At the risk of sounding trite, they say the days of the fat dog are behind us. After some years of living large off the Petrocaribe dollars, reality has started to set in. We still see the mammoth City Centre project going up in the old capital, there is the expansion of the Philip Goldson Highway between the PGIA and the Haulover Bridge, and some work is being done to resurface the Hummingbird Highway after the BNE trucks left it pretty ramshackle. But the furious government spending of recent years is no more.
See, no one told the people that there are no free lunches. No one told the people that the UDP were doing exactly what the PUP did in their 1998-2004 heyday: spend all those borrowed millions on projects that were not going to create national wealth or provide any permanent employment or result in any increased revenue to help pay back the loans. In fact, the people were made to believe in the November 2015 campaign that the good times would continue to roll. But now in 2017, the bills have come due.
Recently, we’ve seen government had to borrow an additional $50 million from the Republic of China on Taiwan for so-called “general budgetary support,” that some claim were really borrowed from a commercial bank in Taiwan. Simply put, we cannot say whether the money is for salaries or to pay utility bills or exactly what it is for. Government has refused to say.
We know that in the previous months, government has had to pay Michael Ashcroft over $300 million, and we still owe him upwards of $150 million, and that’s just for BTL. Altogether, it is estimated by some that we owe him in excess of $700 million, and he wants more. The same man who at various times have been chief financier/employer of both the UDP and the PUP.
At the same time, the government is locked in a protracted negotiation with bondholders as they try to better the terms of the Superbond for an unprecedented third time. A payment is due in exactly two weeks, and the government is saying they can’t pay, and won’t be able to continue paying on present terms.
We hear that representatives of the government will meet this week with members of the business community to consult ahead of the presentation of the Budget Estimates scheduled for March sometime. Meanwhile, for those at the base of the economic pyramid, there is no such consultation, only pain.
We hear that the Chinese grocers are now retailing hot dog sausages at a shilling, and neck and back are increasingly replacing a regular chicken on the tables of the masses. For the almost fifty percent of the population mired in poverty and the many thousands just barely hovering above the dreaded poverty line, these are worrisome times, and there are no miracles on the horizon.
Despite rhetoric from officialdom to the contrary, just about every single economic sector is in decline. The only sectors seeing growth is beer and tourism. And while more tourists are visiting, less money is coming. That’s because a lot of tourists pre-pay for their stuff abroad, so they are not spending as much here.
According to the SIB, the only other indexes that are going up are the price of fuel and unemployment. Government has quietly been collecting many tens of millions of dollars via a tax hike on fuel imports over the last 13 months, further constricting an already dying economy. We submit that those millions, if left in the pockets of the consumers, would have been circulating in the local economy, keeping the private sector vibrant and possibly creating much needed employment.
By now you get the picture. There is not much to write home about. There are some very difficult days ahead in The Jewel, and we have not even mentioned our families in the Diaspora and the turbulence they are sure to experience under Trump, and what consequences that will have for us here where the much needed remittances are concerned.
Truth is, all we can do is batten down. Political power has meant that those at the top in successive administrations are able to survive any storm, literal or economical. They have done well; their friends and families have done well. It is the masses who suffer when the bills come due. For those at the top, life has never been better. Their children get all the scholarship opportunities; their friends and relatives gobble up all the contracts; and together, they hog up all the land.
In a few weeks’ time, we’ll see another Budget presentation, hear some bickering and name calling from both sides of the House, but not much will change for the lumpen-proletariat. Hundreds of millions will be earmarked for Education, many millions for Health and National Security, but the people get poorer. How you figure? Nothing ever changes for the masses. They only get poorer, while things get harder.
We have to stop looking to Belmopan for saviours. Only the people can save the people. We have to stop with the isms and the schisms between us as a people. Division amongst the people only consolidates the powerful elite in this country. White collar crimes run rampant in the upper echelons of power, but it’s the young chap who goes to jail for a stick of weed, or the single mother who gets six years for stealing a ball of cheese. The rule of law doesn’t apply to the rich and powerful.
Luke Palacio said it best, “The power of the people is more powerful than the people in power.” But until we get that, that this is our country, and that the politicians work for us, and not the other way around, we’ll continue to pay their bills. Change has to come from the bottom up; it never comes from the top.
Those at the top will continue to promise more foreign direct investment. More ASRs. More Norwegian Cruise Lines. More Ashcrofts. All that means is more campaign financing for the polls, and more pain and taxes for the poor. That’s how it’s always been. It is written.