Editorial — 01 June 2019
Our governments made the climate for Sanctuary Bay

There is a story out there that the Americans are trying to put a hook in the Government of Belize, us, for a project that has reportedly bilked mostly American citizens out of over US 100 million dollars. In other sections of the media, and in the Amandala, there have been detailed reports of the ongoing saga at Sanctuary Bay, located near Sittee River in the Stann Creek District.

A number of hooks have been placed in our mouth these past two decades, so maybe we cannot be blamed if we start believing that we are some kind of fish. We have been reeled in so, so many times, and have had to give up so, so many pounds of flesh, we are nearing bankruptcy. Our leaders really must stop opening our mouth for foreigners to put hooks inside it. Enough, our jaw is sore to the point of breaking.

The way the story goes, foreign minds/entrepreneurs from the USA, and minority Belizean players got together on a project which involved Belizean land, lots of prime Belizean land, with the aim to attract foreign investors to develop an upper scale community. One of the leaders of the upscale community dream, like Wong Hong Kim of notoriety in the national passport shame, was not unfamiliar with troubles with the law in his home country.

The project did not deliver what it promised. The US press is saying that it was all a scam. An offshore bank licensed to operate in Belize has been closed down. This has exposed persons who had deposited money in the bank. That is bad. The project is in limbo. The innocent people who invested in the project are exposed. That is also bad. There is talk that our government, which means us, is exposed. That is terrible.

We are not aware of direct involvement of the Government of Belize in this project. What we know is that for a project of this nature to take wing, a certain amount of imprimatur from our leaders has to be provided. This project involved Belizean land and that always involves government. Government officials eagerly delivering the necessary paperwork are also especially critical for projects that involve many millions of dollars from foreign investors.

Governments, whether they are monarchies, dictatorships, democracies, communist or capitalist, will lend support to individuals and companies that exhibit the capacity to attract and create wealth to develop a country. Where there is no development, the people perish.

In a democracy, such as what we were supposed to be, there are systems in place to ensure that government does not bestow its support based on cronyism and other corrupted associations. Understandably, governments will not be eager to support creative people who have no interest in perpetuating their power.

The party in power will prefer to overlook those entrepreneurs who don’t respond to their direct needs. They will have a definite urge to direct favors to those who are in on their game, hence the need for sound systems to be in place to check the government.

The best chances for the people’s  interests to be served exist with governments that are transparent and accountable. Governments that are not transparent and accountable put the interests of the political party in power over the best needs of the people. That type of government, the one that is not transparent and is not accountable, is attractive to scoundrels.

We are aware that our governments give sovereign guarantees from time to time, but not for projects like Sanctuary Bay. We are not aware that our present government is taking back land from the project. Our liability, as far as we can see, comes from the way we have conducted the business of government these last three decades.

Our government helped to give the operators the credibility they needed to encourage investors. This is/was a grand project. There is no place on earth like our Jewel. There were government operatives executing the necessary official transactions every step of the way.

Government facilitators working for a government that has no transparency or accountability, is the green light for insincere entrepreneurs. One of the lead directors of the project stood accused of cheating Americans out of millions in a business arrangement in the US. If we were about transparency in our country, we would most likely have known about the cloudy past of this person.

This story about no transparency and no accountability in government, which translates to government for the few, really began in the 1989-1993 PUP government. It is that 1989-1993 PUP government, and the 1998-2003 PUP government, which led us down the tubes to the present “Our Turn” UDP governments of 2008 to 2012, 2012 to 2015, and 2015 to whenever the next general elections are called, before November 2020.

The UDP, whose backbone is the former National Independence Party (NIP), a party which prided itself on honesty, sold itself the half-truth that it had rescued the Belize economy in their 1984-1989 government, only to see the PUP of 1989-1993 squander all the gains in the national coffer.

Our nation’s first prime minister , Honorable George Price, did go to the House of Representatives and say, shortly after independence in 1981, that our cash base was severely strained. At that time our country was operating under IMF pressure, the world economy was bad, sugar prices were bad, and citrus prices were bad. Belize had a cash problem, but Belize also owned a lot of industries and other assets.

The 1984-1989 UDP government privatized the banana industry, sold major shares in our telecommunications company, sold economic citizenships, and received major support from USAID. The price of citrus on the world market also shot up in this period.

We don’t buy completely into the UDP argument that they managed the country so brilliantly, but the fact is that when the PUP came to power in 1989, until 1993, they were spending and borrowing hand over fist, with little transparency and accountability.

When the UDP came to power in 1993 (until 1998), they complained that the national treasury was empty, when they had left it flush in 1989. That UDP government would stumble along until it ended up in ignominy, with the largest layoff of public workers in recorded history. That UDP government, however, like the UDP government of 1984-1989, could not be accused of malfeasance with the public treasury. That UDP government cannot be accused of not being prudent.

The external debt when the UDP left office in 1998 stood at US$260.7million (Central Bank statistics). Statistics from tradingeconomics.com show that our external debt was US$167.9million in 1993, and in 2017 it stood at US$1,255.8 million, more than quadrupling since 1998.

The country was broke in 1998, so the UDP has no grounds to say that the PUP government that followed, squandered what they, the UDP, had earned for the country. That PUP government spent money alright, but most of the funds were borrowed at exorbitant interest rates.

 The PUP, 1998-2003, was a return to PUP 1989-1993, full bore. This was the age of “growing the economy,” and we did, but the success of this government was overshadowed by clouds of rumors of insider trading and major companies infested with hidden Ministers and cronies as large shareholders. The PUP government of 2003-2008 would try to contain the wild spree of 1998-2003. During this period we would get the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act of 2005, which was supposed to put the clamp on runaway spending. It didn’t take many years for an “Our Turn” UDP government to run over and around that.

The first “Our Turn” UDP government, of 2008-2012, and successive ones, seemed to be insistent that the cupboard will be dry for any party that succeeds them. In our two-party system, that successor will be the PUP, and the UDP is, to our national detriment, serious about running the national treasury into the ground.

These UDP governments have no transparency and no accountability. You cannot do the things the PUP did in their worst days, with scrutineers looking over your shoulder. In the land where there is no transparency and accountability, scoundrels run wild.

The frustration of the Belizean people is enormous. The investors in the Sanctuary Bay project and the depositors in the offshore bank that failed have their share of grief. We are not aware that our country is legally liable for what didn’t go right, but morally our hands are not clean. We can argue that the US press is saying that the man who is responsible is an American who did not have the best record in the mighty USA, but that is no justification for the way we do business in Belize.

Our leaders have said that there will always be corruption. No, there will always be peccadillos, little nibbling in grey areas. The rats only get huge chunks of the cheese when there is little transparency and accountability in the system.

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Deshawn Swasey

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