The Dangriga Town Market Project lies abandoned while the Social Investment Fund (SIF) is seeking a new contractor. But the people of Dangriga are tired of waiting to enjoy a market that should either have already been completed or be close to completion. On Friday they took their concerns to the seat of Government at the National Assembly in Belmopan.
PlusNews’ Aaron Humes reports.
On this hot Friday morning, the beating pulse of Garifuna drums resounded in the nation’s capital. But the over 100 residents of the Culture Capital that walked up to the steps of the National Assembly were not there to celebrate. Rather, they wanted to call attention to the failings of the Social Investment Fund (SIF) and the Government in allowing contractor with K&G Construction, Kennard Smart, to abscond without completing the project that he started and then abandoned, though not without leaving a black eye on the organization that he says “shook him down” for tens of thousands of dollars, allegations that have resulted in the firing of four employees and resignation of executive director, Daniel Cano.
Mayor of Dangriga, Gilbert Swazo, says that while they have been told that the project could be re-started in December with target date of completion in May of 2014, Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and Economic Development Hon. Dean Barrow can intervene at any time.
Gilbert Swazo – Mayor of Dangriga
The Prime Minister has it in his power to decide and to take decisive action to do whatever he wills. So it is inclement on the Prime Minister to stop the suffering in Dangriga and to divert those monies to complete, even in the first instance, the market in Dangriga. If in fact he was genuine to all the people, all the people…since he talks about one people, one government, then let us see if in fact it is one people. Let him now demonstrate that he is a leader who is transparent, who can stand by his word. Take care of all the people including the people of Dangriga.
Mayor Swazo, who believes that Dangriga is being targeted by the ruling party as a result of its vote in the 2012 general and municipal election, says that he considers SIF “a fraud”, in part because they kept reassuring sub-contractors Lyndon Bailey and Emy Gilharry Ramirez that the project was good to go even as they knew that Smart was having difficulty with financing. The organization even sent in two of its own engineers, he says, to oversee the project after the original managers exited.
Mayor Gilbert Swazo
The point is that SIF dropped the ball. Anthony Thurton of Thurton and Thurton, was the initial consultant engineer. He, for whatever reason, came out of the picture, whether he stopped willingly or for whatever reason, he was off the picture. Then Mr David Daniels came on to the picture. Again he stopped. Then, shortly after, SIF employed the services of one of their own engineers. In the first instance it was Mr Hermanez. So he was checking the project for and on behalf of SIF. That person should have been an independent contractor. So SIF waschecking themselves.
Today’s demonstration, according to the Mayor, is just the beginning of the journey to change in Dangriga. And the demand of the people is simple.
Mayor Gilbert Swazo
When do we want our Market?
Lyndon Bailey emotionally made his case to get back his money or at least, a chance to finish the project.
I am not here to play any politics. I am here to try and collect my money. I want to say this to the Prime Minister, we didn’t put our money in Mr Smart’s hands. We put it in the project. The only way Mr Smart could have went with our money, if he was working with people within SIF. We want our money, and I want the Prime Minister to understand this, we want our money because it was a big corruption at SIF that caused us to be in this problem that we are in right now and I need my money. My daughter is studying medicine abroad , and I need my money so that I could send it up there for her, so that she could finish her course and come back here to this country, and serve the people of Belize.We thought that SIF was a well-organized and reputable firm working for the Government. The project was run by SIF. We bought material. I was a part of that contract under the part that says “sub-contractor could be brought in.” SIF has to respect me. If something would have happened [to Mr Smart] I would have been the number two guy, taking over that project, and making sure that project goes on until it’s finished. I have a paper because I have a signed document from SIF recognizing me as the “sub-contractor” on that site. Why didn’t they get legal advice before they gave me that letter? I am saying, Prime Minister, have a meeting with me. Let me show you this evidence that SIF has messed up, and we need our money.
The other, larger component of Friday’s march was organized by Belize City-based Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA), whose President, Giovanni Brackett, says his executive was moved by the plight of Dangrigans as well as the exposed corruption at the Immigration Department which allowed former Minister of State Elvin Penner to mastermind the signing of a nationality certificate and passport for a prisoner who has never set foot in Belize, but wanted to use our good name to avoid extradition.
Giovanni Brackett – President of COLA
My executive has come up with a resolution that we need to come out and support the people of Dangriga. We don’t care about the political issue. We are not here to support a P.U.P. Mayor. We are here to support the people of Dangriga that need their market like yesterday, like last year. The second thing why we are here is because there is a myriad of allegations of corruption within the government. It doesn’t just start with the immigration scandal, it isn’t just the issue with Castro, it goes way back with the Noh Mul, with the KHMH issue. It is time for us to take a stand. COLA has a track record, that we have been on these issues, and my executive here brought in 135 people to come here to lodge our complaint on the record, because the time for press releases and press conferences is gone. The time for our people movement is now.
We asked him and the other members of the executive a very simple question: with the investigation underway, what evidence is there that Elvin Penner committed a crime? As seen in their answers, Mr Penner would face charges for crimes high and low.
Jihad McLaren – COLA
Aaron Humes, reporter
You are making a false statement but that’s hardly a matter for jail time.
Jihad McLaren, COLA
It’s beyond that. It’s a charge that goes beyond that. It’s not just that. The people who were fired are not the people who need to be removed. Where is the Special Branch in all this? Special Branch is responsible for clearance. Somebody must clear these people, so who cleared them? At the end of the day, the Government has now been involved. They know what is happening.
Geovanni Brackett, President – COLA
Aaron Humes, if you were the one that sign that thing, you would be long gone in jail and we would be here fighting for you. The point is that the allegations of corruption has come tumbling down on this government and somebody needs to go on record and to say that corruption should not be tolerated.”
But will the Government listen to a throng that at most numbered 250, many of whom are well-known in activist circles? According to Alberto Carpio, they already are.
Okay, maybe you’re right. They’re not listening. They’re pretending not to listen. They’re listening right now. This cannot just be heard from outside, and inside they are all standing as you could see, right in front of all these louvers. They’re observing. They’re listening. They feel so ashamed that we the people can do something about it. You might not see a hundred thousand or ten thousand, but they’re there. Right now, this is the beginning. You have to have a first step. You need to plant a seed. So this is the seed. We have to plant it. Father God will rain on it, and it will eventually increase in numbers, growing numbers, that you’ll all be surprised.
While PUP leader Francis Fonseca appears to be onboard…
Francis Fonseca – Leader of the Opposition PUP
There is corruption at SIF. There is no excuse for it. We don’t want to hear any more excuses. The Government must deal with this matter now, and ensure that the people of Dangriga have their market now.
It remains to be seen what happens next. Aaron Humes, PLUS News, at Independence Hill, Belmopan.
While there were protests outside, the matter of the Dangriga market project was also raised inside the House of Representatives. Member for Dangriga, Ivan Ramos, raised the question on the adjournment as to the plan moving forward.
Ivan Ramos – Representative for Dangriga
“What is the way forward because that Market need to be completed. The people of Dangriga were after that market. We are asking for [mute space] so that that market can be completed because it will benefit all of those people there; and I think that it is an appropriate time for us then, to look at other stringent measures to avoid them. This kind of corrupt practice by this agencies that implement these programs. Dangriga is the only municipality that is still on Phase I with this project. The other municipalities are far into Phase 2, and I believe that that is something or that is cause for concern. I just want to…I am wandering, Mr. Speaker…”
Hon. Ramos also raised the question of value for money.
“Mention of the Hon. Minister that Phase 2 in Dangriga will reflect then, the paving of Dad Gasbe Ramos, Dr. Aranda Crescent Street. One is that a was already allocated before the election. According to the former Mayor of Dangriga, almost $300,000 went into preparing that street for paving before the elections, and after the elections, nothing happened. Now we are now promising to put in another $1.5M into that said street. I want to ask that there be due diligence and proper supervision, because if in Belize City we’re paving streets for around $7M a mile, what I am saying here is that we should be able to get much more out of that money. It’s a cause for concern because this project has gone by and the people of Dangriga are not happy and we want that market to be completed now! We want that market to be completed now!
Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance with responsibility for Economic Development, Santiago “Santino” Castillo, rose immediately in reply. Addressing the question of corruption, Minister Castillo noted that Mr Smart was aided and abetted by SIF employees of both political stripes.
Hon. Santino Castillo- Minister of State in the Ministry of Economic Development
“Honourable member from Dangriga, by informing him as I had informed before that this incident that happened at SIF, although unfortunate, was a system that was created by Mr. Smart and people inside of SIF. This was not a UDP or a PUP thing. It was just a contractor who got within the system, infiltrated the system, and in fact, some of the people involved were in fact PUPs. What I would like to tell you is that…”
But that political jab aside, the Minister of State committed to moving forward with the project.
Hon. Santino Castillo
“…almost $696,000 was dispensed on Mr. Smart and there’s a remaining balance of $775,000 to fulfill the entire contract. Unfortunately, we have to reevaluate the way things were done at SIF and as you said, we are taking every measure to ensure that this is not repeated again. The contract will be going out to tender and we will finish the Dangriga Market within budget. Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker”.
Notably, the Minister did not address the fate of sub-contractor Lyndon Bailey and financier Emy Gilharry Ramirez, whom SIF has maintained worked with Mr. Smart and not directly with the Fund.
From the deep South, Mayor of Punta Gorda Town, Anthony Fuentes, came to support his Dangriga colleague. He spoke to PLUS News about the reasons behind the Government’s ‘benign neglect’ of the South.
Anthony Fuentes- Mayor of Punta Gorda Town
“Almost definitely, I need to make it absolutely clear that this government is punishing the south and the reason being that the people of the south voted for the People’s United Party. And so, the same thing that happened in Dangriga will happen in Punta Gorda Town. We had requested additional monies to pay a gratuity to the former foreman of the Punta Gorda Town Council. My understanding was reliably informed from the Ministry of Finance itself was already made out, but because myself and Mayor Swazo went on Love FM, the check was cancelled. So, it’s a demonstration that this government is not for the entire Belize, but for Belize City only”.
We asked Mayor Fuentes about the Belize Municipal Development Project’s work in his town and he told us it was a mixed bag.
Mayor Anthony Fuentes
“Under Phase 1 of the Belize Municipal Development Project, Punta Gorda Town administration office was renovated along with the pavement with the Pampana Street. But that portion wasn’t completed. The reason is that the drainage is still not there as yet along with two blocks on RK Boulevard should have been paved. And so, under Phase 2, that will be done. But I was briefed that they are going to suspend work on Pampana Street. And right away, I got on top of it, and so Ernest Raymond went down to Punta Gorda Town and met with our council to explain what had happened: they had spent additional money in Benque Viejo and in San Ignacio”.