Tourism doing well, but too much crime and corruption

Editorial in Amandala:

An IMF (International Monetary Fund) team recently concluded their annual look at the economy of Belize, and while we at this newspaper don’t look to them for our blueprint for the future, we believe it is good to pay attention to what others have to say, whether they are enemies or friends. Our government leaders, we know, have to hold their breaths, pray for a passing grade from that organization, because they are an important key to the FDI (foreign direct investment) and loans without which our economy, as it is presently designed, would collapse. There is only so much that Taiwan can do to prop us up.

The IMF report noted that although there were some positive initiatives, the economy was slowing down, and crime and bad governance were persistent problems. On the economic front, tourism is still the only bright star. What would we do without tourism, fragile as it is, in this country? We know the industry is mostly foreign-owned, but for sure it provides a lot of employment.

The Central Bank cannot tell us how much of the earnings from tourism stay here, but the tourists are coming. The IMF report says that tourist arrivals were up double digits, but, despite that, our “current account deficit widened to 7.9 percent of GDP in 2018 from 7.7 percent in 2017.” This means that the other main engines of our economy are not firing on all cylinders. We had a papaya industry, but not anymore. Citrus is way down. Sugar cane is struggling. Banana and marine products are holding steady. Shrimp production is increasing, incrementally.

With tourism being the hottest item in our country, it is not hard to understand why our government is sinking more investment into that industry, and the biggest example of that is the project for the Caracol Road. This newspaper supports improving the Caracol Road, but we cannot support the government constructing a highway to that destination that is near the equal of the main thoroughfares that link our district capitals and Belmopan, because that is wasteful.

We have noted that this government is keeping its head above water by borrowing, and it seems the only money it can get is for road construction; loans, however, are not gifts, and neither is to be squandered.

The IMF report said that despite our not earning as much as we expected, we spent more on wages and public projects, and that puts our “budget’s target at risk.” The IMF says we have to earn more, so that we can reduce our large public debt (94% of GDP at the end of 2018), and so that we can build our reserves to “buffer against shocks.”

Crime and corruption remain big negatives for Belize. The IMF warned that our failure to contain crime and “reputational risks from potential financial misuse of the international financial services sector’s entities, and governance concerns”, do not bode well for our future. The IMF was euphemistic when it spoke about “reputational risks from potential financial misuse.” Our reputation is shot to hell, and that’s not just because of the Sanctuary Bay scandal, two international banks collapsing in a year and a half, our Foreign Minister losing a major land case to a foreigner, and a senior tax agent of the government being nabbed by a foreign government on a charge of fraud.

Our reputation started sliding down the tubes when a man in a jail in Asia was reportedly “spirited here” for photos for his passport. The slide since has been at breakneck speed, with corrupt deal after corrupt deal piling so high our people suffocate under the burden, and foreigners of dubious character find us a welcome playground.

The IMF actually mentioned our Integrity Commission, saying we could improve our fight against corruption if we implemented and enforced “the asset declaration regime” through this body. The IMF said it would also do us good if we strengthened “the rules on conflict of interest”. Some of us know when we are being teased. The report said there should be “community programs that steer youth toward formal employment and away from crime”. Dear IMF, the only formal employment for youth in our country at this time, is fighting crime.

This is tough to point out, but if we are honest about what is taking place on the ground, what we are looking at almost appears to be a government economic strategy. Allow crime to grow and collect taxes off imports of padlocks, steel for safety grills, feed for guard dogs, and cameras for shops. Steer youth to “informal” employment: crime, and steer youth to formal employment: fighting crime.

The IMF advised that we must have concern about building codes and how we develop our land. They must also have been talking to Belizeans who are fed up with these huge structures going up with no concern for the rights of others who live in the neighborhood, and the lack of respect for fence lines. The recent drought and the substantial impact it has had on a number of waterways brought to the fore the reality that we are almost completely disregarding the established rules when cultivating land near to waterways.

C-SSPAR laments politicizing of Public Service

In last Friday’s publication of the Amandala, Mr. Wilfredo Novelo, a former member of the Public Service Commission who served between 1993 and 1998, shared his knowledge of our system, how it worked prior to the change from the head of the Public Service being a Permanent Secretary who came up through the ranks, to a Chief Executive Officer appointed by a Minister of government.

Mr. Novelo explained his preference for the old system, and opined that Mr. David Gibson, a former Permanent Secretary, would never have countenanced the arrangement a PUP government made for the Universal Health Services with a private bank. He also described the Joshua Perdomo write-off (the UDP excused Mr. Perdomo from a $40,000 bond) as a “sad case” of “failed public administration.”

On the heels of that letter by Mr. Novelo, we received a copy of an August 2019 discussion paper prepared by C-SSPAR (Centre for Strategic Studies, Policy Analysis and Research), a think tank headed by Mr. David Gibson, whom Mr. Novelo acclaimed as “one of the best Permanent Secretaries Belize has ever had.”

C-SSPAR said that the politicizing of leadership at the highest levels of the Public Service actually began after we became independent in 1981, and that what is being exhibited today in the main Public Service came about because of the systematic politicization (of the department) over the past ten years.

C-SSPAR says most Belizeans believe the politicians have seriously damaged the public service, “which is required by law to be impartial, fair and non-political in its delivery of public services.” The paper says “a massive erosion of the merit-based recruitment system has been inflicted by the politically directed determination of appointments at all levels of the Belize Public Service, including the Security Services. This has been accomplished by imposing direct political control over the Public Service Commission which is now chaired by a former UDP Minister of the Public Service.”

In modern Belize, the government Minister is a god. In 1981 we believed we were about making a better country, a country for all Belizeans, when we threw off the shackles of colonial government. Our political leaders had other ideas. In modern Belize, everything is about the party in power. Immediately after we elect a set of politicians, put them in government, their narrow little minds start scheming to enrich and entrench themselves. Every asset of the country is manipulated for the self-aggrandizement of the members of the party, and the perpetuation of the party in government. The politicization of the Public Service is devious, dastardly, a disgrace. It is a shame what the elected politicians have done.

Fortunately, there are too many men and women in this country who will not bow to political pressure. Indeed, many of the political appointees are not happy about what the politicians are doing either, but they bite their lips because many of us are desperate for a job and the only ones available are in the public sector.