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Ambergris Caye, Belize                      Monday December 31, 2007
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The Year in Review - 2007
from Amandala
Pre-election fever caught on in 2007 with strong talk that the general elections would have been called before the year is out. That would have made two sets of elections this year, with the Village Council elections having been held during March and April. Even though those early election forecasts have proven false, the political drama, as well as the kick-off of a fierce advertisement campaign, has given the electorate enough fuel to get them into the spirit. There was no shortage of political controversy for both dominant political parties to play with, but with popular support eroding for them – the ruling party more so than the Opposition - a number of third parties have sprung up, with roots spanning from North to South, East to West.
A move to get the Vision Inspired by the People (VIP), the People’s National Party (PNP), the We The People Reform Movement (WTP) and the National Reform Party (NRP) to form a national alliance has failed, but the PNP and the WTP have come out strong under the banner of the National Belizean Alliance (NBA). As we leave 2007 and go into 2008, the VIP is stepping up its game, but it is notable that none of these third parties have enough candidates to field a full slate for all 31 divisions, as the two major parties will be able to do. The third parties will be seriously challenged going into what will prove to be an unforgettable and historic election year.
Win, lose or draw? Let’s see what the electorate says in the months ahead. We’ve already told you about the SJCJC/UB election poll produced in March that claimed the Prime Minister’s popularity had slipped yet again and 84.6% of respondents had said they wouldn’t vote for him.
The changing political tides in 2007 opened up a perfect window of opportunity for any one of these new political entities to fan the social unrest that took seed early in the year. It turned out, however, that 2007 only had “the makings” of a massive revolution, as the fullness of the revolution never really materialized. It was not that the issues were not as big as the ones that sparked an unprecedented wave of unrest in 2004- 2005, but with union activism virtually neutralized, the threats of strike action in March and protests in February and May were nowhere as consequential, and in fact, the unions registered some serious defeat, where they had not compromised. The biggest defeat is the handicapping of the Commission of Inquiry into the Development Finance Corporation – a commission that the unions demanded in February 2005 but which has, to date, suffered from what some critics say were a series of deliberate attempts to bring the Commission to naught.
It so happened that the same day Commissioner Merlene Bailey-Martinez was submitting her final report to the Prime Minister, former DFC chairman Glenn Godfrey, whose financial dealings with the Corporation came into question during the hearings, got Chief Justice Dr. Abdulai Conteh to block its publication. Her co-chair, Herbert Lord, had unilaterally filed his report almost 4 months early, in July, leaving the Commission in what the court regards as a moribund state. Uncharacteristically, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), which demanded the inquiry, has not raised its voice over the Commission’s demise.
Even while the Commission was investigating the DFC, the troubling loan of the DFC’s biggest clients, Universal Health Services Ltd., became the center of controversy when it was revealed that the Prime Minister had penned a guarantee for the private hospital – which had borrowed the money from a bank controlled by a well-connected financier of the ruling party – Michael Ashcroft’s Belize Bank. Dated 2004, the guarantee, secretly converted to a GOB loan in March of 2007, left taxpayers on the hook for $33 million plus in debt. GOB had promised that private investors would be brought in to take on the debt and purchase the financially-challenged hospital, but as the clock ticks towards the end of 2007, no deal has been announced.
The UHS loan was the single biggest issue in 2007, sparking a string of public demonstrations, leading to back-to-back demonstrations in the capital city on May the 18th and 25th. In early 2007, GOB had announced that Cabinet had decided that instead of purchasing two-thirds of UHS, they would make a 100-percent buy-out—this without Cabinet even seeing an audit of the company.
The Belize Covenant Movement, led by former Freetown area representative (1984-1991) Derek Aikman, convened a national poll which revealed that well over 90% percent of Belizeans polled did not want the debt to be paid from public funds. It was amid this public outcry and violent protests that GOB was forced to back off, but in the face of this opposition from the masses, the Social Security Board recently announced that it is considering using money from its Fund to invest in UHS, even though the hospital is currently unable to stay afloat without Government’s (indirect) subsidy.
There is also no resolve in the Supreme Court challenge lodged by the Association of Concerned Belizeans on the UHS debt, and the substantive case has been transferred from the courtroom of Justice Michelle Arana to that of Justice Minnet Hafiz, while the Belize Bank has an appeal pending in which it is challenging the ACB’s very procedure for raising the matter before the court.
The UHS issue will no doubt remain on the front burner as we go into the New Year, and it may well be the single biggest issue to decide the fate of the ruling party in 2008. After all, the issue was big enough to decide the political fate of two dissenting ministers – Albert area representative Mark Espat, and Lake I representative Cordel Hyde – whom Musa axed from Cabinet after a fall-out over the UHS matter.
Another issue dear to the hearts of Belizeans is our sovereignty and territorial integrity. In August, during the quarrel between the Belize National Teachers’ Union and the Ministry of Education over the “free textbook” program, the BNTU, calling the program “grossly flawed”, told GOB to return all the Chispas Spanish textbooks that included Belize as a part of Mexico. Under pressure from the BNTU, both GOB and the publisher promised to fix the “error”, but until the books could be reprinted, corrected inserts were to be sent to all primary schools that had gotten the books to distribute.
The Chispas “error” was historically significant. In the first week of January, we had reported on an article appearing in the ruling party newspaper, The Belize Times, claiming that Belize and Mexico are renegotiating a border treaty of July 1893. The Belize Government had no comment for us, but Mexico’s Ambassador to Belize, H.E. Arturo Trejo, said that he was aware that negotiations to redraft the treaty have been ongoing, but in his opinion, the press release was premature and the media – apparently The Belize Times, which had carried an article, “Mexico to return lands to Belize” - has been misinterpreting the matter. The article had claimed that, “The Government of Mexico today announced that it will return land to Belize which had been wrongfully delimited over 100 years ago.”
While nothing more had been said officially about the matter of the Belize-Mexico border, much has been said about our border woes with Guatemala. Most recently, the territorial dispute took a new turn in late November, with the Secretary General of the Organization of the American States recommending to the Belize Government that the matter should be submitted to international arbitration in the International Court of Justice.
The OAS had said in September that the single issue holding back the talks was the Santa Rosa issue – a settlement of 102 Guatemalans illegally planted on the Belize side of the border. Since this newspaper brought the Santa Rosa issue to the fore, a number of other incursions have been reported, including the hacking of patches of Belizean protected forests amounting to over 8,000 acres in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve and Caracol Archaeological Reserve.
On October 12, 2007, Foreign Affairs Minister Lisa Shoman gave an undertaking on the KREM WUB Morning Vibes that Santa Rosa will be gone by year-end. We are counting down – four more days as of the date of this article.
Just following the Garifuna Settlement Day celebrations this year, Prime Minister Musa, on his way to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Uganda, Africa, delivered a public statement informing of his Government’s intention to put the question of whether Belize should seek international court settlement of Guatemala’s unfounded territorial claim. Sounding confident of an election win, Musa said that the referendum would not be put to the people before the 2008 general elections, but it would happen soon afterwards. The ruling party has claimed that it is they – and not the Opposition – that has had a history of working to settle the dispute with Guatemala.
Another issue that the Musa administration promises to put to a national referendum is the elected Senate. While the Belize-Guatemala dispute has enjoyed a bipartisan approach, the two parties are sharply divided when it comes to the elected Senate issue, as was evidenced last Wednesday with all House members of the ruling party voting “yes” and all members of the Opposition voting “no” on a motion to put the question to the electorate in a national referendum. There is wide speculation that the referendum would be scheduled for the date of the 2008 general elections. (The elected Senate notion had previously only been trumpeted by the third parties, and particularly the WTP, hailing from the North. The PUP only recently endorsed it.)
Even as the third parties seem virtually invisible in the pre-election ad campaign, political tensions are high between the red and the blue. Tensions flared up on November over a PUP billboard at the corner of Freetown Road and Princess Margaret Drive which screamed “PUP hire, UDP fire.” The UDP City Council immediately attempted to take it down – claiming that the PUP had no legal permission to erect that sign on Council property. The heated confrontation led to threats of charges from police top brass to the mayor and a councilor, but nothing really came of them. The PUP has used footage from the confrontation to make political ads about mayor Moya’s fiery reaction to PUP propagandist, Vaughan Gill. The UDP has retaliated with its own signs, similarly designed but with the words “PUP thief, UDP relief.”
It has become clear to many observers that the ruling PUP is focusing on the turmoil at City Hall in its anti-UDP campaign. The party now has on its side a defected UDP, Dale Trujeque, a former UDP municipal campaign manager for Belize City – who has seemingly taken valuable inside information from CitCo over to the PUP.
The ruling party has been using City Hall in an attempt to demonstrate that the UDP is incapable of managing Belize City and is, therefore, unable to lead Central Government. One embarrassing incident for CitCo was the Dean Samuels incident. The councilor who had been given responsibility for traffic and special events was charged in July in connection with gunplay outside Putt Putt Bar. Conversation tapes surfaced in a PUP ad, implicating UDP officials with knowing that Samuels had wrongly been in possession of a Council firearm.
Smells of corruption? Ironically, corruption is one of the issues that the Opposition has used in its anti-PUP campaign, but the PUP has used incidents such as the Samuels incident to argue that it is the UDP that is corrupt.
When this year’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) was released by Transparency International, the UDP released a “congratulatory” ad to the PUP. The ad made a mockery of the ruling PUP for causing Belize to make a notable slip in its CPI - from a rating of 3.5 to 3.0, and from #66 to #99 among the rated countries. In 2003, Belize’s index was 4.5, and it has regressed over the years, to 3.8 in 2004, 3.7 in 2005, 3.5 in 2006 and now 3.0 in 2007.
When the media asked PM Musa to comment on TI’s ratings of Belize, guess what? He blamed the media! It was not long after, however, when an oil investor came public with his testimony that indicated that “the media” was being falsely accused.
On October 19, oil investor, Allen Saum, alleged a US$100,000 bribe to an “emissary” of GOB. He was interviewed on the Opposition-owned, WAVE Radio. Saum had claimed that he was ordered to pay the money to get a Production Sharing Agreement (PSA) for Parcel 10 for petroleum exploration. He referred to the government as “these corrupt, lying, thieving bastards,” and said that he would not be “giving them any more money.”
It is rather unfortunate that the same industry that has been a major economic booster for Belize has come under so much controversy so soon. By far, the biggest public concern, though, is whether Belizeans are getting their fair share of oil revenues. For example in late January, GOB released 2006 oil revenue data which indicated that while Belize Natural Energy earned $94 million from Belize crude - 811,199.40 barrels of oil produced and 715,872.29 barrels exported - GOB had gotten only gotten $5.6 million of that. All this has been from the Spanish Lookout oil field, but latest reports say that oil has also been found at Never Delay near Cotton Tree, Cayo.
The discovery of oil was supposed to be great news for a vulnerable economy such as ours with tax-burdened pump prices. While there was no relief at all at the pumps after the discovery of oil in Belize – and likewise no relief in connection with the super-concessionary oil deal with Venezuela – oil, according to the International Monetary Fund’s latest report on Belize, did give the economy a “boost.”
Oil developments notwithstanding, the most significant financial development for GOB in 2007 was the floating of the billion-dollar-bond, which concluded February. More than 93% of eligible bondholders accepted. It will now take 22 more years to clear the bulk of our $2 billion debt. The next generation – our sons and daughters will be the ones to pay it. This refinancing set the stage for a flexible financial year in 2007/2008, but even with the ease in interest payments on account of the restructuring, the IMF, which recently concluded a visit to Belize, cautions that the deficit will still be even higher than originally projected.
Overspending has been a major problem in Central Government. At the presentation of the last budget, private sector and union representatives in the Senate raised concerns over overspending, amounting to over $300 million, between 2004 and 2007.
his year, legislators approved a $700-million-dollar budget presented under the theme - “FACING, FIXING, MOVING ahead.” Finance Minister Said Musa read the budget on March 2, when he pledged that the deficit would be just under 1% of GDP.
In recent years, Belize has suffered a string of credit ratings downgrades – hitting rock bottom at “selective default” just before the restructuring, but since then, the ratings have been on the upswing. Most recently, Standard and Poor’s gave Belize a good report card earlier this month, even while sounding a warning on fiscal policies and management. Belize’s long- and short-term “B” ratings have been affirmed, while the outlook is stable. The IMF says that the General Sales Tax has boosted Government revenue, but the deficit will be “somewhat larger” than projected. The IMF notes that exports, including oil, have bolstered the Belize economy.
While tourism continues to be a major pillar of the national economy, just as with the oil, it, too, has had suffered from its share of disputes. Big time developers, Mike Feinstein and Luke Espat, were recently at odds with the Government, which has announced that both multi-million-dollar developments would get equal government support. Espat’s Port of Belize, which has partnered with Carnival Corporation, has claimed exclusive rights, and has gone to court to stop Feinstein’s extravagant Stake Bank development, which includes a multi-lane causeway that would connect to the mainland. In October, Port of Belize won an injunction against GOB, barring it from giving a license to Feinstein.
Feinstein formerly owned the Fort Street Tourism Village, which had previously been given the status of exclusive port. GOB broke that exclusivity when it gave a contract to the Espat group, and now, Espat is alleging that GOB’s decision to license State Bank would breach its contract. Developments are well behind target.
Telecommunications is another major industry that continued to be in mayhem. The issue this time was the Government-supported transfer of Belize Telecommunications Limited to a new company – Belize Telemedia Limited. The bill that legislators passed to enable the move was hotly debated, and former politician, Derek Aikman, who had emerged as the leader of the Belize Covenant Movement, said he had been kidnapped and threatened over the bill. The new law consolidated the control of Michael Ashcroft over the company – and the telecommunications market as a whole. During the transformation hundreds of minority shareholders sold their shares back to BTL at a premium rate. The result was that Ashcroft came to control over 90% of BTL.
Industrial relations came to a head in early 2007, with the firing of three liaison officers of the Belize Communication Workers Union from BTL. Strike action was averted when Labor Minister Francis Fonseca called for a tribunal. Recently, the Supreme Court disbanded that tribunal, forcing GOB to appoint a new one. It is almost a year since the disputed firings, and the tribunal has yet to make tangible progress. Meanwhile, Christine Perriott, general secretary of the union, was fired, reinstated by the court, but later resigned, citing too much pressure and harassment from management. The unprecedented story of Christine’s reinstatement to BTL was sensational, as management had done all in its power – including rejecting the service of a court order – to keep her out. The Supreme Court case challenging her termination in February is still pending.
By the way, there also is still no closure on the $7.6 million plus dollars that had been reported missing from BTL between 2001 and 2005. Last time we checked, the Financial Intelligence Unit was still investigating that, and the case of Moises Cal, a former diplomat whose name had turned up in the Panama press in relation to the smuggling of a million US in cash into the country and the bribery of Customs officials there.
We don’t know who is investigating the flood of public complaints that have been ventilated over the airwaves regarding another major utility company – Belize Electricity Limited. Several talk show callers had claimed that they were being deliberately charged for what they had not consumed. These complaints come in the wake of another rate revision that saw electricity tariffs increase, while the monthly service charge of $10 has been removed from residential bills. Even with the removal of the service charge, some consumers are suspicious – others are clearly outraged – about their bills. And we’re getting a third dam – this one at Vaca. The tab is $105 million.
Activists Candy and George Gonzalez of the Belize Environmental Law and Policy Office (BELPO) tried to get an injunction from the court to stop construction until a proper disaster management plan and certain aspects of the Environmental Compliance Plan (ECP) for its forerunner dam - the Chalillo, have been met. The court ruled in BECOL’s favor.
Like telecommunications, transport continues to be an industry of transformation and turmoil. The year closes with repeated airings of a docudrama, The Novelo Matrix, which chronicles the rise and fall of the Novelo bus empire. But more than that, it is an attempt by the former owners of the Novelo Bus Line to persuade the wider public that they are not at fault for the collapse of the company and its default on a $30 million DFC loan. The docudrama project is evidently well-financed – so well-financed that there was enough in the budget to purchase several primetime slots on local television on top of production costs. With Novelo Bus Line now defunct, the owners have re-emerged as National Transportation Services Limited. Many of the players in the industry remain the same, and so the tensions have not disappeared. In April, Carlos Lopez alleged that confrontations between his bus company and another Novelo company – Belize Intransit Services – had turned violent
There had also been fiery exchanges between their company and the Belize Bus Owners’ Coop – a group of former Novelo workers who lost their jobs when the company closed. In July, Novelo had claimed that because the coop had defaulted on a bus lease with the new Novelo company, Novelo would place the coop under receivership – just as their bankers had done with their old company. The Transport Department sided with the Novelos and moved to shut down BBOC’s operations by evicting them from their office at the Government-controlled terminal and ordering BBOC to stop its runs. Chief Justice Dr. Conteh overturned that decision, and so BBOC was able to resume runs.
What is clear, especially to commuters, is that the nation’s highways continue to be unsafe. The reality of this struck home on Independence Eve, September 20, when a horrific accident between a National Transport bus, owned by the Novelo brothers, and a truck left 6 dead and 18 injured. The accident occurred between Miles 35 and 36 on the Western Highway.
Despite these tragedies, Belize continues to be blessed! The country—and Belize City in particular—got a good drenching this rainy season, but what were most notable this year were back-to-back threats from Category V hurricanes, Dean and Felix, less than two weeks apart. We were spared the brunt of both storms, which were initially forecast to make direct hits on Belize.
Hurricane Dean made landfall just north of Belize, but caused substantial damage in the Northern districts, leaving as many as 2,000 homeless and nearly $200 million in losses, according to GOB estimates. Thankfully, there was no loss of life in The Jewel.
The deadly Felix struck Nicaragua. In the aftermath of Hurricane Felix’s terror, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, was hosted in Belize as the guest for the 26th anniversary of our Independence.
Apart from the devastation of the papaya industry caused by Hurricane Dean, two major export industries found themselves in serious trouble this year: citrus and shrimp. The year began with a rift among directors and members of the Citrus Growers Association over a $25 million investment agreement with a pair of Caribbean investors – Banks Holdings and Blue Waters. The concern was whether growers were getting a fair deal, and whether the investors would indeed bring the upgrades to the local industry that were promised in exchange for growers giving away 12 million shares to the investors. In the end, the deal was sealed, but still without complete resolve on the part of concerned members and directors. The dispute forced a change in the leadership of the industry.
Things were much worse for Nova Companies Belize Limited – a premier shrimp exporter, which buckled under financial stress in January when an announcement was made that bankers would place the company under receivership after 18 years in operation. Over 500 jobs were affected.
In keeping with Kremandala’s indigenous philosophy, even as we celebrated the 38th anniversary of the United Black Association for Development (UBAD) and its offshoot, Amandala, we celebrate some significant milestones. One is the international success of Andy Palacio’s Watina album (featuring Garifuna songs), the other is the victory for the Toledo Maya this October, when Chief Justice Dr. Abdulai Conteh ruled in favor of the Conejo and Santa Cruz Maya on a landmark land rights claim. Conteh ruled that the Maya “hold…collective and individual rights in the lands and resources that they have used and occupied according to Maya customary practices and that these rights constitute ‘property’…” The Maya had reported that despite an agreement with the Government, their repeated requests to establish their land rights had not been heeded.
Even as the Maya of Toledo fought GOB in court over land, a stalwart Maya of the North led a different kind of struggle over credit union finances. Vicente Canul and a group of 16 began the St. Francis Xavier Credit Union (SFXCU) 27 years ago with $2,000; today, it boasts 20,000 members and $41 million in assets – assets that Canul argues have to be protected from the Government that had wrecked the DFC. In November, legislators passed the Credit Unions (Amendment) Bill, 2007, which, GOB claimed, would provide for better administration of credit unions, but Canul rejected it as GOB’s attempt to control Xavier.
While the UHS issue was the single biggest issue this year, violence continues to be at the core of the country’s distress. In fact, many have remarked that escalating violence has changed our once tranquil Belize forever. Serious crimes such as drug trafficking, rape, sodomy and murders continue to curtail our social liberties.
Belize saw another drug-related extradition this year. Dwayne Seawell was extradited to Miami in February. His brothers, Mark and Gary, were also wanted on drug trafficking charges. It was reported earlier this month that Dwayne, 34, had been sentenced in Ohio to 17 years in federal prison after pleading guilty in July to money laundering and shipping cocaine to the US. International news reports said that the scheme involved stashing cocaine in the shoes of young couriers.
In a similarly bizarre story at home, American tourists, brothers Joshua Shumate, 26, and Andrew Shumate, 23, were busted in January with 70 grams of cocaine stashed between their butt cheeks. They were each fined $10,000 in the Belize City Magistrate’s Court.
Heinous sexual acts against young children continue to be exposed, such as the 47-year-old uncle who raped his 6-year-old nephew, forced him to perform oral sex on him, and unconscionably infected him syphilis.
One of the most shocking crimes of the year was the murder of the young mother, Empress Takeisha Sutherland, stabbed a gruesome 21 times in the early morning hours of January 3. Her ex-common-law, famous singer Louie “Ganzie” Gentle, has recently been sentenced to life for her murder.
Another high profile case is the mysterious death of well-known basketballer, Rennick Royon Reneau, formerly of San Pedro Tiger Sharks and messenger of Positive Vibes Radio. The cause of his death had not been established by his post-mortem.
The most heart-wrenching murder story of the year was that of young Feron Felix – the second of two sons lost by Therese Felix, a founder of the Mothers Organized for Peace organization, which had held its second anti-crime march this year. Following his funeral, a grieving community displayed its pent up hurt by hacking away the concrete fence behind which Feron’s murder or murderers hid. It was the outcry of a community heartbroken and under siege. There were in excess of 80 murders this year and the rising incidence of gun violence has us all deeply concerned. We close this review with prayers for the families of all those victims who lost their lives during the course of 2007.
We surely cannot forget those seven men who went missing at sea on Saturday, November 4. Our sympathies go out to the family of Magistrate Richard Swift, and our heartfelt prayers go out to those six families who still have no closure on the disappearance of their loved ones - Derrington Escobar, Mauro Ismael Quiroz, Abner Quiroz, Nick Egbert Nicholson, Gustavo Briceño, and Elon Reyes.
May 2008 bring us all greater peace! Read More
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