REPORT #594 January 2003

Produced by the Belize Development Trust

Dear Niall:

The Placencia Sidewalk Fund is a completely non-threatening organization. After all, what government official or business owner could possibly resent, be threatened by, or profit from, the rebuilding of a 4-foot wide, 1 mile long sidewalk in little ol' Placencia Village?

The only general business organizations that I know about in Belize are the Chamber of Commerce (mostly in Belize City), the Lions Club and the Jaycees. (At least I think the Jaycees are in Belize, maybe not.)

I'm in the tourism sector, so we have organizations for hotels, tour operators, tour guides, and then the general umbrella of the Belize Tourism Industry Association (the BTIA). There may be other special interest business organization of which I'm not aware -- maybe a "Banana Man" Association, an "Orange Guys" Society, etc.

To be effective, a business organization, and that means its individual members, must be willing to set an agenda to advance its members interests, actively represent them to the public, actively lobby for changes that will advance the organization's agenda, and provide support to individual members facing unwarranted problems caused by actions of the public or private sector.

All of those activities require public exposure -- something I haven't seen many people in Belize willing to risk, since public exposure may mean bureaucratic harassment, loss of opportunities for governmental largesse, or worse.

The large tourism-oriented business organizations are moderately effective in negotiating for governmental regulatory change. For example, the BTIA and tour operators successfully lobbied the Sales Tax office to change its way of assessing sales tax on tour packages. (Sales Tax previously required an 8% tax to be added to an entire vacation package -- an overlay on top of hotel taxes, service charges and sales tax added to meals, ground transportation and meals. That method of assessment has finally been changed, but it took a REALLY long time!)

But, I think the success of the BTIA and the tourism-related businesses comes from sheer numbers - both of members AND dollars. The government knows the importance of tourism to the economy -- employment, taxes and foreign exchange.

Small business is another matter. While I think everyone on this list "knows" the importance of small businesses to any economy, I'm not sure if there are any hard numbers in Belize to back-up that knowledge.

Plus, small businesses are the most vulnerable to harassment. I don't know about Wendy, but at certain times of the year, an unwarranted sales tax assessment of $4500, with associated tax and penalties of almost $1,000, would be a serious problem for me.

Plus, how much would it cost me to fight that assessment through legal channels? Lawyers are prohibitively expensive in Belize -- in many cases charging the same per hour as moderate-sized firms in the United States. ($250 USD per hour seems to be a safe estimate for representation by a good attorney.) That's one-half of the illegitimate assessment - for just ONE HOUR OF LEGAL REPRESENTATION!!!!!

Maybe an organization of business owners who could back-up small businesses subject to unfair and illegitimate actions by the government, BTL, BEL, etc. would help. But how many businesses in the organization would actually stay around to fight the fight?

Most all would tell you that they would, but when push comes to shove, a lot, maybe the majority, would jump ship. I've seen it happen here with community issues.

In the end, can you really justify jeopardizing your business and your family's welfare for someone else? Is that rational behavior for someone who is hanging onto economic security by a thread?

Safety in numbers, maybe. But in Belize, every one of those numbers is bound to be related to someone who could lose their job or their business as a result of the business organization's actions.

I was watching a Law and Order episode one night featuring a very crooked politician. The good guys caught the politician (a US Senator or Congressman), and decided to prosecute him. I remember watching the politician testifying on the stand, the jury members listening to his testimony, and the politician watching the jury members listening to others' testimony.

The jury found the politician guilty. Would that ever happen here? Would a group of jurors convict Ralph Fonseca, or Said Musa, or Jose Coye, or Dickie Bradley, or any of the ruling party members? Every juror in Belize would have a relative who worked for the accused, or would have received a concession, or a piece of land, or something else of value from the politician. Every juror would be afraid of conviction that might result in a loss of employment, future favors, etc. from the politician or his/her cronies.

Could you even seat a jury that would consist of jury members without conflicts of interest?

I decided that the Law and Order episode couldn't be set in Belize -- at least not now.

And I think those same conflicts of interests and fear of loss prevent truly effective citizen action in Belize, whether it be actions to help small businesses, stop a dam, or stop another example of blatant corruption.


Back to Main Belize Development Trust Page

Maintained by Ray Auxillou, Silvia Pinzon, MLS, and Marty Casado. Please email with suggestions or additions for this Electronic Library of Belize.