Features — 20 September 2013 — by Dr. Theodore Aranda

When GOB resumed control of Port of Dangriga, the Barrow administration set itself apart and different from all previous administrations and predecessors by embracing a policy that promises national development and economic opportunities. Heretofore, the only declared policy and practice has been to reward friends and punish enemies, which indeed is, and in fact, filling high offices with political lackeys, friends and family members facilitating looting of public resources and corruption in government.

The Prime Minister’s reopening Port of Dangriga, most obviously, not only deserves applause and support, but it further announces Belize’s directing its natural, social and human resources at the pursuit of economic opportunities; and lately, adding yet another logistical dimension in the opening of the National Bank of Belize.

The re-opening of Port of Dangriga is not merely the opening of just another port. The port, with its more than 45-foot deep open waters, less than 1,000 feet away, will open up huge possibilities and opportunities and will change our current import and export trade pattern by enabling Belize to move into the world-wide trans-oceanic maritime trade, import, export and commercial traffic.

There is most likely going to be strong competition among the Central American and Caribbean nations with deep waters to ready themselves also to share in the trans-oceanic world-wide trade boom.

Panama enlarged its canal. Nicaragua proposes to dig its own. Guatemala and Honduras are working a land bridge between the Pacific and Atlantic, a project that also calls for advanced and efficient roads and highways. Cuba, Dominican Republic, Bahamas, Jamaica, Mexico are all developing transport systems to meet their needs of the future.

As these nations develop their deep water ports, they are also creating a new industry of distributing cargo. They are combining land, air and water into a system of transporting and distributing cargo. They will connect the Pacific and Atlantic deep water “hubs” at both ends of their canals to ferry containers between the mega ships and their smaller ports. This is a new industry which combines the mega-ships, smaller ports, smaller sea cargo carriers, roads, highways and air traffic in distributing cargo to the various markets and so complete their traffic and trade.

In this trans-oceanic traffic, the mega-ships are setting the trade-changing trend. Without a doubt, Panama is way ahead in trans-oceanic traffic readiness. However, it is not quite ready for the super-sized mega-ships. The enlarged canal is already inadequate for some of the mega-ships to pass through it. The mega-ships have outsized it while the other nations are not yet ready with their expansion projects. Some are already on the way, but others have not yet started.

Nonetheless, ships are being built larger to carry larger volume of goods, with no slowing down in sight. Larger cargo volume means larger revenue and bigger income to the ships; and the market appetite for more and more goods will not abate but will only increase. This, in turn, forces competition on ports. Ports must be able to accommodate larger and larger ships or lose out in the competition. The larger ships will simply go to ports that can accommodate their size. The logic, simply, is for open deep water ports to speed up infrastructures to meet the on-coming cargo volume. Trade traffic, in all its fashions, is evolving in unimaginable manner.

Just as these nations are fast adapting themselves to address their infrastructure gaps, so can Belize. Although not yet completed they are all busy trying to address their gap. Belize stands in the middle of all this competition with no less, and oftentimes superior resources. It stands in a more advantageous strategic position and it has financial possibilities better than some of its neighbouring nations and region.

But will it be too costly for Belize to prepare for it? No, because it will be worth the cost many times over because the value to an expenditure, be it purchase or investment, is not the amount spent but the beneficial opportunity it enables. An expenditure is measured by what it yields; valuable if it yields benefit, wasteful if it yields nothing.

Just a few years ago, the Government of Belize spent $73 million on the Port of Belize. One project, May, 2001- March, 2002, cost $43 million ($21, 500,000 US) “to enhance the commercial role of Belize City Port” by “dredging an access canal and turning basin to Belize City Pier Head” and “to allow for the operation of a cruise berthing facility.” The other project cost $30 million to extend the port by more than 2,500 feet. Needless to say, the two projects did not put Belize City Port, or Belize, in any infrastructural competitive advantage, economic opportunity, regional commercial superiority or strong growth in trade. The 2 projects began in shallow waters and ended up in yet shallow waters.

What complicated and compounded the problem was closing down Commerce Bight Port (Port of Dangriga) with its deep waters for 15 years only to scramble around for deep waters within the shallow waters of Belize City Port. Furthermore, Belize spent millions in travelling long distances to ship from somewhere else the same very goods that have been successfully and traditionally shipped and exported over the years from Commerce Bight Port.

Panama widened its canal with US $5.25 billion. Nicaragua proposes US$40 billion for its own. These are no pittance or journey cake sums. But Panama will maintain its foremost maritime advantage, while Nicaragua will develop its own too.

Belize will not expend anywhere near these monies, but for a relatively little expenditure, say $300 – $400 million, to push Port of Dangriga into its more than 45-foot depth and modernize it to accommodate larger ships, Belize would, within 3 years, advance into adequately serving itself with an efficient port. However, the goal is to speed up our ports, roads and other basic infrastructure to become competitive in the trans-oceanic trade traffic as soon as possible, modernize and make efficient our trade practices and accommodate larger ships. As we do so, Belize would provide more and wider variety of employment, investments, develop free trade zones with all accompanying opportunities, reduce transportation and shipping costs and generate much larger national revenue to compensate, many times over and beyond the $300-$400 million investment made.

However, this plan/goal must be accepted by all administrations, government leaders, political parties and the population and citizens at large as a national long-term maritime trade and commercial plan, not to be obstructed or politicized by anyone at any time. Neither must it be conceived as just a plan for Stann Creek District or Southern Belize. It is a national plan for the entire country of Belize. Too often the mind-set and cultural pattern separate and isolate national infrastructures, one from the other.

Belize stands at the threshold of opportunities, progress and development. Open Port of Dangriga and we will, in a few years, be in world trans-oceanic trade and commerce. Build and connect the proposed North-South Coastal Highway and we, not only link the port to all the other highways enabling us to do trans-border trade and trucking movement of cargo, but we will also open the coastal treasure between Dangriga and Belize City. Add Mike Feinstein’s new 100% Belizean $200 million tourism project to all the already-operational tourism projects throughout the north, south, east and west of the country and we are in very profitable tourism.

Belize, presently, is crushed by unacceptably high unemployment, ominous poverty, crippling indebtedness and ranks 5th in violence and corruption worldwide. However, with what Prime Minister Dean Barrow has announced and initiated there is absolutely no reason why he should not be the first leader to remove the shackles of rewarding friends and punishing enemies, extinguish the wall of fire between ruling party and Opposition and establish a Government of reconciliation, consultation, development and opportunities.

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