BELIZE CITY, Mon. Apr. 20, 2015–On Thursday, April 16, 2015, the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) issued its first public statement denouncing the recently introduced PetroCaribe Loans Act, approved last month by a majority vote of Parliament. Two days after the Chamber statement, on April 18, 2015, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) also issued its first formal statement denouncing the Act as a violation of both the Belize Constitution and the country’s Finance and Audit legislation.
The new law in question allows the Barrow administration to contract multimillion dollar loans from Venezuela under the PetroCaribe fuel accord without first going to Parliament for approval, and furthermore allows those funds to be spent whether or not Parliament gives the green light. The new law puts no limit on how much debt can be contracted; neither does it put any limit on how much can be spent without the prior permission of Parliament.
– extract from article by Adele Ramos on pg. 4 of AMANDALA No. 2888, Wednesday, April 22, 2015
At various times in the three years since the present United Democratic Party (UDP) government was elected in March of 2012, it has seemed that there was opportunity for the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) to make a statement in the streets. Spokesmen for the PUP have consistently said, however, that the PUP does not want to take over issues, such as the agitation of the teachers’ union for salary adjustments or the Elvin Penner passport scandal, and that the party prefers for the matters to be resolved outside of party politics.
In the case of the increasing uproar over the recently passed PetroCaribe Loans Act, however, it was remarkable, at a Wednesday press conference this week, that it was the Belmopan-based Vision Inspired by the People (VIP) which was threatening to lead the Belizean people into the streets in protest. That is because the controversial Act represented the Dean Barrow administration’s attempt to cut off a PUP-organized court case at the pass, so to speak. Clearly, it is the PUP which should be threatening to take to the streets. The case is being spearheaded by one of the PUP’s Deputy Leaders, Hon. Julius Espat of Cayo South, and it is accusing the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Hon. Dean Barrow, of being in violation of the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act of 2005.
The penalty for violation of the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act is a fine or a jail sentence, or both. The Barrow administration’s legal advisers were extremely concerned about the possibility of Mr. Barrow’s being found guilty by the courts, hence they rushed the PetroCaribe Loans Act through the House of Representatives. The new Act clears the Minister of Finance of any retrospective wrongdoing with respect to the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act, which mandates that the Government of Belize must bring any loan of over $10 million to the House for debate and approval. Since 2012, the Barrow government had been borrowing hundreds of millions from the Venezuela government, through the PetroCaribe arrangement, and it was not until last year when Channel 7’s superstar, Jules Vasquez, almost casually asked the Prime Minister in a televised interview whether the PetroCaribe money matters should not have been presented to the House, that the PUP and other organizations picked up on that Finance Ministry oversight, negligence, misdeed, or whatever. (PUP spokesmen are now saying they were pointing the problem out before Jules. If so, few people heard them.)
It is incredible that the UDP government should have been handling so much money, hundreds of millions, for so long, more than two years, without Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition raising hell on the legal irregularities of the transactions. The Venezuela moneys were not a straightforward loan: the moneys involve deferred payments of petroleum products at a concessionary 1 per cent interest rate. The moneys were basically flying under the radar for two years. It was not Jules Vasquez’s job to investigate the UDP’s handling of public finances: this is the salaried assignment of Her Majesty’s Loyal PUP Opposition.
Anyway, following Jules’ lead, the PUP jumped on the issue, and now there is a groundswell of noisy resistance to the PetroCaribe Loans Act which involves the same organizational ingredients of the protests of 2005 which forced passage of the relevant Finance and Audit (Reform) Act in that fateful year.
At this point, there are two big differences between 2005 and 2015. One is that the PUP government of early 2005 had been divided by the G-7 Cabinet rebellion of August 2004, a rebellion which focused on Finance Minister Ralph Fonseca’s handling of public finances, whereas the UDP government of 2015 is solidly united behind the PetroCaribe Loans Act, because PetroCaribe moneys would definitely give them a leg up on an unprecedented third term. The second difference between 2005 and 2015 is that the UDP Opposition, manifestly feeble in early 2004, was able to take charge and establish leadership of the protesting groups in late 2005/early 2005, whereas the PUP Opposition in 2015 has yet to do the same insofar as bringing street pressure on the Barrow government is concerned.
Another difference between 2005 and 2015 is that the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), which proved so mighty in the protests against the Said Musa government in 2005, was in a sort of transitional leadership mode when the PetroCaribe controversy arose last month. In late 2004, the NTUCB had been like a sleeping giant when the G-7 rebellion brought attention to problems in Belize’s public finances, especially the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and the Social Security Board (SSB). But by early February of 2005, the Musa government had to fly in Assad Shoman to prevent NTUCB leaders like Dylan Reneau, George Frazer, and Anthony Fuentes from bringing down his government. In 2015, Reneau has recently been replaced by Marvin Mora, Frazer is in retirement, and Fuentes became a PUP politician years ago. The new NTUCB leadership is still feeling its way, and their second vice-president, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, recently came under public attacks from both Dylan Reneau and former Public Service Union (PSU) president, Jackie Willoughby, because of Matura-Shepherd’s stated position on the NTUCB Senator’s vote of abstention in the Senate on the PetroCaribe Loans Act. The indications are that in 2015 the ruling UDP may have a significantly greater ability to divide and destabilize NTUCB leadership than the PUP government had in early 2005.
Whatever the case, there is now definitely a burden of proof on Hon. Francis Fonseca’s PUP. The political opportunity presented by the PetroCaribe Loans Act controversy cannot be ignored. General elections are too close. And UDP carte blanche to spend PetroCaribe moneys puts the PUP at a decided disadvantage at general election time. On this PetroCaribe issue, the PUP will have to shed its Hamlet apparel. This is the real as of today, Thursday, April 23, 2015.