For a second time since the advent of COVID-19, Independence Day celebrations have been subdued, largely in part to an increase in cases across the country. On Tuesday, government officials, dignitaries and other invited guests journeyed to Belmopan where an official ceremony was held in commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of Belize’s political freedom. Among them was Opposition Leader Patrick Faber who was reappointed to that office after being removed by fellow U.D.P. parliamentarians three months ago. Faber delivered his address prior to Prime Minister John Briceño who also delivered his maiden speech as head of government. News Five’s Isani Cayetano takes a closer look at what was presented by both political leaders.

Isani Cayetano, Reporting

Belize’s fortieth anniversary of being an independent, developing nation comes at a critical juncture in its history.  Stricken by an increase in COVID-19 infections, the country continues to grapple with a public health crisis.  The government is also faced with getting a severely weakened economy back on its feet.  These are the most important challenges four decades after Belize gained its sovereignty.

Prime Minister John Briceño

“COVID-19 has tested us, changed how we live, how we work and how we pray. It has tested our mettle by forcing drastic changes to our daily lives, none more so than having to keep apart from each other. It has kept our children away from school and their friends. It has kept loved ones from celebrating weddings, young parents from bringing their family together for christenings and even burying our dead, things we hold near and dear.”

The primary charge of the Briceño administration, since taking office last November, has been to tackle the pandemic.

Prime Minister John Briceño

“For this reason, from day one we have been working to make our communities and neighborhoods as safe and as healthy as we can. Our first task has been and must be defeating COVID. We do this by making vaccines available for everyone, and we are doing that.  Today, every Belizean from twelve and up can and should get vaccinated to protect ourselves but more so to protect each other. Once again, I urge everyone to please get vaccinated.”

In delivering his first Independence Day address as Leader of the Opposition, Patrick Faber, who only just regained that office on September sixteenth, also acknowledges the challenges brought about by COVID-19.  Nonetheless, he attributes the dire state of the country to a lack of political resolve.

Patrick Faber, Leader of the Opposition

“We are at one of the most challenging times in our nation’s history. I say challenging because never before has this nation faced the threat to its very existence as it does today. Not just from the invisible enemy of the dreaded coronavirus, not just from the ravages of escalating crime and violence that plague our society, but from a lack of political willpower to change the circumstances that led us to where we are today.”

Those circumstances which the leader of the United Democratic Party refers to are, in some measure, the creation of the three-term UDP government.  When the People’s United Party took over, they inherited many of these setbacks.

Patrick Faber

“In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, a new mandate was handed resoundingly to the People’s United Party to do just that, to stand on the shoulders of these giants and to fulfill a promise to the Belizean people that a new course will be charted and that policies will be developed so that, as they promised, everyone can win. The backdrop of this shift in administration itself was quite remarkable. Belize was enduring perhaps the worst set of economic conditions it has ever faced in its history. Our main income-earning were on their knees.”

To hear Prime Minister John Briceno tell it, the turnaround in the past ten months has been significant, owing to various sectors, including agriculture and tourism.

Prime Minister John Briceño

“Last November we inherited an economy that was in decline well before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. One that was near depression levels, levels not seen in almost forty years, where the unemployment soared to almost thirty percent, with over sixty thousand people out of a job, with the poverty rate surpassing fifty percent. These were clear evidence that our nation was being mismanaged or perhaps more appropriately, abandoned, but we will not allow ourselves to despair. With the stellar efforts to the Minister of Agriculture and his team, the export if cattle started almost from day one of the PUP administration. Currently, agriculture is leading the economic resurgence growing almost twenty-five percent in the second quarter of this year. Our small and large farmers are growing and producing more, and our people are responding by eating what we grow and produce. Through the tireless efforts of the Minister of Tourism and his team, tourism is not far behind growing by almost twenty percent in the second quarter as well.”

The crushing state of joblessness, according to PM Briceño, has also been reduced and, equally important, the economic rebound is happening much faster than what was initially predicted.

Prime Minister John Briceño

“Unemployment has fallen dramatically by twenty-five thousand from sixty-four thousand. Using old definitions of employment, this means that unemployment is down to roughly eleven point two percent of the labor force. Overall, our economy is now headed in the right direction experiencing an overall growth of over twenty-two percent in the second quarter and over six percent for the first six months of this year, more than triple what our IFI partners like the IMF expected. On the public finances, this government is no longer borrowing a million dollars a day. This reckless borrowing has been discontinued for almost six months now.  In addition, we have successfully reduced the Central Bank overdraft balance from one hundred million to zero. In other words, we are no longer paying interest as we no longer owe any monies on overdraft with the Central Bank. Thanks to the sacrifices of many, including our teachers and public officers, we have kept government expenditures under check.”

Channel 5