[An editorial opinion piece on BelizeFirst.com]
I’m stuck down in Honduras.
I’m a desperate man.
Send lawyers, guns and money.
The shit has hit the fan.
--Warren Zevon, “Lawyers, Guns and Money”
IS THERE A CRISIS IN BELIZE?
OPINION BY LAN SLUDER
With apologies to the late, great songwriter and singer Warren Zevon, it looks like years of crud and cronyism are about to hit the fan in Belize.
On Thursday and Friday, January 20-21, a good part of Belize may be shut down by action by labor unions and businesses. Schools across the country will be closed. Shops will close. Public unions will hold a work slowdown. Even some public utilities may be shut down. (I'm told the water is already out in parts of Belize City.) Several banks maybe closed.
On Tuesday, January 18, the Belize Chamber of Commerce held a meeting with more than 125 business people in attendance. The business people say they have a problem with what’s happening in Belize, with increases in taxes amounting to more than US$50 million. At the same time, from the other side of the field, the Public Service Union is planning a go-slow work action. The National Trade Union Congress is also moving into action.
I’ve heard from people at all levels in Belize over the past few days, and the common theme is: “Things are going to have to change.”
What could happen January 20-21 is only the tip of the iceberg ... er, coral reef.
For those who may not closely follow developments in Belize, the current government in Belize appears to have run out of elbow room. Years of insider dealing, financial irresponsibility, overspending and kowtowing to the interests of the big guys -- like Carnival Cruise Lines and the political and economic elite in Belize -- have created something of a crisis, according to observers in Belize.
The government is running a large budget deficit and is spending much more than it takes in. It has a huge trade deficit. Cronies and insiders have been rewarded with big contracts and sweetheart deals. Small entrepreneurs and conservation interests have been dissed. The big stake holders -- Carnival Cruise Lines and political insiders -- have been rewarded with new, financially lucrative deals. The currency has been under stress. Financial experts have been called in.
Yes, it does sound a lot like the United States under George Bush, doesn’t it? Except on a much smaller scale.
A few weeks ago, Prime Minister Musa sacked several of his most effective cabinet members, like Mark Espat, the tourism guru.
Over the past year, and particularly in the last month, the government has announced a massive series of tax increases:
The “environmental tax” will increase by 2 percentage points -- that’s like a nationwide tax on consumption. At the same time, the government has approved a dolphins swim-a-rama and have considered privatizing part of Belize’s most precious natural asset, the barrier reef.
Tourists visiting Belize and staying longer than 30 days will have to pay US$50 a month to renew their tourist card, a 400% increase.
Property taxes are being increased significantly, and a speculation tax will hit large property holders.
Business taxes will be increased.
Work permit fees have been increased -- in some cases doubled (a professional work permit is now US$1,500 a year, and a self-employed permit is US$1,000)
Wages increases for public workers will be held down, and some cutbacks will be made.
The hotel tax has been increased to 9%.
Taxes on alcohol and tobacco have been raised. Again.
Entry fees to parks, ruins and reserves have been increased, doubled in some cases.
The international exit tax has been increased from US$20 to $35, due to a new airport fee.
Belize, already the most expensive destination to visit in Central America, has become more expensive. Belize, already the most expensive country in the region in which to do business, has become more expensive.
Further, permanent residency applications have been held up for months, so expats wishing to live in Belize have been kept in limbo.
On the non-financial side, the government has moved ahead with a dam that will destroy prime wildlife habitat. It has gotten in bed with the big cruise ship industry, while leaving small hotel owners and tourism operators hanging.
Does this civil action January 20-21 portend future instability?
Will the government be brought down?
Will the Belize dollar peg to the U.S. dollar be dropped?
I don’t know. No one knows. Historically, protests have a way of escalating into revolutions, and revolutions have a way of snowballing.
Prime Minister Musa obviously is worried. In a speech today (January 19), he mentioned “civil unrest” and “lawlessness.”
He said: ‘What is at stake here is no less than the peace and tranquillity we have come to take for granted under our vibrant democracy.”
But the betting is, and my guess is, that things won’t change very much. This too shall pass.
Indeed, in laid-back Belize, it all may just fizzle out.
But I’m betting the government will have to come back to the table, to renegotiate. The PUP and its pals may have to eat a little crow.
In any case, let’s hope that what happens in Belize won’t worry the small investors, entrepreneurs, tourists and others in the U.S., Canada and Europe who provide most of the hard currency exchange for Belize and who have fueled the engines of growth in Belize for many years.
If these guys see Belize as an unstable place, it would have a major impact on Belize’s future.
--Lan Sluder www.belizefirst.com