Foreign direct investment has nosedived in the past years from one hundred and twenty million to thirty million dollars. This past Wednesday, a high level forum was held in Washington, DC, at the Rhaburn building of the US Capitol complex. The event attracted the participation of personalities from the state department, IMF, Heritage Foundation and business community. It is a first attempt by friends of Belize to propel the country’s profile to attract investment. News Five’s Marleni Cuellar reports.

Marleni Cuellar, Reporting

Economic and security stability were two major issues discussed at the forum. The keynote speaker for the event was Congressman Connie Mack, the chairman of the subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. The congressman spoke about transnational crime and how it has become a threat to democracy.

Connie Mack

Congressman Connie Mack, Chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee

“There’s no doubt that the illegal trade, it is the drug trade that is now gone beyond just drugs, human trafficking, intellectual property. These organizations have evolved to the point where they no longer are interested in illegal drugs, but their organization has evolved. In Mexico, we are dealing with what I believe should be characterized for what it is. They are not just drug cartels, they are insurgents. When I say that I usual get some push back—a response that is negative. I actually think it is important that we can identify the organizations as to who they are so we can put the resources forward to try to stop them.”

According to the organizers, this event is a part of their continued efforts to improve Belize’s profile for investment in the United Sates.

Andrew Asher

Andrew Asher, Director, Friends of Belize

“This event is sort of a breakthrough in terms or Belize’s profile in Washington. It is safe to say that nothing like this has been attempted on behalf of Belizeans before and certainly not with the caliber of policy makers and intellectuals that you see before you. We at Friends of Belize hope that this event will catapulting this small unique country in the forefront of debate on regional issues and stimulating awareness of Belizean issues and viewpoints amid the various policy communities in Washington.”

Patrick Kilbride of the US Chamber of Commerce focused on investment. He says the number one issue for companies is Rule of Law. Through an initiative called Coalition for Rule of law and global markets they identified the 5 factors that are most important to promote and defend the rule of law.

Patrick Kilbride, Senior Director, US Chamber of Commerce

Patrick Kilbride

“We identified five factors that we believe are critical to the rule of law in global markets. Number one; transparency—the idea that laws and regulations applied to business should be readily accessible and understood. Number two; predictability—laws and regulations should be applied in a logical and consistent manner. Number three; stability—and this is an area where the business community I think is pushing the envelope a little bit. We want to see the state’s rationale for regulation of business to be cohesive over time. This is the idea that a new administration can’t come into office and radically change the foundation under which companies have been invested. And so we don’t want for instance retrospective or retroactive changes in tax policies. Number four; enforceability and accountability—that is government should be held to the same standards of accountability that the private sector is. And number five; due process—the idea that when disputes arise, as they inevitably do; that there is a fair and predetermined process for the resolution of those disputes—for instance, through binding international arbitration. And we believe that where these factors are present, investment thrives, economies grow, jobs are created and prosperity follows. Where they are absent, corrupt thrives, informality reigns, investment dollars flee and tax revenues plummet.”

Kevin Casas Zamora

The forum also focused on security issues in the region particularly the impacts of transnational crime. Policy expert of the public policy organization, Brookings Institute, Kevin Casas Zamora, referred to the situation as a drug trafficking tsunami with as much of eighty percent of the drugs entering the US being transported through this region.

Kevin Casas Zamora, Interim Director, Brookings Institute

“Very much as a result of this, and there are whole plethora of reasons; but the region has seen a spike in homicide rates gone up very sharply in the recent past and violent rates in general. Homicide rates particularly in the northern part of the Central America are literally the highest in the world. They have stabilized in the past couple of years in certain countries; not in others including Belize. In the case of Belize and very sadly, the homicide rate has skyrocketed in the past decade. It used to be about sixteen or seventeen murders per hundred thousand people in 2000. Now it’s over forty murders per hundred thousand persons which is really and in the very literal way among the worse rates that you can see in the world.”

Zamora gave new perspective as to why this region and Belize have been plagued by drug trafficking. He says it’s not only geography that makes us vulnerable.

Kevin Casas Zamora

“The fact that drug trafficking has become such a huge problem is not just connected to geography; there is more to it. Geography doesn’t help of course—being sandwiched between the big producers of cocaine and the big consumers of cocaine certainly doesn’t help—but it is also about the vulnerability of this country to organize crime for other reasons. These are countries that have extremely weak law enforcement institutions and extremely weak states in general. It is also about the lack of opportunities for young people in Central America. So there is a whole range of reasons that make these countries vulnerable to being prey of organized crim. It is not just about geography. In the case of Belize, it is a weak state because it is very small. It also happens to be in a bad neighborhood and as opposed to the islands in the Caribbean, it has to protect very porous borders—both on land and sea—and that is a big difference and if I understand correctly, the British government is scaling down their military presence. So it is weak, but not because it has chosen to be weak and that is my point. So to that extent, more than any other country in the region, Belize badly needs the support of the international community in this struggle.”

In looking forward, Congressman Connie Mack pointed toward what he called an all government approach to the transnational criminal insurgence.

Congressman Connie Mack

“We started off with the Merida initiative in Mexico. It was a good program; it did a lot of good, but it needs to evolve. We need to now move it to the next level which says that other than the equipment and the coordination that is happening with Mexico, we need to attack this on the financial side. We need to attack this with a whole host of other government relations that are not happening at this time.”

Other members of Friends of Belize, Lynn Young, former CEO of B.E.L, and past ambassadors to Belize: Robert Dieter & Phillip Priestley also addressed the forum.

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