About the author
Holger is a management consultant turned volunteer. He loves to take pictures, run around in the sun, dive and he has never met a beer in his life he didn't like.
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(This is #2 of a series of tongue-in-cheek articles about my work for the Coalition to Save our Natural Heritage in Belize.
The last one described how I became a propagandist and outlined the build-up to the People’s Referendum on offshore oil drilling. This one is a first person account of how I was kicked into a political shark tank, i.e. help run the polling station in Orange Walk during the Referndum.)
Short introduction to Belizean politics
Belize is very small (area of Hessen if you’re German or Massachusetts if you’re from the US) and has rather few people (320.000).
Consequently, politics have their peculiarities. There are only two parties, the People’s United Party (Color: Blue) and the United Democratic Party (Color: Red). The Colors are generally more important than the issues or opinions or ideologies of the parties. Loyalty and a sense of belonging are key – discussion based on issues, options, strategies and values is not very popular. In fact, in about a year in Belize now I have been able to find only one serious difference between the parties: Blue tends to privatize public companies such as the telco or the electricity company while Red tends to nationalize. I am not sure why one does this and the other one the other – probably one of them started and then the other just joined. As long as it is change and involves big court cases both parties like it – they’re run by lawyers who have the biggest law companies in Belize. So they benefit from anything that has to be settled in court.
Right now, Red is in power on a national level and in most municipalities. Blue has 3 districts I believe.
What I like about the politics here is that they are very direct and in a sense transparent. Politics are discussed in morning talk shows – radio and TV shows where people call into the studio to ask questions or to yell accusations in rapid kriol with a voice trumbling in fury. More often than not, ministers all the way to the prime minister call into those shows to rebuke the callers.
Obviously, corruption is an issue. I couldn’t tell you if any of those parties is more or less corrupt. It’s hard to tell as an outsider. Also, there are some linguistic challenges in finding, noticing, describing corruption. In a culture where everyone knows everyone, favors are an important part of social interaction and the talent pool sometimes seems as shallow as a puddle on the Northern Highway after a short drizzle, it is only corruption when someone from the wrong color does it. If they’re the right color (your color), it is a display of loyalty and leadership.
After all, economists have proven that at a certain stage of development, societies in fact need corruption to overcome bureaucratic friction.
I am not judging and I couldn’t if I wanted to. It’s very easy to bash the politics of a third world country based on corruption and things that seem absurd to someone from a well established democracy that had decades or centuries to overcome what Belize is facing daily. Fact is, I have seen sincere efforts from honest people on both sides of this bicolor spectrum. Fact is also, the internal workings of politics in Germany appear to be absurd more often than not as well.
Still, here is a first-hand account of a day spent inside of the political machine.
The Referendum took place on February 29, a week before the early general and municipal elections. UDP (red) was in power and trying to be re-elected. PUP (blue) were trying to get back into power.
Step right in to the shark tank.
For a more detailed intro, check out John’s “Politics – Belizean Style”.
BTIA supports the coalition
As you know, the organization I work for not only supports the Belize Coalition to Save our Natural Heritage but is also the chair organization on the board. That makes a lot of sense because oil drilling here in Belize is just not a good idea. All of the licensees are new, largely inexperienced companies. Belize government has no clue about offshore oil exploration. When a pipe burst on shore, it took them more than a day to even start doing something about it. Imagine what would happen i the sea.
We saw what happened in the Gulf of Mexico when a large oil company and the US of A tried to contain an oil spill.
We just don’t want to see what happens if Belize government has to take the same thing on – together with a company that previously ran a casino. (No joke).
The build-up to the general election is getting quite interesting. Streets are plastered with posters and banners. The UDP (red – in charge) has made their stance quite clear: “DRILL WE WILL”. (Anything else would be considered weak and stupid since they were the ones who sold the concessions behind closed doors to begin with).
The blue guys now finally picked up on that, on the people’s general opinion on that and now it clicked:
Let’s exploit it!
Here’s a snippet from the blue house newspaper exploiting the Referendum for their political agenda.
I can’t blame them to jump the wagon. I would have.
And to be fair: Nobody says they’re not smart enough to be intrinsically motivated to help the referendum and prevent the drilling. Quite honestly, I think everyone should see that and the UDP weren’t in the position to rectify their previous foul up. But PUP were in a position where they could actually sincerely be in support of the referendum. And if they are, it would be quite stupid not to use their political machine to help the referendum, right?
So the PUP joined ranks with the coalition. When we asked the entire country who would help us organizing and running the polling stations, some of the answers were PUP. Others came from other NGOs.
But in Orange Walk, a blue strong hold, the only answer came from PUP.
“We have no choice. And they’re good at what they’re doing. We just have to make sure that they don’t turn it into something political”. – “Talia, can you go?” – “OK, but I want to take the German. They’re neutral.”
Just to make sure this misunderstanding doesn’t stick: It’s the swiss who are neutral. They are as much German as a secluded mountain community of cheese loving stuck-up snob New Zealanders would be considered Australian!
But none the less: Off we were, on a mission to help out running this polling station and preventing the blue PUP campaign machine from turning this into something political.
The night before the referendum
We got to Orange Walk and met a group of PUP people who were running the show.
For a while now, my mother has been telling everyone she has prosopagnosia – a condition in which you can not recognize faces. I am not sure if it can be inherited. But if so, I have it.
I met at least 30 people in the next 48 hours that I would not recognize again today.
Not even talking about names.
While the puppy pictured below played with the posters and subsequently developed a fondness to bite into my backpack or my shoulder, we had a conversation about the setup.
I quickly learned that the following points about an election day are totally normal for a Belizean:
We quickly figured out that we were missing something: Lists of registered voters to make sure whoever votes actually has the right to.
I had the lists as spreadsheets so we went to someone’s relative (probably an uncle) who has an internet cafe and print shop. The sop was closed but they readily opened up for us, started to print the hundreds of pages and donated the printing costs.
Just to make the neutral German’s day, they gave me blue covers for the lists along with an innocent smile.
So I found a red pen to mark the lists and to kind of neutralize it again. Crazy you say? Not here. (I was even told I couldn’t wear my read shoes on one occasion for fear I would be seen as a UDP perpetrator)
We had a very nice dinner at a friend’s house and I did get some sleep before getting up at the crack of dawn (4 am) the next morning to get ready and set up the polling station.
When I get to the main plaza in Orange Walk Town, preparations are already well under way. I hop into a taxi and went to one of the villages to bring them supplies. They were already busy setting up as well.
On the way back, we quickly hit a taco stand to get some breakfast – Orange Walk Tacos are famous and rightly so.
All of this we did in Talia’s dad’s car – full with freemason stickers (that were already on the car when they bought it, I was told)
Back at the main polling station, the people started to come in. The very first one was a nightwatchman who was there at 7:55, impatiently waiting to cast his vote.
After a lengthy discussion with a well known fundamentalist about how hemp growing can solve pretty much every problem the country has, we quickly implement a system that ensures only registered voters may vote.
All through the day we met various people who went out of their way to cast their vote and hopefully prevent offshore oil drilling.
Next, we ran low on water. So I hopped into one of our taxis (full with posters on the cars) and went to the local water company who donated two big bags of water to us.
One of the most important features of an election or referendum is to ink people’s fingers. Since the referendum took place one week before the General election, we had to make sure that neither color nor finger chosen got in the way of the general election. Black ink was put on the thumb and a black thumb for the rest of the day was the sign of referendum supporters. After a bit of an improvised oil spill at the polling station, black toes became the sign of our volunteers.
When our volunteers got hungry (remember: meals are very important) we got a big mountain of tacos for them.
After a number of TV and radio interviews in the morning (radio interviews are done with a reporter shoving a cell phone in your face and calling the station) we got news that UDP were already contesting the referendum because the election was not as secret as it should have been. Even though I didn’t see a problem with our setup, we now rearranged the polling station and directed traffic accordingly to ensure total privacy during the voting.
Facebook and twitter are constantly buzzing. Around midday, this story makes the rounds. Very impressive:
More interviews come in. Luckily, Talia is around now so she can do them.
Sometime in the afternoon I am a few meters away from the polling station, shopping for a pair of sun glasses to go with my activist mustache. Out of a sudden I hear a racket at the polling station and it sounds like we have a big fight on our hands. Earlier we had gotten a report that the other party has sent a couple of buses of trouble makers to another polling station which resulted in a big free for all.
I run over to the gazebo only to see that it is in fact not a brawl, but a gang of tour guides that have taken the stage like a congress of silly monkeys, jumping, yelling and generally just having a really good time.
As it gets darker and the day comes to an end, the people do not stop flowing to the polling station. Over and over again we’re impressed by the people coming by. A blind grandma led by her 8 year old grand daughter. Police and military on break. Security watchmen after an all-day shift. And the sheer amount of people. Remember: This is inland. I keep joking that half of these people have never seen the sea (probably not true though it is a fact that Belizeans in many cases don’t travel much). One really REALLY old guy stands at the polling stations and yells “FISH! I WANT FISH UNTIL I DIE!” and votes no to offshore oil drilling.
We have a bit of a showdown with very passionate suga girls (Orange Walk is known as Sugar Town) before we start counting the ballots.
After a few hours of “Yes”, “Yes”, “Yes”, “Yes”, “Yes”, “No”, “Yes”, “Yes” we are done counting. I was a very dilligent ballot paper unfolder – no much use for any complicated task at this point.
I end the day with a few cold beers and a steak at a restaurant – I get my steak at 1:30 am.
The next morning we make our way to Belize City for the big press conference.
The turnout was incredible.
In the end, I was happy to be a part of it and I was happy that it turned out well. I was also very happy when it was over and I was able to leave the political circus again and hide behind my desk of business cases and strategies. :-)