Enemy of Democracy: Entrenched Handout Politics in Belize & the Caribbean

By Dylan Vernon, PAST WORK #5, 22 November 2023

“[This] compelling book on the historical functioning of party politics in Belize opens with a vivid anecdote: In the closing week of the small nation’s 2008 general election, voters lined up to receive payouts of ‘housing support’ from the ruling People’s United Party (PUP), their ‘share’ of a BZ$20 million gift from the Venezuelan government; claimants threatened to vote for the opposition (the United Democratic Party, UDP) unless they received payment, while some UDP officials incited voters to ‘tek di money but vote dehn out’. … More shocking than what he saw in 2008 was his discovery that political clientelism is like a vast vine, deeply rooted, interwoven and entangled throughout the young oak of Belize’s democracy, threatening its health and very existence.”

Political Clientelism and Democracy in Belize: From My Hand to Yours

The above quote is an excerpt from a review of my recent book by Professor Matthew Restall (Pennsylvania State University) in the latest November 2023 edition of Bulletin of Latin America Research. (See full reference below). This and other book reviews in 2023 (which I share links to below), spurred me to revisit the central themes of my recent book Political Clientelism and Democracy in Belize: From My Hand to Yours, published by the University of the West Indies Press in April 2022.

In the book, I present Belize as a critical case in the Commonwealth Caribbean region of rampant political clientelism — where politicians hand out resources and services in return for political support.  I also examine how this took root during the nationalist period under George Price (then Premier of Belize) and expanded rapidly under both major political parties after independence in 1981. Drawing comparative insights with other Caribbean states, I argue that widespread political clientelism has deleterious implications for both formal and social democracy.  And while we know its root causes and some of the measures we need to take to mitigate it, breaking this ‘mutual clientelist dependency’ is a herculean challenge for politicians and citizens alike.

In this regard, there is that critical question asked by a broker (middleman), I interviewed in Belize: “What will replace it?”  What will replace the entrenched informal welfare system? What will replace party competition for power based on who has the better clientelist machine? Addressing the poverty and inequality that help fuel political clientelism – especially in a neoliberal world – is clearly long term. Party competition based on clear ideological and policy distinctions does not seem to be on the horizon in the short term.  As we make advances on these, we simultaneously need to explore what legislative, regulatory and, yes, constitutional reform measures we can take to mitigate wide-spread and systemic political clientelism.

No Let Up in Handout Politics

Since the publication of my book, the untamed vines of political clientelism continue to tighten its stranglehold around Belize’s democracy and development. There are several indicators of this, but one that is very visible recently is the ongoing expansion, normalisation and personalisation of the role of politicians as de facto distributors of state resources. Over the pass two years, not only have the traditional funds allocated for constituency support been increased, but millions of dollars of new constituency development funding have been institutionalised to go the people through elected politicians. ‘Land clinics’, personally hosted by the Minister of Natural Resources and ministry staff, are visiting every constituency to receive land applications and help sort out delays and conflicts. After Hurricane Lisa hit Belize in November 2022, the government announced that public funds for immediate relief would be distributed directly through constituency representatives.  The National Emergency Management Organisation and other relevant departments of government played supportive but not leadership coordinating roles. There are other examples.

While acknowledging that land clinics, hurricane relief and more constituency funds are popular and do assist some in need, and despite government’s assurances that better records are being kept, it is an open secret that once politicians call the shots of ‘who gets what’ it is near impossible to mitigate partisan or transactional motivations. Once the Opposition’s constituency representatives get enough, they don’t complain. Yet, when more public funds and services do go through the politicians, the public institutions that exist for these purposes and that have built in accountability procedures and merit-based approaches are side tracked and further weakened – and even more of public resource distribution become politicised.

In relation to the private sources needed for watering the thirsty vines of political clientelism and their close links to waste and corruption, promises of campaign finance regulation remain at the level of rhetoric — even as some NGOs have put forward proposals. And it is too early to assess if the recent Civil Asset Recovery and Unexplained Wealth Act, 2023 will make any difference in mitigating public corruption. It is not encouraging that several elected politicians and senior public officials still do not their declare wealth as required under the Prevention of Corruption in Public Life Act.

How to disentangle the vines of entrenched handout politics will be one of the most daunting challenges in the current constitutional review process being led by the People’s Constitution Commission (PCC).  But this must be among the highest of priorities on the PCC reform agenda of Belizeans given the level of democratic decay it feeds. In this regard, I will be advocating for specific measures in the areas of campaign finance regulation, political party regulation, electoral reforms to provide more teeth for prosecuting voter bribery, expanding formal social welfare (while keeping the politicians out), stopping impunity for public corruption — as well as proposing how the Constitution itself can help set the supreme law framework for these.

A Presentation for Your Consideration

For now, I share, for your viewing consideration, a presentation I made on my book on 7 December 2022 to the Caribbean Seminar Series, Institute of the Americas, University College London. (Click here or on the image to view the YouTube video).

In the presentation, titled Buying Votes and Political Influence in the Caribbean: Lessons for Democracy from Belize, I discussed findings from my book and showed how, in states across the Caribbean, political clientelism, while deeply entrenched and heavily damaging, is rarely discussed. I also introduced some thoughts on the intimidating task of its mitigation.

Recent Book Reviews of ‘From My Hand to Yours’

From My Hand to Yours’ was first launched in Belize City at the UWI Open Campus on July 27 2022 featuring review comments from Professor Harold Young and Senator (former) Osmany Salas. It was also launched in the Caribbean by the University of the West Indies Press on 22 August 2022 and featured review comments from Professor Cynthia Barrow-Giles and Attorney Godfrey Smith. The book received ‘special mention’ for the 2023 OCM Bocas Prize for non-fiction.

In 2023, there have been other book reviews, including the following three published in the following linked journals:

(1) By Professor Emeritus Victor Bulmer-Thomas (Institute of the Americas, University College London) in Journal of Latin America Studies,Volume 55, Issue 1, February 2023, pp. 157-159, Cambridge University Press.

Link to review on Time Come site.

(2) By Assistant Professor Christopher De Shield (Department of Languages and Literature, University of Belize) in Journal of Belizean Research, Volume 1, Issue 2, 2023, University of Belize.

Link to review on Time Come site.

(3) By Professor Matthew Restall (Pennsylvania State University) in Bulletin of Latin American Research, Volume 42, Issue 5, November 2023, pp. 751-752, Society for Latin America Studies.

Link to review on Time Come site.

How to Purchase the Book

The book is available from UWI Press, from Amazon, and from Book Fusion in paper back or e-copy. In Belize, hard copies are available from Brodies Supermarket (Northern Highway) in Belize City.

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