From the inception of this nation, corruption has been with us in one form or another.
Subsequent political administrations have succeeded at the polls largely due to the misdeeds of their predecessors, leading one to muse at the origins of the scourge of corruption on our society.
Transparency International defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”.
According to TI’s website; Quote: “Corruption can be classified as grand, petty and political, depending on the amounts of money lost and the sector where it occurs. Grand corruption consists of acts committed at a high level of government that distort policies or the central functioning of the state, enabling leaders to benefit at the expense of the public good. Petty corruption refers to everyday abuse of entrusted power by low- and mid-level public officials in their interactions with ordinary citizens, who often are trying to access basic goods or services in places like hospitals, schools, police departments and other agencies. Political corruption is a manipulation of policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision makers, who abuse their position to sustain their power, status and wealth.”
In order to ascertain the origin of this culture that has seemingly permeated our daily lives as portrayed in full display in the Senate hearings on Immigration, one must look at our origins as a nation and the foundation that was built upon which it has flourished.
British Honduras, in its early existence, was nothing more than a source for extraction of resources by British corporate interests. The Belize Estate and Produce Company; formerly the British Honduras Company emerged as the largest landowner in the new Crown Colony in the 1850s and onward. This company, controlled by a London firm with local representatives effectively became the ruler of the colony; controlling the governor’s seat and the wholly appointed Legislative Council. This effective control meant that business interests and politics would be forever intertwined. This company, in its dealings, conducted mass exportation of forest products, while sponsoring offensive and defensive military excursions to quell indigenous expansion in agriculture upon its vast land holdings. The company traded the extracted raw materials into Europe while ensuring that the population of the colony remained dependent on imports and discouraging domestic production of value added goods. In much of its dealings, Belize Estate used state sanctioned force to compel obedience to its policies, including indentured and near-slave conditions for workers under labor laws that favored their enterprise. In effect, indigenous systems of government that featured communal ownership and land use was replaced by centralized land ownership and an aristocracy that controlled national policies, basic resources and in effect the very survival of citizens.
In order to consolidate and confirm its power, the colonial rulers, controlled by commercial interests, established a strong bureaucratic system of checks and balances, designed to keep the control of resources in the hands of the few wealthy and connected landowners and primarily the shareholders of Belize Estate. In the middle management ranks, the rulers promoted those referred to as Royal Creoles to handle administration. These civil servants, never rising to any significant ranks, were taught to be obedient, dedicated and precise in their dealings to serve commercial interests disguised as the ever powerful ‘Crown’ in British colonial terms. Emerging from this dynamic came four distinctive classes; the white landowner class, the Royal Creole civil servants, the Mestizo small farmer class, and the indigenous Maya relegated to remote thatch villages, surviving only on subsistence forest based activities. On one hand, the creole civil servants understood the discipline needed to maintain strong governance structures, and for the most part, refrained from the allure of corruption; mainly because of their lack of acknowledgement of the commercial nature of the powers that effectively led them for almost a century. Corruption during that period was in effect Political Corruption, with petty corruption being almost non-existent. Civil servants practiced a high-level of servitude to colonial masters, while smaller Mestizo and Creole merchants benefitted from the profits of distribution of imported goods, and/or supply of extracted materials to the Company and its affiliates.
This social dynamic, persisting from the late 1800s until the introduction of self-government in 1964, the demise of Belize Estate due to resource depletion, and the eventual loss of interest by Great Britain leading to our eventual independence in 1981. In the midst of all this, the 1930s emerged as the crucible of modern Belizean politics. It was a decade during which exploitative labor conditions and authoritarian colonial and industrial relations began to give way to new labor and political processes and institutions that form today’s political parties.
With the removal of the British commercial-based executive rule; the replacements that took power through elective politics were largely from the Civil Service and the then small merchant classes. During this period of change in executive control, the leaders that emerged in this early phase from self-government to early independence followed a philosophy in line with the global movement for civil right and social justice. The euphoria of self-determination and the maintenance of a bureaucratic civil service meant that governance systems were intact, and everyone was working for the common good. While few elites still held control of much of the nation’s resources, crown lands became national lands, thereby replacing the Belize Estate hegemony in an effective transfer of economic power to the state, in the trust of its political leaders.
In the two decades following Independence, the constant shift in political power between the two leading parties meant that those who supported the parties, reaped the benefits of tapping into the national wealth. Traditionally, the minister that controls Natural Resources became the most envied of all, because that person controlled the power to create instant wealth. Policymaking during that era, shifting from the George Price philosophy of social justice to the Musa/Fonseca neoliberal policies, led to the creation of a new political elite whose wealth came as a result of the decisions of the political leaders. In essence, an era of Grand Corruption emerged whereby specific decisions in Cabinet allowed for activities that netted large profits for connected business interests. As the Belize Estate era ended, so begun the era of conglomerates such as the Ashcroft Alliance, and special interest deals like the Belize Airport Concession Company, Universal Health, and multiple failed mega-enterprises like Novelo’s Bus Company, INTELCO, and the Luke Espat group, just to mention a few. The traditional plunder of natural resources soon became augmented with use of public financial resources to bolster special interest. Mega tax incentives under special purpose regimes like the PIC Law and Economic Incentives Act meant that tax revenues came under attack, and as the failures of political-commercial ventures mounted, Government secret bailouts to connected friends eventually led to unsurmountable financial and political burdens that eventually forced the PUP out of office for the last three consecutive terms.
In the last decade, the current ruling administration made a marked effort to stamp out Grand Corruption. Policies shifted from favoring big business special interests, and toward a poverty alleviation agenda. This change in policy meant that the connected fat-cats of the past two decades felt pressure, as mega-deals came under legal and political pressure. Public utilities became re-nationalized at great cost, and government’s footprint expanded in its sheer size and infrastructural growth. The attempted consolidation of wealth using national financial resources has been mostly halted, but in its shadow Petty Corruption grew, buoyed by the growing immigrant business community and their imported practices which is centered on building alliances in the lower ranks of the public service at the transactional level.
The disciplined civil servants of colonial and early post-colonial times have largely been replaced with a new breed of public officers, protected by their unions and by antiquated civil service rules that make disciplining and dismissals all but impossible. This new enlightened force of officers, in an environment where political decisions disfavor challenges against organized labor, and where petty payment for consideration or indiscretion is readily available, have learned the power of their position, and the potential for profit that it brings. On the backdrop of this, manual systems based on paper have become inundated and outdated, making the task of proper audit an expensive and daunting one. The glaring example of system failures unfolds in front of our very eyes as we listen to public officers describing the inner workings of the Immigration Department, and defend their own indefensible actions which no doubt led to their personal enrichment.
Petty Corruption is the worse of them all, because it does not go away with political change. The public is quick to blame an elected official for the smallest failure in the system, but in reality, no politician has full control of every transaction that government undertakes. As I described above, the colonial rulers were able to keep petty corruption away because they used the force of colonial rule, and because the enterprises that controlled those that ruled would not tolerate competition for their own profits. We cannot legislate morality, and we are certainly not a punitive society today, as evidenced in the absence of successful prosecution of white collar or official crime.
It is my firm conviction that the best defense against petty corruption lies in the strengthening of our system of government using modern tools and technology. In my personal recent evaluations of government systems, the high level of manual intervention leads to a high level of discretion by public officers, and stagnates the ability to enforce checks and balances. Parallel to this, there has to be a strengthening of the public service by adjusting the antiquated laws under which it operates. The rules that were designed to protect officers from abuse now serve to protect them from discipline and prosecution in cases where wrong has been committed.
Why should we sit with our jaws wide open and watch uniformed Immigration officers unable to defend their obviously wrong actions, and we shake our heads and accept defeat, knowing that the story is the same is other government departments not in the public view? Yet we applaud industrial action that effectively increased our already high wage bill without demanding better performance.
It is a certainty that in the next few years, Belize will be under new leadership. The legacy of the Right Hon PM Barrow will be that he exhausted every option to correct the path from the Grand Corruption of the past regime, even at his own political peril, because that work had to be done. In short order, a new Prime Minister will be named; initially a UDP Prime Minister who will contest fresh elections no later than March of 2020. The next challenge of this leadership and of new leaders waiting in the wings will be to stamp out the Petty Corruption that has permeated our society, and for that all hands must be on deck. While I applaud the efforts of the Belize Chamber of Commerce in their recently announced anti-corruption campaign, I am afraid that it falls short in that at least 50% of the cause of corruption lies with the business community; as they say, it takes two to tango.
Perhaps it is our pirate DNA deep in our memory, inherited from the very rulers that left us the legacy of corruption that makes us complacent, or perhaps our voices are misdirected. It’s about time we wake up and as a community we embrace a no-tolerance policy. This is our country now; it no longer belongs to the colonial powers and we must set it right.