10 million dollars was infused to ensure, that most of all, public officers and teachers are able to access finances to make their lives better. Up to April, 708 public officers have received loans from the bank. Of these, 196 were for house construction, 87 were refinancing, 30 were for vehicles and 395 were personal loans. These amount to a value of $12,624,085.39. 134 Teachers have also received loans from the bank, of these 34 were for housing, 17 were refinancing, 2 for vehicles, and 81 personal loans amounting to $4,293,148.65.
Up this point, 842 individuals have directly benefitted from the Petro Caribe financed National Bank and there are 333 members of the general public who have also received loans, in addition to 17 small businesses, bringing the grand total to 1,192. That has dramatically increased since then.
Also in April, the nation would witness the affirmation of Maya land rights. On April 18 and 20, Justices Sir Charles Michael Dennis Byron, the CCJ President; along with Justices Rolston Nelson, Adrian Saunders, Jacob Wit, David Hayton, Winston Anderson and Rajnauth-Lee came into the country to hear arguments in the Maya communal land rights case, but before they were able to proceed, the Government of Belize conceded that those rights out to be protected instead of going through a protracted hearing. On April 22, Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin heard the outstanding issue of compensation. Government’s attorney SC Denys Barrow explained that in his view that “the fact of their [The Mayas] physical occupation over the period that they have been there [in Toledo] would entitle them in the same way how in a different part of the country if someone has been living there, in Government land for 30 years that they have…‘squatters’ rights.’” Meanwhile, the Government had undertaken to consult with the Maya on the process under which those rights would be established, an undertaking that the Caribbean Court of Justice accepted. The CCJ set April 30, 2016 for the parties to report back to them on the progress of the implementation of the Customary Land Rights System.
2015 was certainly a year where politics heated up, particularly by the PUP after their latest ploy to sue the Government of Prime Minister Hon. Dean Barrow and force the administration to enact the legislation which allows for a 13th Senator. That senator would be chosen by the non-governmental organizations, and would result in taking away the Government’s majority in the Senate. In turn, that would mean that the Opposition, with the support of the new 13th Senator and others, would be able to frustrate Government’s legislative agenda and delay or completely derail (even urgent) Bills. The Government saw this claim as another desperate attempt by a political party that has been repeatedly and roundly rejected at the polls to thwart the will of the people and try to gain power other than by way of the ballot. Spectacularly unsuccessful in elections, the PUP is seeking redemption through flimsy legal maneuvers and empty posturing. Government points out that a similar claim was brought before by COLA back in 2010. The Judge dismissed the case in its entirety reaffirming that the Prime Minister has wide discretion, when given that authority by Parliament as in this case, in deciding when to bring legislation into force. Section 23 of the Act the PUP is now litigating clearly states: “This Act shall come into force on a day to be appointed by the Prime Minister by order published in the Gazette.”
The month of May saw the death of Belize City’s last PUP Mayor, David Fonseca.
City residents and those who knew former mayor of Belize City, David Fonseca, were taken by surprise when news went out that he had committed suicide. Fonseca was found dead at his mother’s house, in the unoccupied upper flat on Stuart’s Alley. He had shot himself to the head with a 9 millimeter pistol, which was found in his hand. His body was found in the bathroom and reports are that Fonseca had shot himself sometime around 2:30 p.m., a day shy of his birthday. Fonseca was 60 years old. Fonseca served the Belize City council as councilor and mayor for 16 years up to 2006.
In sports, history was made when the first Belizean-born footballer was drafted to the NFL. Rakeem Nunez-Roches, who is from Southern Mississippi University was the 217th overall pick in the 2015 Draft but the first ever Belizean born player in the league. According to NFL scouts and draft experts, Nunez-Roches is a “Fireplug with a good motor and an ability to find gaps and drive upfield through them. He’s missing the size and brute strength necessary to consistently handle himself in a phone-booth battle, so he will have to play in a one-gap, upfield defense. He has the look of a penetrating nose who will have to start his career as a backup.” He is six feet, two inches tall and weighs slightly over 300 pounds. At the combine he ran a 5.02 seconds in the 40 yard dash, jumped 34 inches for the verticals and completed 26 reps for the bench press. Nunez-Roches will now compete to make the roster out of training camp. This opportunity is more than thousands of aspiring players get.
Nunez-Roches was born in Dangriga, Stann Creek District in 1993 and left Belize with his family when he was eight.
Also in May, Prime Minister Hon. Dean Barrow would meet with the trade unions on the Petro-Caribe issue. The PM has maintained during that process that the Petro-Caribe initiative was “a strange creature” and it did not quite fit within the confines of the Finance and Audit Act. Even in the face of the harsh criticism, the Prime Minister has maintained that it is not his government’s intention to use the low-cost funding as a piggy bank with untrammeled access; on the contrary, the Petro Caribe Act came into force to ensure that that does not happen. The Union leaders spoke candidly to the Prime Minister about their concerns and he managed to quell those concerns in not having them being part of the discourse, but for them to offer suggestions to improve on it.
In May, there was yet another shake-up in the PUP line up making room for another bye-election, this time in Dangriga. Hon. Ivan Ramos, after he accepted the Government’s offer of $25,000 to run his Mother’s Day/Father’s Day program from Petro-Caribe, the PUP effectively sought to push him out, forcing him to resign. Attacks against Ramos came from many people from within his own party, including the party’s Deputy Leader, Hon. Julius Espat, a fierce critic of the Petro-Caribe initiative and one who sought to be refunded for Christmas cheer from out of the same Petro coffers. Ramos would officially resign in early June, making way for the Dangriga bye-election a month later.
At the half way point of the year saw Mayor Darrell Bradley roll out an important initiative for the many employees at City Hall: a land program. Employees of the Belize City Council who have been employed with the city for three or more years will be the owners of land courtesy their employer. Mayor Darrell Bradley says that for the past two years he has been working on securing land for employees of the council and by next week he will have 209 parcels of land which will be distributed to employees of the council.According to Bradley the parcels measure 80 X 100 feet and are located at mile 14 on the George Price Highway in an area known as Tropical Park outside of Hattieville Village. For the sake of fairness, the parcels will be distributed to employees based on a lottery system to those employees who have had 3 or more years working at the Belize City Council.
After the writ of election was issued on June 8, it set the stage for the political return of Dangriga’s beloved, Frank “Papa” Mena, who served as the municipality’s mayor from 2006-2009. Even before there was even a thought a bye-election would take place, Mena has been very active in the constituency since he was elected as Standard Bearer for Dangriga on January 26, 2014. He has been the prime mover of the development that has been taking place in Dangriga and even before this he was one of the best Mayors that the municipality had seen. He held that position from 2006 to 2009. A charismatic and people-oriented leader Frank Mena was considered a sure victory for the UDP. Prior to politics, Mena served as an educator at Stann Creek Ecumenical and hosted a very popular national radio program on Krem Radio for many years.
Another major announcement by the Government of Belize came in June: salaries for police officers, teachers, and public officers will be increased by 8%. This comes when many governments in CARICOM were freezing salary increments and laying off public officers. The June announcement marked the second year in a row that teachers, public officers, and police officers would get an increase. In fiscal year 2014/2015, the Government spent $368 million for personal emoluments and $60 million for pensions. That includes almost $30 million for a six percent salary increase. The increases are based on a formula established in a Collective Bargaining Agreement between the Government of Belize and the unions (Public Service Union, Belize National Teachers Union and the Association of Public Service Senior Managers). Under the Framework Agreement between the negotiating teams of the Government and the unions signed in February of 2014, one half of the increase in actual recurrent revenue from one year to the next (in a three year span) will be allocated to salary increases for public officers and teachers. Based on this formula, $29 million was allocated to salary increases in 2014 and now $38 million this year. Prime Minister Barrow maintains, “Despite our disagreements with some of the Union Leaders, we tremendously value both our Public Officers and Teachers. We believe in them, we treasure them and we consider it our special obligation to properly reward them.”
(Catch up with us for the second half of 2015 in our next edition.)