BELMOPAN, Thurs. Mar. 26, 2015–Even before the budget debate got underway this morning, Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dean Barrow tried to clear the air on a controversial new bill which had been circulated to Parliamentarians prior to this morning’s House meeting, with the notification that the Government intends to expedite the passage of the new bill concurrently with the passage of the new national budget, which takes effect on April 1.
Barrow said that, “On the news last night, some of the people from the other side had some absolutely untrue things to say…”
Barrow said that the response of the Opposition People’s United Party has been a mere continuation of their efforts to demonize the government with respect to PetroCaribe funding. The Opposition, he said, had signaled its intent, once again, to try to derail what has been a wonderful initiative that has powered development and transformation across Belize.
“We are not going to allow that to happen!” Barrow said.
The bill in question contains provisions which will empower Barrow, as the Minister of Finance, to engage in business transactions with Venezuela under the PetroCaribe accord, under which Belize can import as many as 4,000 barrels of fuel products a day on average, but pay only half the fuel bill upfront and pay the remaining half over 25 years at a rate of only 1%. Under the PetroCaribe agreement, the funds are to be used primarily for social programs.
Once passed into law, the bill in question would trump the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act of 2005, which requires Barrow to go to Parliament before sealing any loan deal with a lender.
In his comments in the National Assembly today, Barrow said that the last time he raised a motion for PetroCaribe in Parliament, he had explained again the peculiar nature of the arrangement, and the fact that the type of arrangement which Belize has with Venezuela is not properly provided for on statute books.
The PM said that they had made every effort to take to Parliament retrospective motions for borrowing, as well as supplementary appropriation bills to validate the spending from the PetroCaribe funds, and that they had, furthermore, on every occasion, set out “every last detail” on how the funds are spent, “to make sure that there is utter and complete transparency with respect to what has been taking place…”
Barrow added that, “Notwithstanding that, there has been this insistence on the part of those on the other side… [who want to] do everything to take away from the country the tremendous boon that PetroCaribe represents.”
Barrow said that his legal advisors had recommended that the Government pass a special act to deal with PetroCaribe and the funds flowing therefrom, and such an act would contain provisions, he said, “that we simply can’t tease out of current laws.”
He also noted that the bill in question includes clauses which validate what has been done retroactively. In fact, the act, if passed, would be retroactive to September 2012, covering the revised agreement which Belize and Venezuela made, following the initial agreement made under the Musa administration back in 2005.
Barrow said that the new law would provide that going forward, there is authority to borrow in peculiar circumstances which prevented them from seeking parliamentary approval beforehand.
Barrow said that a member of the Opposition had alleged that under the new law, he, Barrow, would be able to write a PetroCaribe check to his family – an assertion that he described as “absolutely ridiculous!”
PM Barrow added that, “All it does is to put beyond question [the Government’s] ability to continue to borrow from APBEL and make use” of those funds, which, he said, will still be part of Belize’s consolidated revenue fund.
He said that they also cannot change the oversight that Venezuela continues to have over those funds, and said that his administration would return to the House to report on any spending of those funds and come with the supplementary revenue appropriation bills half-yearly – or if the PUP wants, every 3 months, so that the nation can know how much his administration will be spending on the transformation of the country.
Barrow also said that the bill tabled today would put the matter once and for all beyond any possible legal challenge.
After Barrow made his presentation, Opposition Leader Francis Fonseca rose to declare the Opposition’s resolve to challenge the Government’s intention to take the bill through all its stages this week.
“This is not only a scandalous piece of legislation; it is unconstitutional!” said Fonseca.
He said that the Belizean people should have a chance to read the bill and have their views heard before it is passed through the House.
The bill was sent to the Finance and Economic Development Committee of the House while the sitting of the House was suspended this morning.
The debate on the bill is expected to continue tomorrow, Friday, amid the debate on the national budget.
Below are excerpts from the bill in question: PETROCARIBE LOANS ACT, 2015:
(3.1) 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 authorisation of the National Assembly and to enter into a loan agreement with APBEL for the said purpose.
(3.2) 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.
(3.3) 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 marginalised, and any other legitimate purpose as the Government may consider fit.
(4.1) Without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing provisions and notwithstanding anything contained in the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act, 2015 or any other law to the contrary, the following agreement and the borrowings are hereby validated and confirmed retrospectively:
(4.1.a) Loan Agreement dated 18 September 2012 between the Government of Belize and ALBA Petrocaribe (Belize Energy) Limited;
(4.1.b) Borrowing of US$114,307,356 by the Government of Belize from APBEL during the period September 2012 to August 2014, under the aforesaid Loan Agreement;
(4.1.c) Borrowing of US$28,776,243.39 by the Government of Belize from APBEL during the period September 2014 to February 2015 under the aforesaid Loan Agreement.