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April 14
17:14 2019

By Major Lloyd Jones

“You could have knocked me down with a feather when I heard the decision. There is just no way in my mind that I can rationally explain it. We may have lost a battle; we will absolutely win the war…There has been this intense thorough going, absolutely healthy debate and if this judgement were to mean the end of the road, I would be absolutely furious at the fact that the people of this country would have been deprived of their opportunity to make a decision – whether yes or no.”

      -- PM Dean Barrow, April 3, 2019

The Barrow administration was handed yet another crushing legal defeat at the Court of Appeal on April 8th; the second such defeat in less than a week.

The Barrow administration’s seemingly unstoppable referendum locomotive was firstly derailed on April 3rd when the Chief Justice [CJ] granted an interim injunction to what is effectively the PUP. Although the PUP was not a Claimant per se, all the Claimants are leaders of the PUP.

In response to the CJ’s ruling PM Barrow called a press conference in which he lamented the CJ’s ruling and then skirted on the margins of contempt when he tried to compel the CJ to deliver his judgement by April 9th. It was also at his press conference of April 3rd that Mr. Barrow announced what would be the UDP’s new tack: blame the PUP entirely for the collapse of his referendum. The new narrative became that the PUP was trying to deny the Belizean people their fundamental right to vote on the Compromis! No mention of the underlying defect in the Writ that gave birth to the injunction in the first place.

The CJ’s ruling notwithstanding, Mr Barrow remained optimistic, even if cautiously so, that he was going to hold his referendum as planned on April 10th. Mr Barrow hitched his wagon to two “prayers” – (1) that the Court of Appeal would reverse the CJ’s decision and (2) that the CJ would hear the matter on April 8th and deliver his judgement on April 9th. However, Mr Barrow’s strategy was completely demolished when the Court of Appeal refused to even hear the appeal. April 8th was therefore not just a legal defeat for the Barrow administration – it was also a political and psychological one.

Since the Compromis was signed in 2008 there have been a number of prominent Belizeans [Sandra Coye and Paul Morgan come to mind] who have been insisting that no Minister has the authority to enter Belize into a treaty and that for any treaty to be valid it must be taken to the House. In his usual highhanded way Mr. Barrow ignored those concerns. He would later be convinced that the Senate needed to ratify the Compromis and he did pass it to the UDP controlled Senate for them to do so.

To secure a YES vote, in February of 2017 Mr Barrow amended the Referendum Act to remove the validity threshold from 60% voter turnout to a simple majority. The transition to a simple majority was designed to channel the Belizean people to a YES vote. By removing the voter turnout threshold Mr. Barrow basically converted the stay at home voters to YES voters. The adjustment to the law was triggered by the fact that the proponents of the NO vote were advocating for people to stay at home in order to invalidate the results of the poll. The Barrow administration, sensing the likelihood of this happening, decided to reverse the roles: staying at home = a yes vote. Great strategy when you have law making powers!

Mr. Barrow also refused to commence the re-registration of voters that was due in July of 2017. Back in 2017 the argument used to stall the re-registration exercise was that the time between July 2017 and March 7, 2018 [eight months] was too short.

Perplexingly Mr. Barrow, on April 16th 2018 announced the start of the re-registration exercise and about two weeks thereafter [April 30th 2018] he announced that the referendum would be held on April 10th 2019. This is incredible because the period between the start of the re-registration exercise and the referendum would be only about nine months. If eight months was too short a time to conduct the re-registration before a municipal election how comes nine months is not too short a time to do so before the most important vote in our history?

Mr. Barrow’s strategy to secure a YES has been a multi-stranded one. Early on, he cleverly announced that the referendum should not take on political overtones and that his people will be “allowed” to vote their conscience, including members of his Cabinet. But Mr. Barrow is known for speaking through both sides of his mouth and that is why to this day not a single UDP Area Representative or any senior member of the UDP for that matter has had the courage to say NO to the ICJ. Mr. Barrow may have agreed to “allow” them to vote their conscience but that was no authority for them to publicly go against him. Those in the UDP’s upper echelon remember Marcel Cardona; they remember Zenaida Moya and they remember the butchering of Melvin Hulse! You don’t get to go contrary to Mr. Barrow and live to tell the tale.

Back to the Writ of Referendum.

Had the Barrow administration been paying attention they would have known that as far back as April of 2009, Eamon the Maestro pointed out at the 19th Signa Yorke Memorial Lecture Series that to “give legal certainty to the process, both the Referendum Act and the Constitution require amendment before the Referendum is held. The first amendment would be to section 2(1) (d) of the Referendum Act. The purpose of the amendment would be two-fold. First, it would make clear that this section applies not only in the case of a “proposed settlement with the Republic of Guatemala” as a result of negotiations, but also in the case of a submission to a judicial or arbitral body for final determination.”

How ironic then that it is Eamon, a decade later, who would demolish Mr. Barrow before the Supreme Court using the very same points he made before a group of young Belizeans. How is it that Mr Barrow did not know that he could not have brought us to a referendum in this matter? How could he have left such a gaping hole for the PUP to march through? Clearly deflated and in some political pain Mr Barrow described the PUP as “nakedly opportunistic.” But the PUP is a political party: surprise, surprise!

One of Mr. Barrow’s Achilles heels is that he does not tolerate dissent. This character flaw has led him to surround himself with yes men and women. However this strategy [along with the stench of Said Musa’s 1998-2008 government] worked well for him so much so that he has been able to win three consecutive general elections. But when it mattered most, an attempt to secure his enduring legacy, it failed him big time.

The central plank of the YES strategy has been to try and convince the Belizean people that we have a strong case and that we will win at the ICJ. But Mr. Barrow’s penchant for yes men and women led him to push through with the referendum despite being challenged legally about the validity of the Writ.

It would have been better for Mr. Barrow to have unilaterally changed the referendum date and cure the defect on his own, than to go to Court and lose. His decision has now fortified in the minds of a great many Belizeans the existence of serious litigation risks; the very litigation risks that they refuse to discuss. The question in the minds of many people now is “if they can’t even get past the Supreme Court, how is it that they expect us to believe that we will win at the ICJ?”!

Since 2008 Mr. Barrow’s greatest nemesis has been Eamon Courtenay. It was Eamon who has demolished him at the CCJ and it was Eamon who demolished him in April of 2019. It seems to me that if this was really about Country above Party it might be wise of Mr. Barrow to listen just a little more to Eamon!

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