Independence Day Celebrations were held across the country yesterday, though in certain areas, including Belize City, the weather dramatically affected the activities. While the rains cancelled the Formal part of the parade in Belize City, herein the Capital City, both the official ceremonies and the parade went on without a hitch, despite the rain. The official ceremony saw the attendance of dignitaries and other invited guests who were all welcomed to Belmopan by Mayor Khalid Belisle. Main addresses were delivered by Prime Minister Dean Barrow and Leader of the Opposition, Francis Fonseca. In his speech Prime Minister Barrow focused on the nationalization of Utilities, Upcoming projects and skirted the big announcement of the next elections, something political pundits were predicting would occur in this year’s Prime Ministerial speech. We begin with that pronouncement.
Hon: Dean Barrow: In doing this my Administration, as always, seeks to do right by all the people of Belize. And as a Government on this last Independence Day before the next general elections, Im not going to announce the date… we stand before the bar of history fully expectant of a judgment recognizing us as the good and faithful servants we have always striven to be.
Hon: Dean Barrow: For my Administration, It is almost impossible to overstate the significance of the BEL and BTL settlements. After all, this has been for us a kind of second sovereignty campaign. Now, after six years of struggle, those two fundamental Belizean assets are ours to have and hold forevermore. And to further concretize this achievement, let me announce right away that Government will be offering an additional 10% of the shareholding in both companies to the Belizean – and I stress Belizean – public. In the case of BEL it will mean a seat on the Board for the small shareholders, and in the case of BTL it will mean a second seat for those small shareholders.
Prime Minister Barrow then highlighted both the bright spots and the kinks within the economy.
Hon: Dean Barrow: The great growth of the first quarter was succeeded by a small contraction in the second, due to some difficulties with commodities and in particular the huge resource decline in oil. But grains will recover from drought, shrimp from disease, and citrus from the market conditions that saw a temporary fall in price. Meantime we are still at 2.7% in GDP year-over-year increase, inflation is just about the lowest in the region, and unemployment is significantly down. And this Administration has always been focused on two things: bootstrapping the poor, and expanding the middle class. It is with pride, then, that we point to the social protection and job-creation efforts (especially in construction) we have chartered for those at the margins; and the growing of the public service middle class by the reclassification of administrative grades and the net rise of pay scales. In both cases, our National Bank has completed the equation by providing hitherto undreamed of access to affordable, indeed cheap, credit
Belizeans have come to expect huge financial handouts as a part of Prime Minister Barrow’s Independence speeches, but this year, he tied the small relief of hospital old bills with the salary settlement for KHMH workers, who he pointed out, were not quite Public Servants.
Hon: Dean Barrow: Also, as a matter of principle GOB does not want simply to hand over the monies for the salary increase as a gift. We will therefore treat it as a buyout of the debt owed by consumers, by the Belizean public, to the KHMH. As of yearend 2014, that total in unpaid bills amounted to around 9 million dollars. Of course, in trading off these bills that people owe to the KHMH, we won’t be giving KHMH dollar for dollar. We will, though, pay them enough to do two things. The first is to fund the salary increase to the expected tune of just about 2 million dollars. And the second is to assist with residual costs for the new, state of the art, PICU/NICU that is to be opened next month. This write-off to the public of 9 million dollars in their unpaid KHMH bills, which the collection agency hired by the KHMH will now no longer be hounding anyone for, is this year’s Independence Day gift to people from the Government of Belize. For the sake of completeness, and to make that gift even greater, we will also forgive all monies currently owing by patients to all Government hospitals throughout the country. This amounts to another 2 million dollars and, we are sure, will be especially appreciated by residents of our towns and villages
Hon: Dean Barrow: First, there is the continuation of the North Ambergris Caye road project. We have just signed a contract for the construction of another 4 miles of the road providing land access to the premier resorts on North Ambergris, making for a total of 11 miles that we have already funded. When this next phase is completed we will sign for the last few miles to take us to the Basil Jones airstrip, which we will redevelop, redesign and expand into an international airport.. We are also constructing a new road to Lamanai via Bermudan Landing and Lemonal. That contract has also been signed, and this will mean that Lamanai will now form part of the day trip circuit for cruise passengers and provide increased tourism opportunities to Orange Walk and to the Belize Rural North villages along the route. Finally, and this really will constitute a new jewel in the tourism crown, we are going to do a paved highway to Caracol, with two points of origin from Georgeville and Santa Elena. Then the OPEC and Kuwaiti Funds, which are already doing the rehabilitation of the Hummingbird Highway, will partner together to take us the 40 plus miles from the junction to Mountain Pine Ridge and then to Caracol. Talking about security, we are pleased with the disbursement start now of the 30 million U.S. Cabei loan. As has been detailed, the monies will assist the police, the BDF and the Coast Guard. The improvement in forensic capability that is part of the deal should, together with improved policing, lead to a better crime solving and conviction rate. The community outreach of the police especially on Southside Belize City, will combine with a second surge in hope and improved living and job conditions that the commencement now of Southside Poverty Alleviation Project Phase 2 represents. Under the programme, a total of 37 million dollars is being spent on the Southside Constituencies. The money funds improved streets and drains; land reclamation and landfill; construction of new homes and home improvement; education, training and social development. This dramatic GOB infusion of money and resources, together with the revised Southside strategy of the police high command, should contribute to the reversal of the alarming spike in the murder rate, especially in Belize City, that this year brought. The Coast Guard will get two new, latest model vessels for maritime protection and illegal drugs and fishing interdiction. And the BDF will be able to acquire multiple additional assets that, along with the one helicopter already confiscated and the two more coming from Taiwan by Christmas, will greatly increase its capacity as the front line guardian of our territorial integrity. Of course, the BDF will also build the forward operating ba se on the North Bank of the Sarstoon River as it continues to assert and exercise Belizean sovereignty in that area.
The privatization of the Utilities did not come without warnings from the business sector, and in an effort to regain investor confidence, and allay the fears of Banks which have been hit by high liquidity and derisking, Prime Minister Barrow spoke directly to investors.
Hon: Dean Barrow: Before I close, a word to our private sector. The settlements with Fortis and the former BTL shareholders, will in time no doubt bring increased opportunities to partner with Foreign Direct Investment. But even now, relying only on local resources, chances are going begging. There is, for example, still not enough advantage being taken of the excess liquidity in the system. Government is therefore committed to helping you, the Central Bank and the commercial banks, work through issues that continue to bedevil the lending institutions and access to credit. Tax reform, which will rationalize the business climate and provide breaks even as it closes loopholes and seeks to address abuse, is at long last in train. And Government is determined to make doing business in this country easier, something that has to become the foremost mandate of the ministry of trade and commerce. But I repeat that our economic fundamentals are good. Our debt trajectory, especially with compensation for the nationalizations being way below what the pessimists had projected, is eminently manageable. And with the buyout of high interest SuperBond debt with low interest PetroCaribe funds, our prospects are excellent over the longer term. As with the other sectors, then, the world-or at least Belize’s corner of it-is your oyster. We urge you, therefore, to go forth and profit.