|The Courier N° 152 - July - August 1995 - Dossier: NGO's - Country Reports: Belize, Malawi (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)|
Architect of Belize's independence
Since Belize's first election under universal suffrage in 1954, George Price, the current leader of the opposition, has spent more years than anyone else at the helm of his country. He was e/so one of the key players, and some would say the main architect, of its independence. A founding member of the PUP, he rose quickly to assume the leadership. In 1958, he was prosecuted by the British authorities for sedition -and his popularity with the voters soared. He went on to win five successive elections and to leave his imprint firmb on the nation. When he opted for a new seat of government in the interior, the pretext was a cyclone which had threatened the coastal capital. The real reason was George Price's desire to bring government closer to the people, removing it from the dosed world of Belize City. It was also Price who led the first post-independence government He went out on a limb in 1983 when he refused to sanction the invasion of Grenada by American forces and despite US pressure, he kept a number of ministers in his government who were regarded by Washington as 'socialists' Having lost to the UDP in the 1984 election, the PUP regained power in 1989 and George Price again became Prime Minister.
The regular swing of the pendulum between two political parties with few ideological differences, and the fact that George Price himself has long experience of office, have moulded him into a moderate but by no means complacent opposition leader. He has recently stepped up his criticisms of the rigorous policies of the current government - policies which appear to have hit the UDP's popular standing. But having held the reins of power for so long himself, he cannot dissociate himself entirely from the problems which Belize now faces, particularly when government ministers seldom miss an opportunity to attribute most of the blame to him.
· Mr Price, you have recently increased your attacks on the policies of the govern
- Our criticism is that the economy of Belize is in trouble and, for the most part, the trouble has been caused by the government. When they came to power in July 1993 they did certain things that adversely affected the economy. In particular, they cancelled or suspended contracts that were ongoing. This led to a loss of confidence among the business and financial community. If the government can go back on contracts, what else might it do in the future. It also created unemployment and the result was less tax revenue going into the state coffers. They incurred additional expenditure by employing their political officers and discharging a number top civil servants. That represents a double expenditure. Money has to be found to pay the salaries of the new people and to compensate those whose service has been ended. They have spent a lot of money on new vehicles and also on travelling. In a poor country like Belize, official travel should be controlled and, where it is necessary to attend conferences, we should try to keep the size of delegations to the minimum. Perhaps just two or three people, or sometimes even just one, instead of six. We see ministers taking unnecessary trips too many places. As a result of all this, The economy is in trouble.
The first thing they did when they gained power was to present a deficit budget. It was the first time in our political history that this had happened. In 1993, the deficit was something like $20 million and in the following year, they presented another budget containing a deficit of $40 million. So they have had to find ways of collecting more money. They have done this by imposing a tax known as the 'gross proceeds tax'. When the importer brings in goods and sells them to the wholesaler, the wholesaler has to pay 1% tax. And when the wholesaler sells the goods to the retailer, the retailer in turn has to pay 1%. When the product finally reaches the consumer, he has to pay anywhere from 3% to 5% of the value of the goods. The effect of all this is to increase the cost of living. And one of the results is that there are fewer jobs available and more unemployment. In addition, there are virtually no significant projects in the pipeline. The only projects that are ongoing are those that our government set up. For example, there was the Rehabilitation Programme of Belize which was designed to improve the canals, and roads like the Southern Highway.
· Members of the present government would argue that if there are problems now, it is because your administration spent too much and took on to many expensive commitments.
-Let me address that point. We did not leave the state bankrupt. At the time there was the change of government, the central bank had $89 million in foreign reserves. There was another $40 million deposited in the commercial banks. So there was money there. We also left a midyear budget which would have been balanced had they chosen to work with it.
The income that was projected from customs duties was all collected. There has been a lot of talk about the five buildings that were constructed by an Italian company when we were in power. It has been suggested that the government could have built them for less but I think this is misleading. When the Ministry of Works puts up a building, they don't include a number of charges in the calculation: for example, the architectural plans or the cost of supervision, because these are done by the Ministry of Works and absorbed in their budget. And the new buildings are serving a very useful purpose. There is the market itself, of course. The police needed more room and now there is a new police station. We had to have a customs building for the new seaport and now we have got it. There is also a fire station, which was clearly needed, and a library for the students. They may have appeared to cost more than the usual buildings but they clearly have a value.
· Can I ask you about the milk project that your government started. The Prime Minister says that it would have cost the government money and that was why they had to cancel some of their commitments.
-Yes. There was a plan in place when we left office whereby an investor would build a factory to process milk. And that would have saved the foreign exchange that pays for the import of milk. We thought the project was feasible but, for some reason, the government cancelled it.
· You say, regarding investment in the country, that the government lacks credibility. Isn't it the case that a lot of countries are finding it difficult to attract foreign investors Wouldn't you face the same problem if you were in power ?
-I should say that the problem is self-induced. The government brought about the loss of credibility through the actions they undertook when they gained power. They have caused it and they now have to solve the problem. Meanwhile, the people suffer. The cost of living has gone up.
· Looking beyond the economic issues, what are your other major concerns ?
- We are worried about an imbalance of power within the government. There was a recent change in cabinet portfolios and we now have one that encompasses the security forces, the police, the attorney-general and the courts. We think there is too much concentration of power within a single ministry and that that imbalance could lead to trouble in the future.
· What kind of trouble.
-The same kind of thing that happened in Haiti. You shouldn't allow one person to control the army and the forces of law and order. The power has to be distributed. Before, the police came under one ministry, while defence was the responsibility of another.
· Why do you think Mr Barrow has received all these different responsibilities.
-I am not entirely sure. There is an impression that the Prime Minister is not strong enough in Cabinet to do what he thinks should be done.
· What about the disagreement between the two Ministers-Hubert Elrington and Dean Barrow. The Prime Minister argues that this is evidence of freedom inside the government and of a healthy democracy.
-He may think that but I think it reveals the weakness of the Cabinet. A Cabinet should be strong and united behind a government's policy. Democracy has certain rules. When a minister doesn't agree with a policy, that minister should resign.
· Belize appears to enjoy a reasonable sense of national unity but a problem seems to have arisen involving the Garifuna community and the fate of the Garifuna monument Do you see this as a significant problem.
-That could be a problem. They were going to build a park and a monument and the government changed that by taking a part away for housing. I think they made a mistake. They should have allowed it to go ahead. A lot of money was invested in the monument and the park. It is really a case of undoing what we set out to achieve in preparing for independence.
Our party, the PUP, had to bring the six districts of the country together. At one time we were separated. Everything was in Belize City and the outer districts were isolated. We got them united under a name-Belize-the old name of the settlement in the Bay of Honduras which is derived from the Maya expression for 'road to the sea'. We also gave the country a flag and an anthem. That brought the people together as a nation: a small one admittedly but, nevertheless there is a feeling of nationhood. And we have been very careful to maintain this sense of unity. Now there is a danger that the cancellation of the monument could introduce divisions. We are a country of various races and our challenge is to keep everybody together-different origins but one nationality. I think that is one of the big attractions that we have for tourists. Admittedly, we have seen an increase in crime, and a drug problem which is hard to avoid, but in relative terms, the country enjoys good security, certainly in comparison to other countries. And as a tourist base we can offer big attractions: the barrier reef, the extensive ruins of the Maya civilisations, beautiful scenery and very diverse wildlife.
· Finally, can you sum up the difference between your party and the UDP.
-Belize is a democracy and we see it as our duty to do everything possible to develop the whole country. We don't think the government should be used as an instrument of a single political party, discriminating against people or practising victimisation. And that is what is happening at the moment. We feel that members of our party are being penalised. I think that is a big difference. We would be a compassionate government-one that feels responsible for the whole country. Another big difference, I think, is that we are better administrators, as was shown in the last government. We do not promise more than we can fulfil. You need to show responsibility in working out a programme of government. We are also more concerned about the 'little' man. We are there to improve his life condition. The weaker you are the more you should benefit from the protection of the government.