The first week of Donald Trump’s presidency has shocked every liberal, politicians, the mainstream media, and perhaps even those conservatives that supported him. Mr. Trump was cleverly tipped into the seat occupied by one often described as Leader of the Free World, to the refrain of ‘Make America Great Again’. Now in office, that refrain has now shifted into an “America First” campaign that is being crammed into mainstream policy dictator-style, using Executive Orders.
Politicians for generations, since the birth of modern democracy, have often used the sentiment of citizens who feel forgotten to push them into power, though perhaps Mr. Trump is the first of such a breed in the United States. The idea that a leader will put popular ideas and interest first is intoxicating to a voter. Smart politicians, particularly those with large egos and god complexes have learned, like judo masters, to use the force of the citizenry’s yearning to be placed first, to drive their own agendas. History has proven time and time again though, that the outcome is not always to the benefit of those in whose name the campaign is fought. Past history shows the devastating outcome of strongmen like Stalin and Hitler who ruled in the name of nationalism, and whose insular power, intoxicating to them and their fanatics, led to savage brutality and eventual downfall of their own nations.
Closer to home, Latin American politics is littered with examples of populist campaigns whose outcomes have led to extreme poverty of the masses, civil wars and more often, the creation of wealthy demi-godlike oligarchs that benefit from control of laws and state assets. The current condition in Venezuela is the epitome of nationalism and populism gone too far. In the past the US has always been the balancing force that, in many instances, sponsored the creation of countering strongman forces in states where the left may have gained ground, and in extreme cases used force to overthrow those that crossed into the dark side of socialism. Today’s conditions where communism is a dead ideal, where political relations with Russia is warming, where drugs are being legalised, the reality is that insular US policies will focus more on terrorism and economic war, and less on political idealism and the war on drugs.
This is a reality that bodes not well for us on the south side of the seemingly inevitable wall.
At home, the typical Belizean citizen’s yearning to be ‘first’ seems to be less pronounced. The bulk of our voter class is more concerned about individual survival, and less on the type of populist or nationalist leanings that drove a forgotten white American middle class to desperately cling to Mr. Trump as their saviour. Short of the ingrained but waning instinct to be anti-Guatemala, and pro-nature, there are few issues that galvanise the masses in Belize to act in unison to follow a populist agenda, or a party that espouses such rhetoric to gain support. In 1989, the PUP’s ‘Belizean First’ campaign won them a narrow victory over the UDP despite a strengthened economy. Their ‘First Belizeans’ policies of the subsequent term, however, saw a few PUP insiders benefit handsomely from bloated contracts, leading to their defeat in 1993 in favour of the UDP’s promise of bread and butter issues like free education, and the visceral issue of corruption.
Since Independence, Belizean politics is a story of romantic nationalism by a few vs. aggrandisement and rejection of official corruption by the masses. The movement that brought Belize to independence in 1981 was a one-sided campaign by George Price who simply rode the wave of a declining British Empire’s desire to rid itself of its colonies, with little groundswell support by the masses. The civil response to the Heads of Agreement right before Independence was a small spark of nationalism, but it was economic conditions that led to the first UDP win in 1984. Every election thereafter was won not because of any mass movement by the disenfranchised, but because of policies that directly rewarded poor constituents, or as a result of anger over the amassing of wealth by ruling party insiders. The high-flying PUP party of ’98 – ’03 gave them a second term, but disunity, corrupt secret deals and a threatened economy led to civil action, which swept them out in 2008.
The public’s disinterest in nationalism is perhaps most evident in the muted public response to recent revelations of immigration irregularities, an issue that has plagued both major political parties. Similarly, the drastically changing ethnic and commercial demographic that has resulted from liberal immigration actions seems to be happening with scarcely a glance from core nationals.
The current Barrow administration, now into its third term, has perhaps shown the first real hint of populism in governance throughout its terms in office. Though there was little populist rhetoric in its campaign, PM Barrow immediately implemented populist policies targeting the growing poverty and marginalisation of Belizeans. These pro-poor policies; embodied through programs like BOOST, Pantry, and often criticised Christmas Cheer, coupled with infrastructure improvements in key swing constituencies, were deployed through allocations to area reps in a discriminate manner to ensure victory, and it has worked. Further nationalistic moves like the nationalisation of public utilities and the perennial war against the Ashcroft Alliance in favour of Belizean interests has helped to maintain the populist view of Mr. Barrow while keeping a sheepish opposition PUP at bay.
The almost unanimous bi-partisan vote in the House on Friday to enact a bill to defend Belize’s foreign assets from predatory claims is confirmation of the genius of the Barrow Administration in solidifying its populism, and in further pushing its practical, though not stated, policies to put Belize and Belizeans first. It was almost comical to watch the opposition espouse arguments that walked a careful line of criticising Mr. Barrow’s handling of the Ashcroft claims without taking responsibility for the advent of those claims, without acknowledging their ongoing business and other ties to the Ashcroft Alliance, and without offering alternatives.
The ensuing sheepish whispers of their ‘yes’ votes for the Bill with bowed heads and furtive glances, was in itself an indictment for past sins that will forever haunt their chances as a viable opposition.
In a world where populism and protection seems to be the trend, the lesson is that a real ‘Belize First’ policy must be carefully crafted to ensure our survival in this brave new world. In one week, the enigmatic Mr. Trump has proven to the world, in a brash and unapologetic manner, that he is not afraid to offend. His shock and awe methods of negotiation will make him many enemies on the world stage, but may make him a giant among the like-thinking Americans that pushed him into power, and who yearn for their ideal of an era of conservative greatness. History is yet to be written as to how this era will turn out. Will this move toward populism unravel the American dominance of the last century, or will internal divisions, and an informed modern population force him to tone down the rhetoric? In the short term, though, we must, as Belizeans say, “sleep wid wi own eye”.
The bold and defensive moves made in the House of Representatives on Friday is an example of how Belize needs to act in order to find its place in this new reality. The challenges will be many: The fallout from changing immigration policies, tariff structures, global and regional alliances, and most importantly, banking and financial structures will impact us either positively or negatively, and we must prepare, proactively and boldly. Belize and Belizeans must be placed first for real, and not for rhetoric, and it has to be a bi-partisan effort void of political motives.
We must applaud the mature bi-partisan action on Friday, not just because of the defence that the Bill affords us, as it is without a doubt that the Alliance will not relent. We must celebrate this as a signal that despite the differences, despite the egg on the face of the opposition, despite the costs, we are finally seeing the importance of placing Belize first, and that realisation could not be more timely.