By Benjamin Flowers
The year 2016 was a remarkable one all around the world, which saw many controversial and historic moments and in Belize 2016 was no different.
This past year there were a number of issues that caused great controversy, had large national impact, captured the imagination of Belizeans and had long lasting effects. The events on this list are ranked based on perceived level of controversy and national impact, rather than chronological order.
The Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) 11-day strike, held in October, was the most controversial event of 2016, not just because it affected thousands of Belizean students and their parents, but also because of the context in which the strike was held and the controversies that spawned because of it.
After Prime Minister Dean Barrow explained in August that he would be asking the teachers to forego the last of their three salary adjustments until 2017, the BNTU launched its “Stand Up for Belize” campaign. Barrow explained that GOB needed to divert the funds to post-disaster-relief for those affected by Hurricane Earl.
The teachers compiled a list of demands including the naming of a 13th Senator, activation of the Integrity Commission and other good governance reforms. Teachers also protested the salary deferral.
In October the BNTU and its members decided to take a more forceful approach to show how serious they were about their good governance reform demands. The BNTU staged a nation-wide strike from October 3-14,. which included October 10, which was a holiday.
Even now, the Ministry of Education and the BNTU are currently in court-connected mediation resulting from a court case, in which the union filed for an injunction to prevent the Ministry from docking teachers’ salaries for participating in the strike.
Both parties are also at odds on the date for re-opening classes after the Christmas vacation. The ministry wants schools to reopen on January 3 to help students catch up on work they missed, due to the strike. BNTU, however, maintains that teachers should take their full vacation and return to classes on January 9.
The Supreme Court decision to amend Section 53 of the Criminal Code, in effect legalizing consensual sex amongmen was a landmark decision and a win for the LGBT community, not just in Belize, but throughout the Caribbean. The ruling was very controversial, with supporters of both sides of the argument becoming passionate and heated at times.
The constitutional challenge of Section 53 provoked a fierce contention between the LGBT community, their allies, religious groups, and people who are generally unsupportive of a homosexual lifestyle.
Caleb Orozco, the plaintiff in the case and Executive Director of UNIBAM had challenged the law so he wouldn’t have to live in constant fear of being arrested and jailed for his sexual preferences. Orozco maintained that his sexuality was protected by his inalienable human rights, and that his right to privacy was guaranteed by the Constitution of Belize.
In August, during a judgement lasting one hour and 29 minutes, Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin brought an end to a legal battle which began in 2010. He ruled that Section 53, which criminalized homosexual relations, was unconstitutional and should be be understood as excluding sexual acts committed by consenting adults.
He noted that the law did not just criminalize homosexual acts, but also anal and oral sex between even married couples.
The religious community immediately began working to lodge an appeal. The Government of Belize, at the outset of the judgement, had said that it would not appeal the decision, but later agreed with the religious community to filing a limited appeal. That appeal is based on the concession that the Chief Justice made in his judgement, allowing for the word ‘sex’ in the constitution to include sexual orientation.
GOB said that it would appeal that aspect of the judgment because it did not form a part of the relief that Orozco sought.
Continuing a tradition spanning hundreds of years, Belize and Guatemala had a contentious relationship politically; however, in 2016, the situation reached a new level of aggression, when Guatemalan Armed Forces Occupied the Sarstoon River, and blocked Belizean access.
The year had started with the Sarstoon being a powder keg for conflict, stemming from several confrontations involving Belizeans and Guatemalans in 2015 over the Sarstoon. However when Belizeans accidentally shot a Guatemalan boy in an exchange of fire in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, the government of Guatemala deployed thousands of soldiers to the Sarstoon, laying physical claim to the area by occupying the river..
The Organization of Amreican States would later commission an independent investigation, vindicating Belize of any wrong doing; however this did not stop the President of Guatemala from defaming Belize at the United Nations General Assembly.
Towards the end of 2016, Guatemala released new fishing regulations, which said that their fishermen were free to fish in Belizean waters. The Government of Belize issued an immediate statement declaring that Belize’s territory is internationally recognized, therefore the regulations are a violation of International Law.
The Belizean economy took a substantial turn for the worse in late 2016. Belize is in the midst of a recession after four consecutive quarters of poor economic performance starting the last quarter in 2015. All major exports recorded marked declines throughout the year. Crude petroleum recorded its lowest levels since production began.
Belize also faced considerable economic shocks due to a natural disaster and was saddled with an arbitration award for the nationalization of Belize Telemedia Ltd., amounting to some $458.4 million. There are also three pending arbitration judgments against GOB in United States courts totaling near US $100 million.
The country’s foreign reserves were also reduced to alarmingly low levels, US $315 million in September. The amount is only US $15 million shy of the three month import merchandise benchmark for exchange rate sustainability. Falling below this benchmark could lead to a devaluation of the country’s currency.
The combination of the underperforming economy and the arbitration awards forced GOB to approach bondholders to restructure the 2038 Superbond or risk defaulting in February 2017, when the next coupon payment is due. Bondholders have taken a hard line with GOB and are reportedly insisting that Belize implement austerity measures as prescribed by the International Monetary Fund.
These measures could include a hike in the General Sales Tax, a public sector wage freeze and increased import duties among other things.
On August 4, Hurricane Earl made landfall in Belize as a Category One hurricane. Earl had a maximum wind speed of 74 miles per hour with gusts maxing out at 104 miles per hour. In Belize City the maximum winds were 63 mph with gusts of 80 mph. In Ladyville, where there was a lot of destruction, maximum winds were 47 mph with gusts of 73 mph.
The storm caused an estimated $183.6 million in damages to both the agriculture and tourism sectors. Authorities responded to over 100 search and rescue requests under extremely dangerous conditions in the middle of the Hurricane.
The National Emergency Management Organizaition estimated that around 2,000 homes were either badly damaged or destroyed altogether, displacing many families. The United Nations Children’s Fund conducted an assessment and determined that more than 110,000 were affected by Hurricane Earl; 27,000 of whom are under the age of five.
Some families were still receiving assistance up to the end of the year after being displaced by the storm. Through various donors, both local and international, Belize managed to garner a total of $2,666,955 toward Hurricane Earl Relief Efforts.
Pastor Lucas and the curious case of William Mason
In July, Belize witnessed one of the most grotesque murders in recent memory, the beheading of Dangriga Pastor Llewellyn Lucas. Lucas’s head was found on ice, inside a bucket, in the pan of a pickup truck belonging to one William Mason. The story got national attention, when it was revealed that Mason, also known as Raj Ouellet, Danny Ouellet, Ramesh Ouellet and William Ferguson, had ties to numerous high ranking government officials, as well as high ranking members of the Belize Police Department.
Leaked documents showed that mason had received several gun licenses without proper documentation: licenses which, under the laws of Belize, are only granted by the Commissioner of olice. Mason also gave campaign financing to Minister of State Frank ‘Papa’ Mena during the 2015 bi-elections for the south, and invested in the Bandits Football Vlub owned by Minister of Defense, John Saldivar.
Police said that Mason was already wanted at the time they found Lucas’s head in his possession, in connection with an alleged kidnapping and extortion. Police said that Mason allegedly extorted some $300,000 Mennonite businessman David Dodd and that Lucas was the suspected courier for that money.
Mason’s trial is coming up in2017.
To adjust after his party was rocked by several scandals, the Prime Minister reconfigured Cabinet four times in 2016. Former Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Gaspar Vega beat a hasty retreat from party politics earlier this year, opening up the opportunity for Deputy Prime Minister Patrick Faber tobeat John Saldivar for the post which he assumed in May 2016.
In the second round of shuffling in August, Barrow relocated the Ministry of National Security, merging the armed forces into the new Ministry of Defense, and placing responsibility for the Police Department into the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration.
John Saldivar, who was the former Minister of National Security became the Minister of Defense while Godwin Hulse, former Minister of Natural Resources, became the Minister of Home Affairs. Attorney General Vanessa Retreage then took up the Natural Resources Ministry.
In another round of changes in October, Barrow himself assumed the role of Minister of Home Affairs, with Minister of State Elodio Aragon Jr. becoming the Minister of Police.
The PM again re-assigned Hulse, making him the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries, the Environment and Sustainable Development, while also keeping the Immigration portfolio. Minister of State Edmund Castro, who was removed from Cabinet, remerged on the scene as the substantive Minister of NEMO and Transport.
In another unexpected shuffle, Vanessa Retreage resigned from Cabinet in late December. PM Barrow then took over as Minister of Natural Resources. Minister of State for Finance, Senator Carla Barnett was also tasked with the day-to-day running of the Lands Department.
Barrow also announced that Retreage’s replacement as Attorney General would be the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Michael Peyrefitte, who will also be made a Senator, since Retreage will also be stepping down from the Senate. Retreage had also held responsibility for the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Police Department, which will now become the responsibility of Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wilfred Elrington. Minister of State Elodio Aragon will remained as Minister responsible for the day to day management of the Police Department.
Auditor General’s Report/Senate Inquiry
When the Auditor General, Dorothy Bradley, released the Special Audit Report of the Immigration and Nationality Department 2011-2013, several Cabinet ministers were named for recommending persons who did not meet the legal requirements to receive visas.
The report listed names such as Elvin Penner, who was removed from Cabinet for giving an international criminal a passport, along with Edmund Castro and, Speaker of the House Michael Peyrefitte. However, Peyrefitte contested his name being cited for wrong doing, taking legal action against Bradley. She later apologized and he has since dropped the civil suit against her.
Apart from her apology to Peyrefitte, Bradley stood by the accuracy of her report, which meant that several ministers were still cited for wrong doing, prompting a Senate led investigation into the incidents detailed in the report.
There were tensions between the government, the opposition and the social partners over the form, function and budget of the Senate committee, which would oversee the public inquiries into the report.
The Opposition, People’s United Party, which had originally refused to participate in the inquiries, joined in once the hearings began.
Increased bus fares
To cope with rising fuel and operational costs, the Ministry of Transport authorized bus operators to adjust their rates for the northern, western and southern routes.
Thousands of commuters, most of whom travel daily, faced increases from 10 cents a mile to between 12-14 cents a mile, roughly adding a dollar or more to the trip. In contrast, some travellers in the south actually benefitted from lower fares.
Death by fire
Several children faced a tragic death due to residential fires in 2016. Empress Hamilton, 8; her brother, 4-year-old Ian Sambula, and Aaron Gabourel, 11, a disabled student attending Stella Marris School, died as a result of a house fire on Aloe Vera Street. Two-year-old Kaylee Alvarez, also died in a house fire on Ebony Street.
The issue was so alarming that the National Committee for Families and Children, the Office of the Special Envoy for Women and Children and the Ministry of Human Development, all issued statements speaking to the responsibility of Belizean parents to ensure the safety of their children.
And as fires raged in 2016, the iconic Chateau Caribbean was also lost to fire this year. The historic hotel burned for 13 hours while fire fighters worked tirelessly to no avail to save the mostlymooden structure.
Other notable events include: the closing down of the Fruta Bomba Papaya plant, the death of Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, the Chicago Cubs winning their first world series in a century, and Donald Trump’s upset victory in the United States presidential elections.