In his first New Year’s Day address as Prime Minister of Belize, Hon. John Briceño was both optimistic and apprehensive: optimistic because his government is about to implement Plan Belize (the PUP manifesto) to address the many problems that beset our country, and apprehensive because our economy has never been this bad. The Prime Minister said our country brok, and for some time yet we will be experiencing hard times.
Plan Belize is still at the starting gate, and we are already midway through the 100 days that new governments traditionally get to begin fulfilling the many promises they made to the electorate during their campaign to win their confidence at the polls. In ordinary times we would have been asking questions because our new leaders don’t have much to show; however, we aren’t living in ordinary times.
The biggest story in Belize, and the world, is the Covid-19 pandemic, and the new government took the reins at a time when it was at its worst in our country. Tragically, shortly after the general elections, one of the new area representatives caught the virus and died before being sworn into office, and among others whom we lost to the virus were two doctors and a police officer. Also, our Director of Health Services had to be hospitalized.
Belize was rocked by Covid-19 in the months of November and December, and while we have seen some improvement some weeks after the new government stepped up measures to contain the disease, it is way too early to say that we have turned the corner and will have it under control by the time the much anticipated vaccines arrive later this year.
In many countries in Asia, people are going about their business and economies are humming along about as well as they did before the pandemic began early last year, and in Africa the virus hasn’t hit hard, but in Europe and the Americas, things have not been good. In Belize, there is devastation. No one here can remember a health and economic crisis as bad as the one we are experiencing now.
The economic times are bad, to a great part because of the health crisis, and in times like these it is good to have that special virtue called hope. The Prime Minister did bring some of that in his New Year’s Day address, but he didn’t spare the bad news. “When we assumed office, we found the treasury empty. The former administration was borrowing $1 million per day to meet expenses…That is bankruptcy”, the Prime Minister said.
Prime Minister Briceño also stated that we “will be asked to make major sacrifices in 2021…and those who brought us to this point must be held to account.” Belize’s economy has been down since 2019, tanking as the supply of oil from the reservoirs in Spanish Lookout dried up, but there have been human culprits behind our economic downfall, culprits who the PM said will be made to answer for their transgressions.
“My government will be revealing to the Belizean people the extent of the stealing, criminality, and corruption…There will be investigations and, where warranted, criminal charges laid,” the Prime Minister said.
If we are indeed proceeding along the path of punishing corrupt persons and retrieving assets they stole from the people, it will be the third time since independence that a new government has set out on that mission. The 1993-1998 UDP government set about getting back $3.34 million of Social Security Board (SSB) funds which it said had unjustly been handed over to a PUP stalwart when it should have been used to purchase shares in the electricity company, BECOL.
The UDP actually contracted a special prosecutor from Canada to prepare the case against the PUP stalwart, but the matter died in the Magistrate’s Court. Later, Justice George Meerabux, the same who was sacked in 2001 following complaints of misbehavior by some members of the lawyer fraternity, did, in a civil case, order the PUP stalwart to pay, but just one month after that judgment the PUP regained the reins of government and the SSB dropped the matter.
In 2008 the UDP, again (and at that time they were still considered the more honest of the two parties that have handled government funds), went to court purportedly to address perceived acts of corruption by former leaders of the 1998-2003 and 2003-2008 PUP governments.
In the most high profile case, a former Prime Minister and one of his ministers were charged with the theft of US $10 million — money gifted to Belize by Venezuela that was used to pay off a debt which Universal Health Services (UHS) owed the Belize Bank. The UDP government said that UHS was a private hospital, but the hospital’s loan had been backed by a sovereign guarantee, purportedly because the hospital was fulfilling a manifesto pledge of the PUP. Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh did not side with the submissions of the UDP government.
If charges of improper handling of public assets, otherwise known as corruption, are brought against former ministers and cronies of the previous government, it will be the first time former ministers and cronies of a UDP government will be paying high-priced lawyers, some of them close affiliates of the ruling party if the PUP blueprint is followed, to keep them out of the penitentiary.
The poor people of Belize want the corruption to stop, and their clamors for the necessary reforms to check area representatives who have no respect for our property rights have consistently fallen on deaf ears. We, of course, want all properties that belong to us to be returned, and if certain white collar criminals get their just punishment, well, no one is, or should be above the law.
In his New Year’s Day address, PM Briceño informed the nation that this week, Friday, his government will present to the House of Representatives a supplementary budget with revised estimates of revenue and expenditure for the last quarter of this fiscal year, and the new government will also be presenting important Bills to initiate its reform agenda.
On Friday, it is not likely we will find one pair of uninterested ears in Belize. No House of Representatives meeting has ever been so anticipated. We know cost-saving measures will be put on the table, and we are worried about how much we’ll have to tighten our belts, but on hearing the reform agenda we’ll find out how serious the new government is about tackling corruption and all the other bad practices that have stymied our growth as a country.