No Government of Belize since we became a self-governing country in 1964 and got our independence in 1981 has been battered by headwinds to the extent that our present government has since it took over in November 2020. The SARS-Cov-2 virus has had the world in a health and economic crisis since April 2020, and we have not been exempted from the pain.
No people want to hear excuses from their leaders, but it is only fair to place all the factors on the table when assessing their performance. The bottom dropped out of tourism, which accounted for nearly 50% of our earnings, as global travel screeched to a near halt. The first cruise ship to come to Belize since April 2020 anchored off Stake Bank in July 2021, but months later the cruise industry is nowhere near what it was two years ago.
Compounding the injury to our economy caused by the steep fall-off in tourism, two of our agro/marine industries, citrus and farmed shrimp, have been sputtering for over a decade, and the oil wells in the country have all but dried up. Things are bad on the economic front, and Belizeans, as they fight to hold on, know that shaking us free of our economic malaise isn’t an easy task for the government. But they are not about giving our leaders an open pass.
A little over a full year is behind us since our new government came to power on glowing promises, the two key ones being to right our economy, make ALL Belizeans prosper, and to strengthen governance institutions so we can free our country of endemic corruption in government. Today, one day before we ring in the New Year, 2022, with great hope, we look at ministries of government that are directly involved with the finances of the country, some of the things they did in 2021, and some things we look for in the coming year.
Our economy was faltering prior to the pandemic, and with nearly every industry in the country going downhill after April 2020, the cash-strapped Briceño government cut the salaries of its employees and instituted an increment freeze.
The PUP 2020-2025 government came to power with a plan to inject a substantial quantity of capital into the private sector and improve the business climate, with the expectation that these initiatives would lead to economic growth, the tax base would expand, and it would have the cash to meet its bills. Alas, funds dried up, and business for much of the year hasn’t been firing on all cylinders because of the pandemic.
Its economic vision confounded, the government was reduced to squeezing every last drop it could out of fuel taxes, and had to also suffer the embarrassment of slashing its payroll.
The government made a promise to its employees that their salaries would be restored as soon as the economy turns around, an objective that must be a priority in 2022. Restoring the salaries of its employees in 2022 needn’t be so dependent on the gross national product rebounding to pre-pandemic levels. The government must make a greater effort toward getting Belizeans to better appreciate the importance of buying goods labeled, “Made in Belize”. There are also some items, luxury electric/electronic appliances and vehicles for examples, that we’ll have to forego if we will make our economy better.
The ministries responsible for finance, and for the blue economy, won tremendous savings for the people of Belize when the so-called Super Bond was sold to The Nature Conservancy. The ministry responsible for finance also tried to convince the Belizean people that some government ministries contracting telecommunication services from a private provider, Smart, instead of the publicly owned BTL, resulted in savings for the nation.
No surprise, the ministry responsible for natural resources had its hands full trying to identify accessible land for first-time landowners, because previous governments had already issued out most land lying within five miles of the electricity grid, as well as beach-front or waterside plots.
Primary missions of this ministry in 2022 must be to have this department no longer be considered as a hustlers’ paradise, and to up the pace in the distribution of lands to first-time landowners, an objective which the ministry says has been bogged down by a massive backlog that was left by the previous government.
Another mission of this ministry must be to provide support for first-time landowners so that they fully appreciate the value of the resource, and know how to develop their asset to its maximum value, whether it’s intended for housing, farming, or recreation/tourism. It is the opinion of some that many new landowners will sell their properties when they get their titles. Real estate transactions are a critical hub of the capitalist system, but our people must become far more calculating in the handling of their properties.
The ministry responsible for agriculture has done a great job identifying the key players in the industry and giving them the support they need at this time. This ministry deserves maximum points for protecting farmers so they can sell their products. Government after government promised to protect farmers, but this is the first one that has delivered for them so magnificently.
What the ministry responsible for agriculture must now do, in 2022, is seek out those farmers who have dropped out of the industry because of lack of support by previous governments. This ministry needs to recruit talent with the aim to improve/increase the farm support service that was a key to our early agricultural development. This ministry must also step up its efforts to find niche markets for Belizean crops and ornamentals.
No great surprise, mostly because the American government still has marijuana categorized as an illegal drug, the ministry responsible for new growth industries failed to make a foreign exchange earner out of the plant. The disappointment was that it failed to legalize marijuana for domestic use and failed to get hemp production off the ground. In 2022 this ministry must also put much emphasis on the processing of our farm and marine products so we have a greater variety of “Made in Belize” goods on the shelves in our grocery stores.
We have to give the ministry responsible for our number one industry, tourism, points for trying in very trying times. This is the industry most affected by the pandemic, and the macro numbers will improve as the virus subsides, hopefully soon. An important measure for this ministry in 2022 will be how many Belizeans have entered the ownership level of the industry.
It was a tough year in Belize in a number of areas, but there were some good things. Our leaders, all of us, must commit to making 2022 better. A Happy New Year to all!