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Sep 22, 2016

The View from Belmopan on Independence Day

Belize marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of Independence this past Wednesday. This September twenty-first comes at a major crossroads, when much of the nation is agitating for change and there is unease about where the country is heading. The official ceremonies were held in Belmopan where both Prime Minister Dean Barrow and the Leader of the Opposition gave their perspective on the state of the nation. The PM admitted there is a recession and therefore there were no gifts to bear. The Leader of the Opposition called for a fix to the prevailing problems of crime and education. After sharing a strong abrazo, here is how the national leaders respond to the current times.  Correspondent Aaron Humes has a recap.

 

Aaron Humes, Reporting

Official Independence Day ceremonies in Belmopan are usually a time of hope, a reminder that our country was born through extraordinary circumstances and an invitation to see the good in the Jewel. But when the country is staggering through an economic recession caused by serious downturns in major industries; when gaping, raw wounds from multiple corruption scandals in Government have forced thousands to take to the streets; when you are only just starting to count the cost of an unexpected natural disaster; when the nation’s social fabric is ripped apart by a minority’s desire for inclusion clashing with a majority’s demand to stay apart, then one should not expect hearts and flowers.  Certainly, Leader of the Opposition John Briceño could not have been expected to take anything less than a firm tone about the Belize of 2016, which he says has drifted away from the principles that National Hero George Price as Prime Minister developed on the first Independence Day in 1981.

 

John Briceño

John Briceño, Leader of the Opposition

“Today too many of our people have become unhinged from those noble principles that define us as Belizeans. The Belizean heart that beats with social justice has all but stopped, fatigued by the greed and selfishness that has taken root and given rise to ever increasing poverty in our nation. In a time of so much it is not right that so many Belizeans have so little. Think of what we are doing to our future, squandering it because so many of our talented youth are being left out of school and left behind. The unfairness of rampant cronyism and cynicism which has crept into every aspect of our lives robs our young people of their dreams, it forces them to subscribe not to the principle that knowledge is valuable, but to the notion that the only value needed to succeed comes from who you know.”

 

Prime Minister Dean Barrow had no gifts to bring Belizeans this year, making a measured departure at the start of his Independence Day address by soberly looking at Belize’s social disconnect. According to the Prime Minister, Belize appears to have never been less “together as one:”

 

Dean Barrow

Prime Minister Dean Barrow

“Notwithstanding that it was not even twelve months since the people spoke in the last general elections, at which the results were decisive, the tug of war between the Ruling and Opposition parties has become more contentious. The Labour movement has also been beset by a degree of factionalism. And even within our Church community fundamental philosophical and doctrinal differences have beaten back the spirit of Ecumenism and highlighted some seemingly irreconcilable points of view. The principal source of the conflict here is what has been described elsewhere as the culture wars: starkly contrasting positions on how to treat with the recasting of the categories of sexual and gender identity, and the claims that human rights include LGBT rights.”

 

While acknowledging that Belize does suffer from a recession currently, Barrow boldly insisted that recovery is around the corner, led by the major industries such as sugar, citrus, banana and marine products:

 

Prime Minister Dean Barrow

“And the economic backdrop to it all is, at this time, a complicating factor since we are experiencing a recession caused by the vagaries of the commodities cycle: agricultural sector disease, the drying up of our petroleum resources, and the crash in global prices. It is, of course, a recession made worse by Hurricane Earl. But it is also a recession from which, I must say at once, we will absolutely recover. On the productive sector side of things, the shrimp rebound from the virus that decimated our stocks is in full flow and we will begin to export again at the start of 2017. Citrus prices are robust and ticking up, and the only challenge now is financing for increased production. The banana industry was indeed badly hit by the hurricane, but those hardy farmers in the South are doing all they can to accelerate the recovery. The expectation is that we will therefore regain total pre-hurricane capacity by next March. Grain for export was also terribly affected but there is enough for local feed and food with a little left over to sell abroad.”

 

One rare area of agreement is on the issue of the Guatemalan claim, as the Prime Minister paid tribute to those who defend Belize’s territorial sovereignty:

 

Prime Minister Dean Barrow

“And in seeking to safeguard it, we know to deal with internal as well as external risks. That is why we have never allowed social or political differences to weaken ultimate allegiance to our Belizean state. And that is why support for party, organization, group or clan, is always subordinate to loyalty to our Belizean nation. And so we beat back any possibility of erosion or crack up from within. But it is also true that our sovereignty is variously tested from without. And in this sense not the least of our trials is the constant element of peril which attends the unfounded Guatemalan claim. There is in fact a built-in precariousness to territorial integrity when our country is bordered by a much larger neighbor with revanchist aspirations; a neighbor whose size and power, even if not expressly deployed militarily against us, by their very fact are continuing, intrinsic threats to our reality. In the circumstances, our diplomatic and physical survival and progress, the phenomenal job of work done by our Foreign Service Officers, our B.D.F. and our Coastguard, are matters of solace and pride.”

 

And both men tried to end otherwise sober speeches with messages of hope:

 

Prime Minister Dean Barrow

“This is no time to cut and run, no time for discouragement. No time for what Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow called ‘the cant and rant of pipsqueaks’. Let us rather channel National Hero George Price. For we are still, and ever must be, nation builders all. We must fix whatever has gone wrong and continue the forward march. We must bring healing on the basis of compassion and understanding and the infinitely sheltering capacity of Divine love. We must unceasingly strive to shine and polish this Central American Jewel set, to magnificent advantage, in the Caribbean basin. We must build and expand this country of progress and reform and social justice where, as was said on that first Independence Day, every man, woman and child has a stake, a real stake, in the life and work of the new Belize.”

 

John Briceño

“No, we cannot allow our spirit to sink because so much has gone wrong. We have never feared the future, for we are a people who live in hope and in the conviction that God willing, there are brighter days ahead. And Belizeans like the auditor general give us hope, our teachers give us hope, our children in the farthest corners of our nation gives us hope. Throughout history we have seen that change comes from the bottom-up. This is why we uphold our democratic principles and believe that it is only through the ballot that we hold those who govern accountable for their actions. Belizeans expect and demand that their leaders always seek to do what is right, and when we do not, the people remind us in whose hands the real power lies.”

 

Aaron Humes reporting for News Five.

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