Country in Crisis

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 15, No. 17            April 28, 2005

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Although, it has been months since the riot in Belmopan, people’s emotions are still on the edge and unions are still fighting what now seems to be an unending battle. The most recent confrontation occurred last week over the highly coveted company of the Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL). BTL workers believe that the telephone corporation should belong to Belizeans and appear willing to go to big lengths to achieve their purpose. A purpose that has the support of several unions and students of Belize, if only to meet the defiance of the government.

   For the eighth day (as of press time) BTL employees sat out of work and the company remained shut and under heavy police and Belize Defense Force guard. President of the Belize Communication Workers Union, Paul Perriott explained to the media they were ready to return to work Everything they are trying to say boils around security and trust. And I’m saying if they even let us in tomorrow or Thursday or Friday or next week Monday, if we don’t have trust right now, I don’t think no other day we are going to have trust. Perriott went on to state that workers’ wages had been frozen at the various banks where they tend to withdraw their salaries.

   The communications breakdown has disrupted commerce and tourism. Tourists have not been able to use the credit cards in many businesses. Many reportedly have left the country in frustration.  General Manager for the Belize Tourism Industry Association Andrew Godoy commented, “When we had the services, the loss of communication services, we saw that Internet booking went down. […]Our members are basically very dissatisfied with the situation that we’re currently facing because in fact they’ve lost business.” Godoy added that the crisis is already impacting reservations for Christmas.

   A check with airlines revealed that American Airlines and US Airways both had to cancel flights due to the fact that there was no phone service and they were unable to communicate with the rest of the world. Continental Airlines did not cancel any flights, but representatives said, “it has certainly been a challenge every day.”

   On Monday, the Public Service Union along with the National Trade Union Congress of Belize, both showed solidarity towards the BTL workers and again demanded the resignation of the Musa administration. General Secretary of the National Trade Union Congress George Frazer, expressed the following to Channel 5 News “It has been made official now that the Belize National Teacher’s Union is taking strike action. In my hand I have a copy of the formal notice to the relevant authorities including to the Commissioner of Labor, the Minister of Education, and others and the reasons. There are three main reasons. Some are saying it’s not legal. It is legal”.

   In an interview with Channel 5, Education Minister Francis Fonseca explained that he does understand that the unions want to show solidarity to the BTL workers however, closing the schools down is not the best option. He further commented, “Well I agree there are serious challenges our country faces, but how do we go about fixing those challenges? How do we go about addressing those problems? I certainly don’t believe that any right thinking Belizean, any reasonable rational Belizean believes that the way to fix those problem is to illegally and unconstitutionally remove a government from office.”

   It seems that across the country people are wondering when the calm will finally settle. But, what is prompting everyone to take a stand? Why are everyone’s nerves on edge?

   On April 19th, Leader of the Opposition Dean Barrow held a press conference where he stated the following, “The UDP for its part begins now a sustained campaign of civil disobedience.” What nobody realized was that this support would end with the looting of several businesses in downtown Belize City, 98 people getting arrested, four citizens hospitalized, and eight officers wounded along with one Belize Defense Force soldier.

   The situation began with student government associations from the University of Belize (UB) and Saint John’s College Junior College (SJCJC) organized a march to support the BTL workers down Princess Margaret Drive in Belize City toward Prime Minister Said Musa’s residence. Chanting “Set Belize Free,” the gathering met strong police resistance. Later in the evening, the gathering had moved to the Belcan Bridge, where students and other supporting the cause, parked their cars in the middle of the bridge with the hoods open, seemingly as if the cars had broken down. The confrontation followed with a sit down, citizens sitting on the center of the bridge. Excitement grew and tempers flared when after the arrival of Assistant Commissioner of Police Crispin Jeffries. Jeffries along with other officers attempted to remove a car from the bridge when its owner, 19-year-old Nazima Reyes pushed Jeffries and was “manhandled” by him.

   The crowd gathered had increased by the hundreds and soon protestors, seemingly not students began throwing rocks, broken pieces of bottle and pieces of concrete at the officers. Eventually, the rioters began lighting tires on fire at the bridge. Afterward, the protestors began to disperse and a new group gathered. This group made its way to Albert Street in the downtown area and proceeded to break through glass window, gaining access to several stores.

   On April 21st, Honorable Said Musa made a public address stating: “The persons whose properties have been looted and vandalized are innocent victims in all of this. […] Many of the perpetrators involved have already been arrested and detained and will be dealt with swiftly and severely, to the full extent of the law. […] The patience and restraint of this government have been severely tested. Enough is enough. We will no longer negotiate with those whose clear objective is to force out this government and destabilize the country. […] People of Belize: Let us accept the truth. Responsibility for last night’s callous and dangerous acts of hooliganism and criminality must lie squarely at the feet of the Leader of the Opposition and his United Democratic Party”

   How is San Pedro dealing with the whole situation? Work on the island continues although businesses have expressed that the situation has not been easy, many have found a way to cope. In several interviews, The San Pedro Sun found out that the major issue tourists have had to deal with is the fact that at times they have been unable to use their credit cards since the phone lines have been down. “It happens everywhere I guess but it is just sad that it had to happen on my vacation,” commented a visitor from Greensboro, Alabama, USA. Residents on the other hand are working non-stop and helping visitors have a somewhat regular vacation. “It has not been easy, but it is not the fault of the guest. They come here to have a good time and we try to help them any way we can!” exclaimed a hotel employee.

   In an interview with Area Representative for Belize Rural South, Manuel Heredia Jr., The Sun found out that he does support the movement of the UDP. “If you listened carefully, Barrow asked for civil disobedience not vandalism and what occurred in Belize City on Wednesday night was exactly that – vandalism. If something positive does not happen now, our children will be the ones to protest tomorrow.”

   The Ambergris Caye Chamber of Commerce condemned the call for civil disobedience. In a press release they stated, “Civil unrest is destroying one of our country’s main sources of income, tourism.” The international media is beginning to pay attention to the Belize crisis. The Reuters News Network released a story April 25th titled: Trouble in paradise: Belize hit by political crisis. The story begins with  “The tiny Central American nation of Belize, rich in jungle and coral reefs, is in its worst crisis since Independence from Britain in 1981 with riots, looting and strikes testing the government.”

   The United States Embassy felt compelled to issue a statement saying:  “it is unnecessary to ask U.S. citizens to defer their travel to Belize. There are no indications of any anti-U.S. sentiments, or that U.S. citizens or interests, or other foreigners, are at any greater risk/…./ If conditions change, a travel advisory will be issued.”

   While Belize has a history of mild political conflict, the current situation appears to have arisen from the alleged mismanagement of the public funds by the government that has thrust the GOB to a state of financial instability.The situation escalated in February, when Prime Minister Said Musa and his administration announced the budget for the coming fiscal year; where he stated that taxes would increase and salaries would, despite promises, not increase. What followed was civil unrest one the country had not seen in all of Belize’s young history.
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