BELIZE: THE YEAR IN REVIEW
News and Opinion by LAN SLUDER
POLITICS OF CHANGE IN BELIZE
The biggest news of 2008, though it now seems like a lifetime ago, was the national election February 7. The United Democratic Party swept into office with about 57% of the popular vote, to 41% for the People’s United Party, taking 25 of 31 seats in the House of Representatives. The PUP won only four seats in the Belize City area, plus one in Orange Walk District and one in Corozal. Dean Barrow took the oath of office as Prime Minister on February 8. A lawyer by profession, educated in Jamaica and Miami, Barrow is the first black to hold the top office in Belize. For former Prime Minister Said Musa, it was his first defeat since taking over as head of the PUP in 1996. Although the former PUP PM managed to hold onto his seat, even the powerful Ralph Fonseca lost to UDP political novice Michael Hutchinson in Belize Rural Central. The election was peaceful, and the turnout was moderately high, with over 74% of registered voters casting ballots.
Prime Minister Barrow’s cabinet and other senior officials were viewed as being a combination of fresh new faces, including the first Mennonite and Maya ministers, and political veterans. The ministerial mix, which includes Creoles and Mestizos, reflects the ethnic and cultural diversity of Belize. However, the original roster of UDP ministers was all male.
In its first year in office, the new UDP government generally took a low-key approach to governing. It followed a reform-oriented agenda. PM Barrow often took a pragmatic course when for example he backed down on a constitutional amendment to allow preventative detention, after widespread public opposition to the amendment. In December PM Barrow also took a moderate position on the planned referendum on the agreement between Guatemala and Belize, settling longstanding border and territory issues. One oft-heard criticism of the government is that it has so far failed to put together a program to combat an economic slump in Belize due to the world financial and economic crisis.
As the year progressed, the badly defeated PUP broke into factions, the old and the new. The old guard generally is associated with former PM Musa and Francis Fonseca and other former party leaders. The new group is associated with John Briceño, who in late March narrowly defeated Fonseca in a party election for PUP party leader, and Mark Espat, who also ran for party leader.
In December, former PM Said Musa was criminally charged with theft in connection with a US$10 million grant from Venezuela to settle a debt by the government for Universal Health Services. Former “Minister of Everything” Ralph Fonseca also was charged.
MURDERS MOST FOUL
Crime continued to plague Belize in 2008. By year’s end, the unofficial total of murders in the country reached a record 95, up from 77 in 2007. The year’s grim statistics were capped by four murders over the long Christmas weekend. This puts the homicide rate in Belize at about 30 per 100,000 population, one of the highest rates in the Caribbean Basin and Central America. It is some six times higher than the national homicide rate in the United States. In a single bad week in February, the country saw a record nine murders. The Southside of Belize City is the epicenter of homicide. About 40% of all murders in Belize take place in this poor, predominantly Creole area of Belize City.
Two of the most notorious murders of the year took place in Cayo in early July. An expat couple in the San Ignacio area was brutally murdered, allegedly by local teenagers. Americans Mike and Donna Hill, who had been in Belize since the early 1990s, were found dead near their Macal River home, shot execution-style. The Hills were involved in a real estate development project near Cristo Rey village, and Donna Hill sold real estate. Police arrested two young Belizean boys and charged them with the crimes. The suspects include a 15-year-old boy and a 17-year-old boy, both from Santa Elena.
Burglaries and thefts are by far the most common crimes committed in Belize, with well over 1,000 cases of each reported each year. One accounting firm on Central American Boulevard in Belize City reported that it experienced five burglary attempts in a single month. Through mid-year, however, Belize police say that crime rates in Belize fell. Major crimes (murders, robberies, burglaries, thefts, rapes and carnal knowledge) were down 9% in the first six months of 2008, compared with the year earlier. Observers respond that many crimes are not reported, and that Belize police spend too much time on victimless crimes, such as possession of marijuana, rather than working to reduce street crime.
A British documentary on Belize City gangs by Ross Kemp was shown on television worldwide, bringing Belize unwanted negative publicity.
An unfortunate up-and-coming trend in crime in Belize is home invasions. Several home invasions were reported in the Belize City area, including in the suburban Belama Phase Two area, and others took place in Gales Point, Spanish Lookout, Corozal Town and elsewhere.
THE ELEVATOR ECONOMY
There was good and bad news on the economic front in 2008. Gross Domestic Product figures released by the Statistical Institute of Belize in October revealed the economy grew by 5.3% during the first nine months of the year, the fastest rate since 2003. It grew even faster, by 8.2%, in the third quarter.
However, on the negative side the Consumer Price Index in the first half of the year registered a large increase – a 6.9% increase in prices of goods and services when compared to prices in the same period last year. The cost of daily staples shot up. Flour prices at retail rose 51%, rice increased 21% and chicken 13%. Early in the year, Belize experienced a shortage of flour, but supplies have since returned to normal.
Prices continued to rise until around September, but then dropped. Gasoline, which had peaked at around US$6 a gallon in mid-year, fell significantly in the fourth quarter, and by year end premium gas was under US$2.50 a gallon, a level not seen in 10 years. Food prices also began to decline.
The global collapse of oil prices, from near US$150 a barrel down to the $30s, also had another impact on Belize in 2008, as Belize Natural Energy, the company that discovered commercial quantities of oil in Spanish Lookout, made smaller royalty payments to the Belize government. However, only a tiny fraction of Belize government revenues come from oil royalties.
Real estate in Belize appears to be suffering, at least to a limited degree, from the global financial and economic malaise. While housing prices haven’t dropped in Belize to the extent that they have in the U.S., Britain, Spain and elsewhere, realty sales slowed in 2008, and price cuts on the asking prices of condos, land and homes have been reported.
In June Channel 5 TV and its parent company, Great Belize Productions, were sold to Belize Telemedia Ltd. Under Stewart Krohn, Channel 5 TV produced one of the most respected news programs in Belize and Central America.
In November, Newcastle disease struck chickens in Spanish Lookout, and the virulent disease spread to other poultry farms in Cayo and Stann Creek districts. Almost all birds of the affected flock die within 72 hours.
TOURISM STARTS STRONG, THEN DROPS
The tourism industry in Belize, the largest sector of the economy with revenues of almost US$300 million, and the sector targeted as a top priority by the new UDP government, was buffeted in 2008 by the global financial and economic crisis. The year started with reasonably good numbers, but by April the arrival numbers had slumped. The months of April, September and October all saw declines of 10% or more in international tourist arrivals. November was essentially flat, but unofficial reports suggest that December was weak, and that bookings for 2009 also are slow. Layoffs of hotel workers were reported in Placencia and elsewhere. Cruise tourism to Belize was also down in 2008.
Many Americans, who represent about 70% of visitors to Belize, are traveling less due to the poor economy. The surprising strength of the U.S. dollar, to which the Belize dollar is pegged, means that some European, British, Canadian and Mexican tourists are now paying 15 to 40% more to vacation in Belize.
Despite the weak tourism environment, the Placencia peninsula continues to pick up momentum as Belize’s next major visitor and vacation home destination. Peninsula development is expected to get a boost from the paving of the main road from the Southern Highway. A contract with Cisco Construction to pave the road was signed by the government in July, and site preparation is underway. Almost 600 new condos and houses have been recently built on the Placencia peninsula. Another 900 or more units have received approval but are not yet constructed, for a total of 1,500 new or planned units. This does not include the controversial Ara Macao development, whose status appears in limbo. Several major projects, including a development on False Caye off Maya Beach, a large hotel near Seine Bight, and a casino at the site of the former Calico Jack’s resort have been announced, but in some cases actual implementation has been delayed by the global financial crisis.
Tourism and real estate development also continues apace on Ambergris Caye, Belize’s leading visitor destination. More than two dozen development projects are underway on the caye. In December, the first phase of South Beach Belize on the southern end of the island was approved by the National Environmental Appraisal Committee. Though downsized from original plans, the project is still one of the largest ever conceived for Belize, with 590 lots and a two-year development timeline. The developer is Jeff Pierce.
Several foreign tourists died in 2008 of water-related accidents, including an American woman who drowned while cave tubing in Caves Branch River, a British tourist tubing on the Mopan (CPR procedures allegedly may have contributed to the death), and one who died in diving accident off San Pedro.
In November, Belize tourism got a boost when several segments of the NBC Today Show were aired live from Belize.
Although the runway extension at Goldson International Airport was completed in early 2008, the anticipated new airline service, including service from Europe, hasn’t materialized. Indeed, existing airlines serving Belize including Delta and US Air have cut back on service. Fares to Belize remain some of the highest to any destination in the region.
Tropical Storm Arthur, which formed off the coast of Belize on May 31 and quickly moved ashore, dumped up to 15 inches of rain on the country in early June. Seven Belizeans were reported dead in Stann Creek District. The Kendal Bridge over the Sittee River at Mile 13.7 of the Southern Highway between Hopkins and Maya Centre was destroyed, temporarily cutting off road access to points south, including Placencia and Punta Gorda. A dirt, gravel and culvert causeway was built over the river, allowing cars, trucks and buses to pass, and later the U.S. military provided a temporary replacement bridge. A permanent replacement bridge will not be completed until the end of 2009 or later. A part of the rice crop in Blue Creek in Orange Walk District was destroyed. Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker had some moderate flooding, and several dozen small boats were reported sunk. Prime Minister Dean Barrow declared a national emergency. The financial cost of the storm ran into the tens of millions of U.S. dollars. Fortunately, Belize's number one foreign exchange earner, tourism, escaped virtually unscathed. Hotels and resorts remained open or quickly reopened after the storm.
Later in the year, September and October rains caused more extensive flooding. Sections of the Western Highway, Burrell Boom Road and Southern Highway, among other important arteries, were closed due to deep water over the roadways. Flooding also occurred in Belize City, Blue Creek and elsewhere. The Mopan, Macal and Belize rivers rose rapidly to high levels. Three people from Arenal village, on the Belize-Guatemala border in western Belize, died trying to get to Melchor in Guatemala. Damage from the October and November flooding was put at more than US$10 million.
Happily, no hurricanes hit Belize in 2008.
PEOPLE AND PLACES
Andy Palacio, Belize’s best known musician on the global stage, died January 19 in Belize City at the age of 47 after he suffered a heart attack and stroke. He received the equivalent of a state funeral January 26 in his home village of Barranco in Toledo District. Thousands journeyed to the small, remote Garifuna village to pay their tribute to the iconic world music man. During the 1980s, Palacio used Garifuna rhythms in punta rock. He was named director of culture at the Belize Arts Council in 2003. His 2007 album Wátina became one of the most critically acclaimed recordings of the year, and the global interest in his music helped spur a revival in Garifuna culture.
Sir Barry! Barry Bowen, Belize's Belikin beer baron who also has extensive landholdings and business interests, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
April the tapir at the Belize Zoo celebrated her 25th birthday – in April of course.
Belizean-American Olympic star Marion Jones, having admitted she lied to federal officials in connection with a steroids investigation and a check-fraud case, reported to a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, in March and was released in September. She gave up all her Olympic medals.
A fire in downtown Belize City in late March destroyed an entire city block of commercial buildings, including Ro-Mac’s, Odette’s and the Thrift Centre. The fire rivals that in June 1997 as one of the worst in the city’s history.
Traveller’s celebrated 55 years in the rum business this yea, and in December they opened the Traveller’s Heritage Center, a rum museum, at the Traveller’s factory on the Northern Highway.
TOP 10 NEWS EVENTS OF THE YEAR IN BELIZE
1. UDP Sweeps General Elections and Dean Barrow Becomes PM
2. Tourism Slumps Due to Global Recession
3. Oil Prices Crash, Gas Becomes Affordable Again
4. Belize Begins to Feel Impact of Global Economic Slowdown
5. Worst Flooding in 30 Years Causes Millions in Damages and Kills 10
6. Crime Becomes a Fact of Life … and Death
7. Said Musa and Ralph Fonseca Criminally Charged
8. Local Economy Staggers But Keeps Swinging
9. Placencia Road Improvement and Paving Underway, Boosting Peninsula Development and Tourism
10. Andy Palacio Passes