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BNTU elects new president

Photo: Ruth Shoman, president elect

Senator Elena Smith will hand over the presidency of the BNTU in June of this year.

by Marco Lopez

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Apr. 13, 2023

The 53rd Annual Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) Convention continues today, after a full day of activity at the Muffles College Auditorium in Orange Walk yesterday. A new BNTU president will be chosen over these two days. Three candidates are vying for the position of leader of what has become one of the most formidable unions in Belize under the leadership of Senator Elena Smith. Smith will now be transitioning to other roles and activities after 27 years of unionism, and will hand over leadership to either Ifasina Efunyemi, Ruth Shoman, or Ray Martinez – the three BNTU presidential candidates.

Under the theme, “One Union, One Mission, One Voice,” the Annual BNTU Convention runs from 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for two days, and has included the presentation of the union’s Annual Report, sports competitions, the BNTU election, a mini-expo, food stalls and even a social night at Hi5 club in Orange Walk. The event is akin to a retreat for the teachers – notwithstanding the serious work of presentation of the Annual Report, and the union elections which will also take place during this time.

The first day featured speakers from the union ranks, and a presentation from the outgoing national president, Senator Elena Smith. Her intention to retire from the union’s presidency was signaled late last year when she indicated she had come to the “end of that journey.”

“It has been a challenge, but I think when you have a passion for what you do and you have supportive family members, it helps. Even at times when they don’t support you, when they say enough is enough. My family has said to me, ‘you’ve been in it for twenty-seven years; it is time for you to leave that and attend to your family.’ But it’s something that I love – just as much as I love my teaching, I love my union work. And so, the balance has been difficult at times, but thank God I have managed to overcome that, and I am now at the end of that journey. So, I think I’ve done well,” Smith commented in a November 2022 interview.  

She did express at the time that her work in unionism was not over, and this new era simply involves stepping away from the union leadership. This makes way for a leadership role for one of the three candidates, all of whom are career teachers and unionists.  

Ifasina Efunyemi told local media that what she brings to the table is a “formidable force.”

She said that she brings a wealth of negotiation experience, gaining practice at the international level with the United Nations. She emphasizes the importance of maintaining a balance in the social contract between the government and the people. She is a member of the BNTU Stann Creek Branch.

Ruth Shoman is well-known for her work on the ground with the union. She currently sits as the representative for the BNTU on the People’s Constitutional Commission. She has held various ranks within the leadership of the BNTU and sister organizations like the NTUCB as well. She has worked in concert with Senator Smith as BNTU National Secretary to spearhead some major demonstrations countrywide over recent years. Her advocacy for teachers has included unrelenting calls for fair wages and proper equipment inside the classroom. In her leadership positions, she took serious jabs at past governments, calling for greater protection of children and education reform at the 50th Annual BNTU Convention held in 2020.

“We need to ensure that our children are in school. Where are our truancy officers? We need to ensure that age-appropriate sex education classes are incorporated as well as conflict resolution in all our schools. We need to ensure that laws are amended; we currently have laws that prohibit proper and efficient collection of data in rape cases, which result in the lack of prosecution of these perpetrators. We need to create a system that will ensure that there is equity in the BOOST and Food Pantry program. We have seen where sometimes gang leaders are giving out vouchers to people who they select,” Shoman said.

The final candidate is from the Toledo District, where he serves as the president of the Toledo Rural Branch of the BNTU. Ray Anthony Martinez has said that a vote for him is a vote for the teachers. He said that his work will focus on voicing the concerns of the teachers – many of whom are one salary away from poverty where he serves, in the rural communities. He noted that his morning starts at 4:30 a.m. – like many other teachers in that district, and that the hardships faced by rural teachers result in an unequal playing field – despite rural teachers being held to the same standard of performance. His presidency will include advocacy for those teachers facing such hardships.  

Along with the three presidential candidates, Jorge Mejia is vying to be elected First Vice President; Edison Ogaldez is also vying for the position. Armin Cardenas and Bay Rivas are in the race for the post of National Secretary.   

The Annual BNTU Convention ends today – and the result of these elections are expected to be released shortly after. Senator Elena Smith will not officially hand over the post until June this year when the work of the union will be taken up by a new executive.

Prime Minister Hon. John Briceno in an interview today said that they have always viewed the BNTU as a partner, and maintained that even in difficult times the parties have not lost respect for each other.

“We went through a difficult period when we were trying to see how we can cut salaries, and they argued strongly against it and even demonstrated in some instances, but despite all of that we never lose respect for one another,” PM Briceno said.

He commended Senator Smith for her lifelong commitment to the cause of the union.

“Today, they are going to elect a new president, so I wanted to take the opportunity to thank Elena for the outstanding work that she did. She is a firebrand. But when we meet person to person, she is calm and determined and has her position, but we work together, and that is why I have great respect and admiration for her to be able to do that,” Briceno commented.

He wished the BNTU well on the election of their new president, and reiterated his government’s support to work with the union as partners. 

Late this evening we received word that Ruth Shoman was successful in her bid for National President of the BNTU. Candidate Efunyemi managed to garner 226 votes, while Martinez received a total of 76 votes. President-elect Shoman finished the day with 356 votes. For the positions of First Vice President and National Secretary, Jorge Mejia and Bay Rivas, respectively, secured those posts.