By G. Michael Reid
At some point, Belizeans will have to get very serious about this fight against corruption. It matters not who is doing it, how much we like the ones doing it or what they have done for us personally. Corruption is wrong and must be stopped.
Each government that is voted into office comes in with grandeur promises of transparency, accountability and better governance than the government before them. Yet, hardly a few months into office and the rumors start flying and scandals start surfacing. This current United Democratic Party government has got to be as classic an example of that as it gets.
The people of Belize had high hopes for this government but they have been disappointed on every front. One area where the disappointment has been huge is in the area of land management and distribution. Before elections, Dean Barrow boasted that he would stop all corruption in the Lands Department and that he would “quitar” any land that was ill gotten. What he didn’t say was that while he would stop what was happening, he would diligently promote new and worse abuses. In recent months, there have been several accusations levied against the Lands Department and the Minister responsible for that department. Evidence reveals that he has been issuing huge tracts of land to his immediate relatives and friends. All this while ordinary Belizeans stand in line and are frustrated to no end in their attempt to acquire small parcels of land.
Belize has a total of 8,887 square miles of prime land mass. This translates to over five million acres of land. Each acre translates into 43,560 sq. feet; easily producing three or four large size housing lots. With a population of about 350,000 people, there is no good reason why each citizen cannot own at least one house lot. Yet it seems that all the land goes to just family and friends of the Lands Minister and a few select cronies.
In a recent interview when Minister of Lands Gaspar Vega was asked about giving out lands to his immediate family, he responded that his family was not like “normal” Belizeans. Fact is that none of these politicians think that they are like “normal” Belizeans. Unfortunately, we the “normal” Belizeans are the very ones who have given to these elected officials this status of “demigods”.
Recently, another scandal was exposed of lands in Placencia that had been given out to relatives and friends of the Minister. When it was found out that the land was in fact designated as a reserve, the government was forced to reverse the transactions. This is where it gets interesting and it is a practice that seems to have become all too common. Instead of reimbursing the monies that was initially paid, which turned out to be a mere pittance compared to what the land is really worth, government actually gave these land hogs market value. This means that some got two and three hundred times the amount they had initially paid for the land. Something is terribly wrong here!
In February, it was revealed in the House of Representatives about a piece of land that was given to one Derek Gillett, a close UDP confidant in Orange Walk. Turns out that land actually belonged to one Silvio Correo. Instead of just reacquiring the land and giving it back to the original owner, the government paid to Gillett, one hundred and forty eight thousand dollars of taxpayers’ money and apologized for any inconvenience caused. Any of us would be so lucky to have such an inconvenience caused.
There are many such stories and it seems a deliberate scheme to transfer taxpayers’ money to relatives and select cronies of these government ministers. Of course, as usual, the excuse of the apologists is that this has been happening for a long time. That does not make it right. At some point, there will have to be a change in the way things are usually done. That was the promise of the UDP. Instead, things have grown progressively worse.
The system, under which we are governed, while not perfect, does have mechanisms in place to check corruption. There is an Integrity Commission, an Auditor General and a Public Accounts Committee (PAC). If functional, they would be able to ensure that elected officials are held accountable in the spending of the people’s money. All elected officials, including Members of Parliament, Mayors, Councilors and even members of Town Boards must declare assets and liabilities on a yearly basis. The Commission is then tasked to evaluate and prevent unlawful enrichment by the misuse tax dollars. Problem is that not only are few filing but for the past five years, there is not even an Integrity Commission. The Auditor General has no information to work with and the PAC lies dormant. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
There is a media house in Belmopan that has been doing an excellent job of highlighting many of the wrongs happening under this government. Plus TV is neither red, blue nor any other color. The hosts are actually religious based and have been hitting out right left and center. For a while, I was even convinced that they were doing the bidding of the United Democratic Party. One of the hosts, Patrick Andrews is in fact, son of Joseph Andrews, a dyed in the wool UDP supporter. The fact is that there is a lot wrong with the way this government has been running this country. One would have to be blindly loyal to not recognize that and obviously, Patrick Andrew’s loyalty is not blind. He has been speaking out against corruption.
John Saldivar has now decided that he will take Patrick Andrews to court for suggesting that he, John Saldivar, is corrupt. Folks, this has got to be the biggest joke of the year. Everybody knows that John Saldivar is corrupt. How could he afford to build that massive mansion in Belmopan and how did he acquire the property on which it sits? Wasn’t that land allocated as the site for a cemetery?
It is interesting that any UDP should accuse anyone of being libelous. Their radio station, Wave radio, on a consistent basis disrespects, disparages and tell lies on people. Every Wednesday John Saldivar himself is on there and joins right in with that vitriolic. I guess that ole Kriol saying is oh so true, “duh so nuh like duh suh!”