Year in review 2015

Ingrid Fernandez
Staff Reporter

General Elections 2015
General Elections, were without a doubt, the most significant event of the year. In October, Prime Minister Dean Barrow called the elections only three years and eight months into the party’s second term, setting the date for November 4th, giving contending parties just 37 days to prepare. The United Democratic Party (UDP), People’s United People (PUP) and newly formed Belize Progressive Party (BPP) all geared up. Many viewed the move as a political tactic to capitalize on the PUP’s internal struggles and a successful one as Barrow and the UDP made history as the country’s first three-consecutive term Prime Minister and government, post-Independence.

At the height of the election season, the Elections and Boundaries Commission was implicated in a series of allegations. Chief Elections Officer, Josephine Tamia and UDP Chairman Alberto August, were accused by the PUP of mischievously manipulating proxy votes. The department also came under scrutiny for allegedly allowing UDP political leaders in the department at night. Tamai and August later refuted all allegations of wrong-doing. The Organization of American States (OAS) also made a pronounced presence during the elections with intent to observe the electoral process.
When it was all said and done, the UDP won 19 seats, and the PUP won 12. The BPP, an amalgamation of several independent parties, performed poorly at the polls with only two of its members getting more than 300 votes. The independent candidates also did not perform well.

Petro Caribe
The Venezuelan program which offers premium prices on fuel and financing to the government at one percent interest per annum over a 25-year-period became a household name. The matter was widely debated by all sectors of society in 2015. The opposition demonized GOB’s use of the funds, which included everything from infrastructural capital projects to Christmas cheer, family days and Orange Walk tacos.
Starting with the passing of a loan motion to retroactively approve GOB borrowing from the fund, the opposition, unions and private sector criticized the government for lack of transparency with the handling and spending of PetroCaribe money. GOB attempted to appease the critics by making amendments, however, the consensus was that the changes were only superficial.

The PUP mounted a legal challenge but subsequently withdrew the claim following the elections. GOB ultimately passed the PetroCaribe Loans Act and PetroCaribe Amendment Act. PetroCaribe has been used to help finance the nationalization settlements of Belize Electiricty Limited (BEL) and Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL). Financial Secretary Joseph Waight estimated that $48 million was left of the fund before the election; since then, with economic crisis in Venezuela and a political power shift, the controversial program seems likely to come to an end.

Sarstoon Island
The Guatemalan claim has been an issue in Belizean history since the inception of sovereign government. However, this year, the claim came to life with controversy over Sarstoon island. The small land mass in the Sarstoon river took centerstage as Belizean citizens stood their ground against Guatemalan naval officers, while OAS officials watched.

The controversy started brewing when 40 Belizeans were making their way back from the ‘Gracias a Dios’ monument and were detained for allegedly being in Guatemalan territory. They were held overnight in the Guatemalan island of Livingston and were released safely the following day but the incident was not soon forgotten. When Belizeans thought a confrontation with Guatemalan diplomats was imminent, Minister of Foreign Affairs Wilfred Elrington came under fire from critics who thought he took a soft stance on the issue. Amid growing public outcry several organizations, including the politcal parties and activist groups called for Elrington’s resignation.
Subsequently, members of the Belize Territorial Volunteers, (BTV) and Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA) made several trips to the island, even accompanied by Senator Lisa Showman on one occasion. The concerned citizens reported fishing exploits and illegal incursions into Belizean waters. Soon after, there was a demand for the government to build the forward operating base (FOB) on the island. In early December the government announced that the Belize Defense Force (BDF) would break ground to build the FOB. Construction for the base began on December 9th.
Guatemalan President-elect Jimmy Morales also visited Belize just weeks after his comments about claiming Belizean territory and his motorcade was met with protest by members of the BTV and COLA.

De-risking banking
Bank ‘de-risking’ is a phenomenom that came to light in Belize this year after it started affecting domestic and offshore banks, not only in Belize but throughout the region. The Belize Bank was the first to feel the effects as Bank of America (BOA) cut corresponding ties with the institution, leaving many of its customers unable to wire money to the US.

The Prime Minister later met with officials from BOA who assured him that no other bank in Belize would have corresponding ties cut. Months later, however, Atlantic Bank International Limited (AIBL), an offshore banking service, also had its corresponding ties cut and there was much fear that other banks would be cut off, throwing the country’s banking sector into crisis. Leader of the opposition, Francis Fonseca, expressed concern over the situation emphasizing that it could capsize the Belizean economy.

There was also concern among banking insiders that the Central Bank had opened itself to risk by offering “nesting” services to affected institutions. The US Embassy in Belize even contacted the US Treasury Department to look into the situation. The affected banks have been able to secure other corresponding banking relations but a myriad of offshore-sector related scandals and appearances on multiple tax-haven blacklists throughout the year has put a black eye on the sector.

The PUP Saga
The “grand ole party”, the People’s United Party (PUP) endured a number of internal conflicts in 2015, the first of which followed its near blow-out at the municipal polls in March. One week after the devastating loss in those elections, the PUP called a meeting of its National Executive Council, standard bearers and other members to discuss another embarrassment that surfaced in a taped private conversation in which its former leader, John Briceno made incriminating allegations against top PUP henchmen and accused its leader, Francis Fonseca of not doing enough to pull the party together.The conversation revealed information between Briceno and a disgruntled PUP Orange Walk East supporter, who campaigned against Briceno’s favourite candidate, Josue Carballo in the replacement bid for Marco Tulio Mendez, charged for sexual assault-related offences.  

“Francis has not been working to get the support of the people…so, right now, the party is in disarray…I had already spent $3 million out of pocket – something that Said nor Ralph nor George Price, nobody has done for this party…on top of that I made a loan of $1 million for the Town Council elections for 2009. Right now I have to donate $14,800 to the PUP every month for a loan they made. I am paying that, not Francis”, the Briceno recording revealed.  Briceno went on to incriminate high ranking PUP officials of being involved in wrongdoing while the PUP was in power.    

As if the recording was not bad enough, the PUP lost its Dangriga Area Representative, Ivan Ramos, who resigned from the party, forcing a by-election which the party lost to the UDP in July.  This followed a previous defeat in another by-election in Cayo North in January, forced by the unexpected resignation of Joseph Mahmud, who had also become frustrated with his party.   

Months of internal friction, mostly over what some thought was lackluster leadership by Francis Fonseca, eventually led to what was coined as a “G-11” deviation, again bringing more embarrassment to what used to be Belize’s most powerful political force only a decade before.  Eventually, the announcement was made that the PUP would hold a National Convention on January 31, 2016, at which time it would elect a new leader.   
On Tuesday, December 15th, all who were interested to contest for leadership submitted their names and by the end of the day, at 5:00 p.m. three persons had entered the race for the position, while six are contesting for the post of deputy party leader.  The three vying for leader are: Lake Independence Area Representative Cordel Hyde, former leader and Orange Walk Central Area Representative John Briceno, and recently departed leader and Freetown Area Representative Francis Fonseca.  

Interestingly, Kareem Musa and Lisa Shoman – two other party heavyweights whose names were frequently called as likely prospects did not enter their names. Musa told the Reporter via text message that, “While I am very humbled by the support received, I felt that as a young representative I still have a lot to learn.  I believe in the politics of earning your ‘stripes’.  I have served my party and my people at many levels and at this time I feel that I could make the greatest impact as a deputy leader.  That position has its own share of duties and responsibilities, but also affords me the opportunity to grow and the time to invest in my constituency.”
And while he had been saying since the November 4th General Elections that he would not contest, some people were still anticipating a last-minute change of heart from Julius Espat.  He kept his word, however, and did not enter the race. The six persons nominated, meanwhile, for Deputy Leader are: PUP Area Representatives for: Corozal South East, Florencio Marin Jr.; Orange Walk South, Jose Mai; Cayo South, Julius Espat; Toledo East, Mike Espat; Stann Creek West, Rodwell Ferguson; and Caribbean Shores, Kareem Musa.

Santa Cruz 13
Another event that sent shock waves throughout the country, in the middle of the year, was what has since been dubbed the ‘Santa Cruz 13’ episode. On June 20th the Maya Alcalde of Santa Cruz village Aram Canti, ordered the arrest of Rupert Myles, a creole Belizean, for alleged disorderly behavior and for illegally constructing a house on the Uxbenka Maya site. Myles, however, claimed that the Alcalde had racial motivations and had made rascist comments against his presence in the village. The images of Myles tied with ropes and handcuffed sparked controversy.

Prime Minister Barrow’s comments, stating that he would look into the matter carefully to see if there was any criminal liability has been claimed to have motivated the Punta Gorda police pre-dawn raid on the houses of the 12 Mayan leaders of the village involved in Myles’ arrest. The group was rounded up and charged with false imprisonment and assault.

Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) spokesperson, Cristina Coc, was arrested later that day when she went to check on the accused, under charges of conspiracy to commit unlawful imprisonment. The accused we arraigned later that day before magistrate Emerson Banner who set bail at $10,000 for each person, which they were able to meet and were released. According to Coc, the alliance had sent various letters to the Institute of Archeological advising them of Myles’ trespassing on the Uxbenka site, to no avail. They also stated that they had given Myles notices of eviction from the site which he did not adhere to.

Right after the arrest, the Organization of American States (OAS) wrote to the government requesting information on the issue, especially to ensure the fair treatment of the imprisoned Maya Leaders.

At the hearing the court date was adjourned to July 28th. There were a series of successive adjournments until September 29th for the prosecution to gather evidence and another for October 27th. The case was dragging on and that was the fourth appearance the 13 Maya Leaders had at court. Upset villagers protested outside the court. Adjournment for November 18th was postponed once more to December 18th. When the prosecution finally presented its case, there was not enough evidence to sustain the charge of ‘False Imprisonment’, and it was subsequently dropped. The new court date to hear the charge of “Common Assault” was set for February 17th, 2016.

Other notable events
Other significant events of 2015 included Nestor Mendez’s appointment to the post of Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS). The first Belizean to be appointed to that high honor, Mendez, has had to deal with the resurgence of the Guatemala-Belize territorial claim, which, as an arbitrary body, Mendez claimed to treat with “utmost professionalism”.

The David Nanes Schnitzer fiasco was a significant blunder for Belize’s legal system. In November, Ponzi Scheme fraudster, Nanes Schnitzer was found living in San Pedro town where he resided for three years. After a quick court date, Nanes Schnitzer was given bail, against strong advice that he was at flight risk. Mexican authorities advised that Nanes Schnitzer be extradited to Mexico, where he was wanted for defrauding investors of more than seven billion dollars. What Mexican authorities feared, happened, under bail and minimal guard, Nanes Schnitzer absconded and his whereabouts are still unknown. The incident caused friction in the bilateral relations between Belize and Mexico, something that the Prime Minister would later express regret over.
As the year was drawing to an end, another tragic event occurred. The horrific deaths of three girls at the Youth Hostel, who burned alive in the dorm they lived in. The incident, which was caused by what Community and Rehabilitation Department Director, Starla Bradley called a breakdown in standard protocol and policy and resulted in three youth hostel officers being placed on administrative leave.The burnt bodies of the three young girls, were laid to rest amid an ongoing investigation.
Also, in early December, Belize received international praise from organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for it’s decision to ban offshore oil exploration.

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