By Ambassador Daniel Gutierez
I remember September 21st, 1981, clearly, the buzz, the music, and festivities, the bangs of the celebratory exuberance of a nation born. I guess it is only human to look back and realize that the soiree deafened any discussion on the new set of rules we inherited. When the parties ended, it was time to roll up the proverbial sleeves and build our nation. We would leave any discussion and education about the way we are governed to the school system. Period! End of story!
The problem with this approach is that—of course, with the rare exception of a zealous social studies teacher here and there—this in-depth discussion and understanding of our rulebook did not happen. At least not for those in my generation. I am not making our school system a scapegoat; I am simply admitting, that for many Belizeans, there is only a cursory understanding of the rules we live under, and by this I mean our Constitution.
So, here we are 40 plus years after independence and about to enter into the most important exercise in a generation, again. Without the benefit of a crash course on the Constitution, we are about to re-write the rule book. Many Belizeans have voiced that constitutional reform must be undertaken. I for one agree with them. Having said this I think it prudent to caution the current framers against throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The very fact that we can have a public discussion on our Constitution and the way we are governed without people being carted off to jail, means that something has worked and those aspects of our political culture ought to remain sacrosanct.
I should also be clear that this piece is not meant to be an exhaustive guide to all the areas where the current constitution needs to be improved upon. I will instead concentrate on a couple of the areas, in no particular order of importance, that have been in the public discourse recently.
As we read these paragraphs and others written by other Belizeans, I invite us to not look at the potential changes to come and measure these by the yardstick of other nations. By this, I mean that what other nations in other times and places have constructed for themselves should not be our straitjacket. We should welcome these as guides, but not as prescriptions. Belize should construct a system of governance that works for Belize, fully conscious of our nuances, our politics, our way of life. We should not copy and paste from anyone no matter how glamourous they appear to live. We can be guided by what has worked for them, but we must build something that will work for us, or we shall fail.
First, with no disrespect to the current Monarch or its representatives in Belize, the time has come for Belize to have a Belizean-born head of state. The Monarchy and the Governor-General are vestiges of colonialism and we must move on. As we explore the possibility of a post monarchial Belize, we need to ask ourselves what the nation should expect from its head of state. Given our experiences since 1981, we would be wise to have a head of state that is first the guardian of the constitutional order and second who is outwardly nonpartisan.
The first is achieved in the system of laws; however, the second is trickier but imperative. Any outcome that achieves neither of these is merely an expensive decoration.
The framers of our new constitution should not shy away from a system where the head of state serves for a period of no less and no more than a decade, or a period that goes beyond a specific government. I can understand how the direct election of the person holding this office is attractive to representational purists. However, given our Belizean experience in party politics, we should guard against a person elected through the same party politics mechanism.
How to legitimize this office while sidestepping the basic tenants of representational democracy and at the same time vaccinating it against the malaise of party politics is indeed a tall order. To be clear though, if this office is to remain divorced from the everyday political back and forth, then this delicately balanced outcome must be our north star.
Second, more Belizean voters must have a say in who the leader of the opposition or party leader and, by extension, a potential Prime Minister is. Party conventions where a select club, handpicked by an even more exclusive cabal, decides who the next Prime Minister or Opposition leader is, is anachronistic, exclusionary, and nonrepresentative. Although Belizeans accept this status quo, many don’t like it, and this reform process would be an opportunity missed were this practice not end up in its crosshairs.
Third, we must endeavor to remove the coercive participation of money and influence from the system of governance. This is not easy, but we must undertake this task with urgency and with clear eyes. In doing so, however, we must not assume that the political parties are the only entities in governance that have powerful forces whispering in their ears, a platform denied to most Belizeans. Clearly, the political parties have money influencers. This is not new and I will not expound further as there exists a mountain of literature in this regard. Suffice to say we have an opportunity to address it without unduly curtailing the right of any Belizean to make financial contributions to the party or parties of their choice.
Since the inclusion of the social partners in formal national discourse started with constitutional reforms years ago, we have not stopped to realize that social partners are not immune to money influencers or chain of command influencers and we must find a way to address this in this reform. Before I go any further, I should point out that the underlying assumption regarding my position on the chain of command influencers in the Senate is premised on there being no change to how senators are appointed, or elected. However, I do not know if it is desirable to leave the Senate in its current form.
The Senate in its current form, not including the appointments by the political parties, is elected from exclusive groups of Belizean organizations, and it is arguable that this exclusivity in and of itself is not participatory and thereby non-democratic.
We must examine our conscience, question ourselves, and ask if as a people, and in the maximum expression of our national persona, meaning our system of governance, are we content in providing a platform to some to the exclusion of many, notwithstanding the parliamentary eloquence and good intention of the some? Further discussions need to be had on this topic and we should enter into this process guaranteeing protection to no sacred cows.
Let me be clear, I have participated in the Senate as a part of the Business Sector. I support the principle of social partnership and I am witness to the positive benefit of having diversity in discussions of national importance. I am still a member of the Chamber of Commerce, and I support the inclusion of social partners fully. I merely posit that the way social partners participate in our democracy needs to be reexamined in the current exercise.
In the case of social partners representing workers, their domain, their motivation, and their command and control is Belizean, enough said. Social partners representing the private sector are made up of companies and entities that are legally Belizean, although there are foreign-owned entities therein. The majority are companies that live and die based on what happens in Belize, thereby, making their impetus the progress of Belize’s economy as a matter of survival. In their majority, the command and control are Belizeans, but not always.
Social partners representing the churches have their organizations, parishioners, and their outreach grounded in Belize, but by the very nature of how they are set up, in several cases, their command and control is foreign. This is not a criticism of them, but it is a description of the reality where they are concerned. It does not make them bad, or less effective as participants in the system, but when you’re not the boss, you’re not the boss, period. Their command and control is in Europe or in North America.
The responsibility of the state is to its citizens first and foremost, and while the churches have participated with good intent as social partners, the state and the organs of the state like the Constitution must ensure that parental influences, which are incongruent with our ethos as a people, and without curtailing people’s rights to freedom of conscience, are kept in check.
Regarding the NGO community, the representatives, the efforts, and the results therefrom are in Belize and focused on Belize, but as with other social partners, the command and control may not be. It is no secret that the money and the influence behind several of our NGOs are not from this country. In fairness to their efforts and in the broadest description of their work, the pursuits and goals of the NGO community are laudable, but in many cases, these are unabashedly global pursuits.
Unless we are naïve, it should be clear to any detached observer that global pursuits and local needs will never line up 100%. It is just life and we need to understand this clearly. I also want to be clear about one thing: I know several public personas in the NGO movement and those I know are all in for Belize and want the best for this country. A Constitution, though, cannot rely on personalities. It must prescribe parameters if it wants to stem the coercion that in this case may come from abroad and pursue objectives that may not completely align with our own in Belize.
I hope that this article, and others like it, stimulate conversation and lead us to face topics that may be difficult to discuss. Please discuss these with your family and friends, over dinner and after church, in school, and at work. They are not easy, but constitutional reform is not for the faint of heart, toes will be stepped on and feathers might get ruffled. That is par for the course. So let us take on this generational conversation with zeal, honesty, patriotism, and always with respect for each other. Our country, our children, and grandchildren should expect this of us and we must deliver.