Posted: Sunday, January 3, 2021. 5:37 pm CST.
By Aaron Humes: Were it not for COVID-19, the intrigues of politics would perhaps be our top story given it was an election year. But there were many consequential happenings, starting with the revelation of Belmopan area representative (as he then was) John Saldivar taking outside campaign finance donations from a businessman, Lev Aslan Dermen, found in a Utah federal court to be guilty of multiple counts of fraud in relation to a renewable energy scandal involving a polygamous family.
While Saldivar initially won his battle to succeed Dean Barrow as United Democratic Party leader in February, the Dermen revelations bit back hard. He was removed (or resigned) as Minister of National Security; lost a subsequent convention to Faber in July, and ultimately lost his Belmopan seat to the People’s United Party’s Oscar Mira in the general elections held in November.
Saldivar proved one of many casualties in that election for the UDP, which tumbled to its second-worst number of seats in the House of Representatives in post-Independence Belize, with five. The PUP under John Briceno won 26 and a wide mandate, outpolling the UDP by 88 thousand votes to 57 thousand. Defying expectations, 81 percent of Belizeans came out to vote countrywide.
Yet back in March, shortly after that UDP convention at the Belize City Center, it was a moment of unity as Barrow and Briceno agreed to co-chair the COVID-19 National Oversight Committee, with members of both parties installed on various subcommittees. Together the parties created various assistance programs for Belizeans suffering the economic ravages of COVID and collaborated on strategy for fighting the virus. However, by July, Briceno said he had had enough of being ignored and taken for granted by UDP grandees, and packed its bags.
It proved to be a shrewd move, as Briceno and the blue found an interested audience in their series of #planBelize manifesto launches which began in mid-August. Indeed, social media and particularly Facebook proved a critical addition to the political arsenal, as COVID-19 restrictions forced nearly every major event – from political rallies to concerts to press conferences – online. Earlier in the year, the PUP brought thousands out in person in downtown Belize City in what proved to be the last major rally of its kind.
The third party/independent movement saw the Belize People’s Front, led by Nancy Marin, achieve modest success in finishing in front of Patrick Rogers’ more established Belize Progressive Party (BPP). However, it was not without controversy as it had to dismiss a Cayo candidate due to concerns over Guatemalan citizenship. On the PUP side, Cayo West candidate Jorge “Milin” Espat somehow forgot to even register to vote; it turns out, though, that he had more than enough to send longstanding opponent Erwin Contreras, a former footballer, to the showers. The Belize PEACE Movement kept up pressure on the Government to redistrict electoral divisions before calling elections, but was unsuccessful, though the PUP has promised to do so.
It was also a year of retirements – Prime Minister Dean Barrow handing over to Faber after three decades in politics; former Prime Minister Said Musa suffering a stroke in May which hastened the end of his political career in early September; Orange Walk North representative and former Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega; former Attorney General, Minister of Foreign Affairs and judge of the Supreme Court Pickstock area rep Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington; Minister of Health Pablo Marin; Minister of Housing and Mesopotamia representative Michael Finnegan, the most prominent in the House, while former Ministers Godwin Hulse and Dr Carla Barnett as well as Mark Lizarraga bowed out in the Senate (the latter is now chair of the Board of Directors of Belize Telemedia Limited).
Among those on the lower rung are two who exited in disgrace: Douglas Singh, a former Minister whose private conversation with this reporter concerning distribution of COVID-19 assistance was unfortunately and unintentionally leaked (not by this reporter), and whose content led him to resign from all his positions in April. The other is Nestor Vasquez, whose misspending of Telemedia funds came to light in October before elections were called, and who resigned to enjoy retirement.
The year ended on a sad note politically, as the new Briceno administration lost a member to COVID-19, Corozal Bay’s David “Dido” Vega, on the day he was to be sworn in at the National Assembly. His seat will be contested in a by-election in the New Year. COVID-19 did not spare the political establishment as Prime Minister Briceno and several others from both sides of the fence caught it over the course of the year.
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