General — 07 February 2014 — by Adele Ramos

Belize trying to dodge Caribbean Financial Action Task Force bullet

Belize parliamentarians gave rare bipartisan support to a raft of legislation in the National Assembly this week, as the country tries to avert major financial sanctions already being felt by our sister Caribbean country, Guyana. This follows a call last November by the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force (CFATF) to its members to “consider implementing counter measures to protect their financial systems from the ongoing money laundering and terrorist financing risks emanating” from Belize and Guyana, where several Belizeans study law at the University of Guyana.

Gail Teixeira, an elected member of Guyana’s 65-member parliament, and the Chief Whip for the Government in the Parliament and Presidential Advisor on Governance, told Amandala today that Guyana has already been feeling pain for not having yet passed the legislation. Towards the end of 2013, she said, Guyanese in the diaspora who had tried to send money back home via the banks or Western Union, to take care of their living expenses on their return home, found that their bank accounts in the US were being closed because of their Guyanese connection.

Belizean parliamentarians said in the National Assembly Wednesday that the new suite of bills, the second such raft of legislation to satisfy CFATF’s demands on Belize, would mean the end of Belize’s offshore sector.

Belize Opposition Leader Francis Fonseca said that the laws would inevitably lead to the complete undermining of the offshore industry in Belize—which is perhaps what is intended, he said.

“The reality is that the big boys don’t want us at the table,” he said, adding that the required changes must be made to protect Belize’s wider financial sector.

Fonseca said that this is the reality of life in 2014: “We can complain, but we have to comply.”

In speaking of the legislation Wednesday, Prime Minister Dean Barrow, Minister of Finance and Economic Development, said the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is meeting on Monday, February 10, in Paris; and on the agenda is the subject of the possible blacklisting of Belize and Guyana.

“The passage of the legislation ought to put paid to that, but you can see that we are cutting it rather close. The reason for [this] special meeting today is to meet that deadline,” Barrow said.

Those bills are the Companies (Amendment) Bill, 2014; the Domestic Banks and Financial Institutions (Amendment) Bill, 2014; the Financial Intelligence Unit (Amendment) Bill, 2014; the Money Laundering and Terrorism (Prevention) (Amendment) Bill, 2014; and the Mutual Legal Assistance and International Co-Operation Bill, 2014. They were approved by the House on Wednesday and by the Senate today, Thursday. They should be signed by Governor-General Sir Colville Young by early Friday – after which Belizean officials intend to send a notification to FATF’s Secretariat in France, signaling the completion of the legislative process.

Barrow said that those in Belize’s offshore sector know that the reason the Government has delayed so long in passing the legislation is that they were trying to buy time, but now it is clear that that time is running out.

Offshore practitioners recognize that the sun is setting on that sector and this will deal a serious economic blow on our country, Barrow said.

Noting Opposition resistance against the legislative changes in Guyana, Barrow went on to thank Belize’s Opposition for supporting the bills: “I certainly appreciate, in any case, the sense of realism that the Opposition is displaying and their support of the measures, even though both sides have said it will do perhaps fatal harm to the offshore industry…”

A gridlock between Guyana’s Opposition (made of two parties which hold the majority of 33 out of 65 seats) has meant that they were unable to get their legislative measures passed last November, when the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (Amendment) Bill was defeated; but the bill has since been taken back to parliament there, given the huge national implications with which they will have to contend.

Unlike Belize, though, Guyana does not have to worry about an offshore sector. They have, nonetheless, come under major pressure to implement more stringent provisions, enshrined in the Bill, ahead of next week’s France meeting.

“In the context of Guyana, what it will do is that foreign transactions will be put under absolute scrutiny and the delay on some cases can lead to foreign bank accounts being closed,” Guyana’s Chief Whip told Amandala.

Teixeira added that the Government will make another attempt on Monday to get the legislation passed. The Senate Special Select Committee on the bill, which she chairs, is due to meet tomorrow, Friday, and she expressed the hope that this time around, the Opposition members would come completely onboard.

Teixeira also told us that the main bill contains 80% of the amendment, and it includes ancillary amendments in the same bill to 6 other pieces of legislation.

The private sector community and a large group of civil society members of Guyana are calling on the Opposition to let the bill go through on Monday, warning of the dire consequences for Guyana, which exports primary products such as sugar, rice, gold, diamonds, and bauxite. Of note is that Guyana is also the home of the CARICOM Secretariat.

Guyana’s Chief Whip told us that in her country, the level of remittances have been dwindling, as there has been increased scrutiny of persons sending money to the country. She said that due to the additional scrutiny now in place, people sending money will be asked by banks to pay additional fees – that is how ordinary people will be affected.

However, as for business and government foreign transactions, such as the purchase of goods and services, the private sector in Guyana is now screaming that they are now being asked by banks to fill out an inordinate amount of paperwork for overseas purchase of equipment—which has caused setbacks in the productive sector.

If the FTAF does a prima facie review next week and decides to sanction Guyana, the country could face problems with its foreign currency reserves, as well as exports and imports, and foreign reserves could suffer a decline if they are unable to send money to Guyana, Teixeira told us.

One of the items on the agenda for next week’s FATF meeting is “Identifying jurisdictions with strategic deficiencies… and reviewing progress made by jurisdictions” – which include Belize and Guyana.

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