A reshuffling of portfolios

The content originally appeared on: Amandala Newspaper

On January 10, the Prime Minister, Hon. John Briceño, switched the portfolios of some members of his Cabinet, and to the glee of many, the Ministry of Health & Wellness (MOHW) was taken away from the Hon. Michel Chebat, the ministry’s head since the PUP took control of government after the November 11, 2020 general elections. A government press release announcing the changes said the PM had conducted a comprehensive review of Cabinet portfolio performances and leadership effectiveness over the last several weeks, and after consultations with senior colleagues he had arrived at the portfolio adjustments.

It’s always headline news, ministers switching portfolios, or being back-benched, ditched from Cabinet. It’s hard to find a person in Belize who isn’t in on the speculation about why changes are made, about which minister might be in ascendency, and who had suffered the ignominy of demotion. The reasons published for portfolio changes are almost always in the same vein as the ones given for the realignment on January 10, but behind the scenes they run the gamut, all the way to vicious power plays.

Since the 2003-2008 PUP government, we’ve seen ministers shuffled out: Mark Espat and Cordel Hyde, for bucking the Cabinet; Elvin Penner, for alleged improper issuance of passports; Gaspar Vega and Edmund Castro, for suspect management of public properties; and for suspect associations, John Saldivar. In our system, no minister is immune from being reshuffled. In 2007 the present PM stepped down as Deputy Prime Minister after he fell out of step with Cabinet, and then Prime Minister Said Musa moved to take away his portfolio of Natural Resources.

Indeed, over the years there have been some high-profile firings, so to speak, in both PUP and UDP governments. In comparison, the recent moves by the Briceño government, though headline news for this week, could be considered lukewarm. There is the suggestion that the Chebat camp should be smarting, though, and it does appear so.

Governments, like businesses, will make changes in the managerial ranks occasionally. After a year in government, the leader and his advisors will have had enough time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their team members, and it is rare that all the ministers are perfect fits in the portfolios over which they preside. Sometimes the needs for change are obvious, even to casual observers.

Governments, unlike businesses, have to face the electorate every five years, and general elections are largely popularity contests. For this reason, political parties in power are sometimes more concerned about the optics than the substance of their decisions. On the part of an individual minister, a portfolio switch which seems like a demotion can be harmful, if the government is popular, while one that looks like a reward for excellence can be a boon, if the government is popular.

Five ministers were affected by the recent reshuffle, but only three of them, Hon. Michel Chebat, Hon. Rodwell Ferguson, and Hon. Kevin Bernard, saw a substantial change in their portfolios. The most high- profile ministry in the reshuffle was the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW), held by Chebat. That ministry has been under more scrutiny than any other ministry because of the pandemic which has gripped our nation and the world, and because of the minister’s brusque style.

From day one of Chebat’s reign over the MOHW, the temperature has been fever high in that ministry. Chebat and the Prime Minister were not impressed by the way the Director of Health Services (DHS), Dr. Marvin Manzanero (and the UDP), had handled the pandemic, and immediately on taking office they went for his head. They wanted him to step down, and they were not nice about it. Many regular Belizeans disliked the attacks on the DHS, who had become very popular after his almost daily television reports on the pandemic, and the Public Services Union challenged the way the government went about removing him.

Chebat lost a few friends, mostly among persons who rejected being vaccinated against Covid-19, when an SI was introduced that called for government workers and all visitors to government offices to provide proof of immunization or a vaccination card before entering a government building, and again when he tried to make vaccination mandatory.

He crossed a number of top brass in the ministry when he went outside of their ranks to bring a long retired veterinarian to serve as the CEO at the nation’s number one public hospital, the KHMH. The resistance was too strong, and that appointment was rescinded. He riled up the board of governors at the KHMH when he suggested they were responsible for a shortage of supplies at the hospital, his comments prompting one of the board’s members, the very vocal Dr. Fernando Cuellar, to resign.

Hon. Michel Chebat takes over the Ministry of Public Utilities and Logistics (MPUL) from Hon. Rodwell Ferguson, who maintains control of Transport and takes on Sports. If the importance of a ministry is determined by its budget allocation, then it’s a big demotion for Chebat to move from the MOHW to the MPUL, but in his new post he’ll have plenty of opportunities to show that the good people of Cayo North were not mistaken when they thought him worthy of their vote, and that if he was really a bust at MOHW, his party’s error was in his placement, not an overestimation of his talent.

Chebat’s new portfolio includes some high-profile organizations, such as the PUC, BEL, BTL, and Ports and Harbours. If his mission is to serve the people, he’ll be negotiating on our behalf with a few aggressive private sector individuals, one of whom most won’t mind if he rubs the wrong way.

Hon. Kevin Bernard, an accountant, is now the new minister at the MOHW, and it’s no easy job before him. Due to no fault of the last minister, Covid-19 cases have exploded recently, but there is cautious optimism that the virus is just about to burn itself out.

At a press conference this week, the UDP condemned Bernard’s placement at the head of MOHW and called for a person with a medical background to head the ministry, because we are living in a “time of crisis.” It must be noted that the UDP had a person with no medical training as Minister of Health during the almost 13 years they were in office, from 2008 to 2020, but there must have been no need to get us the best fit at that ministry then, because those were not “crisis” times.

The theater around a reshuffling of portfolios is always exciting, but the curtain goes down quickly, and then Belizeans start checking on how the changes play out in regard to the real issues. For our sakes we have to hope that we will benefit from these changes made on January 10.