BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Apr. 16, 2015–After deliberations held at a summit this weekend, the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) issued a strong statement this evening, expressing its resounding disapproval of recently introduced legislation which permits the Government of Belize to continue borrowing tens of millions of dollars at a time from Venezuela under the PetroCaribe accord without first getting the approval of Parliament, but furthermore permitting the Government to freely spend those funds outside the limitations of existing financial legislation.
Arturo “Tux” Vasquez, president of the BCCI, told Amandala that he has never seen anything like this law, which would essentially permit the Government to borrow when it wants, how much it wants and also to spend it at will. This is “scary legislation writing,” and it sets a dangerous precedent, Vasquez told us.
In its statement today, the BCCI said that, “After careful review and research of the Alba Petro Caribe Bill passed in the House of Representatives on March 27th 2015, the Chamber believes that this bill undermines the spirit and intent of the revised Finance and Audit Act of 2005.”
On Monday, March 30, Senator for the business community, Mark Lizarraga, voted against the bill, and so did the Senator for the churches, Noel Leslie. However, the Senator for the unions, Ray Davis, abstained from voting – a current subject of controversy which has led to calls from certain factions of the labour union movement for Davis’s resignation or removal.
We asked Vasquez whether they would have had an issue if their Senator had abstained in the vote, and he said yes. While Davis had not received a directive from the unions on how to vote, Lizarraga, who usually meets with a committee from the Chamber and who receives feedback from the wider community prior to Senate meetings, knew exactly what position he should have taken.
Today, the BCCI reaffirmed that position, saying that, “…the Chamber endorses the Business Sector Senator’s vote against the Petro Caribe Act in the Senate on the 30th of March.”
In its press release, the BCCI outlined the problematic areas of the law.
Firstly, it notes that back in 2005, the Chamber and the unions fully recognized the importance of reforming the Finance and Audit Act to provide for greater accountability and transparency in the handling of public funds. The law thus made it mandatory for Government to go to Parliament for approval before it contracts any loan of $10 million or more. In Parliament, there would be debate before the spending is approved, which the Chamber says would allow for “greater transparency for the Belizean people.”
Now, the PetroCaribe Loans law reverses that, the BCCI details. The new law says that:
(1) Notwithstanding anything contained in the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act, 2005, or any other law to the contrary, it shall be lawful for the Government of Belize to borrow money from ALBA Petrocaribe (Belize Energy) Limited in any amounts without the prior authorization of the National Assembly and to enter into a loan agreement with APBEL for the said purpose.
(2) The money borrowed from APBEL may be kept in a special account at the Central Bank of Belize and may be withdrawn from time to time as the need arises.
(3) No limitations shall apply to the use of the money borrowed from APBEL and it may be used to finance capital projects as well as to provide social and community assistance to the poor and the socially marginalized, and any other legitimate purpose as the Government may consider fit.
The BCCI said that it is “alarmed that the government retroactively validated what were clear violations of the Finance and Audit Reform Act 2005, and in respect of which specific penalties were prescribed by the said Act.”
It adds that the new law “undermines and effectively reverses all efforts made by the Chamber and the unions in 2005 toward greater accountability and transparency in the handling of public funds.”
It also emphasizes that the PetroCaribe funds must be repaid by the Belizean people, since they are borrowed from Venezuela. Vasquez said that the public needs to understand that this is a loan, and the spending has to be responsible.
So what are the next steps? Vasquez said that he is not ready to reveal those at this time, but he did indicate that they plan to meet with the other social partners, the unions and the churches, as well as the Belize Bar Association in the process of deciding the way forward.
We asked Vasquez if the Chamber is considering challenging the law in court, but he told us that the Opposition is already moving to do that.
Vasquez expressed concerns that while this current administration is putting laws in place to facilitate their own operations, they won’t be in power all the time and they have now “opened a door that is very scary.”