Trouble in Paradise

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 15, No. 4            January 27, 2005

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Assistant Police Commissioner Crispin Jeffries the riot act after permission had expired.
After permission had expired, officers shot tear gas in the air to disperse the crowds.
Some union workers laid down and refused to leave; police officers resorted to physically drag them from the area.
Pepper spray released at the crowd of protestors.
George Frazer, National Trade Union Congress of Belize General Secretary being ushered out of Belmopan.
Through Friday, many individuals tried to persuade the riot squad to move. As seen above, this individual waived a Belizean flag in front of the squad to remind them that they too are Belizeans.

On January 14th, 2005, Prime Minister Said Musa presented his 2005/2006 budget for the country of Belize. What he presented was a proposal to increase taxes, and deferred the payment of a promised raise of pay for public workers, which left many unhappy. Among those were the National Trade Union Congress, Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the United Democratic Party along with residents of the country who openly showed their discontentment.

     Before being passed into law, the budget had to be debated between both parties and the debate was set for Friday, January 21st, 2005. The days leading up to Friday saw many unhappy residents and the lengths they were willing to go to show their disapproval. On Wednesday, the unions and chamber called for a two-day strike and several businesses in Belize City showed their support to the Chamber by closing their doors on Thursday. Also, on Thursday, the National Teachers Union held a march in protest and also called for a two-day strike, which was visible on San Pedro on Friday when the San Pedro Roman Catholic School was closed.

     Many watched the local news attentively to see what was happening across the country. Channel 7 News reported that just before 1:00 a.m. on Thursday, someone doused kerosene on the Department of Women's Affairs, and set it on fire. The security guard, who was inside, was alerted to the smoke and called the Fire Department, which managed to put it out quickly with only very minor damage to the side of the building. Then, sometime after 3:00 a.m. in Orange Walk Town, fire officials were called to the offices of Area Representatives Ismael Cal and Servulo Baeza on Barrack Road which were engulfed in flames. After the fire, fire officials reported that although on the outside there was minimal damage; the inside of the offices was completely destroyed. The cause of the fire was unknown. Back in Belize City, sometime after 5:00 a.m., someone dumped two loads of sand and clay on the center of the Haulover Bridge, blocking traffic on both sides for over a mile and for longer than an hour. At 6:00 a.m., fire crews were called to use high-pressure hoses to break up the blockage, which did not finish until nearly 7:00 a.m., leaving many commuters stranded and anxious, but still supportive of the action. Belize City and San Pedro residents awoke Thursday morning to empty pipes after the water supply was cut when Belize Water Services Limited employees did not show up to work.

     On Friday, the day started very quietly. Through the morning, crowds from the UDP, PUP and eight trade unions converged on Belize's capital to show their support for or against the budget. Soon after, Prime Minister Said Musa came in and delivered an address to his supporters. "Today is a historic day. My friends whenever there is change there is controversies. But the PUP is the party of change for the better. Change for progress, change to create a better life for the poor people in this country. What we are saying today is that those that have more must contribute more. We must remain united. Unity is strength. Once there is the unity of the people, there is no force on earth that can stand the force of the people," he said.

     Through the morning, the crowd got restless, fighting with the police officers and cadets could no longer could contain them. The Belize Police Department was determined to hold the line, maintaining a tight grip on and around Independence Hill. It was at this point that the riot squad was sent in. This only seemed to infuriate the gathering more. Assistant Police Commissioner, Crispin Jeffries attempts to cool the crowd were quickly met with open hostility. Behind police barriers, protestors collect missiles to hurl at the authorities, including rocks, lumps of soil, glass bottles and even fruit.

     As the violence escalated, union leaders disassociated themselves from the fighting. Horrace Patten, President of National Trade Union Congress Belize told Channel 5, "We like the turnout but the problem is we don't want to get involved with any political thing. Because our thing is strictly non-political. So, what we are saying is non-political so we don't want the different people be mixing around with us that causing mischief that would create problem. So, we are trying to keep people away from that type of thing. That's why some of us are riled up because we don't want to get mixed in the crowd and creating any type of problem."

     Prime Minister Said Musa was forced to adjourn the budget debate due to the chaos outside the National Assembly building.

     The crowd got angrier when it was learnt that Brian ‘Yellowman' Audinett had been arrested. The gathering then shifts its attention to the Belmopan Police Station. Police Commissioner Carmen Zetina agrees to process Yellowman as quickly as possible to calm the crowd. This, however, does not eliminate the violence. Jeffries uses a shotgun filled with plastic pellets to keep protesters back. Tear gas and pepper spray are also Jeffries' weapons of choice.

     The permission for the demonstration expired at 3:00 p.m., but the protestors were given a one hour extension. At the end of the extension, repeated demands for dispersal were largely ignored. Jefferies read the riot act to the crowd, and after an additional 40 minutes, he ordered riot police to disperse the crowd, which they did using teargas and plastic pellets. Some union workers laid down and refused to disperse; they were physically dragged from the area.

     At the end of the day, the crowd was ushered out of Belmopon. A bright light was cast on the government once more when backbenchers Cordel Hyde and Mark Espat held press conferences. Whether it was heard over the radio or over the local news, it was quite an earful. Both, Area Representatives made parliamentary history when they voted against the budget and would have made even greater history if they had been given a chance to speak at the National Assembly on Friday. Since, the debate was adjourned their voices were never heard but they were undeterred and the country heard what they had to say. "The south side of Belize City is hurting and when they hurt, I hurt. They say that we on the south side should be happy because we will be getting $2 million for basic infrastructure projects. Madam Speaker, that's good but that's not good enough. That's not good enough when you spend $20 million on the Marine Parade, $50 million on Mahogany Heights, and $44 million on the dredging of the Port of Belize City. That is not enough. Our poor constituents don't have a choice, they get dragged to court every week when they can't find the money to pay their property taxes, sometimes for a less than a $100. Madam Speaker, 50% of the labor force earns less than $720 a month. 25% of all our people who work earn less than $120 a week. When you touch a $1 or $2 from a man making a $120 a week, it hurts. $2 more in bills is the difference between having a meal to eat and putting your children to bed hungry. And, Madam Speaker, God knows there are a lot of people putting their children to bed hungry many nights. Madam Speaker, we are becoming too much for the rich and not enough for the poor and to paraphrase the Jamaican artist Tanya Stephens, ‘if we don't spend enough on the poor, we won't have enough to protect the rich'. We on this side of the House have to burn with the gospel of the poor and use that flame to light up their lives. What is good for the poor is good for Belize, what is bad for the poor is bad for Belize. Madam how can I support a budget that doesn't support my people," stated Cordel Hyde, Lake Independence Representative. Albert Area Representative Mark Espat had the following to say, "You can confirm that as I rise to make this statement there is no halo around my head. I accept full responsibility for my membership in the Cabinet since 1998. There have been times before that I should have spoken more plainly and more openly to my colleagues and to the people and I chose not to do so. Faced with this budget I proudly adopt the position of these unions, I shall not be moved and therefore I am a member of the PUP but I cannot support this budget."

     On Monday, January 24th, 2005, most schools countrywide (including the San Pedro Roman Catholic School) remained closed. Special Convoy for Children, Dolores Balderamos Garcia, issued a press release later in the day stating, "It is my view that our children belong in school and that we must not continue to allow them to have to bear the brunt of whatever differences are being manifested at this time. [...] I therefore call on all teachers to reflect carefully on these issues and to quickly put the best interests of children first." The Ministry of Education issued a similar release, "The safety and welfare of our students must continue to be of paramount importance and the Ministry calls upon all involved to act responsibly and to desist from making any statements or taking further actions which are likely to create uncertainty or fear in the minds of our students and their families. It is time to return to the classroom where our children will be safe and productive."

     On Tuesday, the strike continued into its fourth day! Teacher Union representatives met with the Prime Minister but when the meeting ended at 3:00 p.m., both sides had not reached an agreement. The union issued an ultimatum to the Government of Belize; they will remain out of classes until their demands are met.

     The 13-member senate also met on Tuesday to decide the fate of the budget. In a vote of 7-6 the budget was accepted and it now waits for the Governor General's signature.

     However, the most affected by the nationwide strike are the students. According to representatives of the University of Belize and Saint John's Junior College, the voices of the youth must also be heard. In this effort, students held a march through the streets of Belize City on Wednesday.

     Once the budget is signed by the Governor General it is expected that the new taxes will come into effect as of February 1st, 2005.
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