Party Leader John Briceño’s
October 20, 2020
Necesitamos JOBS; Turning the Economy Around
Chris(Coye) laid out the case for all of us. The UDP government, with its gross mismanagement and rampant corruption, has taken us to the precipice of economic ruin. The absence of any contingency funds, the unsustainable debt levels and the poor state of government finances severely limit the tools at the government’s disposal. Government is now broke and has resorted to borrowing to pay bills but with no plan to bring back and grow the economy. Now, the borrowing is drying out, the credit card is maxed out. What this means is more hardship for our people, especially the poorest among us.
But this sorry state of affairs, cannot be the end, we have to look ahead and tonight my promise to you is that we will bring this economy back and we will do it together. We all know that the private sector is the ultimate engine of this economy. Any economic resurgence must involve the private sector as a key partner. Without a robust private sector, there are no jobs, so we will need the private sector to invest, expand their existing businesses and start new ones so that we can sustainably create jobs for the long term.
To do this, we will immediately establish a public-private Economic Recovery Task Force to make recommendations to Cabinet on economic recovery action items. To mobilize private capital, public-private partnerships will be encouraged especially for large-scale projects. Such projects may include efforts to achieve lower energy costs and national energy independence particularly through climate finance sources like the Green Climate Fund, The UK Climate initiatives and other partners. If we can lower the cost of energy, we will lower the cost of doing business.
Our government will also fast track private sector investments. Projects like the Caye Chapel Four Seasons and Blackadore Caye projects, among many others, should not be allowed to languish but driven towards progress. This will unlock hundreds of millions of dollars of direct foreign exchange investment into Belize, leading to hundreds if not thousands of construction jobs and ultimately permanent operational staff.
To help us with this, I will establish a special unit in the office of the Prime Minister to supervise monitor these initiatives. Without prejudice to such effort, certain macroeconomic fiscal and monetary action must be urgently undertaken to jumpstart the economy.
First, we have to reduce Interest Rates, maintain Liquidity and Increase Lending. While government’s borrowing sources may be drying up, the banking system remains highly liquid with overall excess liquidity in the vicinity of three hundred million dollars. To be honest, interest rates have not come down in any significant manner. In fact, interest rates on residential loans have begun to inch upwards. We will reverse this trend and make sure interest rates come down.
To this end, the Central Bank with the support of the government will be far more creative in causing the reduction of interest rates, maintaining adequate liquidity and fostering increased lending to export-oriented foreign exchange generating sectors and to small and medium enterprises (SME’s).
Second, we will Prioritize Capital Expenditures that Generate Long Term Investment Returns; Capital Expenditure by the government will not be discontinued but will be focused on infrastructure investments that generate investment returns for the long term.
We will not make bad investments like the nationalization of BTL, the perennial loss-making National Bank of Belize and the senseless Caracol road.
We will instead focus on constructing an efficient national logistics network. Among other things, the coastal road will be completed, a North-South agriculture corridor will be constructed from Blue Creek to the Western Highway through the Valley of Peace and bulk-shipping capacity development will be encouraged through our major ports. A Riviera Maya to Ambergris Caye Bridge and road infrastructure project will be undertaken to connect Ambergris Caye to southern Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
Given the limited foreign exchange reserves, particular focus will be given to supporting and enhancing tourism, agriculture and other export-oriented foreign exchange generating sectors.
Let me start with Tourism which has represented almost half of our economy. The fallout on this sector as a result of the pandemic has resulted in a massive contraction in the economy. It has also caused the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, a fiscal crisis, a debt crisis and a foreign exchange crisis. I know we have to diversify but as Belizeans like to say, ‘you do not need to throw out the baby with the bathwater’, we can take such steps as to ensure the immediate resurgence or the tourism industry but with a more resilient strategy.
Tourism as the sector economist would say is where the low-hanging fruit is. Tourism is one of those industries that can bring back economic activity and create jobs rapidly. But to do this we will have to improve our marketing practices and use the resources of BTB more prudently. This will also mean adjustments to our policies and laws to incentivize long term stays, and to incentivize investing in second homes and condominiums in Belize. If we do these things, San Pedro and Caye Caulker, two of our major attractions for overnight tourism, will have to see infrastructure improvements. We will invest heavily in human and other infrastructure in San Pedro and Caye Caulker.
This will include not only investment in roads, but more urgently in developing and improving the sewage system for both islands especially for Caye Caulker, and the communities of San Juan, San Pedrito, Escalante and DFC subdivisions in San Pedro. The connection of Caye Caulker to the national grid is also an urgent priority. And we will not just promise but will encourage the development of a public-private partnership for the construction of a hospital in San Pedro.
In the same vein, the Placencia International Airport will be completed to open up the south, in alignment with the National Tourism Strategy Plan. Keeping to building the tourism product in the south, a revival of Dangriga will be engineered by enhancing what Dangriga has to offer – the sharing of its rich Garifuna culture.
At the same time, immediate steps must be taken to enhance other sectors that clearly not only have vital importance in food security and sustenance but that offer real opportunities for economic growth and broad diversification. Agriculture and livestock represent key sectors that offer such opportunities from North to South. Our foreign affairs and foreign trade ministry will be specifically tasked with gaining market access. Mexico, CARICOM, Guatemala, Canada, UK and Taiwan will be priority countries for gaining, improving and enhancing market access for our agriculture, livestock and aquaculture products – Mexico and Guatemala for our cattle and other meat products in particular, CARICOM for our plethora of agricultural products including sugar, citrus, beans and others, Taiwan for our shrimp, fish and meat products, among others.
While we have ample areas of arable land and pasture for emergence in agriculture and livestock, our farmers have been neglected. Our industries have been ravaged by disease and disorganization. This will change. In the South, we have pastures with no animals. We will re-establish a cattle program by distributing heads of cattle that will be repaid on reproduction. Technical support will be provided to cacao farmers to re-organize and enable them to grow and expand cooperatively and profitably. Farm management protocols will be established and closely supervised with a view to vector and disease control, especially for citrus crops to enable their resurgence. We will support the development of farming of alternative products for export including plantain, cacao, turmeric, rice in the South, grains, sorghum and the return of papaya in the North.
DFC will be re-engineered and streamlined to provide what it was supposed to provide – development finance. Access to low-cost funds from CDB and other multilaterals will be secured while the operational costs of the institution will be significantly reduced so that DFC is in a position to offer cheap finance to agriculture in particular.
If there is one area where UDP failure in most pronounced it is in regard to governance. Let me start with their failure to manage our debt. By squandering cheap monies like the over $400mn in Venezuela finance rather than reducing our debt, we are today without any contingency fund or flexibility in times of crisis like the COVID crisis we currently face. Debt levels have spiraled out of control bringing the government to the brink of bankruptcy, threatening our foreign exchange peg and the overall collapse of our economy. We must seek to reign in these debt levels immediately. This means the immediate establishment of a dedicated debt management unit within the Ministry of Finance.
The goal of the incoming PUP government is to reduce the surging debt stock back to sustainable levels below 90% of GDP within 5 years and ultimately to below 70 percent of GDP while at the same time ensuring ample financing remains available for government priorities. If that will mean the restructuring of certain debt, then that will be the task to be undertaken forthwith.
A major hindrance to growth is corruption. Under this UDP government, corruption is everywhere from top to bottom. It not only increases the cost of doing business in Belize and acts as a deterrent to investment, but it ultimately hurts most the most marginalized, the poorest among us as it robs the government coffers of scarce resources that would be used to help those most in need.
We will root out corruption from every corner of government. To signify the importance to the PUP of rooting out corruption in our country, we will establish and entrench a new Anti-Corruption Commission in the supreme law of our land, the Constitution of Belize. No member of this Commission will be selected by any of the political parties. They will instead be selected entirely by our social partners – the NTUCB representing the trade unions, the Chamber of Commerce representing the business community, the Council of Churches, the Bar Association and the Institute of Chartered Accountants.
There will be a minimum budget threshold of 0.2 percent of recurrent tax revenues which should translate to around $2 million per annum. By virtue of a constitutional amendment, all oversight bodies including the Anti-Corruption Commission, the Auditor General and the Senate shall have and enjoy the powers, privileges and immunities of a Commission of Inquiry. They shall each have power to summon witnesses and to call for the production of books, plans and documents, and to examine witnesses and parties concerned on oath.
Belize is on the verge of economic collapse, but in spite of the weight of all the wrongs of corruption, mismanagement and utter incompetency, it is still hanging on. This is because Belize has so much to offer and investors, local and foreign alike, see the opportunities. Many investors have adopted a wait and see approach. They are waiting for the skies to clear up, the system to be disinfected of corruption, the bottlenecks to be removed before they invest. In other words, there is heavy pent-up demand for the Belize product. But we have to do our part to make doing in Belize far easier.
Apart from our anti-corruption efforts, interaction with government departments will be streamlined as we implement our e-government agenda. Our goal is to make 90% of government services available online 24/7 within 5 years. Priority areas undoubtedly include the Lands Department, the Vital Statistics Unit, the Labour Department, the Immigration Department and the Central Bank of Belize, among others. In addition to e-government, we shall remove/relocate corrupt officers as necessary, eliminate corrupt, extortionary and unlawful practices, deal with the backlog and improve service level standards across the public service.
I have laid out for you tonight a realistic, doable plan to get us through the coronavirus pandemic and to place us ready to build back our Belizean economy so that we can get on with the work of building a Belize that works for everyone where Everybody Fi Win.
Tomorrow is nomination day(Oct 21) and on Thursday we will be rolling out our full planbelize.
So I invite everyone to join us this Thursday(Oct 22) on television or through social media for our Manifesto.
Remember to be safe, wear your facemask in public, practice physical distancing and good hygiene by washing your hands often.
God bless and have a good week.