Forget the Caymans; bank in Belize. That's the
message government is sending to the world of
international finance. The occasion was the official
opening of Belize's newest offshore institution, the
Investment and Commerce Bank Limited. Speaking at
ceremonies on Friday night, Minister of Budget
Management Ralph Fonseca applauded the
development of the offshore banking sector, which has
grown from one bank, with one point three million U.S.
dollars under management in 1998, to five banks and
one hundred and sixty-four million dollars today. In
addition to Investment and Commerce, which is owned
by Guatemala's Banco del Quetzal, Belize's other
offshore banks include Provident, which is owned by
investors from Belize and Antigua, Atlantic
International, an affiliate of Atlantic Bank Limited, and
Oxxy Bank, owned by Guatemalan's Banco de la
Republica. These are class "A" banks with unrestricted
licenses. The fifth bank, Market Street Bank, is a class
"B" institution which is restricted to doing business
solely with its twenty-five U.S. based owners. Under
Belizean law offshore banks are not allowed to do
business with residents of Belize, although recent
legislation has expanded the definition of
"non-resident" to include the government as well as
entities located within free zones and export
processing zones. The primary benefit to the country
from offshore banks is official fees, rents and a small
amount of skilled employment. The international
banking industry has come under increasing pressure
from the U.S.A. and European authorities who see it
as a haven for money launderers and tax evaders.
Proponents of the industry point out that the vast
majority of customers doing business with offshore
banks only seek to keep their assets safe from the
prying eyes of greedy governments and the sharp
teeth of hungry spouses. In Belize the job of policing
the offshore sector falls to government's Financial
Intelligence Unit, headed by former Central Bank
Governor Keith Arnold. According to Arnold, his office
closely monitors the movement of offshore funds and
any hint of a crime would immediately trigger an
investigation into the bank in question. Since the
introduction of offshore banking laws in 1996, more
than two dozen applications have been processed.
Only the five banks mentioned have been granted
licenses.