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Opposition struggles through Budget Debate

HeadlineOpposition struggles through Budget Debate

Photo: Hon. Moses “Shyne” Barrow

by Marco Lopez
 
BELMOPAN, Thurs. Mar. 23, 2023

“Belizeans have never been this disappointed,” was one of the comments made by the Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Moses “Shyne” Barrow, in his “anti-budget” speech presented on Wednesday of this week. Barrow was the first to contribute to the 2023 Budget Debate in the House of Representatives, and went on for two hours in a speech condemning the Briceño administration’s policies and fiscal direction – and this year’s budget, which he calls “bloated” and a “betrayal.” 

While the budget debate is an opportunity for the Opposition members to publicly scrutinize, and criticize the spending decisions of the sitting government, the meager and divided Shyne Barrow-led opposition in the lopsided House of Representatives presented what at times seemed to be an anemic objection to the new budget.  

Barrow, however, in his 2-hour speech, attempted to present what was to be his version of a suitable budget for the country, but ultimately outlined very few alternatives, spending the larger portion of his time challenging the statistics presented in Prime Minister John Briceño’s March 10 budget speech regarding cost of goods, the budget allocation for the Ministry of Infrastructure Development, employment, and foreign direct investment.

“How can the Briceño administration grow the economy when they keep using distorted numbers?” Barrow asserted. “Everything is grandstanding, everything is distortion, everything is an exaggeration, misinformation, misleading. The fact is, when we talk fiscal performance, Madam Speaker, the numbers show that the economy was better under the Barrow UDP administration. In 2019, the economy grew 4.5%; it was the best in the region at the time, Madam Speaker,” he added. 

He pointed to what he claimed was the government’s failure to create new jobs, and cited the delays in granting the green light to projects such as Waterloo’s proposed cruise port—without acknowledging the serious environmental concerns surrounding such projects and the numerous assessments that have indicated that only one cruise port can sustainably operate within the limited geographical area and tourist zone in the Belize District.

“No fifty thousand jobs, no ten thousand houses—write that off. Belizean people, write that off; it is not going to happen under this administration. No investment-friendly climate, just drunken arrogance to Waterloo, Vulcan, and Stake Bank and people that want to come and create employment. Madam Speaker, but I can assure the Belizean people that as Prime Minister I will find solutions,” he stated.
 
Barrow went on to claim that no policies or initiatives to reduce inflation have been included within the budget.
 
“No solution to inflation is contained in this 23/24 Budget, Madam Speaker, and this sick irony is that the government presents an inflated budget that does not address inflation, at all,” Barrow said. “This highest cost of living ever, it is ravaging the poor, working class, and business people alike, Madam Speaker, and it is absolutely no solution in sight,” Barrow said.
 
Barrow asserted that the Briceño administration’s economic growth of 16% following the 13% global contraction brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic was, in actuality, equivalent to a mere 3% growth. Barrow, however, made a number of blunders when citing various statistics, according to PUP representatives who rose to contribute after his extended speech. 
 
“You say the economy grew under the UDP by 4.5% in 2019. But I have it right here on my phone—somebody was listening to you and sent it to me, where the SIB said that it’s actually that the economy contracted by 2.8% in 2019. You can’t make up your stats, bredda. You can’t just pull numbers from out of the sky. The numbers don’t lie, the facts don’t lie, the fact of the matter is that this country was in a recession in 2019,” Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Cordel Hyde stated during his presentation in response to Barrow’s claims. 

According to Hyde, most Belizeans are well aware of the state in which the UDP Barrow administration left the economy. 
 
“Everybody knows, everybody and dey granny knows, that when the UDP left office, they were borrowing a million dollars a day to pay public officers and teachers; the unemployment rate was a whopping 30%; the debt to GDP ratio was 133%, the sixth worst in all the world. You understand what I am saying: there were only 5 other countries out of the 200 countries in the world who was worse than us. Sixty-four thousand people were unemployed; 84,000 were underemployed. How in God’s green world are you going to say to us that you should have hit the ground running in a state of affairs like that? We were facing devaluation in the eye; the IMF was calling for the retrenchment of 3,000 public officers and to raise GST to 19.5 %, and you say the economy was better under the UDP,” Hyde remarked.  
 
Hon. Hyde then pointed out that the budget being presented, in contrast, is the second consecutive budget with a primary surplus. 

“The fact is that what has been proposed in this budget and what is being debated today is another budget, the second consecutive budget with a primary surplus; in other words, a sustainable budget that has more income than expenditure before including interest payments. A budget surplus is a sign of stability, it is a sign of progress, it is a clear sign of prudent financial management. A budget surplus is a sign that taxpayers’ dollars are not being squandered,” Hyde stated. 

In addressing Barrow’s comments on the 194-million-dollar budget allocation for the Ministry of Infrastructural Development, Hyde said, “He comes here talking about infrastructure. I know da thing hurt ah bad, yo know, because they were spending millions on fancy streets, and fancy building and roundabouts and they still lost. But it’s not that the people were opposed to cement streets, you know; they actually like cement streets, but they want more. A better standard of living, they want to be able to find a decent job, they want to be able to send their children to school, they want to be able to get a piece of land … so cement streets and fancy buildings and roundabouts alone weren’t doing it for the people of Belize. Those things look nice, but it wasn’t putting food on enough tables,” Hyde commented. 

“So, yes, we are spending millions on infrastructure, because even after the billions that the UDP spent on infrastructure, the country is still in a hot mess. We weren’t getting value for money; we got robbed,” Hyde then said. 
 
While the Education Ministry allocation was one of the only portions of the budget supported by Barrow, Minister Hon. Francis Fonseca called his extended speech, garbage. He said, “I don’t mean to be impolite, but in the mind of a has-been rapper who is looking for relevance and credibility, complete fiction and fantasy. He spoke for almost two hours, completely without a sense of purpose or direction, made up his own facts, and used his own statistics. We don’t know where he is getting these statistics; it is incredible. So how do you respond to somebody who is living in another world? They are operating in a world of fantasy and fiction, making up his own data to meet the story that he is trying to weave, this incredible tale he is trying to weave.” 

Day 2

A marathon session in the House of Representatives on Thursday marked day two of the 2023/2023 Budget Debate. Ten members delivered remarks, starting with Minister of National Defence and Border Security, Hon. Florencio Marin, and ending with his Minister of State, Hon. Oscar Mira. Two UDP members rose to oppose the budget on the second day: Albert area representative, Hon. Tracy Panton, and Corozal North representative, Hon. Hugo Patt. Present during the session on Thursday afternoon was Collet area representative, Hon. Patrick Faber – who is expected to contribute on Friday, when the Prime Minister, Hon. John Briceño is also expected to make remarks, on the last day of the debate.

The extended session saw contributions from 8 PUP representatives, almost muffling the objections and criticisms being presented by Panton and Patt. Minister Marin in his presentation to the House said that his ministry has worked to transform and enhance the capacity of the defense organizations. The entire western border with Guatemala continues to be the most challenging area to secure for Belize Defence Force personnel – encroachment on Belize land continues in those areas. In the Dolores area down south, a number of illegal airplane landings and airspace operations continue to take place.

The national defence plan is being finalized, said the Minister, who further noted that the BDF and Coast Guard are updating plans regularly.

He said that next week a Coast Guard Station will be inaugurated at Big Creek and he also reiterated that the Sarstoon Forward Operating Base will be renovated.

UDP area representative for the Albert Division, Hon. Tracy Panton rose after Marin’s statement. She declared that the budget was “impotent of new strategies” to address the current economic reality. She called it another episode of the Briceño chest-beating, adding that no meaningful relief is offered in the budget. She went on to accuse the Prime Minister of being “devoid” of the realities on the ground, and claimed that his administration is using rebased statistics to paint a false picture of prosperity.

Hon. Panton claimed that while the cost of living remains high, limited access to healthcare, housing, and education remain a present reality for Belizeans on the ground, and reminded the government of its PlanBelize promise of free education from kindergarten to university. She noted that while the Minister of Human Development, Hon. Dolores Balderamos Garcia, has claimed that a widespread social safety net is in place countrywide, “it does not exist in Albert.”

Minister of Tourism, Hon. Anthony Mahler, during his presentation announced that tourism in Belize has outpaced the rest of the Americas and the world. He said that, with a projected outlook of a 30% increase in arrivals for 2023, the industry will continue to be a driver of Belize’s economy. The tourism industry contributes over a billion dollars annually to the economy, Mahler noted. He said that an estimated 900,000 cruise visitors are expected to arrive in Belize in 2023 and that his ministry has been in the process of finalizing a cruise policy update for Belize.

“Our cruise industry must continue to develop in a responsible and sustainable way that will meet the needs of our stakeholders and enhance the quality of life for our people,” Hon. Mahler said.

Minister of Agriculture, Hon. Jose Mai noted during his remarks that he was participating in a budget presentation and not a debate, since he said “there was no one to debate on the other side.” He shared that under the RRB project, 14 miles of road are to be upgraded from San Carlos to San Felipe. He said the road will be constructed up to paving standards. He outlined that the sector shrank very little in 2022, and “it continues through to be one of the main economic drivers of the Belizean economy.” Hon. Mai then made note of a growing Soy Bean industry, stating that in 2022, 36 thousand acres were planted and 55 million pounds were harvested, making Belize a first-time soy bean meal exporter to the Caribbean and Guatemala.

When Health Minister Hon. Kevin Bernard addressed the House, he announced that next month a nutrition policy from within the Ministry of Health and Wellness will be launched. He said that the policy will focus on reducing access to sugary drinks to young people and will aim to help improve the management of chronic diseases. Hon. Bernard, who took up the reins of the Ministry from Minister Hon. Michel Chebat, said that in two years three health centers have been built. In just a week, health centers in Santa Martha are to be completed, he announced. Construction of a health clinic is due in Placencia and upgrades to facilities in Ladyville, Hattieville, Valley of Peace and Georgeville have been executed, he said.

Nurses and medical professionals continue to be faced with workplace limitations, including shortages in medication, supplies and equipment. Minister Bernard said this will be addressed. He said that they are in negotiation for the procurement of an MRI machine for the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital, a piece of equipment only available at private hospitals.

UDP representative for Corozal North, Hon. Hugo Patt, later made a presentation to the House as the evening session of the budget debate continued.

“The budget presented today is a deficit budget, Madam Speaker, much like last year’s budget, where projected expenditure exceeds revenue and then this government resorts to borrowing to meet the shortfall. Where is this growth in the current scenario?” Patt questioned. He claimed that the economy is currently performing the same as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the underperformance of the economy when the current administration took over is attributed to the pandemic.

Patt further said that the method in which the unemployment and poverty indexes are determined has been manipulated.

“In his budget speech, the Prime Minister highlighted that the poverty level has decreased and that 68,000 less Belizeans are poor. Madam Speaker, you either have poor or you are poor. Thousands of Belizeans on the streets are unemployed and poverty levels have hit remarkably high levels. This is the true picture of the reality out on the street. So that the adulterations in the way these figures are determined are a clear intent by this Prime Minister and his government to distort fact and reality,” Patt said.

The last day of the Budget Debate will take place on Friday, starting at 10:00 a.m.

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