Highlights — 26 September 2014 — by Kareem Clarke
PM promises $3M in mortgage relief on Independence Dayby Kareem Clarke

BELMOPAN–The official ceremony in observance of the 33rd anniversary of Belize’s Independence was held today in the nation’s capital, Belmopan, featuring the usual pomp and circumstance, and, as has become customary, the speeches by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition took center stage.

In this year’s address, the Prime Minister, as is expected, lauded the work of his administration, gave a glowing report of the state of the nation, and proclaimed that it is a certainty that at year 33, Belize is recording pronounced advances, in part because the economy is “strong and intact”. Specifically, he referred to the successes of the National Bank and the infrastructural works which have been taking place across all municipalities, while acknowledging the worrying situation concerning crime.

After expounding on those infrastructural developments, which, according to PM Barrow, are the primary vehicle by which the country is moving forward, he went on to speak about what he described as the four most important pillars of Belize’s nation-building enterprise, which include a sound economy, the physical transformation of the country, social renovation in order to remake our democracy in the image of egalitarianism, and the maintenance of patriotism and pride.

However, the headline item was the unveiling of a novel initiative which Barrow termed as “middle- class relief”, through which Government will pay the December 2014 interest payments on “all home mortgages in the country with an original value of up to $100,000” at commercial banks, credit unions, the Development Finance Corporation (DFC), the National Bank, and Social Security, which is scheduled to altogether benefit thousands of Belizeans at a cost of over BZ$3 million.

He said, “This year, in keeping with the emphasis on the middle class, I announce that Government will meet the interest payment for the month of December 2014 on all home mortgages in the country with an original value of up to $100,000. Thus, every borrower in Belize with a housing loan at the National Bank, all the commercial banks, the DFC, Social Security and all credit unions, will be helped. Preliminary estimates show 1,602 such borrowers at the commercial banks; 4,833 at the credit unions; around 700 at the DFC; about 70 at SSB; and 200 at the National Bank. Altogether, then, at least 7,405 mortgagors will be assisted in this way.”

In his litany of giveaways, the PM also noted that, effective October 1, there are scheduled to be increases in internet speeds, which will result in Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL) internet users receiving twice their bandwidth for the same price, while in the case of the Belize Electricity Limited (BEL), Barrow explained that they have profited despite decreasing their rates to consumers, although no date was given for when BEL will drop rates again – just the indication that it is a likelihood.

“Now, under nationalization, there is vibrant competition in the sector; liberalization resulting in the complete opening up of VOIP and related services; and internet and general rates that are at their cheapest ever. And as this forward march continues, it gives me great pleasure to announce that I have just signed a Statutory Instrument making internet services zero-rated, rather than exempt, for GST purposes. This will allow all internet service providers to charge even less; and in the case of BTL, as of October 1, customers will begin to get double the bandwidth for the same price. Of course, GOB takes a revenue loss in consequence. But, it is well worth it, as together with BTL, we deepen all-important internet penetration in this nation,” said Barrow.

“BEL made profits of $18 million in 2013, while actually decreasing rates to consumers by 7.9%, and there is every likelihood of further rate reductions in 2015”, Barrow further told the gathering.

But apart from the PM’s revelations of what could be considered as either pre-election gifts or good things to come, depending on one’s political affiliation, the official Independence Day ceremony would just not be the same without its fair share of political sparring, which, of late, has always managed to slither its way between other issues of national and international importance.

First, Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Francis Fonseca, centered on independence and the road we have traveled as a nation since 1981, but subsequently he segued and challenged the UDP style of governance, while challenging the Prime Minister to do more about crime and domestic and border security.

He said, “A growing political divide grounded in a troubling brand of governance which offers no regard or respect to duly elected representatives of the people who do not belong to the party in government. Political parties are important and necessary, but once elected to government, that political party and its leader have a solemn duty and obligation to serve the people of Belize wherever they may live and regardless of who they voted for.

“ Like the global war on terror, the battle to stem the rushing tide of violence by marginalized Belizeans, especially our youth who have very little to lose, can never be won with brute force and aggression and without understanding and focusing on the root causes of the problem and without investing more in people and less in meager, unsustainable handouts.”

“We recognize that we are nonetheless at war, a war we are currently losing. Even as we celebrate in our towns and cities across Belize, deep inside the magnificent Chiquibul and other protected rainforest areas of our country, hundreds of acres of our pristine national patrimony are being lost to illegal farmers, miners and extractors of xáte and rare artifacts.

The situation demands that we prioritize so that we can invest in adequate security infrastructure, including helicopters”, he continued.

Fonseca was first on the podium, and the PM, who delivered the counterpunch, was quick to address the issue raised by Fonseca by stating that Government will be receiving additional funding which will be used to elevate the efforts of law enforcement.

Barrow said, “These measures that we are putting in place now and over the longer term will be greatly aided by a US $30 million national security loan we are obtaining from the Central American Bank of Economic Integration that will undoubtedly help us get that helicopter, Mr. Leader of the Opposition. This will fund unprecedented spending on vehicles, weapons, facilities, equipment and training, and hopefully give us the sustained success we need. Given the size of the loan, questions have been raised whether we have the fiscal space to accommodate it, but we cast these aside in our absolute determination to finally cage the law and order beast.”

Afterwards, Barrow went on to narrate the upheavals that racked the Musa Administration in its 7th year compared to the “relatively calm political landscape that presently exists”.

Barrow added that in 2015, additional infrastructure projects will take off in rural areas due to a labor intensive structure adopted by GOB, and that works on a few sporting facilities are set to commence at the start of the new year, starting with the construction of the Belize City Center and a sporting facility in Punta Gorda.

Barrow also mentioned that in addition to the 9% salary increase which was provided to public officers and teachers this year, there is a “strong likelihood” of additional increases both next year and in 2016.

On hand at today’s ceremony were dignitaries, including visiting ambassadors, as well as other diplomats, representatives of both local and international government agencies, members of parliament and the Senate, members of the Brownies and Guides, and other invited guests.

The theme of this year’s September Celebrations was “Industrious Hands, Intelligent Minds, Together for Belize.”

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