BELIZE CITY, Mon. May 4, 2015–Last Wednesday, Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dean Barrow issued a public statement on the PetroCaribe program. The statement was released in light of concerns expressed by the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) and the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) that the recently passed PetroCaribe Loans Act is in contravention of the country’s finance reform laws which were introduced under public pressure a decade ago.
In his summary last week, Barrow noted that roughly $286 million has been received via PetroCaribe, and $160 million, more than half, remains unspent. He said that of the $126 million spent to date, $30 million has been used to capitalize the National Bank of Belize. Neither the borrowing nor the spending was done with the requisite prior approval of Parliament, and last month, the Barrow administration introduced the PetroCaribe Loans Act to validate all the borrowing and spending since 2012.
Both the Chamber and the NTUCB told us today that they remain resolute in their stance against the PetroCaribe legislation, as it now stands – a law which Barrow continues to maintain he will neither repeal nor amend.
Marvin Mora, president of the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), told Amandala that even after hearing what Barrow had to say last week, they maintain their position that the PetroCaribe Loans Act is “retrograde” and they want it to be repealed.
Arturo Vasquez, president of the BCCI, told Amandala that their position remains unchanged, because they have been hearing more of the same: that the ruling party will spend the PetroCaribe funds at will. Vasquez attended last Wednesday’s press conference where Barrow announced that he would provide $2 million in financing to citrus farmers and finance the construction of a religious chapel on the grounds of the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital.
Vasquez furthermore pointed to an announcement by the Prime Minister that for the Mother’s Day Cheer program, the government would provide $50,000 for each ruling party area representative, but offer only $25,000 for each rep from the Opposition out of the PetroCaribe funds—a discrepancy which he said is “so wrong!”
Where do the churches stand on the matter? Senator Noel Leslie (who represents the church community in the upper house of Parliament, the Senate) wants, at the very least, to see some changes in the PetroCaribe Loans Act.
Leslie told Amandala that while he understands that the PetroCaribe funds have to be spent somehow, there is a law, meaning the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act, which says that any loan of $10 million or more should get the prior approval of Parliament.
Leslie talked about moving down “a slippery slope,” and he told us that he voted “no” on the PetroCaribe Loans Act when it was tabled in the Senate just over a month ago, because he felt that it would have wider repercussions down the road.
Leslie said that he had told the church community months ago that if they have any interest in legislation that is before Parliament, that they should let him know what they think. He said that he was contacted by some in the church community, but not by the leading associations representing the churches in Belize. He told us that he voted after he had personally weighed all the factors.
Pastor Howell Longsworth, interim-president of the Evangelical Association of Belize, told Amandala today that he had attended Barrow’s press conference to become “self-informed” on PetroCaribe. We asked Longsworth what the position of his association is on the PetroCaribe Loans Act, and he said that they had not taken a position on the law, of which he first became aware the weekend before it was tabled in the Senate.
Longsworth said that their main concern would be transparency and ensuring that everything is properly reported. He said that they have no issues as long as people are getting the benefits.
Amandala was unable to reach Rev. Roosevelt Papouloute, head of the Belize Council of Churches.
Leslie told us that he hopes to meet with Papouloute this week to discuss the PetroCaribe issue.
Although the social partners are largely opposed to the PetroCaribe Loan Act, Prime Minister Barrow has noted that none of the social partners had objections to the PetroCaribe program before the legislation went to Parliament. Mora has told us, though, that while the unions support the PetroCaribe program as envisioned by Venezuela, it is the new legislation that concerns them.
Barrow said at his press conference that, “Many of those that now regret the initial failure to take the matter to Parliament, in fact participated in and implicitly sanctioned the start of the initiative and its spending. Thus, almost from the beginning, the Chamber of Commerce and the NTUCB agreed to serve on the [Belize Infrastructure Limited] Board and to help administer a budget of 60 million dollars out of PetroCaribe for the construction countrywide of sporting and community facilities. This included the 27-million-dollar Belize City Center. And the [Public Service Union] and the [Belize National Teachers Union] negotiated an initial 10-million-dollar line of credit out of PetroCaribe for housing loans for teachers and public officers at the National Bank, a bank chartered entirely from PetroCaribe money.”
Barrow said that none of these parties had complained that Government was in violation of the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act.
“If a housewife is given credit by the shopkeeper for the groceries she receives, and only pays her bills over time on a monthly arrangement, does anyone see that shopkeeper’s credit as a loan? I think not. And that is why initially we didn’t believe we had to go to the House for approval to enter into the PetroCaribe arrangement. If we were wrong in this, we weren’t the only ones that made the mistake,” said Barrow.
He also said that even prior to the introduction of the PetroCaribe Loans Act, Government had been talking with the churches about funding the construction of the ecumenical chapel, and they knew the source of the funding and were comfortable with it.
Whereas Barrow had said on Tuesday that he would be willing to do some tweaking to please those who legitimately have a sense of unease about the PetroCaribe law, he said on Wednesday that the tweaking he is agreeing to would come by way of applying those funds to uses that had been flagged as concerns by those concerned parties, such as settling some of the major outstanding debt obligations—not by changing the law in question.
When we asked him last Wednesday about his plans to sit with the social partners and address their concerns about the law, Barrow said that he is willing to discuss the law with the social partners, and assure them that his belief, his conviction that the law does nothing in the least bit untoward, is an honestly held conviction.
Barrow said that if they disagree, at the end of the day, they will go nowhere, except that there would have been dialogue. He restated his position that nobody will get the government to repeal the PetroCaribe Loans Act.
However, Mora did not accept that as Barrow’s final position. He told us that ultimately, power rests in the hands of the public.
He said that the announcements made by the Prime Minister last Wednesday, committing to set aside funds for the payment of compensation to the former owners of Belize Telemedia Limited and the Belize Electricity Limited, as well as the buy-back of the billion-dollar super-bond, do not assuage their concerns.
In fact, Mora said that the NTUCB is investigating whether using the funds for those purposes is in line with the original intent of the PetroCaribe agreement, and if not – they will not be able to support those plans.
Mora told us that the unions—which represent the workers of this country—should have a say in how the PetroCaribe funds are spent and they want to ensure that things are done in the best interest of workers, particularly where the spending involves contractual works that engage laborers who may have to contend with occupational health hazards.
He said that whereas some of the funds are earmarked for social programs, they do not see any social development programs being funded under the regime.
Mora said that after the NTUCB gave press statements on April 1, declaring its rejection of the PetroCaribe Loans Act, the Prime Minister called him to request a meeting. He has confirmed to our newspaper that Barrow has specified that Audrey Matura-Shepherd, the 2nd Vice President of the NTUCB, who has come public with her concerns on the law, cannot be in that meeting.
We asked what reason Barrow gave for not wanting Matura-Shepherd in the meeting, and Mora said that she has been accused of being “disrespectful.” Mora said that it will be up to the NTUCB’s General Council to select the persons who are to meet with the Prime Minister. They have yet to write Barrow on his offer to meet.
In regards to the dialogue between the Prime Minister and the Chamber, Vasquez told us that Barrow called the BCCI’s past president, Kay Menzies, and not him. Vasquez said that Menzies has conveyed a message from Barrow, but the BCCI’s executive has yet to meet to discuss it further.
Barrow said that while the Opposition PUP, which protested outside the Biltmore Plaza Hotel in advance of Barrow’s press conference, had collected $40 million under the same PetroCaribe regime, they never went to the National Assembly for approval or even for reporting on those funds, and now, the PUP wants “legally to kill the program and get the resolutions approving PetroCaribe declared invalid and struck down by the courts.”
Barrow said that the Opposition wants to derail what has proven to be a good development program for Belize. At his press conference, Barrow announced the following:
(1) Use of PetroCaribe for debt settlement: “I commit that every penny collected from PetroCaribe as of April 1, 2015 — the start of the new financial year— through to March 31, 2016 will be left in the Central Bank. It will not be used for capital or social assistance spending, but be reserved only for payment of nationalization compensation once that figure has been assessed. And thereafter, starting April 1, 2017, not less than one half of every dollar collected from PetroCaribe will be earmarked for Super-bond buyback.” Barrow said they will look at how this commitment can be put into legal language and taken to Parliament for ratification.
(2) Funding of $125,000 to $150,000 for a chapel on the grounds of the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital.
(3) $2 million in financing for citrus growers, because the factory is unable to meet its first payment to growers.
(4) $1 million to fix the roundabout that leads from the bypass to the sugar factory in Orange Walk.
Barrow also announced that Government will go to Parliament every three months to report on both the collection and spending of PetroCaribe money.
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