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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Young sailors stand on the shoulder of a Master and Commander: Charles Bartlett Hyde

Photo: (right) Charles Bartlett Hyde Contributed: Harbour Regatta...

One trouble behind us, other troubles ahead

EditorialOne trouble behind us, other troubles ahead

The air got a lot fresher this week after the GoB and the stevedores, who are represented by the Christian Workers Union, reached consensus after years of contention at the Port of Belize Limited (PBL). It was a bad situation at the port, especially after it fell under the control of a receiver who used the asset as a pawn to try and push through an environmentally unsound project, and the righteous stand of the stevedores contributed greatly to the decision by government to reacquire the asset. PBL is once again the property of the government and people of Belize, and the climate was right for compromises to be made for the good of the nation. PBL just couldn’t continue being a football to kick around.

There are tough negotiations going on between government leaders and government employees over necessary restructuring and retooling to increase efficiency. The stickiest issue is the present pension scheme, which all experts have declared unsustainable. The non-contributory pension scheme is an excellent package that government employees have had for generations, but both government and its employees recognize that it can’t go on as is forever.

There are a number of concerns in the productive sector, in industries that bring in critical foreign exchange. The BPO industry has created substantial economic opportunities for a number of Belizeans, but the lifeblood of our economy is our foreign exchange earners, our tourism and our agro-industries. Every Belizean suffers when things aren’t right there.

It’s everyone’s concern that there is considerable tension in the sugar industry between the major cane farmers association, Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA), and the millers. A Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the workings of the industry, for the purpose of modernizing and restructuring it so it becomes more competitive and the benefits are more justly shared, is set for the near future, but the farmers received a setback earlier this month when the courts ruled against a number of new regulations that had been introduced.

The farmers had hoped that the courts would see the relationship between them and the millers more as a partnership than it is at present, a simple buyer and seller relationship. Because of this setback, barring any changes, the scope of the (COI) has been considerably diminished.

The BSCFA has expressed serious dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the matter. A recent press release from the BSCFA suggested that PM Briceño has “replaced the principles of social justice with a heartless capitalism in the governance of Belize and a hunger for foreign investments”, and it reminded him of the words of our first PM, George Price who, regarding the struggle against British colonialism, said: “We rise up then to defend our God-given rights against economic slavery, human misery and bodily starvation … The struggle may be hard, long and fierce, but the thing to do is keep a level head as we rise up in courageous and legitimate resistance against economic tyranny and oppression.”

Tuesday night’s Krem News report said the vice-chairman of BSCFA, Alfredo Ortega “remarked that while in opposition, politicians make all kinds of promises they don’t keep when they make it into Government.”

Twice, the farmers have had the opportunity to gain control of the factory. The first opportunity for farmers came in the 1980s when Tate & Lyle decided to sell majority shares in its operations in Belize. A Central Bank report says farmers didn’t have the money and the shares ended up with the company’s local employees. The second opportunity for farmers came when the local Belize Sugar Industries Ltd. had overextended its finances with investments in Belcogen, but the government of the day preferred that majority shares in the factory went to American Sugar Refining, Inc. (ASR), in 2012.

Comparing what existed in the sugar industry in George Price’s day, with today, nothing has changed. Price protected the rights of farmers to supply the sugarcane to the factory, which is the status quo. As for the valid point by Brother Ortega, that governments “make all kinds of promises they don’t keep”, it might be that sometimes they can’t.

ASR is a US owned company. And the Americans protect their companies. The government that preferred ASR knew that, when they chose the American company as the majority partner of the struggling BSI. Looking at our relationship with the British, whom Price linked with “economic slavery”, they have been our most generous partner since self-government in 1964, up to the entry of the Republic of China, Taiwan. The British have been correctly lambasted for plundering Belize during the days of colonial rule, but Price never concluded a budget presentation without announcing/acknowledging a grant from the UK to bridge our perennial budget deficit.

A lot is stacked against the BSFCA at this time, but its just fight for our farmers is appreciated, and though it can’t get all it wants, though its gains are incremental, wan wan okro ful baaskit.

Some people like tourism, some people don’t; but emotions aside, it is a fact that that industry is far and away number one in Belize. Around the turn of this century, tourism climbed to the top spot, and it remains unchallenged since. Our number one private sector organization, the Belize Chamber of Commerce & Industries, said in a 2017 report that tourism is our top foreign exchange earner, that in respect to its total contribution, it accounted for 41.3% of our GDP, and that it “directly contributed to 13.4% of total employment.”

The news last week from the cruise sector that Stake Bank Enterprises Ltd., which owns the Port Coral cruise port and entertainment project at Stake Bank, has gone under receivership, made Belizeans very nervous. The Amandala said that a major financier of the project, the Atlantic Bank Group, announced last week that the reason it had placed the company under the control of a receiver was because under the management it had, it faced “a considered completion risk.”

Belizean Michael Feinstein, the Chairman of the Feinstein Group which is the main local owner of the project, said financing started drying up when the government signed an MOU with Portico Enterprises Ltd. in 2017. Stake Bank Enterprises had wanted an exclusive zone for its project, similar to the one given to Norwegian’s Harvest Cay in the south, but was unsuccessful, reportedly because that kind of incentive had been declared illegal by the courts. The explanation government gave for Norwegian’s 25-year exclusive zone in 2016 was that they had gotten it prior to the ruling of the court.

Tens of millions of dollars have been invested in the Stake Bank Enterprises project, and investors, and tour operators who have signed contracts to do business at Port Coral, are hoping that this receivership in no way resembles the ones at Nova Shrimp Farm and Novelo’s Bus Company, which ended up with the fire sale of valuable assets, nor like the one at PBL, which was mired in confusion and dissension for over a decade until the government stepped in and took it over.

Hopes remain high for success for Stake Bank Enterprises. A Google Earth view shows substantial investment at Port Coral, and at an affiliated project on Drowned Cays. The Atlantic Bank Group has expressed confidence that it can raise the estimated $50million needed to complete the project.

There could be rough seas up ahead. But there are hopes that things will fall into place and there will be smooth sailing in all of these troubled areas, similar to the present calm at PBL.

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