There is a medical condition known as catatonia, which is a state of unresponsiveness to external stimuli in a person who is apparently awake. As it relates to Belize, you don’t have to think too hard to know where this is going, do you? By any stretch of a prognosis, our form of catatonia is quite possibly malignant. It’s like we see danger coming towards us, but shaking off this paralysis, this stupor, getting out of the way of that danger, is impossible, so we simply reel from one aggravation to the other, accepting our fate, all with our eyes wide open. In recently developed colloquial parlance, we take our ‘bukut’ and then after, sedate ourselves with phrases like “only in Belize” and “what did you expect.”
The increase in fuel prices announced last week is a crippling hit to the economy and, if you gauge by the reactions on social media, there are signs that this uppercut may be unwittingly serving as shock therapy for our catatonic symptoms. Luckily for those intent to keep us in our catatonic state, fuel prices are malleable and can be blamed on anything, so any signs of waking from our slumber can be easily reversed by simply reducing pump prices, which should put us back to sleep. That restoration to catatonia will no doubt happen quickly with municipal elections just around the corner. But there is another ‘bukut’ on the horizon which may do greater damage to us, and for a long time.
In his Independence Day address last September, the Prime Minister waxed his poetic charm and lauded the rising structure of the Civic Center with the analogy that the rafters were “communing with the heavens”. The structure is now essentially complete and, with not much good news to talk about, our erudite PM, in this year’s address, recycled this gloat.
But let’s give unto Caesar. The “Civic” is one beautiful building, built to international sporting standards, something we should all be proud of. At a construction contract tab of almost $35 million dollars though, all funded from the PetroCaribe credit arrangement and administered by the Belize Infrastructure Ltd., government’s infrastructural corporate arm, the structure is supposedly on record as being the most expensive single public building effort in Belize’s history.
When compared to other similar-sized sporting buildings across the region, however it is arguable that there was considerable fat in that construction contract. That contract was awarded, of course, to the preferred contractor of this PetroCaribe era, whom without any exaggeration, appear to be set for life. That is to be expected, after all, in our little Belize. Isn’t it? Been happening for years and probably will happen again, but this is not the burning issue, at least for now.
The “Civic”, the name says it all, a public amenity, for the community. But will it be? While we have been reveling in the September festivities and counting our blessings that we have been spared from natural disasters, swift preparations are underway to usher control of this public facility into private hands without much of a discussion, debate or consultation in the public realm. Under an apparently warped version of public-private partnership via the Belize Infrastructure Ltd, it seems even before the first pile was driven into the ground, plans were already afoot to ensure this publicly funded, publicly owned structure would move into private management.
The excuse which has been proffered by surrogates to justify this, now get this, is that the government not only lacks the funds, but also the competence to manage and maintain such a facility.
Now, depending on circumstances in the past, we have heard the government oscillate from having millions in the coffers to admitting a couple years later that they must raise taxes to pay the bills. But to have an admission that they don’t have the competence is beyond surprising. After all, they know everything, from two-sided machetes to pageants to running telephone companies. Tu sabes?
There is a tender process being undertaken for parties interested in becoming the managing partner for the facility, but under that facade, on its bare face, this unilateral decision smacks of a straight handing over of a publicly owned asset to some private partner to mint some cash. A gift to some lucky person or persons which will keep on giving for years to come. Whether or not the government is legally able to enter into such arrangements in the first place is better left for our learned friends to ponder, but there are many more questions than answers.
But let’s look at the numbers. It is reported that the costs to run and maintain the new facility will be just close to $700,000 a year, the bulk of which will be energy costs. That’s equivalent to the cost of just three new Toyota Prados! Tu sabes? This is supposed to be the jewel in the crown of our infrastructure efforts.
But yet we seem to be throwing up our hands and saying we don’t have the funds nor competence to make sure the building is used for the benefit of sports and the public, deliberately!
Any private partner will try to make as much as they can from the facility. Based on the estimated running costs, organisations interested in renting the facility from a private operator will more than likely have to pay, in excess of $10,000 each time. Sporting associations will simply not be able to afford those rates.
It is rumored that connected concert and entertainment promoters have been salivating to get their hands on the facility, making their own argument that their events generate far more revenue than sports, so they would be the ideal managing partner. Perhaps this is where the powers that be want this to go. So Destra and Machel would take priority over sports.
There is nothing wrong with concerts and international artists. They generate economic activity, and the foreign artists do walk away with a lot of our hard-earned foreign exchange each time. But to try to justify that revenue from private concerts is the only the way to maintain a public sporting facility is a travesty.
It is disheartening that this is all being quietly pursued with some stealth, and there has been little discussion in the public space. The tender process is speedily moving along, and the intention is to sign a contract with the managing partner by December of this year.
Now there have been a few squeaks of protestations from the sporting folks. A few weeks ago, Channel 7 reported that the Belize Basketball Association had written the Prime Minister expressing anxiety on behalf of the basketball-playing community. After all, and how could they forget that the PM some years ago had elatedly celebrated Belize’s international basketball success and promised to build a top -stadium to further support the sport of basketball?
It is understandable, then, for the basketballers to have been waiting in anticipation of this modern and certified facility. But, it appears their wait has been in vain. In the news story, the GOB-friendly news editor of that station seems to have foretold, or perhaps even telegraphed, that this letter would end up in the trash can, without even a response. Based on the start of the official tender process shortly thereafter, that’s probably exactly where that letter ended up.
The basketball folks even suggested that if the government was unable to manage and maintain the facility, a grouping of the national sporting associations should do so under the National Olympic Association.
In principle, this might be a good idea, provided the National Olympic Association, more known for travelling junkets and a lack of transparency in its affairs, submits to a fair management model. After all, the Olympic Association is made up of all sporting associations themselves and would therefore be forced to place sports and the community as the priority users rather than commercial ventures such as concerts.
This is a serious matter, that needs to be subjected to much greater public dialogue. It appears that those in control are hell-bent on the privatisation of a long overdue public sports and community center. The questions are why, and for the benefit of whom? There may be another connection to the heavens where the Civic is concerned, indeed, and that is the wafting stench of graft and greed.