Two powerful forces were at work in 2016 to make the year a tough one with long-range implications for Belizeans.
The first was the economy. Poor harvests in banana and citrus, shrimp, and sugarcane, compounded with the disruptions of Hurricane Earl to make the year a dismal one for agriculture.
Declining yields and bottom-of-the-pit oil prices crushed Belize’s petroleum prospects. Record low international oil prices have had a devastating effect on the economy of Venezuela, and this in turn cast a gloomy spell over the Petro Caribe initiative, a funding source on which Belize has learned to depend for her development funds.
These body blows pounded the Belize economy into a weakened state, unable to stand up to two other powerful forces: the shower of lawsuits coming from the Ashcroft interests protesting the take-over of Belize Telemedia Limited, and the ever-present Sword of Demacles, the Superbond, inherited from a profligate past, but near and menacing nonetheless.
The overwhelming strength of these disasters will bring consequences yet unseen. Hopefully Belize will be able to avoid a devaluation, and we know that the Barrow Government will fight hard to avoid this. But we all know that a belt-tightening is in the works. There are going to be some restrictions on the importation of non-essential goods; some more crackdown on customs evasion which has become more sophisticated, and some increase in taxation, most likely through the Belize Sales Tax mechanism.
If the IMF has to take control of our economy, we can expect more draconian measures, and in this case we can not ignore the possibility of a currency re-adjustment.
Emotional people will rant and rave, but the intelligent ones will plan and work diligently to make the best out of a bad situation. Other countries have had to tighten their belts, and have emerged stronger for the experience. Belize can do the same.
The second powerful force Belize faces is the wave of lawlessness which has engulfed our society. With 137 murders registered for 2016 countrywide, Belize ranks higher than most countries, with 37 murders per 100,000. Chicago Heights in the State of Illinois ranks highest among the cities of the United States with 30 murders per 100,000.
Violent crime in Belize is about to reach critical mass, the stage where law enforcement is unable to contain it or put a lid on its contagion. Unlike the economic juggernaut which in many respects is not of Belizean origin, the crime situation is entirely home-grown and thriving, due to judicial delays, a lack of witness protection and a reluctance to take the firm steps that are needed.
Gang-related crime needs an aggressive District Attorney and a crack investigative team to probe and prosecute, not some weak directorate of public prosecution insulated by a constitutional shield which makes the Director untouchable! It also needs a court system tailored to meet the need with quick, decisive trial for offenders and substantial penalties which sting.
Gang influence is putting Belize’s teenage generation under unbearable strain, creating neighbourhood fiefdoms that defy law enforcement and even parental authority. It is costing the country millions for more traditional boots on the ground, when what is needed is more savvy and better intelligence. Its impact on Belize’s tourism cannot be measured, but already Internet messages like “Don’t go to Belize” are having an effect.
The year 2016 has been a tough year! But there is hope for 2017. Agriculture and petroleum will rebound and, and if we can get a firm grip on the crime epidemic, we can create the climate we need for more tourism, more investments and a brighter future.