My Fellow Belizeans,
Very soon, 2020 will end and we will welcome the advent of 2021. As a nation we will look back at the 2020 with very mixed feelings. And rightly so.
It was a year of unprecedented floods associated with hurricanes Nana, Eta and Iota, which caused more than $100 million dollars in damage to the Belizean economy. People lost their property, farmers lost their crops and livestock, and public infrastructure was seriously damaged.
If this was not enough, we experienced a drought that affected produce and farmers lost again.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought our economy to a near halt. Over 236 Belizeans lost their lives to COVID and more that 10,000 tested positive. About 45,000 persons lost their jobs and many businesses closed as a result of the measures imposed to fight the virus. COVID-19 dramatically changed the way we work, the way we live and the world we know.
But 2020 was not all bad. Hundreds of Belizeans, along with Cuban collaborators, faced the virus and provided care and control as we implemented measures to curb its spread. These frontline workers are our heroes.
Because of the lockdown and other restrictions, many new micro, small and medium-sized businesses were spawned. This showed our Belizean creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit never before seen. We now have more Belizean businesses.
As a result of border closures, we became tourists in our own country in record numbers. We re-discovered the exotic beauty of this, our land, and the warm hospitality of our people.
On the 11th of November 2020, voters went to the polls, braved the COVID-19 virus and elected a new PUP government with an overwhelming majority. The electorate endorsed the proposals in our PLANBELIZE – we received 59 percent of the popular vote. Without doubt, my Government has a strong mandate for change. Twenty-twenty was truly a year of change.
Change because Belize needed to change what was, and because Belizeans want a better future.
When we assumed office, we found the treasury empty. The former administration was borrowing $1 million dollars per day to meet expenses. Imagine, they had to borrow every single month to meet payroll. That is bankruptcy – pure and simple. Last August, the Barrow administration failed to pay the US$13 million superbond payment when it became due. Instead, they added this amount to the principal, thereby increasing Belize’s foreign debt and deferring the inevitable.
The rating agencies downgraded Belize yet again.
The important takeaway is that due to mismanagement by the Barrow administration, they could not make the payment and Belize was financially embarrassed on the world stage. As a result of COVID-19, the Barrow administration borrowed more than 200 million dollars in 2020. The Belizean economy was in recession before COVID-19 gripped us.
The situation worsened in the second, third and fourth quarters and we estimate that the Belizean economy will shrink by 15 percent in 2020. The overall fiscal deficit is now in excess of $500 million or 12 percent of GDP. And our debt to GDP will increase to 133 percent. The acceptable standard is 60 percent.
While economists, who analyze and keep track of these statistics, will be alarmed by these figures, they tell a simple tale to all – Belize bruk!
We believe that Belizeans should know why things are so bad. We all deserve to know how we reached this deplorable state. Because of UDP mismanagement and corruption, we will all be asked to make major sacrifices in 2021 as we seek to right the Ship of State.
But before we can in good conscience ask Belizeans to do so, those who brought us to this point must be held to account. In the days and weeks ahead, my Government will be revealing to the Belizean people the extent of the stealing, criminality and corruption that was perpetrated by the Barrow Administration. Valuable lands are now in the hands of UDP cronies, given away for a pittance. Contracts valued hundreds of millions of dollars were awarded to favourite contractors who failed to pay millions in taxes and fees. State enterprises bought property at gross overvalues, leaving institutions saddled with millions in debt for no legitimate purpose. Cronies signed contracts in the run up to the elections and are now demanding massive payouts to be released from contracts.
Public officers were required to use government equipment and fuel to build roads on private property and to clear massive ranches. The theft and corruption were widespread and unprecedented. This cannot, should not and will not be allowed to be forgotten. There will be investigations and, where warranted, criminal charges laid. Where appropriate, civil action for recovery will be brought before the courts. There will be no sacred cows.
It is against this miserable reality that we must turn to face 2021. The New Year presents us with near insurmountable obstacles. The challenges ahead are difficult. The choices we will face are tough. To suppress the spread of COVID-19, we have created the COVID-19 Task Force. This task force will be guided by science and has a mandate to recommend such measures as are required to protect us all. We are engaged with friendly countries and others seeking to bring the vaccine to Belize as soon as reasonably possible. To bounce back better, we must defeat the coronavirus.
I have appointed the Economic Recovery Advisory Team, which is comprised of a cross-section of the community, to make recommendations to Government on restoring economic growth, job creation and attracting investment. This is in keeping with our PLANBELIZE commitment to govern in a consultative manner. We have been carefully reviewing the Government’s financial position. It is fragile and unsustainable.
It is clear that to return Belize to a path of sustainability major changes will be required in 2021. We are preparing a plan which we will shortly share with stakeholders. We intend to consult widely with a view to agreeing a set of measures required to turn things around. We will bounce back better!
Next week we will present a supplementary budget in the House of Representatives and present revised estimates of revenue and expenditure for the last quarter of this very unusual year. We will not propose any new taxes. We will also present Bills to the House which will initiate our reform agenda. These Bills will be tabled and referred to committees to give interested persons an opportunity to consult and offer comments on our proposals.
In an effort to stimulate more economic activity and ensure that employees have more disposable income and employers more finances to operate, we consulted with the Actuary of the Social Security Board who has advised that we can defer the dual increase of the ceiling and contribution rate scheduled to begin in January 2021.
He went further stating “that the dual increase would have a detrimental impact on employment.”
He also stated that an updated actuarial report sent to the SSB several weeks ago states that the impact of Covid-19 on the actuarial situation of the SSB has been less than anticipated. Therefore, as the Prime Minister and Minister responsible for Social Security along with Cabinet, we decided to postpone the increase in the payments that was due in 2021.
Pope John Paul II said: “The future starts today, not tomorrow.”
This is true. The challenges of the future call us to act today. When tested, Belizeans respond. As a people, we have always faced our challenges secure in the knowledge that we will succeed. It is the indomitable Belizean resolve that girds us, the spirit of our ancestors that energizes us, and our hope and vision for a better life that inspires us to overcome.
We know not what the year before us brings. That is the order of nature. But our undying faith in our Creator gives us confidence.
The Bible teaches that “… faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Let us bring in 2021 safely.
Let us adhere to the protocols and try to minimise the spread of COVID-19.
And to Belizeans everywhere, I offer health, happiness and God’s blessings for 2021.
Happy New Year!
Feliz Ano Nuevo!