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Violence, grief, and financial ruin

EditorialViolence, grief, and financial ruin

   Belize has rarely seen violence on a scale equal to what occurred in peaceful Hopkins over the weekend when a gunman or gunmen opened fire at a nightclub where Belizeans were enjoying part of the Hopkins Day festivities organized by that village’s village council. At the end of the shooting, which police reports say was ignited by a personal confrontation, not gang warfare, the families and friends of two people, a young man and a middle-aged man, were grieving their deaths; dozens of people were traumatized, eight of them with gunshot wounds; one man was in custody and three men were on the run; and the Hopkins Village Council and all the villagers felt the air go out of a weekend they had spent months preparing for.

   In the weeks leading up to countrywide Village Council Elections this year, the National Garifuna Council (NGC) made a call for villagers in traditional Garifuna villages to vote for individuals of Garifuna ethnicity. Eyebrows were certainly raised by this call, but at its core the NGC was just seeking to preserve the culture of this relatively small group in our country.  

   The Garinagu are a proud, progressive people, and their villages are close-knit, peaceful communities where everyone is known by their name. A village-council hosted event in a Garifuna village was one of the last places in our country where we would have expected ugly violence to break out. What happened in Hopkins is no reflection on the villagers. It’s our country; there is mad violence all over, especially in urban areas, and in the night vicious visitors came to Hopkins and shattered the village’s tranquility.

   In the immediate aftermath of the horrific gun violence, the NGC issued a press release expressing sympathy to the victims, particularly the families who lost loved ones, and expressed its concern about the “far-reaching negative impact this type of inhumane, criminal act can have on the reputation of our Garifuna community.” The chairman of the Hopkins village council, Mr. Macario Augustine, used social media to express his grief over the unfortunate violence the night before, and to inform Belizeans across the land that the festivities would continue as planned, with heightened security.

   The leaders of the village must have done some hard thinking before they decided against cancelling the events they had planned for Sunday. The tremendous investment of Hopkins’ residents has to be emphasized. Some villagers probably put their entire year’s savings into preparing items for sale on Hopkins Day. The payments for some children’s/youth’s school books and uniforms might have depended on the sales from their family’s booth.

   These violent acts not only take lives; they suck the economic life out of our communities. It’s an ongoing crisis that government after government has been impotent in addressing. After all the hard work, the planning and investment, there should be joy. Instead, there is unimaginable grief, horrific trauma, and major financial losses for many people because of unconscionable violent acts.

Another SSB loan goes under the microscope

   Alarm bells ring every time the Social Security Board (SSB) issues a loan, especially since a PUP government came to power in November 2020. The PUP failed in three consecutive elections, in 2008, 2012, and 2015, and one explanation for the party being snubbed at the polls is the belief of many that between 1998 and 2008, when the party was in power, its appointees did not handle the SSB’s funds with the best judgment. 

   The SSB can’t stand pat; it can’t bury the “talents.” The SSB has to grow its fund so that it can meet its obligations to beneficiaries, and to that end SSB directors and its investment committee are charged to make sound investments in economically sound/socially desirable projects. Many entrepreneurs seek SSB loans because the interest rates are significantly lower than they can get at the banks.

   In 2019 the fund stood at over half a billion dollars, and as then chairman, Doug Singh said, much of it sat at the banks earning little interest. In 2016, Singh thought it was a great investment opportunity for the SSB to lend Santander $12 million at 7% and 8%, but the company backed out because Belizeans didn’t like the idea of the SSB lending money to foreigners. In 2014, the SSB, under Chairman Singh, was “allowed” to lend over $10 million to the Citrus Growers Association (CGA), after Denzil Jenkins, chairman of the CGA subsidiary, ICL, lowered the anxiety of Belizeans a few degrees with the information that the SSB would be making almost 6% more off its funds by lending it to the CGA, than it would make if the money was left in the banks.

   Those loans mentioned were on the table during years when the UDP was in government, but even though the UDP was on a high after cleaning up messes at the SSB and DFC made by the PUP, particularly the PUP 1998-2003 administration, the scrutiny was intense. 

   Caution flags were flying when the SSB recently announced that it was lending $20 million to the DFC, but the DFC quickly put fears to rest with the claim on its website that this latest loan was one of 24it had received over the years from the SSB, and that in its 59-year history it hadn’t defaulted on any of its debt obligations. That one having been addressed, next in line is a proposed $7 million loan to Pharmacy Express Ltd., a company few had heard of prior to it applying for SSB funds.  

   It is claimed that the company has put up collateral that is worth three times the sum it hopes to borrow, but that hasn’t stopped Belizeans from clamoring for the SSB to do more scrutiny of this company before lending it the people’s money. A couple days after information was published about the proposed loan, the Ministry of Health & Wellness expressed “some concerns”, and Cabinet, in a meeting on July 28th, said it recognized the “autonomy of the SSB but supports the importance and necessity of ensuring that all relevant information regarding Pharmacy Express Limited is shared with SSB before a final decision is made in respect of the loan.”

   As noted, SSB loans are much sought after, and ever since a PUP government was less than careful with the people’s funds—the details of such misdeeds or missteps lying buried in a Commission of Inquiry report that has never been published—Belizeans have kept a particularly keen eye on the Board’s transactions. It’s possible that Pharmacy Express Ltd. can generate sufficient cash flow to service a $7 million loan and that its collateral is as good as Placencia land, factors that would make it a fair bet. But the company will have to open its books to more examination. That’s because Belizeans, having been bitten before, become very wary whenever they hear of a new investment of the people’s funds by the SSB.

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