When Hon. Dean Barrow became Prime Minister of Belize in 2008, he did not ride in on a record that showed he had capacity to create jobs and subdue crime. Indeed, the accepted opinion is that the record of the 1993-1998 United Democratic Party (UDP), in which he served as Deputy Prime Minister, was dismal in regards to crime, and it is a fact that they obliterated many jobs.
PM Barrow did not ride in to power on a record of selflessness, self-sacrifice, in the service of this nation either. The fact is that the law firm which he co-owned provided services to Lord Michael Ashcroft, a gentleman who was squeezing the last drop out of Belizeans after he was allowed to gain majority control of BTL, the only telecommunications company in the country. PM Barrow might have argued that a person has a right to earn his bread in any legal endeavor, but working for one who seemed rapacious did not exhibit the kind of stuff and fiber that would make a great leader for our country.
Our present leader’s great claim to fame was that while out of government, as the area representative for Queen’s Square, he went to the House of Representatives and made impassioned speeches against corrupt practices in government. It might have worked out well for Belize if Mr. Barrow, in previous governments, had earned stars instead of C’s and D’s on the economy and fighting crime. Sadly, he had earned no stars.
It would have been natural for us to expect that on coming to power this party, the UDP, with so few credentials on fighting crime and creating jobs, would have reached out to all capable citizens to bolster these areas where they had these obvious weaknesses. They did not.
This UDP has been all about party, and the results for us Belizeans have not been good. We are now a country in collapse. Belize has never faced the challenges it is facing now. Our national debt has increased substantially under the UDP. The party of Super Bond infamy, the People’s United Party (PUP), increased the national debt by $1.6 billion between 1998 and 2007. The party of supposed fiscal prudence, the UDP, increased the national debt by $1.3 billion between 2008 and 2018. (The figures are taken from the 2019 budget speech.)
The UDP has pointed out that they borrowed at low, so-called concessionary, interest rates, while the PUP borrowed at high interest rates. The PUP, in their own defense, has said that much of their borrowing at high interest rates was caused by a global financial crisis, and the urgency to rebuild Belize after we were hit by two hurricanes.
Small entrepreneurs in the tourism and gambling (Boledo) industries are being squeezed out. Violent crime, which is exacerbated in our region by the US’s war on drugs, our poverty, and unequal distribution of the nation’s wealth, has us traumatized. A drought, and a dengue epidemic have us paralyzed, and people know the government has not done enough to mitigate these problems.
Environmental degradation in Belize is at its worst ever. Our main agro-industries are down, and people know the government hasn’t done enough to help our farmers through difficult times. The Statistical Institute of Belize (SIB) keeps saying that the cost of living is not increasing, but they dare not investigate the cost of goods outside of our few locally-produced commodities.
At this time, Belize’s economic survival is dependent on heavy borrowing to build roads. The only vibrant industries in the country are fragile tourism and fragile business process outsourcing (BPO): the former is largely foreign-owned and the latter is completely the property of foreigners.
We Belizeans have problems, and that is not unexpected, but our problems would never have been so great if our brain trust had been expanded to include minds that are not card-carrying members of the party in power.
In Belize 2019, democracy is defined as government of the people, government by the people, but government for the party. Our ship isn’t dead in the water: it is going backward. The air in our country is stale, sour, as a government which turned its back on political reform and managed the nation’s resources as if the minds of government members alone possessed the capacity to direct it, and only their mouths needed to feed off it, now struggles to squeeze out the last drop before it leaves office.
200 cameras, 200 officers
At his annual address to the nation on Independence Day, PM Barrow announced that our country would be adding 200 cameras and 200 new police officers to the fight against crime. The type of crime being targeted here is armed robberies. We don’t need to wait for the police to report on the number of armed robberies to know that this type of crime is out of control, the worst it has ever been.
It is good that 200 young Belizeans will be getting jobs. It would be much better if they were getting jobs in businesses that create wealth, but our government hasn’t made an environment for the creation of jobs in other fields.
The 200 cameras will most likely be placed to increase surveillance of activities around large business places. The new cameras are said to be better than the ones already deployed, so we can expect that apart from adding to what is already in place, there will be some replacements. Robbers, naturally, are looking for money, so business places are their primary targets.
The acquisition of 200 cameras and the hiring of 200 new police officers deserve some praise because it amounts to lighting candles in the dark, but the illumination will not be great enough to go very far in making our lives safer. Belizeans are being attacked by robbers when they are traveling in buses, when they travel to work or for entertainment on pathways, and when they are asleep in their homes. The 200 cameras and 200 new officers will help, but not enough. That’s because the economic desperation is great for too many of our people, and the justice system is not equipped to deal with the most violent among us.
We understand that these leaders have their pride, and so find it difficult to admit failure and seek help. However, pride cannot be allowed to stand in the way of improvement we desperately need. The government can’t be happy with the crime situation. Some have suggested that crime is welcomed in some leadership quarters because it distracts citizens from other troubles in our country. We don’t believe we have reached those depths, at least not yet.
Smart, honest leaders can help us survive the US’s strategic drug war
If the US really wanted to, it could easily help us cut the movement of drugs through our country by 90%. Belize is a very small country and it doesn’t take many helicopter runs to plot every makeshift landing strip and dirt road wide enough for a plane landing. It doesn’t take that many police officers on good motorcycles to maintain 24/7 presence in these areas.
The US drug war causes turmoil in every country where it is fought, and the turmoil within these countries keeps them so occupied with security that they have few resources left to develop themselves politically and economically. These countries stagnate, and their citizens oftentimes end up looking for opportunities in the US.
The solution for countries dragged into this half-hearted drug war the US is fighting, is honest, savvy leaders. We need leaders who are not easily corrupted. We need leaders who are smart enough to stop our country from being devoured by the drug trade. The verdict on the leadership of 1998-2008 PUP and the 2008-2019 UDP is that they didn’t/don’t sufficiently possess these attributes.