Statement by Prime Minister of Belize and Minister of Finance, Economic Development and Investment

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Ceremonial Opening of the National Assembly

Hon. John Briceño

Madame Speaker of the House of Representatives

Madame President of the Senate

Hon. Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate

Madame Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Excellencies of the Diplomatic Corps

Members of the Consular Corps

Most Reverend Philip Wright, Bishop of the Anglican Church of Belize

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

My fellow Belizeans,

It is with a sad heard that I inform the nation of the passing of the Honorable David ‘Dido’ Vega.  He would have been swearing the same oath that we did earlier. On behalf of all of us, I extend to his family, to the people of Corozal Bay and to the Nation our heartfelt condolences to the Hon. David Vega’s family. The Hon. David Vega will be given an official funeral and all flags will be flown at half-mast in the entire country until the date of his burial.

We gather this morning in Belmopan on Independence Hill to participate in a ceremony steep in tradition. Ceremonies just like this have been held nine times since Independence on 21st September 1981.

These proceedings with the attendant pomp and ceremony are an important symbol of Belizean governance, a democratic Central American nation in the heart of the Caribbean basin.

The Belize Constitution proclaims as a foundational principle that we believe that the will of the people shall form the basis of government in a democratic society in which the government is freely elected by Universal Adult suffrage and in which all persons may, to the extent of their capacity, play some part in the institutions of national life and thus develop and maintain for lawfully constituted authority.

We do not only believe this, not only is this an article of faith for Belizeans, we live it. On the 11th November 2020, quietly and at physical distance with minds made up, Belizeans joined lines across this beautiful jewel of ours. Of the 182, 815 Regis 149,650 electors went to the polls. A remarkable 81.86% of those entitled to elect representatives risked contracting the dreaded Covid-19 virus and solemnly exercised their right–they voted. That secret act, making a mark, on a ballot is the ultimate act of people’s power. I stand here proud but humble as the leader of the People’s United Party whose candidates collectively received 88,040 votes or 58.83 percent of all votes cast. Therefore, the government I lead has been given a strong and unquestioned mandate to implement planBelize.

Today, before the nation, the elected representatives took their oath. Each of us swore true faith and allegiance to Belize. We swore to uphold the constitution and the law and to do right to all manner of people without fear or favor, affection or ill will, we accept this obligation to be honest, to be fair, to do right and above all to serve the people according to law.

Belizeans demand a new commitment to decent and honest public service and Belize deserve no less. We as duly elected servants of the people must rise to this challenge. I pledge in the name of all elected Representatives of the People’s United Party and Senators to remain faithful to our oaths.

As former President Barrack Obama said, “If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists, to protect them and to promote their common welfare, all else is lost.”

Our nation, not yet forty years old has never confronted a year as disastrous as 2020. Without exaggeration, 2020 has been a living hell. Sadly, 183 have lost their lives to Covid-19. 8805 persons have tested positive. These include frontline workers–security forces, healthcare workers and others, who risk their lives in service to the people. To their lives ones we offer our deepest condolences and gratitude for their exemplary service.

We are urging our Belizean companies to adopt a front line worker instead of having a Christmas party. This will be coordinated by the Ministry of Health and Wellness.

By any measure, we are facing a healthcare crisis, a national emergency. Our healthcare system is overwhelmed and the virus continues to spread apace.

In response to the emergency, drastic measures were implemented including a national lockdown to contain the spread. Let’s face the facts.

The stubborn truth is that so far the measures have failed. The promise of a vaccine alone is not the answer to the present problem. Your government has acted decisively.

Testing has been dramatically scaled up. We have introduced Rapid Testing at all community and regional hospitals and at Polyclinics. We will be rolling out addition testing sites and mobile testing services to wage war against this virus we need to identify those who are positive so that they know their status and are able to isolate.

My government recognizes that when we isolate people we cannot abandon them. Therefore, we will be providing a minimum of fourteen days food supply and a stipend to assist families in need.

An MoU have been signed with BAHA to assist with PCR testing. Equipment and consumables have been sources which will allow us to reduce the waiting time for PCR results. We are investing in additional human resources–Doctors, nurses, public health inspectors, lab technicians. Government is also looking at the overtime earned by our frontline workers that’s was denied by the previous administration.

But it is time for a reality check. Approximately thirty nine thousand lost their jobs due to Covid-19. This is on top of the twenty thousand persons that were already unemployed prior to the onset of the pandemic. As of September 2020, over sixty four thousand Belizeans or almost thirty percent of the entire labor force remained unemployed with an additional 82 thousand individuals underemployed.

In other words, one hundred and forty six thousand Belizeans or 67.6 percent of the entire labour force are either unemployed or underemployed and looking for work. Almost forty four percent of the workforce work less than 40 hours per week. These numbers are shocking and entirely unacceptable.

The abnormally high level of unemployment is attributable to the prolonged economic crisis we are experiencing.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Belize was already in the throes of a year-long recession. In the first quarter of 2020 prior to Covid, the Belizean economy contracted 4.5 percent. In the second quarter it contracted 23.3 percent and a further 13.2 percent in the third quarter. Over the first nine months of this year, Belize’s GDP declined by 316.2 million dollars or 14.4 percent compared to 2019.

While the economy has been mired in this depressive state, the government’s hands have been tied by the massive public sector debt load. Prior to Covid Belize’s debt was already approaching 100 percent of GDP. Since Covid, this debt has skyrocketed unsustainably to around 133 percent of GDP. For the past nine months we have been borrowing one million dollars a day to cover operations.

From April to September 2020, government’s fiscal deficit has widened by over 110 million dollars due to severe revenue shortfalls approaching a 150 million combined with incongruent reduction of expenditures by less than thirty three million dollars.

The effect is that our income per capita has shrivelled to 1992 levels but our debt has ballooned to unsustainable levels. This is untenable.

We are constantly reviewing the Covid-19 threat to our way of life and will take all measures, however drastic to contain the spread. No doubt new measures will be necessary. We have a sacred duty to preserve life. We will discharge our duty.

Winston Churchill said, “I never worry about action but only about inaction.”

Belizeans, now more than ever, it is time for action. We must summon the courage to fight and defeat this pandemic. Through personal action, each and every person must act responsibly.

We must wear our masks properly at all times.

We must wash our hands repeatedly.

We must get tested.

We must isolate and quarantine when advised by medical practitioners.

And, we are appealing to all to resist the temptation to gather in large numbers during the holidays. The healing of our nation calls each of us to act. We must act now!

On the 9th September of this year, Hurricane Nana made landfall between Dangriga and Placencia. It caused serious damage to property in southern Belize. If that was not enough, torrential rains associated with Hurricane Eta drenched Belize for days is the first week of November. The Stann Creek, Cayo and Belize Districts were heavily impacted by excessive rainfall of up to 20 inches. On 15th November, NEMO advised on the formation of Hurricane Iota which brought rainfall across Belize which amounted to 10-12 inches. Residents in flood -prone areas experienced losses to their homes, household effects, crops, watermelons, melons, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet pepper, corn, beans, pumpkins, cabbage, jalapeños and assorted fruits, to name a few. We are experiencing a critical shortage of beans which forced us to authorize importation of black and red kidney beans. Productive areas mostly affected were agricultural communities in and along the Moho, Macal and the Belize rivers. This flooding negatively impacted the livelihoods of 787 rural producers, mostly rural families. Grains and vegetable were mostly affected for a combined loss value of over 12 million dollars. Total loses to the agricultural sectors is estimated at 18.2 million dollars resulting in the destruction of approximately 12, 992 acres of agricultural crops. Cumulatively, approximately 1200 families or 6000persons were impacted by flood water. Farmer have reported losses in 6000 acres thus far. The numbers may increase as some areas are still inaccessible due to flooding conditions. NEMO has assessed on a preliminary basis, and I stress preliminary, losses at an estimated 93 million dollars and this does not account for the losses caused by the droughts that we experienced.

The 2020 Hurricane Season was the most active on record. The droughts we have experienced is a part of our new normal. Too much rain and too little rain, climate change is real and it is cruel. The science is clear. The state of the Caribbean Climate report produced by the Climate Studies Group of the University of the West Indies have set out in details the dire trends that have emerged.

The Caribbean as a whole will gradually dry through to the end of the century. The regional climate model projects up to 25-30 percent less rainfall by the end of the century.  The experts say that the Caribbean region will be 17 percent drier by the end of the century. There is an increasing trend of very warm days and nights for the Caribbean as a whole. Regional models suggest an increase in mean temperatures of up to 4 degrees. Of course, sea surface temperatures are expected to continue to rise. Simultaneously, we will experience a rise in sea levels. Remarkably, our experts predict that sea levels will reach or exceed one meter across the Caribbean. These statistics speak truth to us and we must respond, and respond urgently.

We have created the Ministry of Sustainable Development, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management to signal my government’s commitment to driving an ambitious agenda to address the urgent need to change the way we live.

To make my point clear, I can do no better than to quote his Excellency Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations. He said, “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top priority for everyone, everywhere. In this context, the recovery from the pandemic is an opportunity. We can see rays of hope in the form of a vaccine but there is no vaccine for the planet. Nature needs a bailout in overcoming the pandemic, we can also avert climate cataclysm and restore our planet. This is an epic policy test. But ultimately, this is a moral test, the trillions of dollars needed for Covid recovery is money that we are borrowing from future generations–every last penny. We cannot use these monies to lock in resources that burden them with a mountain of debt on a broken planet.

It is time to flick the green switch. We have a chance to not simply reset the world economy but to transform it. A sustainable economy driven by renewable energies, will create new jobs, cleaner infrastructure and a resilient future. An inclusive world will help ensure that people can enjoy better health and the full respect of their human rights and live with dignity on a healthy planet. Covid recovery and our planet’s repair must be the two sides of the same coin.”

The Secretary General spoke for us. He spoke for humanity. We agree.

My fellow Belizeans, with a heavy heart, I have been frank with you. Make no mistake, I have not exaggerated the precarious position we are in. These threats are existential. We face extraordinary and unprecedented challenges. A truly national effort is necessary for us to emerge from this dark place.

We will! We can! We must!.

To show commitment to a national effort, my cabinet will take a 10 percent salary cut effective 1st January.

I have absolute faith in the strength of the Belizean people. Together as Belizeans we will rebound. We will rebuild and we will restore this beautiful jewel. That is our sacred duty.

Después de una victoria contundente en las elecciones recientes. Nos toca hoy forjar una nación resiliente. Ante todo lo que vive nuestro pueblo, peor aún con los efectos devastadores de la pandemia. Hoy somos un pueblo abatido por el desgaste de este virus, una economía erosionada y un pueblo agotado por la lucha constante de nuestra gente. Pero como dijo el economista del banco mundial, “Forjar resiliencia a las perturbaciones naturales es un objetivo fundamental a largo plazo.

Los desastres naturales no son nuevos para este país, siempre hemos logrado rebotar y seguir nuestro camino siempre con la morada hacia adelante con una visión y convicción de que saldremos adelante. El compromiso de nuestro gobierno sigue firme. Saldremos de estas. Aun que poco a poco, lo haremos. Como dice el ña canción de Vicente Fernández, ‘El Rey”. El dice, “No hay que llegar primero, pero hay que sabe llegar”.

Además no hay que postergar hoy la tarea que se nos prepara para mañana.

As we get ready to mark the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, I ask to have, upper most in our minds, those among us that who are most in need. Let us open our hearts and those of us that have share with those who have-not.

I still believe that our best days are ahead of us. I believe in our collective determination to be our best selves and yes, I am convinced that together and with the guidance of our creator we will build a Belize that will work for everyone.

Long live Belize! ¡Qué viva Belice!

¡Muchísimas Gracias! Thank you very much!