BELIZE CITY, Fri. June 26, 2015–The government of Prime Minister Dean Barrow tabled the amendment to its controversial Petrocaribe Loans Act today in the House of Representatives, where it was not debated by the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP), whose members walked out the House due to their objection to another matter. Two days ago, however, the Petrocaribe Loans Act and its proposed amendment, which is now on its way to the Senate for approval, were the subject of a public forum by the Belize National Teachers Union, (BNTU) at the Holy Redeemer Parish Hall.
In his introductory remarks at the forum, the BNTU president Luke Palacio described the amendment to the Petrocaribe Law as “cosmetic.”
“The government has also refused to repeal the section that speaks to retrospectivity,” Palacio continued.
“They [the government] have spent so much money without going to the National Assembly, and BNTU and its council of management said no,” Palacio further noted. He also stated that the actions of the government are heading toward “tyranny, and dictatorship.”
KREM’s WUB host Evan Mose Hyde was the first of three panelists to speak. Hyde said that the government did not invite anyone from the Chamber of Commerce, the media, the BNTU, the Opposition, or the churches when they rushed the Petrocaribe legislation though the House.
“They did not invite anyone when it was time to spend money,” he emphasized.
“I think this forum represents a gathering of the offended, the affected, the disrespected. And I am comfortable tonight sharing this stage with labor, with teachers, with VIP, with Chamber, with PUP, and anybody that is opposed to the Petrocaribe Loans Act, because that is the sense of somebody that has common sense,” Hyde said.
“Come Friday, the Act will be presented with its amendment,” Hyde said. “That amended form has been enough to calm some people, but for me, I am not a part of the calm,” he then commented.
“For me, even in its amended form, the Act remains abominable; the intention of the act is abominable, anti-democratic, anti-judiciary. In my opinion, this act is incapable of being amended,” Hyde said.
He described the amendment as being equivalent to an attempt to save contaminated food with seasoning and spices, but noted, “when this food is spoiled, it needs to be thrown out.”
“This act is not an isolated breach. It is only the latest incident of aggression against accountability and transparency. It’s a part of a legacy of indifference, a culture of avoiding compliance with our laws,” Hyde explained.
He said that the Finance and Audit Reform Act of 2005 represents a pushback from the people, a successful counterattack from the people. “It’s a wall erected by the people to impede the incessant onslaught of unregulated government,” he stated.
“At the core of this legislation [the Finance and Audit Reform Act] was the obligation to make public borrowing and spending anything that exceeds 10 million dollars,” Hyde said.
“Up until 2005 we were careless, but we tek wi lick, we feel the pain. And we said we can’t carry on like this; we changed the script, Hyde said.
He explained that when our leaders try to circumvent a piece of legislation that the people have put in place, and which is the product of wisdom and of self-preservation, they are in effect saying, “forget the fact that we did not report to you for two years; retrospectively, we want that to considered lawful.”
“You know what they are saying to us, they are really treating the people of Belize like a one-night-stand lover,” Hyde declared, noting, “a one-night-stand lover cannot question you about your whereabouts.”
Hyde contrasted the Government’s present flexibility in its approach to the law with two other incidents: In both of these two instances to which he referred – the refusal of the Government to permit BGYEA (Belize Grassroots Youth Empowerment Association) to plant corn in a buffer zone in Harmonyville, and its approach to the squatters in Gungulung — the Government indicated forcefully that they were not going to “countenance unlawfulness”.
“I don’t care about your concrete streets, or your concrete bridges, what I care about is concrete laws and concrete adherence to those laws, concrete respect, because the only thing that is going to bear fruit over time is when this county learns to adhere to accountability and transparency,” said Hyde.
The second panelist to speak at the forum, Patrick Rogers, a member of the Vision Inspired by the People, told the gathering that the Constitution should be the supreme law of the land. Rogers went on to explain that the loan agreement between Alba-Petrocaribe Belize Limited and the Government of Belize in 2012 was not law, because it never reached the House of Representatives. It merely laid out a framework of how monies could be borrowed from the Petroccribe loan funds. It was made law now with the passing of the Petrocaribe Loans Act, retrospectively.
“So the violations of borrowing money against something that was never law was an executive decree. It never reached the House,” he said.
Rogers explained that the Constitution of Belize was violated when the monies from Petrocaribe were not deposited into the Consolidated Revenue Fund and the Finance and Audit Reform Act was also violated when the Government borrowed money from the fund without taking it to the House.
He said that the Petrocaribe Loans Act was passed to cover up these violations, and because the Prime Minister was facing a serious court case, the law was passed retrospectively to cover up those violations.
With a slide presentation, Rogers painstakingly explained the provisions of the Finance and Audit Reform Act, which he said the government has been violating with its PetroCaribe borrowing.
“Why was this act retrospectively dated September 1, 2012?” Rogers asked. “Because their [the government’s] violations started on September 1, 2012,” he said.
Senator Mark Lizarraga, the third panelist, broke down his presentation into “ten inconvenient truths”. In the midst of outlining these points, he declared, “The business community is not against any advantage of the terms of the Petrocaribe initiative, provided however, that such borrowings are transparent, participatory and are distributed to serve the common good as it is in our Constitution.
“The business community, as the largest taxpayers in the country, have a substantial interest in the sustainable development of Belize … We helped to birth, to bring to life, the Finance and Audit Reform Act along with the teachers and the unions.”
“We champion and support causes which are designed to deliver on the promise of accountability and transparency in the handling of public funds,” he went on to say.
Senator Lizarraga said that the business community credits the government with the passing of laws which strengthened the provisions for transparency and accountability.
He cited the passage of the 6th Constitutional Amendment with the passing of the 13th Senator Law, but added, “Of course, we continue to wait for its implementation.”
He then went on to remark that it is regrettable for us to see this same administration break, ignore these very laws which were passed to strengthen our democracy.
“As taxpayers shouldn’t we be concerned when independent audit reports speak to the failure of this administration to properly account for our money; shouldn’t we be concerned?” Lizarraga asked.
Citing reports commissioned by the European Union, the FIFA Report, all the previous reports by the Auditor General, and others, Senator Lizarraga said, “All speak collectively to a government that has not yet prepared a debt sustainability analysis report, does not report internal control and rules, even though they are all legislated.”
“Shouldn’t we be concerned about the 20 million dollars that were used to pay teachers’ salaries, when we all know that borrowed monies should not be used to pay recurrent expenditures?” he further questioned.
“Shouldn’t we be concerned about the $500,000 or more that has gone missing from the Treasury, from the Post Office, and the Hospital?” Lizarraga went on to ask.
Senator Lizarraga said he is disgusted by the “roll it” chant. “We have to pay back Petrocaribe loans.” he stressed.
He said that projects that are financed by the Petrocaribe Loans Act only account for 88 million dollars, when we have borrowed over 200 million dollars. “Where did the balance go?”
We should be preparing to pay back this loan with goods and services”, Senator Lizarraga said. “We should not use our hard-earned currency to repay these loans.” he said.
“Government of Belize’s yearly borrowings are increasing, alarming and unsustainable. There is very little care, it seems, for the maintenance of our national assets…,” he commented.
Senator Lizarraga said there is a blur with the spending of national money for electioneering and political propaganda.
“We now owe, not one, not two, but perhaps three billion in super-bonds, if all of government’s liability is disclosed.” he said.
Senator Lizarraga described the government’s spending as an insatiable addiction to unregulated spending.
The attorney Audrey Matura-Shepherd, who is also the president of the Christian Workers Union, told the forum that as long as we are buying fuel from Venezuela, we are borrowing money.
In the final part of the forum, Audrey Matura-Shepherd gave a presentation in which she explained that the government went against two basic legal principles in our country. “They did not comply with section 114 of the Constitution, and two, it is in total violation of our Finance and Audit Reform Act.” she said.
She pointed out that in 2005 the Belizean people fought against this kind of use of our money.
“In 2015 we still want accountability, because the loan has to be paid back” she said.
“Nobody should be above the law, but when you can pass a law to defeat your criminal act, then you have made yourself above the law”, Matura-Shepherd explained.
Matura-Shepherd remarked that under the Finance and Audit Reform Act, as it was amended in 2010, anyone who is found guilty of violating that law, upon summary conviction can be fined up to $10,000 or sentenced to two years in jail.
She said that there was no consultation when the law was passed.
“We have reached a level of apathy in this country that even the workers, when you call a meeting, they do not come…” she said.
Using a slide presentation, Matura-Shepherd explained the laws that the Government violated with its passage of the Petrocaribe Law.
Following the presentations, there was a question and answer period, which was dominated by some UDP supporters of the government’s Petrocaribe spending.