By Tamanisha John

In 2010, the Belize Minister of Works, Hon. Anthony Martinez, signed three contracts with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to carry out several international development projects. [1] The contracts fell under Belize’s goal to alleviate poverty in its heavily impoverished Southside region. The plan was called the Southside Poverty Alleviation Project. [2] This project was an apparent success, and was carried out under the initial aegis of the Belizean United Democratic Party (UDP) government.

Many Belizean public officials were confident that this government was capable of achieving the country’s historically elusive goal of reducing poverty. [3] Starting off as a two-year project with a number of phases, the Southside Poverty Alleviation Project was targeted at improving infrastructure in Belize’s Southside as well as to reduce crime throughout the country, increasing economic development, and lowering unemployment, all of which used to be disproportionately focused in Belize’s troubled Southside district. [4] Moreover, the company tasked with improving the region’s infrastructure primarily utilized unemployed and poor Belizeans as an effective labor force. This strategy has given employment to those who previously did not have jobs. [5] However, despite these successes, the UDP government came exceedingly close to losing the most recent elections in 2012 by a very close margin (17-14). This near-loss can be attributed to the recent scrutiny and effective propaganda used by the opposition which was directed at existing political corruption within the incumbent government. These accusations could significantly overshadow UDP’s effective electoral mobilization and its economic strategy in future ballots.

Southside Poverty Alleviation Project—Employment of Gangs & Training At-Risk Youth

The Southside Poverty Alleviation Project targets Belize’s Southside by providing local residents with stable housing, drainage, roads, and sewage, while attracting the necessary labor for the project’s completion from the neighborhood’s residents. [6] Starting off as a two-year project with multiple phases, today the Southside project is seen as a resounding success. By employing street gangs in the construction of modernized infrastructure and helping at risk youth by teaching them trades, Belize has been able to reduce crime in the country to what some are calling its lowest point in a decade. [7] Additionally, by using a well-known Belizean company, instead of a foreign enterprise, the country has seen improved economic development. [8] Belize’s success in the project has made the country’s citizens and the UDP government recognize the importance of training and involving its local residents, especially those in poverty, in development.

In 2010, when the reform was first enacted, 41.3 percent of Belizeans were living in poverty, with the highest concentration of poor to be found in urban Southside. [9] Belize’s Poverty Assessment report found that “in one area of Southside, more than half the people heading the household did not have a job.” [10]

The report also found that besides being more prone to poverty, the Southside district had high rates of drug trafficking, crime, social exclusion, and stigmatization. [11] In 2010, for every 1,000 people in Belize, 34 were victims of homicide, with 40 percent of the country’s total number of murders occurring in the Southside, an area that holds at most ten percent of the country’s population. [12]

The company behind employing members of street gangs, Cisco Construction Limited, is also familiar with many at-risk youth in Belize. Besides being linked to street gangs, Cisco also controls and participates in various programs in Belize’s Central Prison and knows many of the ex-fugitives that have been employed in building some of the country’s infrastructure, along with learning trades. [13]

The goal of creating “a secure, humane facility geared towards meaningful rehabilitation” has often worked, with Cisco’s prisons at times being mentioned as ultimately providing a better life to people inside of their facilities than those people would enjoy elsewhere. [14] In choosing to employ street gangs and train at-risk youth, the company has chosen manual labor, instead of utilizing machine labor. Machine-operated labor, it was noted, would only employ about 30 people on a given project, whereas the application of manual labor would employ hundreds in the construction of infrastructure called for by the project. [15]

Due to its knowledge of the people in the Southside neighborhoods, Cisco has utilized gang members in finding out which streets, areas, and buildings need improvement. [16] Cisco management insists that the company is “trying to do everything possible to hire and train as many men as [they] can… When these guys get home they are tired and are more likely to stay home and stay off the street. But more importantly, they have money that they legitimately have earned in their pockets.” [17] Although the UDP government is applauded for implementing the project, it is really thanks to Cisco that the Southside Poverty Alleviation Project has been successful. Cisco, because it partnered with members of the Southside community, was justifiably held accountable for the success and implementation of the project.

United Democratic Party (UDP)

Formed in 1973 as a merger of three constituent parties, the UDP was able to defeat the then-dominant and previously unopposed People’s United Party (PUP) in 1984. [18] The landslide win marked the end of 34 years of PUP rule and helped the emergence of a largely new democratic landscape in Belize. [19] Additionally, a former Belizian Central Bank worker told COHA in an off-the-record interview that this “first landslide victory was not for UDP ideals, as much as it was voting against the previous administration.” [20] In fact, “the culture of Belize is very young and politics is a huge part of that culture, which in stark contrast to the U.S., has a 80-90 percent Belizean voter turnout.” [21]

In its first term in office, the UDP turned around the Belizean economy with a growth rate of 10 percent. [22] Although not able to hold a second term after its first elected victory, the UDP was still recognized as a significant contender in affecting the political landscape and has continued to be a mainstream player in Belizean elections ever since. In the 2008 elections, the UDP once again emerged victorious, defeating the PUP in another landslide victory attributed to the caginess of the Belizean electorate over corruption issues. [23]

During the 2012 campaign, the UDP pitched its 2012-2017 goals of continuing to alleviate poverty in the country. [24] After its marginal election successes (17-14), due to what many saw as a return to the theme of political corruption, the UDP, true to its promises, has continued pushing for its “pro-poor programs.” [25] These programs include: food pantries, education subsidies, land leases and titles, more schools, better water systems, rural electrification, and a continuation of the Southside Poverty Alleviation Project. [26] Belizeans approved of the success of these programs. After their implementation, more secondary students are enrolled in school and many areas have received electrification. [27]

However, there are drawbacks to the Southside Poverty Alleviation Project. The aforementioned former Central Bank employee told COHA that “if you teach a man how to fish, he will never go hungry again; however, if you just give a man some fish, he’ll never learn how to catch his own fish.” [28] While the project is a worthy one, it “isn’t teaching the people how to be economically viable,” meaning that they aren’t being incentivized to initiate their own sustainable enterprises. The potential for the people to “take [their] resources to teach another town how to ‘fish’ for themselves” is not being realized. [29] After infrastructure is built, and there is no more need for additional employment in construction, it is unclear whether crime rates will continue to decrease and, in a larger sense, what will happen to Southside residents.

Is there UDP Corruption?

With increasing wealth in Belize and greater access to international aid, more scrutiny has been placed on the origins and destinations of the aid and (“sometimes secret”) grants flowing into the country. Latin America and the Caribbean have a history of corruption that cannot be ignored even as countries like Brazil and Mexico have become economic success stories. [30] Belize has not proved an exception to this rule. In an off-the-record interview, a Belizian enterprise development employee explained to COHA that politicians “are just trying to please [their] constituenc[ies], even if it goes against the country’s national development,” and are often “tempted to do what’s wrong.” [31] Due to its recent economic successes—mostly in terms of its performance in poverty alleviation—organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have praised Belize, at times seemingly ignoring the country’s various instances and run-ins with corruption. [32] According to some Belizeans, especially opposition politicians, the UDP government is best described as a “business democracy,” meaning that in the course of fostering development, the UDP is widening the gap between the rich and the poor. [33] With government funds, UDP officials are accused of giving better land leases, scholarships, jobs, licenses and contracts to beneficial family members, close friends, and favored individuals. [34]

In contrast, others counter that the opposition is feeding Belizeans lies in order to return to power. Accordingly, the aforementioned enterprise development employee in Belize explained to COHA that when in government, “the UDP party actually did a lot more than the PUP government. But unlike the PUP government that has a perfect variety of propaganda speaking of all of these beautiful things they’re doing without actually doing it, it can be argued that the UDP has sold itself short to the people. As a consequence, the population has seen it as not doing much at all, which is why the last election was so close.” [35]

Still, despite allegations of corruption, the Southside Poverty Alleviation Project and other pro-poor activities that have been implemented are viewed as beneficial for Belize. Whether or not the UDP will be able to secure another reelection due to their opponents’ growing number of accusations of corruption, and the scandals previously brought to light this year, is still up in the air. Currently, UDP approval ratings are rapidly falling. [36]

Tamanisha John, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

References

[1] “Southside Poverty Alleviation Project Phase 2 Set in Motion.” PlusTV Belize. January 23, 2012. http://www.plustvbelize.com/Featured/NewsDetails/tabid/63/ArticleId/2104/Southside-Poverty-Alleviation-Project-Phase-2-set-in-motion.aspx; “Current Happening of the Poverty Alleviation Project.” PlusTV Belize. July 17, 2012. http://www.plustvbelize.com/Featured/NewsDetails/tabid/63/ArticleId/3495/Current-happenings-of-the-Poverty-Alleviation-Project.aspx; “The Collet Canal and North Creek Dredging and Lining Project: The Southside Poverty Alleviation Project.” Cisco. http://cisco.com.bz/pdfs/Southside%20Poverty%20Alleviation%20Project%20-%20Collet%20Canal%20&%20North%20Creek%20

Canal%20-%20Scope%20of%20Work%20-%20Updated.pdf

[2] Ibid., “Southside Poverty Alleviation Project Phase 2 Set in Motion.”; Ibid.,”Current Happening of the Poverty Alleviation Project.”

[3] Ibid., “The Collet Canal and North Creek Dredging and Lining Project: The Southside Poverty Alleviation Project.”

[4] Shane D. Williams. “Thousands of Jobs with Millions in Infrastructure Development.” The Guardían. September 26, 2013. http://www.guardian.bz/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6820:thousands-of-jobs-with-millions-in-infrastructure-development&catid=53:headlines

[5] Ibid., “Thousands of Jobs with Millions in Infrastructure Development.”;
“CISCO wants to employ At-risk Youths” Channel5 Belize. November 5, 2011. http://edition.channel5belize.com/archives/62861;
“Southside Youth Success: Pathways to Employment for Young Men at-risk of Joining Gangs” United Nations Development Programme. http://www.undp.org/content/belize/en/home/operations/projects/human_development/
southside_youth_success_pathways_to_employment_for_young_men_at_risk_of_joining_gangs.html;
Ibid., “The Collet Canal and North Creek Dredging and Lining Project: The Southside Poverty Alleviation Project.”

[6] Ibid., “Thousands of Jobs with Millions in Infrastructure Development.”;
Ibid., “CISCO wants to employ At-risk Youths” News 5;
Ibid.,”The Collet Canal and North Creek Dredging and Lining Project: The Southside Poverty Alleviation Project.”

[7] Ibid., “Thousands of Jobs with Millions in Infrastructure Development.”;
Ibid., ”Southside Youth Success Project Drop-in Centre Serving Belize City Youth.”

[8] Ibid., “The Collet Canal and North Creek Dredging and Lining Project: The Southside Poverty Alleviation Project.”;
Ibid., “Thousands of Jobs with Millions in Infrastructure Development.”

[9] Ibid., “The Collet Canal and North Creek Dredging and Lining Project: The Southside Poverty Alleviation Project.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., “CISCO wants to employ At-risk Youths”;
Ibid., “The Collet Canal and North Creek Dredging and Lining Project: The Southside Poverty Alleviation Project

[12] “A Partner in Belize’s Infrastructural Development since 1977: Welcome to Cisco Construction.” Cisco Construction Limited. www.cisco.com.bz

[13] “Rehabilitating Inmates to Become Citizens.” KOLBE Foundation. kolbe.bz;
Ibid., “CISCO wants to employ At-risk Youths.”;
Ibid., “Southside Youth Success: Pathways to Employment for Young Men at-risk of Joining Gangs.”; Ibid., “The Collet Canal and North Creek Dredging and Lining Project: The Southside Poverty Alleviation Project.”

[14] Ibid., “Rehabilitating Inmates to Become Citizens.”;
Ibid., “The Collet Canal and North Creek Dredging and Lining Project: The Southside Poverty Alleviation Project.”

[15] Ibid., “The Collet Canal and North Creek Dredging and Lining Project: The Southside Poverty Alleviation Project.”

[16] Ibid., “Development and Employment- Lake Independence Boulevard Underway.”;
Ibid., “CISCO wants to employ At-risk Youths.”;
Ibid., “The Collet Canal and North Creek Dredging and Lining Project: The Southside Poverty Alleviation Project.”

[17] “Civic To Be Dismantled, Not Demolished.” 7 News Belize. September 24, 2013. http://www.7newsbelize.com/sstory.php?nid=26609;
Ibid., “Development and Employment- Lake Independence Boulevard Underway.”;
Ibid., “CISCO wants to employ At-risk Youths.”;
Ibid., “The Collet Canal and North Creek Dredging and Lining Project: The Southside Poverty Alleviation Project.”

[18] “United Democratic Party at 40.” The Guardían. September 26, 2013. http://www.guardian.bz/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6825%3Aunited-democratic-party-at-40&Itemid=91

[19] Ibid.

[20] Author interview on Belize Politics and Southside Alleviation Project. October 2013.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., “United Democratic Party at 40.”

[23] “Second term of Progress.” The Guardían. August 29, 2013. http://www.guardian.bz/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6718%3Asecond-term-of-progress&Itemid=91;
Ibid., “United Democratic Party at 40.”

[24] Ibid., “United Democratic Party at 40.”

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Author interview on Belize Politics and Southside Alleviation Project. October 2013.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ted Goertzel. “Corruption, Leadership and Development in Latin America.” Rutgers University, Camden. http://crab.rutgers.edu/~goertzel/CorruptionLA.pdf

[31] Author interview on Belize Politics and Southside Alleviation Project. October 2013.

[32] “Bribery and Corruption in Belize.” FiWeBelize. April 18, 2012. http://fiwebelize.com/bribery-and-corruption-in-belize/;
“Hon. Gaspar Vega: No Apologies For “Giving” Land to Family.” 7 News Belize. August 2, 2012. http://www.7newsbelize.com/sstory.php?nid=23103;
Justice Kenneth Gale. “Reform Will Stop Corruption.” Amandala Newspaper. September 20, 2013. http://amandala.com.bz/news/reform-stop-corruption/;
“2 Belizeans in Mexico Drug Bust.” News 5 Belize. February 11, 2013. http://edition.channel5belize.com/archives/81862;
Nick Miroff. “Mexico’s drug war comes to Belize.” Global Post. October 11, 2011. http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/111005/mexicos-drug-war-finds-belize;
“Elvin Penner Involved in Fraudulent Passport Scandal.” The San Pedro Sun. September 26, 2013. http://www.sanpedrosun.com/politics-and-government/2013/09/26/elvin-penner-involved-in-fraudulent-passport-scandal/;
“Lost In Translation?” The Slovak Spectator. September 16, 2013. http://spectator.sme.sk/articles/view/51348

[33] Ibid.,. “Thousands of Jobs with Millions in Infrastructure Development.”;
“Taiwan Present $5 Million Grant to Belize for Infrastructure Projects.” Caribbean Journal. May 9, 2013. http://www.caribjournal.com/2013/05/09/taiwan-presents-5-million-grant-to-belize-for-infrastructure-projects/

[34] Ibid., “Bribery and Corruption in Belize.”;
Ibid.,”Hon. Gaspar Vega: No Apologies For “Giving” Land To Family.”;
Ibid., “Reform Will Stop Corruption.”;
Ibid., “Lost In Translation?”

[35] Author interview on Belize Politics and Southside Alleviation Project. October 2013.

[36] Ibid., “Bribery and Corruption in Belize.”;
Ibid., “Hon. Gaspar Vega: No Apologies For “Giving” Land To Family.”;
Ibid., “Reform Will Stop Corruption.”;
Ibid., “Elvin Penner Involved in Fraudulent Passport Scandal.”

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