Highlights — 01 April 2015 — by Adele Ramos
Senate passes new budget and controversial PetroCaribe law

BELIZE CITY, Tues. Mar. 31, 2015–The 2015-2016 budget and the controversial PetroCaribe Loan Bill, which were both hotly debated in Parliament at the end of last week, were approved by a majority of senators who met in session on Monday.

Whereas no vote was taken on the budget, a vote was taken on the PetroCaribe bill after a division was called by Opposition senator Lisa Shoman.

Only the 6 senators of the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) endorsed the PetroCaribe Loan Bill, which provides a special carve-out for the Government’s borrowing from Venezuela, granting an exemption to the rule in the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act which requires that any debt of $10 million or more must be approved beforehand by the National Assembly and granting blanket authority to the executive to spend the funds acquired through such borrowing without prior approval from Parliament. The Prime Minister has said that the law is necessary to address the peculiar nature of the agreement with Venezuela, under which half of the payments due for fuel imports, which enter the country once or twice a month, are immediately converted to a 25-year loan.

The 3 senators of the Opposition People’s United Party voted a resounding “no” on the PetroCaribe Loan bill, and so did the senators for the churches and the private sector.

Senator Ray Davis, who represents the National Trade Union Congress of Belize and the trade union movement – which have yet to arrive at a formal position on the matter, abstained from voting, which meant that the vote was carried by the UDP senators by a count of 6 to 5.

Like her colleagues did in the House of Representatives, Senator Shoman raised strong objection to the PetroCaribe Loan Bill, which she categorically said that she could not support because it is contrary to the laws of Belize and because the Senate has a duty to ensure full accountability for the spending of government funds.

UDP-Senators-Charles-Gibson

The PetroCaribe Loan Bill retrospectively covers borrowing from Venezuela from September 2012; and the Opposition takes the view that the bill is also unconstitutional.

During the budget debate by the House last week, the Opposition also raised issue with the accumulation of debt by the Barrow administration – a concern also raised in the Senate by the private sector representative there; but Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dean Barrow argued that there should be no issue with the borrowing, because his administration has borrowed only on concessionary terms and it has both borrowed and spent the funds responsibly, and primarily on national development initiatives.

Of note is that the approval of the 2015-2016 national budget includes the approval of several loan motions totaling nearly $150 million.

In meeting this week, the Senate also approved all those loan motions, including a loan for 4 million Kuwait dinars, roughly US$13.5 million, from the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development for financing of the rehabilitation of the Hummingbird Highway; a US$30 million loan from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), of which Belize is a member, to finance the Belize Integral Security Program; and a motion for US$28,776,243.39 borrowed between September 2014 and February 2015 from Venezuela via the PetroCaribe accord.

It also approved a motion to pay $2,352,589 to charities in Belize for the financial year 2015-2016, as well as two write-off motions.

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