BELMOPAN, Belize, April 27 – Belize’s prime minister has vowed to survive a wave of anti-government strikes and riots but warned that the tiny Central American nation’s debt crisis poses a serious threat to its economic future.
A popular beach and scuba diving center, Belize has been thrown into turmoil over the last week by riots, strikes at the main telephone company and opposition calls for Prime Minister Said Musa to step down due to unpopular tax increases and corruption scandals.
Musa defiantly blamed opposition leaders for the worst political crisis since independence from Britain in 1981 but said he will survive it and that the real threat is debt.
“The political crisis will be easier to weather than the economic but I am convinced we will work our way through it,” he told Reuters in an interview late on Tuesday.
“I am convinced that if tomorrow we called an election we’d win again,” said the 61-year-old Musa, who was elected to a second five-year term in 2003.
Musa, of Palestinian descent, said he had no intention of resigning, although he might reconsider his position if there were serious violence.
“If the situation became so disordered that life and limb were at stake, I love my country I love my people, I would certainly have to consider that option,” he said, adding he thought further violence unlikely.
Belize’s residents are famously laid-back and Belize City, the biggest town in this country of just 270,000 people, was calm on Wednesday morning after the unrest of the past week.
Telephone service was sporadic and a teachers’ strike went into a second day but more schools were open and more teachers working than on Monday.
CORRUPTION AND DEBT
At the heart of the crisis lies nearly $1 billion of public debt and persistent allegations of government corruption.
Belize’s fiscal deficit amounted to a huge 8 percent of gross domestic product last year and the Standard & Poor’s rating agency said this month that the country’s finances were in “dire” shape.
“We have to reduce the debt and we have to get the fiscal deficit under control and bring it below three percent,” said Musa, who was first elected in 1998.
Heavy government spending and a tourism boom have fueled steady economic growth in recent years but the fiscal deficit now poses a serious threat to stability and the government has been forced to cut back on projects and impose tax increases.
Musa said those hikes and spending cuts would close the financing gap and reduce the fiscal deficit over the next 18 months. “We are not going to depend on people forgiving debt.”
Much of the criticism of Musa’s government stems from allegations that money from the social security fund, which pays pensions, was used to back a short lived telecommunications company owned by an ex-minister.
Musa accepted that investigations would likely uncover irregularities but he did not believe there was any criminal offense and he rejected suggestions that a corruption scandal was enough to warrant new elections.
“If every time any government faces allegations of corruption they were to resign and call elections, I think just about every government would be calling elections every year,” he said.