BELMOPAN, Fri. Dec. 4, 2015–This morning, at the first business session of the House of Representatives that has been convened since the November 4 general elections, the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) accused the Barrow administration of “vote-buying” with PetroCaribe funds, favoritism towards Belize City residents and neglect of farmers in the north who have been hard hit by what local authorities have said is a severe drought.
In March 2015, Opposition Leader Francis Fonseca had said that the PUP “will not be accepting a single copper” of those PetroCaribe funds, “whether it be the Mother’s Day, the X-Mas or any other cheer,” because, he said, the PUP, cannot and will not be a party to any such criminality.
At today’s sitting of Parliament, though, the PUP, after abandoning its legal challenge to the PetroCaribe program last week, was demanding “equitable sharing” of PetroCaribe funds.
Parliament has approved in one sitting the spending of $44.7 million for the months October to December 2015, which includes $4.378 million in flood relief, mostly for flood assistance after torrential rains washed through several homes in the Belize City area in October.
Hon. Said Musa, the PUP member for Fort George said: “That’s an extraordinary figure, Mr. Speaker! I suppose that explained why all these mattresses were circulating all over the place just before the election, why refridges and stoves and plywood and everything else was circulating.”
Hon. Johnny Briceño, the PUP member for Orange Walk Central, said, “If you have $44 million to spend, of course you will win the election!”
In the general election of November 4, the ruling United Democratic Party won a historic third consecutive term of office, netting 19 of 31 seats.
Briceño said: “$44,743,185 was spent in just this short moment just before the election and here we have that the money was not spent equitably. There is need in Belize City but there is also need in the rest of the country.”
Briceño cried shame on the Government, claiming that there was virtually nothing for farmers from the north who have been suffering from the drought.
“The Ministry of Agriculture estimated that our farmers lost over $30 million because of the [drought]. I did not see the Government jumping, that there is a crisis in the north, to help the farmers,” Briceño commented, adding that “a measly $20,000” had been allocated.
Hon. Mike Espat, the PUP member for Toledo East, said that there was also severe flooding in his constituency, and although he recognized the UDP member for Belize Rural North, Hon. Edmond Castro, the Minister of State responsible for National Emergency Management, for being on the ground and trying to assist, he said that not enough aid has been granted to his constituency.
The UDP member for Mesopotamia, Hon. Michael Finnegan, pointed to the stance taken by the Opposition when new legislation was passed to reform the way the Government handles the PetroCaribe dollars: “They made it clear that they did not want one cent from PetroCaribe. They claimed it was being used illegally… They were the ones who said they did not want a ‘red penny’ out of that money,” he said.
Finnegan said that now that the Prime Minister has made a listed report that explains everything about how the money is spent, the PUP is trying to nitpick on the report.
“You are dancing all around the place…” he commented.
The PUP member for Toledo West, Hon. Oscar Requeña, replied: “I can’t allow Finnegan to speak as if the PetroCaribe money belongs to the UDP! …It is a loan and every taxpayer will have to pay back.”
While Requeña likewise applauded Castro, he said that just a few weeks ago, when some parts of southern Belize were being affected by another flood, 26 families were under water for at least two and a half days.
“What portion was used to assist in Toledo West and Toledo East? All they received was a little food, a little Ramen, some tin food and that was it for 2-3 days. That does not in any way reflect the needs of our people,” said Requeña, who reported that corn and other crops had been destroyed in the area.
“If people in Belize City can receive televisions, if they can receive mattresses, what happen to the people of Toledo West?” he questioned.
Hon. Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington, UDP member for Pickstock, said that the per capita allocation of flood relief only averaged $66 a person—which, he admitted, was “woefully inadequate.”
Elrington said that he had to apologize to people in his division because they did not get money to replace their electrical equipment damaged by the flood.
“I go right now and people are telling me that, ‘I am sleeping on the floor, my back is hurting me.’ I said, ‘The resources are finished. It was only a small amount that we got,’” Elrington said.
The PUP’s member for Corozal South East, Hon. Florencio Marin, Jr., said that people must remember this supplementary allocation of $44 million from PetroCaribe is on top of the national billion-dollar budget passed earlier this year.
He said that his constituents also suffered floods but did not get any kind of relief.
“We demand our share. We demand our share of this Government bounty,” said Marin, pointing to the need for road works in his area.
“The only way I will support this supplementary budget, Mister Speaker, is if they put three more zeroes behind the agriculture part which is marked $20,000. Then I will support it,” said PUP member for Orange Walk South, Hon. Jose Abelardo Mai, also pointing to the lack of a drought assistance program.
“I saw miles of corn being destroyed by the drought. Miles… And some of them still vote UDP!” said Mai. “People don’t eat refrigerator. They eat chicken. The highest per capita consumption of chicken is in Belize City… and poultry feeds on corn,” he pointed out.
Mai said that there was no money in the supplementary for planting red kidney beans, while Belize, he said, has been importing rice at 65 cents a pound.
“There soon won’t be a local rice industry and there is no sugar industry and no shrimp industry now, so unu betta get use to start eating mattress and refrigerator fi true!” Mai commented.
The PUP’s member for Caribbean Shores, Hon. Kareem Musa, said “…like thieves in the middle of the night” the Government had been delivering mattresses to the constituency office of the UDP, when those resources should have been channeled through the City Emergency Management Organization or the District Emergency Management Organization.
“We have to remove the politics from how the money is spent… It is on that basis I have to object to this bill,” Musa said.
In wrapping up the debate, Prime Minister Dean Barrow, UDP member for Queen’s Square, insisted that the PetroCaribe spending has been equitable:
“Everybody benefitted and that’s why at the end of the day, the Government was always able to win the PetroCaribe debate… They are still flogging this dead horse…” he said.
According to Barrow, “The $44 million is for funding under the PetroCaribe program countrywide and when you get into the breakdown, you will see that there are things like back-to-school, renovations, construction of community center, Hopkins Road upgrade…”
Last week, Amandala reported on a decision by the People’s United Party’s Cayo South area representative, Julius Espat, to withdraw a Supreme Court claim against the Government for its handling of the PetroCaribe program.
“Nobody [in Parliament] referred to the fact that the member for Cayo South has withdrawn his legal challenge to the government’s handling of the PetroCaribe fund, and he and his lawyers have conceded that this was done for two reasons.
“Number 1: Because in responding to the people, as democratic principles require us to do, we changed the original law so that we could take account of all the complaints made, so they said that they conceded that there was hardly anything from a strictly legal view to challenge; but more important they said that the results of November 4, 2015 show that the people of this country have endorsed the way the government of the United Democratic Party [has handled PetroCaribe.]” said Barrow.
Barrow rebuffed Opposition charges that his administration diverted PetroCaribe funds for “vote buying.”
“There is no question of vote buying. People will vote how they will vote and ultimately, if they prefer a particular candidate or a particular party, all the money in the world won’t help the other side to prevail. So get away from that, man!” Barrow commented.
He said that out of the funds for flood relief, $250,000 went to the Belize City Council to help repair infrastructure, while $250,000 went to the Corozal Town Council and $30,000 to the Commercial Free Zone in Corozal.
Barrow said, though, that the most was spent in Lake Independence, because they thought that Lake Independence and Collet were the hardest hit.
The PUP member for Lake Independence, Cordel Hyde, though present, did not speak at today’s House meeting. Barrow said that Hyde “never had to talk…,” but demonstrated the force of his ability by winning handsomely in a constituency where the argument is that the UDP spent to try and prop up its candidate, Mark King, “giving the lie to that propaganda.”
Barrow reiterated that Hyde “has not said a word.”
“That man must know something that you don’t know,” he added.