The unemployment figures for the first half of 2013, and as compared to the same period last year, are down, Prime Minister Dean Barrow announced last Saturday in his Independence Day address.
“While GDP [Gross Domestic Product] Growth, no doubt in view of the incredibly high bar set in 2012, is flat year over year for the first half of 2013, the jobless figures fell from 14% to 12%,” Barrow said.
Barrow explained that the “drags on growth” in the first of this year is attributable to a “sharper than expected deceleration in oil extraction, lower citrus production, and a decline in energy generation.”
Barrow also mentioned that Maranco has dug a second in Hillbank that showed an abundant presence of oil, it may be too soon to declare its commerciality.
“The difficulty is to viably bring the oil to the surface in circumstances where the rock formation, in terms of permeability, is challenging.”
Barrow went on to explain that the technocrats believe it can be done, saying, “There is still optimism that the find will prove commercial.
There was, however, a much more positive report in terms of electricity generation.
“The rains have come right on schedule in the second half of the year,” Barrow said. “Thus the dam catchment areas are now full, and there is no longer any hydro power constraint.”
The prime minister also shared that he expects that key development initiatives planned for the second half of the year promise to grow the economy beyond the estimated 2 percent.
“Let me tell you why there is so much more to justify every confidence…In a word, it is infrastructure.”
The impetus for the extensive spending on infrastructure is Belize’s arrangement with Venezuela under the PetroCaribe arrangement.
“Under this,” said Barrow, “we are able to secure plentiful, long term, 1% financing from the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, long may she live.”
The signature projects financed by this arrangement include the Lake Independence Boulevard, which links the George Price Highway with Chetumal Boulevard.
“This will open up the area where both the CDB [Caribbean Development Bank]-funded sporting and community development facility, and the new National and International Bus Terminal, will be built.”
He added, “Government will at the same time construct the new bridge over the Belize River, and the total cost of this signature project will be in the region of $25 million.”
Another hallmark project is the $30 million investment in the new multipurpose complex on the site of the soon-to-be dismantled City Center.
The City Center project will be handled entirely by Government’s special-purpose vehicle for infrastructure projects, Belize Infrastructure Limited (BIL).
He explained BIL will also oversee another $40 million-worth of similar type projects country wide, beginning in the West (San Ignacio/Santa Elena, Benque Viejo del Carmen and Belmopan in that order), using both PetroCaribe funds and domestic borrowing through treasury notes.
“If BIL has the capacity, GOB has the money,” Barrow said, expressing his hope that two or three of the various projects could be built simultaneously.
National Bank &DFC write-off
Barrow also announced that there are plans for a new headquarters for the National Bank of Belize on the Lake Independence Boulevard strip.
After citing the “fast start” of the National Bank in its efforts to move beyond home construction to an all-purpose financial institution, P.M. Barrow turned to the Development Finance Corporation (DFC).
He lauded that fact that the DFC has “regained operational profitability while directing the bulk of its lending-83%-to the productive sector.”
Barrow also explained that the DFC, backed by government guarantees, will soon expand its portfolio by $80 million dollars over the next few years.
The prime minister also announced what he “hoped would become an annual feature: an Independence Day gift.”
“As part of its debt relief to Belizeans, Government is arranging to forgive some $6.22 million worth of DFC loans,” Barrow announced.
The loans, which the prime minister said affects 361 persons, were mostly mortgages but also some education and productive sector loans.
“For most part, the loans have already been foreclosed on by the DFC and the borrowers’ collateral seized.”
Foreign Direct Investment
Turning to other industries, the Prime Minister cited American Sugar Refinery (ASR)’s expansion of the Tower Hill mill to grind 10, 000 tonnes of sugar cane daily.
He also noted the start-up of the Cayo-based Green Tropics sugar cane development, ethanol at Libertad, rice expansion in Roaring Creek, corn exports to Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica and after a second cattle sweep the beginning of exports of livestock to clients around the world.
Barrow also spoke of good things in the tourism sector.
“Tourism is growing at 8 percent over last year, which itself grew 10 percent over the year before; and the $100 million NCL investment presages more good things to come,” he said.
In somewhat of a direct refutation of the remarks of naysayers who say that overnight and cruise tourism cannot coexists, Barrow said, “To confound them [the naysayers], a sales agreement has now been signed for the purchase of Caye Chapel by the same investor that sold Harvest Caye to NCL.
“And he is partnering with the Six Senses Group to build the first internationally branded Belizean five-star resort on Caye Chapel, and so provide further impetus to the already robust stay-over sector.”
Crime is down
Regarding crime, Barrow boasted of the significant decline in murders.
“The Belize City gang-related murders have dropped still more dramatically. Through September 19th, 2013, gangland-driven murders are down by 34 percent as compared to last year,” Barrow said.
The actual number of murders have fallen from 41 to 27, a fact which Barrow attributed to the strides made in terms of job creation.
“It is in that context that the welcome decline in the unemployment rate must be placed,” Barrow added.
While the Belize City reduction took prominence, the Independence Day speech also looked at the nationwide reduction in crime.
“I am happy to report that … murders countrywide stood at 74 for the period January to September 2013. This is 29 less than the 103 for the first nine months last year.”
On the border
As for the Belize Defence Force and its fight with territorial incursions, the Government is forming a partnership with Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), the NGO in charge of the Chiquibul National Forest, for installation and maintenance of three new border outposts.
The Government, said Barrow, is counting on the international partnership between the FCD and Guatemala’s Asociacion Balam in “getting some prevention and preservation action from the Guatemalan side of the border, which of course is the origin of the problem.”
Therefore, Barrow added, “Government is to start [the] immediate construction of three new border monitoring outposts.”
The BDF itself will see its troops increased by a quarter over the next few years with increases in intakes currently to 80.
Finally, the Prime Minister announced projects honouring the lives and legacies of former Prime Minister Rt. Hon. George Price and former UDP/NABR Minister Philip Goldson.
“Government, on Tuesday of this week, completed the purchase and transfer of the house here in Belmopan last occupied by Philip Stanley Wilberforce Goldson before his death.
“We will now turn it into a memorial to his life and legacy, putting NICH in charge of that project.
“Government has also, at a cost of some one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, commenced the paving of the road leading to the George Price Center, and will install proper drainage so as to ensure longevity of the new asphalt surface.”
The Prime Minister cited that these men were lifelong political opponents and took different paths to esteem but both are recognized as patriots.