This weekend, the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) completes two full years since a comprehensive general elections victory in 2008, in which it swept the opposition People’s United Party (PUP) from office after ten years of being in government.
But the tenure of Prime Minister Dean Barrow and his 24 fellow representatives has so far been a challenging one, as they have been dogged from the start by allegations of corruption and nepotism – practices the Prime Minister swore he would do his best to stamp out – and handcuffed by the bite of the international economic recession that began to take effect in the latter stages of 2008 and throughout 2009.
On Wednesday afternoon, following an event hosted by the Belize Tourism Board (BTB) at the Institute for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (ITVET) compound on Freetown Road in Belize City, members of the press, including Amandala, engaged the P.M. in a frank and open discussion on the state of the nation at this time in his term of office.
P.M. Barrow began by noting strides in infrastructure and education, and cited the achievements of the Ministries of Works (headed by Hon. Anthony “Boots” Martinez) and Education (under Hon. Patrick Faber) as the most significant thus far for the Administration. Martinez and the Works staff have been crisscrossing the nation making repairs to all major highways and finishing two long-overdue projects – the Placencia Road and the last 10 miles of the Southern Highway – and intend to step up to pave and repair streets in Belize City this year under the Southside Poverty Alleviation Project and Urban Redevelopment Project. Faber has been pushing for reform in the education sector and opening opportunities for less-advantaged students with $300 tuition grants for students in the first two years of high school.
And on corruption, while the P.M. admitted his ministers were not, in his words, “Simon pure,” he argued that there has not been as much “wholesale corruption” in this term as was, according to him, a “hallmark” of the previous administration.
In light of the recent Country Poverty Assessment written by Halcrow Group Limited for GOB and the Caribbean Development Bank, in which it was reported that the poverty rate rose from 33% in 2002 to 43% in 2009 (with a further 14% vulnerable to poverty), the Prime Minister vowed that poverty alleviation would be completely central to the future development of Belize, and admitted that the global recession had taken a bite out of our revenues and forced us to depend more on international support.
Turning to crime, the Prime Minister said that the Police Department would be receiving additional vehicles to conduct patrols, and said that efforts at “social intervention” (perhaps epitomized by his meeting with gang leaders at the CYDP compound in January) would continue, even as he lamented the senseless violence that threatens the life of 7-year-old Janay Moguel, stepdaughter to his driver.
And for now, the men leading the fight will be Commissioner of Police Crispin Jeffries and Minister of National Security Carlos Perdomo, neither of whom is expected to go anywhere soon. Of Jeffries, the Prime Minister said that he was “completely committed.” “… (I have) never seen anyone work as hard as Jeffries does. …He leads (his men) by precept and example,” the PM continued.
As optimistic a review as that is, the question of needed resources for the Department leads right back to finance. The PM told Amandala that while GOB will use the good offices of the Merida Initiative and other means to acquire equipment, of the two most-needed items – the Integrated Ballistics Information System (IBIS) and DNA machine – he told us it would have to be one or the other for now.
Turning to oil, the Prime Minister defended his government’s treatment of Belize Natural Energy (BNE), stating that Belizeans needed to see the entire picture.
“In terms of what the take is, would I like more? Absolutely,…First of all we are locked into a contract by the last government, the same people who are bleating so loudly, and I draw a distinction between contracts that we didn’t know about, secret contracts such as the Accommodation Agreement, which I think we have every moral and perhaps legal right to reject, and contracts that were signed in the full light of day in a publicly disclosed manner. You are going to break those sorts of contracts at your legal peril and also at the risk of interfering with the investment climate.” The P.M. explained.
He went on to add that while exploration continues for oil, Belize would not risk chasing away potential investors by demonstrating untrustworthiness, admitting that it is a “catch-22” situation.
Later speaking one-on-one with Amandala, the PM also addressed the erroneous Prensa Libre report of January 27 on alleged incursions into Guatemalan territory by BDF soldiers.