Year in Review 2015 Pt 2
In July, the Government had indicated that it would continue to tap into the resources afforded by the Petro-Caribe initiative to fund a number of infrastructure projects.
The Prime Minister of Belize, Hon. Dean Barrow led the charge in the sitting of the House of Representatives on June 26 to put away, once and for all, the conundrum stemming from Petro-Caribe. Readers will remember that The Finance and Audit Act requires that the Government take a motion to the House for approval of any loan that is more than $10 million. However, taking a request for Petro-Caribe financing to the House is a complicated matter. The Government cannot know how much will be received as the finance portion of sales until the shipment has already been purchased. If the world oil price is less than US$40 per barrel, Belize has to pay 75 percent of the cost (referred to as the ‘Cash Portion’) within 90 days of importation. The other 25 percent is referred to as the ‘Financed Portion’ and is to be paid over a period of 15 years at an interest rate of two percent with a two year grace period. If the world oil price is over US$40 per barrel the interest rate on the Financed Portion falls to one percent and is payable over a period of 25 years with a two year grace period. The higher the world oil price the greater the Financed Portion. At US$40 per barrel the Financed Portion is 30 percent; at US$50 per barrel it is 40 percent; at US$80 it is 50 percent; at US$100 it is 60 percent; and above US$150 the Financed Portion is 70 percent.
After a painstaking debate process by both the House and Senate, the law now says that: “The money borrowed from APBEL may be used to finance capital projects, provide social and community assistance to the poor, socially marginalized and other sectors of the community, pay compensation relating to government’s nationalization of BEL and BTL, assist with commercial and super bond debt buy back and for any other similar legitimate purposes.” A Subsection has also been inserted to require quarterly reporting which reads: “It is hereby provided that all money borrowed from APBEL shall be reported to the national assembly quarterly and shall require the passage of a retrospective supplementary allocation for any spending done in the reporting quarter that was not provided for in the annual estimates of revenue and expenditure.”
The Petro-Caribe Loan (Amendment) Act was passed by the House of Representatives on Friday, June 26, and the Senate on Wednesday, July 1. The act was also supported by Senator Father Noel Leslie on behalf of the Churches of Belize.
Also in July, the nation saw a decisive defeat of the People’s United Party by the UDP in yet another election. Remember, Hon. Ivan Ramos, elected in 2012 as the PUP’s area representative for Dangriga, had resigned citing differences with the party’s leadership and the fact that he accessed Petro-Caribe funding for his Mother’s and Father’s Day cheer to constituents. Ramos stepped aside allowing for a race between former educators, Frank “Papa” Mena for the UDP and Anthony Sabal for the PUP. Papa delivered! Not only did Papa win, he extended the UDP’s parliamentary majority to 19 following the January election of Hon. Dr. Omar Figueroa.
The by-election was held on Wednesday, July 8. Mena secured 2,164 votes against his opponents Anthony Sabal, who received 1,526 and a third party candidate, Llewellyn Lucas who received a mere 14 votes. 31 ballots were rejected. The total number of registered voters in the constituency is 6,275 making the voter turnout 59.52%.
It was a significant victory for Mena and so too for the United Democratic Party which has been pushing an agenda of development over the past couple of years.
The UDP’s promise to Dangriga, Sarawee and Hope Creek was more development for the constituency via the Petro Caribe program. Even before being elected, Mena had successfully lobbied Central Government for resources that are currently seeing major infrastructural development across the constituency. His ascension now to the National Assembly will now guarantee that even more will come to Dangriga.
Despite the large margin of victory, the election was one that Mena and the UDP worked arduously for throughout the course of the campaign and culminated on Election Day. From early on, the PUP came out in large numbers bussing in hundreds of non-voters from constituencies across the country into Dangriga. These individuals turned rabble rousers throughout the day, taunting UDP officials and campaign workers even causing a couple altercations in which at least one turned to be physical. Despite the PUP’s efforts to distract the UDP officials and the election machinery, they failed miserably.
While the UDP diligently went into homes to bring out the voters, the PUP sideliners jeered, after all there was nothing more they could do. In the end the numbers proved that hard work pays off and despite all the PUP’s rhetoric, it did not make a difference in the minds of the voters who came out and gave the UDP once again their vote of confidence.
While many focused on the electoral politics in the south, the cane farmers in the north, having been beset by problems for the first half of the year, they began to see the light at the end of the dark tunnel. We reported that despite a decrease in sugarcane deliveries to the factory this year there will be a record set in production of sugar, so the long delay to the start of the crop did not have an adverse effect on the Belize Sugar Industry Limited one bit. On the contrary, with so many farmers unable to put even a dent in their quotas, the delay could have serious consequences to small farmers. Fortunately, Hon. Gaspar Vega, Minister of Agriculture, has stepped one foot into the gates of the factory and urged them to keep accepting sugarcane for at least five more days. Even though the farmers 49 days due to the now alliteratively infamous Matura mandamus misadventure, BSI produced more than 130,000 metric tons of sugar, a 35 percent increase on 2014. With the extension granted by the Ministry of Agriculture, a total of 1.175 Million tons of cane were ground by the time the factory closed. The total tonnage of sugar produced is expected to be at least 17.5 percent above last year’s 120,000 tons, with an anticipated 141,000 tons of sugar produced this year.
And with the UDP’s third consecutive victory in elections since the start of the year, the People’s United Party continued to lose momentum. Following the July 8 loss in Dangriga, the PUP’s national campaign manager, Godfrey P. Smith, resigned his post seen as an indictment on the leadership of Francis Fonseca. Because of the prominent role that he had taken on, many had speculated that he would have eventually been the one to take up the leadership of the party. But like his party leader, poor decisions are all he was able to make . In fact, he was considered one of the chief architects behind Ivan Ramos’s resignation from the House of Representatives. He was the one who point blank told Ramos that he was not a viable candidate for the PUP for the next general elections and as such, even if he intended to run again, he would not receive any financial support from Smith, who was to have been the one who controlled the PUP’s purse strings. It was yet another political disaster for the PUP.
On the diplomatic front, Belize’s Ambassador Nestor Mendez also took office as the new Assistant Secretary General of the institution, in a ceremony attended by the Minister of Foreign Relations of Belize, Wilfred Elrington.The Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, congratulated the new Assistant Secretary General and said “I have nothing short of great expectations for our work together.” The OAS leader added “there are exciting times ahead and our task is one borne of the trust that has been placed in our hands.”
For his part, Mendez reiterated his commitment to work closely with Secretary General Almagro in the process of modernization of the institution. “We must find ways to overcome our challenges and create the enabling environment for economic and social prosperity by identifying new areas of cooperation, creative financing mechanisms, and maximizing the catalytic potential of the OAS.” Ambassador Mendez was elected OAS Assistant Secretary General for the 2015-2020 period on March 18 with 24 of the 34 votes cast. Nestor Mendez served as Ambassador of Belize to the OAS and to the Government of the United States since June 2008. He was an advisor to the Belize High Commission in London from 1997 to 1999 and holds a postgraduate title from George Washington in International Affairs.
Following the announcement that the sugar industry was extended for five days and it translated to opportunities for farmers to deliver, the crop produced dividends for them.
In a release from BSIL/ASR the company noted that a total of 139,654 tons of sugar was produced by the factory this year. Of this 139,654 tons was exported to the European Union, the U.S. market took in 11,902 tons and the rest is destined for either local consumption or other smaller markets. According to the release the revised price per ton of sugar stands at an average of $70.45 which is a new record for payment to the cane farmers.
The sugar cane delivery payment is done in three portions with the first payment done on delivery, the second payment at the end of the season and a third just before the start of the next crop. This year the first payment was $42.84 per ton of sugar cane delivered. The second payment, depending on the branch will earn farmers between $18.55 per to $23.41 per ton.
With the price per ton of sugar cane at $70.45 this year it is far above what was received in 2014 which was $67.52 and more so for 2013 which was at around $63.00. The second payment to cane farmers will be made next week Wednesday and it will mean somewhere in the region of 25 million dollars which went into the hands of farmers at that time.
This year, the best performing group was from the Progressive Sugar Cane Producers Association in Patchakan, Louisville, San Lazaro and San Estevan. The worst performing group was from the BSCFA’s Libertad, San Victor and Patchakan.
On the crime front, police had to investigate one of the year’s most daring crimes: the bank heist at First Caribbean International Bank in San Cas Plaza, Belize City. Five people were arraigned in early August in connection with the incident that happened on July 31.
It was a pay day and the bank was crowded with patrons when the culprits moved in.
The armed security guard was held at gunpoint and dragged inside the bank. Everyone present was instructed to get on the ground, and the security was searched for any service weapons that he might have had on his person. When the men were satisfied, they jumped over the counter and helped themselves to just over $52,000 of the bank’s money, and they fled the scene in a waiting mobile.
Thanks to the bank’s surveillance cameras, they were able to catch the party of five: 22-year-old Patrick Jones, 33-year-old; Jermaine Belgrave, 30-year-old; Jareth Crawford, 24-year-old; Emmerson Skyers, and 32 year-old Erwin Castillo who were jointly charged for the crime of conspiracy to commit robbery.Everyone except Castillo was also jointly charged with the crime of robbery. They were arraigned before Magistrate Deborah Rogers, where they pleaded not guilty to all the charges, but due to the nature of the offence, they couldn’t be granted any bail. They were remanded to the Belize Central Prison. Of important note is that this same bank was robbed in March of 2012. In that instance, armed thieves got away with 230 thousand dollars. The officers who responded, ended up shooting and killing one of the alleged robbers. That led to most of the money being retrieved.
In the most recent robbery, Jermaine Belgrave, the man believed to be the mastermind, was released a few months prior after he had been acquitted of murder.
And while the authorities’ hands are always full in handing criminal activity, the Ministry of National Security’s crime-fighting arsenal received a significant boost. Thanks to partnership of the Government of Belize and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), $30 million US was granted to tackle this social problem.
A portion of this loan went toward the repair and construction of 100 buildings for the Belize Police Department. This is a much needed relief for public officers who have to endure sub-standard working conditions.A new forensic laboratory will also be constructed using money from this loan. For the Belize Defense Force, the National Security Ministry will be acquiring troop lifting vehicles to replace the aging four-tonne trucks that the military now has. For the Coast Guard, 2 patrol crafts will be purchased so that they can have increased capacity to patrol the exclusive economic zones.
The vision for the proceeds of this loan from CABEI is that the National Security Ministry will get a vital infusion of activity to encourage the hardworking, soldiers, police officers, coast guard officers, and other public officers working in the ministry to put on a higher level of performance while performing their duties for the country.
Of course, one of the major challenges that still besets the country is the 150-year-old territorial dispute with Guatemala. The Belize Defense Force, the Belize Coast Guard, and other bodies had to step up the ante in fighting the incessant border incursions by Guatemalans. The Government of Belize sent “an extremely strong protest note” to the Government of Guatemala on Wednesday August 19, for the actions of its navy on the Belize side of the Sarstoon River on Sunday, August 16.
Guatemalan naval boats intercepted five civilian vessels that were transporting Belizeans to the Sarstoon Island on a Sunday expedition. Based on accounts from the passengers on the boat, which included members of the group known as the Belize Territorial Volunteers and members of the media, the interception occurred “squarely in Belizean territory”. These testimonies were supported by the report of Magdalena Talamas, Chief of the O.A.S. Peace Fund, who observed the Belizean excursion. Talamas reports that the interception took place at “the mouth of the Sarstoon River”. Prime Minister Barrow said, “It is my belief that what the OAS describes as the mouth of the Sarstoon River, is clearly in Belizean waters, and that the Guatemalan Navy committed an incursion when they intercepted our boats at that spot.” Readers will remember that the Belize Territorial Volunteers were warned not to enter the area, but against sound diplomatic and military advice, they went ahead with their planned excursion, which failed to see a clear purpose.
In the note, the Prime Minister wrote to the Guatemalans telling their actions are unacceptable:
“We are sovereign over our half of the Sarstoon River. We say this; we mean this; we will never change this. And as it is with the Sarstoon, so it is with all of Belize: this territory is ours, the entire 8,867 square miles of it. And our sovereignty over our country, which not only our military but ultimately all of us are prepared to defend to the death, is unalterable, unshakable, (and) immovable.” – Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister.
Also in August, shareholders of the Belize Water Services Limited received a 5 percent return on their investment this year as Alberto August, Chairman of BWSL, has announced that dividend to minority shareholders will be paid out at a rate of 7.5 cents per share. This rate of return is greater than is available at the commercial banks in the country and has been made possible due to Government’s decision to forgo collection of its share on the agreement that it be paid out to minority shareholders.
As Shane Williams reported, the handsome dividend share was not the only good news shareholders received at the company’s Annual General Meeting on Friday, August 21, at the Biltmore. August pointed out that there is “a significant improvement” in the company’s key performance indicators: Water Coverage, Non-Revenue Water, Staff Efficiency, Collection Efficiency, Working Ratio and Profitability.The highlight of the year under review is the roll out of the Belize River Valley water expansion project. At the last AGM the project was in the design stage. On Friday, Chairman August was able to report that “most of the nine Belize River Valley villages were connected by March 2015 and in June 2015 the project was completed and officially inaugurated.” Due to this new outlet and expansions in other parts of the country, BWSL now has 2,044 new customers countrywide and a total of 53,477 connections at end of March 2015, an increase of 4 percent in its customer base. These connections service over 260,000 people. There was a 14 percent increase in revenue over the last year. This was supported by 6.9 percent increase in tariff since April 1, 2014, and the 4 percent increase in customer base. In dollar figure that amounts to $39.821 million this year in comparison to $34.923 million last year. According to the figures, after meeting its recurrent liabilities, capital expenditure and loan commitments, the company realized a profit of $6.765 million this year. This is an increase of $3.804 million over the profit of $2.961 million last year.
At the start of September, the nation witnessed another important development in the nation’s history: a final settlement on the nationalization of Belize Electricity Limited (BEL).
Prime Minister Hon. Dean Barrow announced to the nation that the debt to the former owners of Belize Electricity Limited, Fortis, was settled. He noted that as a result of a change in presidency at the company, with Barry Perry taking over from Stan Marshal, the former president, the process of negotiations went rather smoothly. That process started in July and one month later it was complete.
Under the settlement, GOB is to pay Fortis 70 million dollars with the company also getting a 33 and 1/3 percent shareholding in BEL. In effect, the government which once held a 70% shareholding in BEL after nationalization will now own a 37% shareholding in the company that along with a 26% holding by the Social Security Board ensures that the Government and people of Belize maintain a majority ownership in the utility company. With the new shareholding spread, BEL will be entitled to three directors to the board. These persons will include Fortis’ Earl Ludlow, former CEO of BEL, Lynn Young and former president of the Chamber of Commerce, Kay Menzies.
As part of the settlement there is a sell back option where after four years or earlier, Fortis can serve notice that it wishes to sell back to the Government of Belize who would immediately do so but will have two years to pay for the value of the shares at the time of buyback. After the announcement, the National Assembly met during which the bill to approve the 70 million dollar purchase went through its three readings. The bill saw passage through both houses of the legislature and payment was made the following Tuesday. Asked if the country is able to afford payment, the Prime Minister was none too modest to state that the Government currently boasts a one billion dollar reserve from where the finances will be drawn down for the payment. It is noteworthy that in recent memory this is the largest accumulation that the foreign reserve has been at.
Shortly after the BEL settlement, the BTL settlement came. On September 14, the government announced that it had come to a settlement in the BTL matter putting to an end 6 years of litigation over the price for the company. In making the announcement, Prime Minister Dean Barrow explained that the negotiations were completed after two meetings with Michael Ashcroft in May and August of this year and thereafter correspondences via e-mail.
The negotiations culminated with government agreeing to a payment of 162.7 million Belize dollars to be paid to British Caribbean Bank (BCB) and the former owners of BTL.
When government nationalized BTL it assumed a 22.5 million dollar loan which BCB had given to BTL but even as it did so BTL’s new management maintained that the loan was illegal. That led BCB to initiate arbitration under a 1982 Bilateral Investment Treaty between the Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of Belize for the promotion and protection of investments. On December 19, 2014 the Arbitral Tribunal ruled in favor of the Bank and ordered the Government to pay compensation. As part of the settlement, the Government agreed to pay the Bank US$48,544,927.78 representing compensation, including costs, expenses and interest on the original 22.5 million dollar loan.
Additionally government will be paying Dunkeld International Investment Limited which had shareholdings in BTL through various companies and the BTL Employees Trust which had shareholdings through its company Sunshine Holding Limited. Dunkeld held 71.2 percent shareholding while Sunshine held a 23 percent shareholding. Dunkeld will receive partial payment at the rate of US$0.72 per share for 34,107,117 shares totaling US$24,557,124.24 million; and another partial payment to the Trustees of the BTL Employees Trust also at US$0.72 per share for 11,092,844 shares totaling US$7,986,847.68. These payments are in line with a valuation done by NERA Economic Consulting.
In explaining the payment sources the Prime Minister said that BTL that will be making the U.S. 48 million dollar or 97.4 million Belize dollar payment with the government first fronting it and BTL acknowledging that it is their debt. He said that the government will issue treasury notes to the tune of 48.5 million dollars. BTL will come up with 10 million in cash, an additional 15 million dollars will be gotten from BTL dividend payments which had been frozen by the CCJ. 19 million dollars will come from Petro Caribe and 4 million dollars will be had from the money which was secured from the sale of BTL shares after nationalization.
Prime Minister, Hon. Dean Barrow also made another important announcement in September: public officers will get another salary increase. Under the Framework Agreement between the negotiating teams of Government and the unions (Public Service Union, Belize National Teachers Union and the Association of Public Service Senior Managers) signed in February of 2014, one half of the increase in actual recurrent revenue from one year to the next (in a three year span) will be allocated to salary increases for public officers and teachers. Based on this formula, $29 million was allocated to salary increases for fiscal year 2014/2015 and $38 million for 2015/2016. In fiscal year 2014/2015, the Government spent $368 million for personal emoluments and $60 million for pensions. Therefore, the $38 million represented an almost 9 percent salary increase for public officers. The third increase reflected in their first payday of July and it will be retroactive to April 1. These salary increases are in addition to the annual cost of living adjustment, known as the “merit based increment”, given to over 95 percent of teachers and public officers each year at two to three percent of their salary.
It was also good news in September when the Prime Minister also made two very important announcements: first, the debt-write off of hospital bills and employees of the hospital will get a salary increase. Prime Minister Barrow announced that Government will find the funds to provide KHMH employees with the salary increase that was agreed with the KHMH Board and the Cabinet sub-committee; however, “as a matter of principle, GOB does not want simply to hand over the monies for the salary increase as a gift. We will therefore treat it as a buyout of the debt owed by consumers, by the Belizean public, to the KHMH.” He went on to say that in order for Belizeans across the jewel to feel the benefit of the debt forgiveness, “we will also forgive all monies currently owing by patients to all Government hospitals throughout the country.”
The debt being forgiven are those that have been accumulated up to the beginning of 2015. As of year-end 2014, revealed Prime Minister Barrow, the total in unpaid bills at the KHMH amounted to around nine million dollars and the total at Government hospitals throughout the rest of the country amounted to just over two million.
The second major announcement made in September is that the date for the general elections have been set. On September 28, Prime Minister Hon. Dean Barrow announced to the nation that the 2015 General elections were slated for November 4, with Nomination Day on October 16.
Speaking of pay increases, the month of October also saw employees at Belize Electricity Limited getting theirs as well. BEL workers will be getting their salary increase following the intervention of Prime Minister Dean Barrow. The workers have been in negotiations for a salary increment from in May of this year. The negotiations came to a deadlock on September 29 with the Belize Energy Workers union threatening industrial action. But in true leadership fashion the Prime Minister intervened and held discussions with the union after which a memorandum was signed in early October.
In essence the company will pay the employees a 1.75% increase yearly across the board retroactive to January 1, 2015 to 2017. The increase will be on employees’ base salary and will be separate from yearly performance appraisal increments that employees earn based on their performance. In addition to the salary increase, BEL will match contributions of employees, paying 10% of their salary into the BEL Pension Fund. It will also increase its pension matching contribution by 1% up from 6% to 10% commencing in 2015 for employees who agree to also increase their pension contributions.
BEL has over two hundred employees of which some 150 are members of the union.
October saw a very ready UDP, poised to take the reins of Government for a third consecutive time, when it presented a comprehensive manifesto, which featured 40 pages of some of the party’s most important achievements and plans for a third term. At the party’s manifesto launch, the Prime Minister said that four pieces of legislation will pass through the National Assembly to reform the public financial management system of Belize. Those are the Public Procurement Bill, the Public Sector Investment Bill, the Public Finance Management Bill and the Public Debt Management, State Guarantees and Lending Bill.
The Public Procurement Act will promote basic principles to preside over how government performs procurement of goods, works and services while providing guidance to public officials responsible for the acquisition and disposal of assets. This act will align Belize’s public sector procurement guidelines with that of the highest multinational organizations’ standards. Prime Minister Barrow says the act will establish standard bidding documents and bid evaluation processes.
The Public Debt Management, State Guarantees and Lending Act will regulate conditions under which the state, local government bodies and public corporations may borrow, issue debt securities, issue guarantees, lend funds and enter supplier’s credit agreements. A Debt Management Office will be established in the Ministry of Finance to focus specifically on the country’s foreign and domestic debt.
The Public Sector Investment Act will promote efficient allocation of resources to maximize benefits and minimize costs of public sector investments. The aim of the bill is to cut down on wasteful spending and prevent any possible bloated contract.
The Public Finance Management Act, according to the Manifesto 2015, “will ensure responsible, sustainable, transparent, accountable, effective, efficient and economical management of the public finances and public resources covering the revenues, expenditures, assets and liabilities.”
The historic election came on November 4. Prime Minister Hon. Dean Barrow and his team of 30 standard bearers sprung headfirst into the polling bright and early at 7 on November 4 to secure the third term for the UDP. After the polls closed and the votes counted, the UDP landed 19 seats.
In terms of the Senate, Hon. Sen. Godwin Hulse stays on as Leader of Government Business, and he is joined on the Government side by Dr. Carla Barnett, who contested the race in Freetown and is now the Senate Vice President; attorneys-at-law Francine Burns and Aldo Salazar; career banker, Stephen Duncan; and educator from Toledo, Macario Coy. The Senate President is Lee Mark Chang, a popular Belize City-based businessman who previously contested in Freetown.
And while the UDP continued its agenda of transformation, the PUP continued to fall apart. Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Francis Fonseca resigned as leader of the PUP following four successive, crushing losses in two bye-elections, a municipal election and a general election. He also announced that he will not be seeking reelection. Fonseca said that he would stay on as the parliamentary Opposition leader, until a new one is chosen, presumably in a convention in January 2016. It’s a fight that continues to play out daily on Facebook and TV. More 2,900 delegates are expected to decide on one from Hon. John Briceno, who resigned from the Party’s leadership; Hon. Cordel Hyde, who came out of political retirement to contest the general elections; and Fonseca himself. His Secretary-General, I. Myrtle Palacio also resigned in the wake of the successive losses.
On November 13, the 12th National Assembly convened. The Leaders of Government, Prime Minister Barrow and Governor General Sir Colville Young set the tone for this Assembly and outlined government’s agenda for the next five years.
Prime Minister Barrow used the Speaker’s invitation to address the Assembly to emphasize the point that his third administration will be a Government for all Belizeans:
“All of us red and blue are elected to look after the interest of our constituents, not our own and as we focused on the future, these are the questions we must ask ourselves. Into what conditions are our children being born? How are they to be nurtured in their early years? Will they have access to the best schools and the best teachers? What jobs and pay will their parents receive? Are their communities getting safer and more productive? Will their grandparents retire with dignity and respect? And will these children inherit a nation of patriots ready to sacrifice all in the defense of national sovereignty?”
Prime Minister Barrow closed the session saying:
“There is no ambiguity about our mandate…no imbalance nationally or regionally in the support for our refreshed covenant with the people. Thus, recharged and reinvigorated, we shall move forward with our plans and programs to raise livelihoods, expand education and health, build national infrastructure. We shall empower the young and honor the old. We shall grow the economy and increase business. We shall husband the nation’s wealth and steward its resources. Above all, we shall conduct the operation of government with integrity as we search for that spot in the affairs of this country where honesty, equality, truth and justice finally prevail.”
One of the key projects for the UDP Administration is getting the various sporting complexes up and running the nine municipalities, with the most costly and important being the Belize City Center. JVCA Medina’s Construction Ltd/International Environments Ltd. began the work after signing a contract valued at BZ$32,940,261.34. The new facility will include civil works and FIBA certified equipment.
Spearheading the project is Belize Infrastructure Limited (BIL). They explain that the new City Center Arena and Cultural Complex will have facilities that will qualify for world championship women’s U-21 and U-19 world championship men and women events. There will be three (3) interior practice basketball courts, and one (1) professional center court. The design allows for designated seating for up to 4000 for games and 5000 for indoor entertainment events such as conventions, concerts and other sporting events such as boxing and volleyball. Seats are individual and are numbered by rows. The design also includes post game rooms, media rooms, administration room and more concessions space. The new Belize City Center will be fully air conditioned and fully handicapped accessible. The facility will be equipped with stage and event performance space and back of house facilities. The size and careful design of the building footprint and structural placement allows for a broader range of vehicles that will now be able to park under the building. The interior function of the building was completed in accordance with FIBA standards and in conjunction with approved consultancy input. Exterior design allows for multiple plazas to accommodate recreational sports and parks, including two (2) outdoor basketball courts, one (1) 5 on 5 soccer field, skateboard parks just to name a few. It caters to hosting outdoor entertainments with Security features, Police and Ambulance Zones. Construction is expected to go for 24 months and is in fulfillment of the UDP Government’s pledge for the construction of a state of the art sporting facility in Belize City.
Tragedy struck the entire nation when a dorm at the Youth Hostel on the George Price High went up in smoke and ending the lives of three teenage girls: 14-year-old Elizabeth McCoy and 16-year-olds Shadisha Arnold and Anna Carlos. As has been widely reported, they perished in a fire which burnt down the building that they were padlocked in.
So, why were they barricaded in? Well, according to the head of the Hostel, they were part of a group of 4 girls who escaped on Friday, November 27. As part of the disciplinary protocol of the Hostel, they were confined to one of the 3 rooms in the building used to house female residents at the facility. They were kept there for a 24 hour period where certain privileges were taken away.
The suspicion is that a young girl with the lighter set fire to the pillow to create a distraction for the officer on duty. That would cause the officer to open the door and let them out, and while this officer was trying to put the fire out, they would have used the time to run away.
According to the Director of the Community Rehabilitation Department, the actual padlocking of the door was against protocol, because of the concern of fire and safety of the occupants. This fire was the realization of a fear that the staffers had, that the safety and well-being of the children population being housed at the Hostel would be put in jeopardy. That’s one of the issues that will hopefully be revealed after the conclusion of an independent investigation. As to the lighter, it is considered contraband, and security checks should have been made to ensure that the girls could not have smuggled it in. That’s another element of the fire which will be inquired of in investigation, which will be headed by Margaret Nicholas of the National Committee for Families and Children.
Nicholas, who has years of experience as the head of the Family Court, has requested and has been already been provided with key documents on the everyday operations at the hostel as well as to the young girl’s backgrounds. A report on this probe is expected in late January or early February 2016.
Also in late November, the soon-to-be-installed President of Guatemala, comedian, Jimmy Morales paid a visit to Prime Minister Dean Barrow. It would have been a low-key visit at the request of the Guatemalan authorities, but the focus of the trip was overshadowed by the likes of political vuvuzelas, Geovanni Brackett, Patrick Rogers, Yaya Marin-Coleman, Rosalie Staines, and Wil Maheia.
Morales arrived in Belize City, on Saturday, November 28, just after 12 a.m. by a convoy which drove from across the border at Chetumal, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Before that he had been visiting with the Mexican President. He reportedly crossed the border at around 10 p.m., and took a two-hour drive to the Radisson Hotel in Belize City. At around 9 a.m., Morales met with Prime Minister Barrow at his Coney Drive Office. An official press release from the Government says, “Prime Minister…Barrow… received President Elect…Jimmy Morales… In a cordial atmosphere, they both congratulated each other for their respective recent victories at the polls. Prime Minister Barrow and President-elect Morales discussed the bilateral relations between Belize and Guatemala, including a way forward in respect of resolving our historical differences. They agreed to continue along the path set out in the Framework Agreement and Confidence Building Measures of 2005 for expanding functional cooperation between the two countries, and each committed to strengthen the processes that already exist for good neighborly relations so that the two countries may continue to live in peace and as friends pending a legal resolution of the territorial dispute. Both sides agreed to make a greater effort to enhance cooperation and understanding at various levels, especially in areas of security, business, trade and investment. President-elect Morales extended a special and personal invitation to Prime Minister Barrow to the presidential inauguration in January 2016, and (the) Prime Minister expressed that he has every intention on attending…”
Prime Minister Barrow kept this promise: he is in Guatemala until January 17 attending the ceremonies along with CEO Audrey Wallace and Ambassador Alexis Rosado.
On December 1, Cabinet has approved a legal ban on offshore oil exploration in areas along the Belize Barrier Reef System, and within seven world Heritage sites. It is a welcomed decision that has already been endorsed by conservationists, and specifically Oceana Belize, which has been one of the main organizations that has been pushing for it.
Cabinet has agreed to ban offshore oil exploration in all 7 world Heritage Sites namely, the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve and National Park, the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve and National Park, the Lighthouse Reef Natural Monument, the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, the Laughing Bird Caye National Park, the Glovers Reef Marine Reserve, and the Sapodilla Caye Marine Reserve. That’s a total of 448 square miles, and in addition to that, Cabinet has also agreed to ban offshore exploration within one kilometer on either side of the Belizean Barrier Reef System, resulting in another 868 square miles of territorial waters getting protection under the offshore exploration.
For areas not covered by the legal ban, Cabinet agreed that there will not be an automatic process of granting permission for seismic activities and exploration drilling without conducting the existing stringent environmental studies. This will determine if these activities could negatively affect critical habitats and sensitive zones. These required environmental studies would then provide guidance to the areas outside the ban, which will determine through scientific inquiry, what type of exploration can happen in these areas. The move is a very strong show of the Government’s resolve to ensure the continued protection of the Belize Barrier Reef System and its seven World Heritage Sites. The first demonstration happened earlier in the year when all the pre-existing oil exploration contracts with private companies expired, and Government actively chose not to renew them, or issue new leases.
But the work of those vuvuzelas would prove to be for naught as Government announced in early December that the forward operating base on the Sarstoon would be built! Acting Prime Minister and Minister of National Security, Hon. John Saldivar was on the grounds on December 9 signaling that the base will be constructed as planned. Minister Saldivar was accompanied by cabinet colleagues, Hon. Patrick Faber and Hon. Frank Mena along with observers from the OAS and the heads of the Belize Defense Force and the Belize Coast Guard, Brig. Gen. David Jones and Adm. John Borland respectively.
They went to an area on the northern bank of the Sarstoon River, in Belizean territory, which was chosen by the national security advisors as the best location for this base. Sarstoon Island, traditionally considered to be in Belizean territory, is a few hundred yards away from where this new base will be built. So, the Belize law enforcement will be able to monitor the island, as well as the coast lines of both Belize and Guatemala, and the movement of traffic in and out of the Sarstoon River.
The Sarstoon River is suspected of being a transit point for human trafficking, drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and other transnational criminal activities. The base will be completed within a few months’ time and will run somewhere around 100 thousand dollars to construct. It will not be an elaborate building but it will serve the needs of personnel who are deployed to the area.Through the diplomatic channels, the Guatemalan government has asked that the base not interfere with the fishing practices of Guatemalan’s in the area. To this, Minister of National Security, John Saldivar explained that the base will be for law enforcement purposes and will not be a hindrance to the neighborly relations Belize has with Guatemala.
The ensuing rice wars began in December essentially pitting importer Jitendra Chawla, known as Jack Charles, and the rice producers of Belize. He has decided once again to press forward with his agenda to import Guyanese Rice. He claims to be able to offer Premium Grade ‘A’ rice, the highest quality in this type of food, at prices less than the quality that ordinary Belizean purchases at corner grocery shop.
The problem is that once again, his plan will step on the toes of the local rice producers who say that the Belizean market is already flooded with rice that they produce. Jack Charles has 3 containers of Guyanese Rice, and they are on their way from Santo Tomas, Guatemala, and they are due to arrive at the Port of Big Creek on Thursday, December 17. The Agricultural Ministry has taken the position that the Importer, Jack Charles, does not have the required BAHA permits to import the Guyanese Rice.
Readers may remember that in March of 2015, this issue was ventilated publicly. Back then, the Parliamentarians debated the issue in the House of Representatives, and the position of the Barrow Government was that it could not support the importation from Jack Charles because it would threaten the local industry. There has been no announcement of a change from that position, and so, it would appear that Jack Charles is picking a fight with the Government.
Three days before the importer’s rice is scheduled to land in Belize, the Bureau of Standards sent out a release announcing that there has been a change in the price regime for locally produced rice. The first thing is does is that it establishes a standard for rice being Extra ‘A’ Premium, “A”, “B” and “C”. The lowest quality of rice, Grade “C” — which is made up of 30% broken grains — will now have a controlled retail price of 90 cents per pound. That’s a decrease of 30 cents, because most Belizeans buy this quality of rice at 1 dollar, 20 cents at this point in time.
The new controlled price took effect on December 23. To ensure that retailers respect the new price change, and that they don’t gouge consumers with exorbitant prices, all rice will be bagged in packages which will display the quality of rice and the price for that grade of rice. While Grade “C” rice is being price controlled, the other 3 types of rice that is of higher quality will not be. “Market Forces” will determine the price of those higher grades of rice, which basically means that it will be unregulated, and can be sold at whatever price the farmers and the retailers determine its value to be.
Meanwhile, Charles continued a protracted battle with the court over the rice he imported from Guyana. The Court ruled that he did not have the proper permit to bring in the rice, which he claims would sell at $0.69 a pound. The Courts have ordered him to send the rice back or else the Customs Department would either dispose, destroy, or donate it.
Also in December, the stevedores at the Port of Belize Limited laid a significant blow on the business community when they launched an abrupt and unannounced strike outside the compound of the Port of Belize on Monday, December 7. This strike was the stevedores’ response to a claim that management of the Port of Belize had changed its position on a promise made in the negotiation process. Arturo Vasquez, Chief Executive Officer of the Port of Belize Limited, disputed the claim made by the stevedores and their union, Christian Workers Union, but while the two entities quarreled the business community suffered. In order to ensure that the entire business community will no longer be a casualty of differing positions in the Port of Belize Limited’s Collective Bargaining Agreement process, the Ministry of Labor passed a Statutory Instrument that establishes stevedores and other waterfront workers as essential services employees.
According to a release from the Ministry of Labor, a Statutory Instrument has been signed amending the Essential Services Act to add one more field of work on the list, “Port Services involving the loading or unloading of ship’s cargo”. Now that port services will fall within the provisions of the Essential Services Act, the union or management is required to give 21 days’ notice before any industrial action can be taken. The Ministry says this will allow for “early intervention by government into trade disputes and reduce the likelihood of lockout or strike”. The stevedores’ recent strike lasted for two day and at least two ships had to leave the dock without unloading cargo. This caused businesses tens of thousands of dollars in sales, time and marketing opportunity.
The Union and the Port Management are still at an impasse over the collective bargaining agreement, which has not been signed unto for 12 years.
These are some of the stories that have made the headlines in 2015. Our commitment to all our readers is that we will keep following the course of national development, social upliftment, and countrywide transformation with the United Democratic Party administration. It is our ardent wish that 2016 finds you and your families in the greatest of spirits and that you join us on a quest to keep our national interests at the fore, through factual, updated information.
News 5 - Top 10 Stories 2015 from Great Belize Productions Ltd. on Vimeo.