House of Representatives meets for last time in 2022

The content originally appeared on: News Americas Now

Black Immigrant Daily News

The content originally appeared on: Amandala Newspaper

BELMOPAN, Mon. Dec. 12, 2022

The elected representatives of the nation met in the National Assembly Building on Independence Hill in Belmopan on December 12, to discuss the workings of government over the past months, and plans for the future. The Speaker of the House, Hon. Valerie Woods, opened the session calling for a moment of silence in recognition of former House member and Minister of Government, Sylvia Flores, who passed recently. The Prime Minister, Hon. John Briceño, on his rising also spoke about Hon. Sylvia, and her contributions to her party (the PUP) and country, as a mayor of Dangriga, a senator, a Speaker of the House, and Minister of Government. He said Hon. Sylvia was a leader who never sought personal wealth, and that her mission was to serve her country and people.

During the meeting that followed, the Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Moses “Shyne” Barrow, enquired about what steps the Ministry of Immigration is taking to prevent corruption in the department, in particular human trafficking and the illegal sale of passports to foreigners. Responding to that, the PM said that the US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report puts Belize in the Tier II Category because we had made significant efforts to stop human trafficking. He said that one of the department’s initiatives was to recruit 15 new officers, the aim there being to form an elite squad, one that is trained in identifying document forgeries, drafting of charges, interviewing and investigating techniques, and prosecution. He said we have been actively pursuing cases of migrant smuggling and have charged over 30 people for transporting 280 migrants illegally.

Another initiative is Statutory Instrument # 82 of 2022, which reinstates visa restrictions on nationals of Venezuela, Dominican Republic, and Ecuador, some of whom had entered Belize with the intent to travel through Mexico to the US. Among other initiatives there is also a multi-agency operation to combat all illicit activities, including migrant smuggling, human and drug trafficking, illegal firearms, and contraband.

The Prime Minister subsequently spoke during the House meeting about the recent visit of a team led by himself to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The PM made reference to the 40 years of diplomatic relations between Belize and Venezuela and noted that Belize has benefited tremendously from the Alba Petro Caribe, a program of the late Venezuelan leader, Comandante Hugo Chavez. Under this program Belize was able to import fuel at extremely concessionary terms, paying half the cost up front and the remainder as a long-term loan at low interest. The program came to an end in 2016 because of a geopolitical dispute between Venezuela and the US.

Presently, Belize owes Venezuela between BZ$449 million and BZ$547 million, with an audit pending. The Belize delegation was able to restructure the debt, effectively reducing it to between BZ$267 million and BZ$327 million. He said that Belize owes enduring gratitude to Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, and the other leaders of that country, and its people. He said President Maduro also promised to restart the Petro Caribe program as soon as it is practicable, and this time it will also include fertilizers.

The PM said the deal with Venezuela was “incredible”, and said that when it was all added up, in 2 years his government had shaved approximately US$517 million from the national debt. He said that by the end of 2022 Belize’s debt to GDP ratio will be down to 63%, less than half what it was when his government took office.

The Minister of Human Development, Hon. Dolores Balderamos-Garcia, spoke on the recently celebrated Disabilities Week. She said the government is giving increased attention to differently abled persons, but said a lot more needs to be done to increase their access. She praised the young people who participated in the recent Youth Parliament, and spoke on the importance of the 16 days of activism geared toward ending violence against girls and women. Minister Balderamos-Garcia also called on the rich countries to increase the access of people in countries like ours to expensive pharmaceuticals which she said can help to end the scourge of AIDS.

During the House meeting the PM also introduced a loan agreement between the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) and the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) for US$6 million to support tertiary level education in Belize.

The Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Moses Barrow, later called for the government to accommodate, help students from financially challenged households so that they are better able to access DFC funds for tertiary education. The Minister of Education, Hon. Francis Fonseca, responded that his ministry was working all the time to address that issue, that the DFC had visited with Cabinet, with one of the aims being targeting funding for persons in need. Minister Fonseca said the DFC had promised to look at options to ease the burden of students. He mentioned that at some schools students were being heavily subsidized, pay no fees, and that in addition to the subvention of $8.5million UB gets each year, GOB provides almost $4million for scholarships for students who need financial assistance.

Collet area representative, Hon. Patrick Faber, who is a former Minister of Education in previous UDP governments, rose in support of the new funding from the CDB for tertiary level students. Hon. Faber said that successive governments have invested heavily in education, and one thing he’d like to see is counseling for tertiary level students, for them to get advice on how best to finance their education. He said tertiary level education is very costly, and it would be good if the government made more programs affordable and available in Belize, so students could get their first degree at home.

The PM further announced a US$5million loan coupled with a US$500,000 grant, support from Taiwan for MSMEs, especially those owned by women and those involved in green projects. The interest rate for this loan is 2% and the repayment is over 20 years, following a 5-year grace period.

The PM also announced a supplementary appropriations bill, Supplementary Bill #4. He explained that the cost of running government has increased substantially because of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The cost of fertilizers, fuel, all imported materials and goods, have increased. Belize also experienced severe flooding in the central and northern districts because of Hurricane Julia, and Hurricane Lisa severely impacted Belize and the Cayo Districts, with the damage to our roads and other infrastructure estimated to be at around $100million, he said. The PM said we also need funds to support the grocery bag program, NEMO supplies, the BDF, materials for damaged homes, repair of Price Barracks, home construction, bus contractors who provide services for schools, fuel and supplies for the police, the amnesty program, vehicle requirements, support for the FIU, and Municipal Councils. The supplementary also called for an additional BZ$4million for KHMH.

Hon. Barrow said the cost of fuel had gone down, and that in some places it was below what it was in the period prior to the pandemic. He said the GOB’s need for another supplementary budget shows that our leaders are either incompetent or that they deliberately misled the nation when they presented the budget for this fiscal year. Barrow said there was no proper breakdown of the funds. He criticized the size of the houses the Ministry of Infrastructure Development & Housing (MIDH) has been building, and said no one from his area had received the keys to a government house. He said if there has been such a notable increase in tax revenues, as the government claims, it should give public servants their increments. He said the public health system is in shambles, and there should be no expenditure on Covid-19, because that has passed.

The Minister of Housing and Infrastructural Development, Hon. Julius Espat, explained that apart from repairing houses damaged by Hurricane Lisa, the supplementary will go toward building houses for people who are in dire need of proper housing. He said that part of the supplementary was being allocated to enable the government to meet its commitments with the Sarteneja Road Project, and that houses had been approved for the Leader of the Opposition’s constituency, but they had encountered problems because in some cases the land wasn’t suitable, and in others the land wasn’t easily accessed.

Hon. Kevin Bernard, Minister of Health, explained that part of the supplementary would go to satisfying a number of outstanding debts, some that have been there for some time, some to the employees of the ministry. He said his ministry is responding to the recommendations of the management and the staff of the hospitals, and that his ministry is working on increasing the human capacity of personnel. He stated that Covid-19 is still here and impacting us.

The Minister of Transportation, Hon. Rodwell Ferguson, promised that by the end of the year improvement would be coming to the buses that are used to move commuters across the country.

Hon. Tracy Panton, of the Opposition UDP, said she estimated that the GOB had brought 4 supplementary appropriation bills to the House in the last 6 months, and that while she understood that expenditure was needed to remedy the damages done by Hurricane Lisa, 200 plus million dollars in supplementary budgets, above what was approved for this fiscal year, showed incompetence, negligence, or lack of prudent fiscal planning. She said we hear a lot from the government about expenditures, but we don’t hear anything about revenues, about how much of the outstanding land taxes and GST has been collected.

Hon. Panton said the general supplementary appropriation bill did nothing for our many households that have been pushed to the margins of poverty, unable to meet many of their basic human needs. She said greater resources are needed for social protection programs for families living on the margins, and it would be far easier for her to support the supplementary if greater resources were directed to those in need, those on the margins.

Responding to Hon. Panton, PM Briceño said that his government had spent almost 25million dollars on social programs, and he wished it could do more. Speaking on revenue collection, he said much of the taxes owed to government can’t be collected because they are statute-barred.