BELIZE CITY, Mon. June 1, 2015–The spending of PetroCaribe funds has been hotly debated in the recent months, particularly in light of new legislation which empowers the Minister of Finance, Prime Minister Dean Barrow, to contract PetroCaribe debt and to spend those funds without prior approval from Parliament, even when the amount exceeds the $10 million threshold.
While Prime Minister Barrow commits to introducing legislative amendments later this month (or in early July) to appease the concerns of social partners, another controversy has erupted over information which suggests that the Government has used the PetroCaribe funds—which Barrow told our newspaper last month could not be used to cover recurrent expenses, such as healthcare costs—to pay salaries.
While the information leaked to Mose Hyde, host of the KREM WUB Morning Vibes, shows a drawdown from the Government’s PetroCaribe account at the Central Bank for $20 million in March 2014, Financial Secretary Joseph Waight disclosed to our newspaper that there was a second such drawdown this year, in March 2015. He said that he did not imagine, at the time that he made the requests to the Central Bank, that the matter would garner so much public attention.
As to assertions that the Government ran out of money to pay salaries, Waight disagreed: “The situation is always tight, [but] no, we did not run out of money,” adding that such a fiasco could not have gone unnoticed.
We asked Waight: Had PetroCaribe not existed, where would the money used to pay salaries have come from? He said, in reply, that if that had been the case, the Central Government funds would not have been spent on PetroCaribe projects, and the monies not spent would have been used to pay salaries and wages.
Waight claimed that the drawdown was detailed in the manner it was, “strictly for accounting purposes.” He told us that he was the person who wrote the letter to the Central Bank, specifying what the transfer should reflect.
He denies assertions allegedly made by KREM that the Government was using PetroCaribe to meet a crisis shortfall when it was unable to pay salaries, and claimed that the drawdown was merely to replenish Central Government funds, which had already been spent on PetroCaribe projects, which, he said, left a shortfall to meet their usual expenses.
A press release from the Ministry of Finance asserts that, “…all PetroCaribe transfers into the consolidated operating account are only to put back what has been taken from that account and spent on the PetroCaribe contracts.”
The leak on the PetroCaribe spending comes amid negotiations between the Government and unions over the amount of salary adjustments which workers will get this year, as a part of a three-tier increase which began with a first tranche of $22 million last year. Waight told us, though, that the PetroCaribe funds were not used to pay the salary adjustment, which, he said, came from the recurrent revenues Government collects in excess of what it had budgeted for the financial year.
At the debate of the 2015-2016 budget, Fort George area representative for the People’s United Party, Said Musa, had pointed to a $141 mil financing gap in the 2014-2015 budget, and the even more disturbing primary deficit of $50 million—a deficit which the PUP Orange Walk Central area rep, Johnny Briceño, had said indicates that the Government did not have enough money to pay its bills, and so it had to borrow to meet those commitments. With the information gleaned from the PetroCaribe account, some are surmising that the budget shortfalls have been met with funds held in the PetroCaribe account.
Apart from the transfers from PetroCaribe marked for salaries, the statement of account for PetroCaribe also includes $10 million for debt servicing and other capital II expenditure in December 2013, $10 million transfer in October 2014 for debt servicing and “other large capital works payments,” and $10 million for special community assistance by order of Minister.
Waight said that the PetroCaribe spending for the period up to January 2015 has already been detailed in Supplementary Revenue Appropriation Bills tabled in Parliament, and they will shortly provide further bills to Parliament to detail subsequent spending.
Opposition Leader Francis Fonseca has recently gone on record to say that the PUP will not accept any money from PetroCaribe funds; however, Waight told our newspaper that one Opposition area representative, Ivan Ramos of Dangriga, whom the PUP recently replaced with Anthony Sabal as standard bearer for the division, has requested and received approval last week for $25,000 from PetroCaribe for a Mother’s Day/Father’s Day event due to be held this weekend.
He said that this would be in the form of “community assistance…” and Ramos would identify a supplier from which items such as groceries would be bought for distribution to constituents.