Commentary: Referendum vs Legislative Action for Constitutional Amendments in Belize

By Wellington C. Ramos

In the country of Belize there are two ways described in the constitution as to the legal process in making an amendment to the Belize Constitution.

One way is through the introduction of the amendment or amendments in the House of Representatives and Senate and then obtaining the required majority vote from the members of both legislative bodies for approval.

The other way is to serve notice to the government on an issue or issues that you would like to be amended or be included in the constitution and then seek the required signatures from registered citizens to have the government of Belize put the question on a ballot in a referendum for the Belizean citizens to decide in an election to be held in order to vote on the question or questions.

However, the Government of Belize can decide whether it chooses to hold a referendum or not after all the signatures have been obtained. If the government refuses to hold the referendum, then I think the parties seeking the referendum would have to go to court and seek an injunction against the Government of Belize to comply with their request.

There are some Belizeans going around with a proposal that any future constitutional amendment or amendments should be put to the Belizean people in a referendum before the Constitution is amended. However, with the way Belize politics is today there is no guarantee that having a referendum will make any difference from having the members of the legislative bodies decide on the amendments.

There is too much money that is being injected into the Belize political process by the families and interest groups who control Belize. Some of these families and interest groups are currently buying the votes of poor Belizean people so that they can get elected and further enrich their families, friends and cronies. Little do these poor people realize that the more they sell their votes the more power they are giving to these wealthy families to control them.

This situation has now gotten out of control to the point where one cannot run for political office without going to these people for money. Once they get elected, they become agents for these same families and interest groups that contributed financially to their campaigns.

In order to avoid corruption in government, Belize should now consider passing a campaign finance bill. This law would regulate the amount of money each candidate can spend in an election campaign and how to go about soliciting the funds for a campaign. Criminal penalties and fines would be included in the legislation for those who violate the campaign finance laws and a provision to void or do an election recall where there is enough evidence to conclude that a person was elected by paying people to vote in an election or did not comply with the provisions set out in the campaign finance laws

The Government of Belize has a referendum pending to bring before the Belizean people on the Guatemalan claim to Belize. The government is proposing that the Guatemalan claim to Belize be put to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for a final resolution of the conflict.

Both the Belize and Guatemalan governments agreed to this years earlier in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) document that was signed by representatives of the two countries. The other referendum question that is pending is the one that Oceana is seeking to have a constitutional amendment in the Belize Constitution to ban the drilling of oil offshore and in other restricted areas.

The Government of Belize has different positions on this issue and it is left to be seen whether they will agree to have a referendum on this question. People must realize that the Constitution guarantees many things, but it is left to the government to enforce them on behalf of its citizens. A good example is the United States, where even though the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were passed to end slavery and guarantee fundamental rights to African-Americans, there are still some white people who refuse to accept African Americans and other ethnic groups as equal citizens.

Belize has many laws on the books that deal with several things, but yet the enforcement of these laws is lacking by the government. Before we jump to a hasty move to seek referendums for constitutional amendments, we must examine the role money, families, businesses, citizens and interest groups plays in our political system before the people with money control our people, politics, politicians, political parties, our country and our future.