Hon. Johnny Briceño, the Acting Prime Minister, went on record late this evening to say that he does not support Government’s unlimited guarantee to Universal Health Services (UHS).
Speaking this evening with Mike Rudon of Centaur TV, Briceño’s own TV station in Orange Walk Town, Briceño said, “No, it was not a Cabinet decision [to enter into the guarantee], and we were unaware of this guarantee that was given to Universal Health Services.”
As was revealed by UDP Opposition Leader, Hon. Dean Barrow, on Monday, Government had presented him with a document signed by the Prime Minister, Hon. Said Musa, and witnessed by Attorney General, Hon. Francis Fonseca, that guaranteed an unlimited amount of debt for the private hospital.
The document was kept secret until last week, when it was first disclosed to Cabinet, and then made available to members of the National Assembly.
Many have asked whether the members of Cabinet had really supported such a guarantee, and whether they knew about it on the purported date of the agreement – December 9, 2004.
The first Minister we asked was the one the Opposition called out on Monday, Hon. Mark Espat, who Barrow said should have disclosed the guarantee to international creditors when he was trying to restructure over US$500 million of government debt last year, but did not. Barrow questioned whether Espat knew of the guarantee, and Espat declared that he didn’t, otherwise he would have disclosed it to international creditors.
Espat went further to place on record that he does not support the UHS guarantee, which he had not yet seen at the time of our interview.
The second Minister we spoke with was one of Musa’s deputy party leaders, Hon. Vildo Marin, who represents Corozal Bay. Marin said today that while he did not know anything about the guarantee until the Association of Concerned Belizeans (ACB) requested a copy of the document from the Government, and a debate ensued about whether the guarantee really existed or not, he does trust the Prime Minister and supports the settlement of the UHS debt and the 100% government takeover of the hospital.
His opinion differs sharply from that of Briceño, who is also a PUP deputy leader.
“It would be difficult for anyone to be able to support an unlimited guarantee for a private sector loan, and so certainly if I would have known at that time, I would not have supported any unlimited guarantee to UHS,” said Briceño to Centaur TV.
Marin explained to us that he only saw the guarantee document when the Prime Minister presented it at the last Cabinet meeting, but he has not yet had a chance to read it.
When we asked him whether he is comfortable with settling the $33 million debt, he told us that there is some question over the figure because, according to him, 55% of that is said to be interest. Marin admits, however, that he is still very much in the dark about the intricacies of the transaction, and as soon as the Prime Minister returns to the country he would ask Mr. Musa about the figures.
In the heat of controversy over the guarantee, Prime Minister Musa left Belize on Tuesday, April 24, for Taiwan, and he won’t be back until May 6, according to a press release from the Government Press Office. Briceño is holding over as Acting Prime Minister until his return.
When we asked Marin what the vibes have been like in his neck of the woods about the guarantee, he told us that he has met with his executive committee of Corozal Bay, and that the members are satisfied with the explanation he gave them.
Marin appeared on the morning talk show of Briceño’s Fiesta FM in Orange Walk this morning, when he expressed his views about the guarantee. He said there were no calls to query anything, so it appears he explained it well.
We asked the Minister what the reaction of his fellow Cabinet Ministers was like when they saw the guarantee document last Tuesday, and Marin said we would have to ask them ourselves to get their input. He did say that the number one concern at the time when Cabinet viewed the document was really whether the guarantee existed or not. Marin said that he is, furthermore, satisfied that the document is authentic.
Asked whether he personally supports the settlement of the debt, Marin told us that you can’t really measure people’s lives in millions of dollars. Marin, a former Minister of Health, said that it was a good thing for the Government to support UHS, because it’s not just about the assets that the hospital holds, but the services it has been able to provide for the wider community.
He told us that what matters to him is that many Belizeans have been able to get life-saving treatment, and save money by getting treatment in-country that they would have to travel to Merida, Mexico and the US to get if UHS did not provide the services that it did over the years.
He said that Belize has gotten value for money, and Musa was simply delivering on a manifesto promise to improve health care when he made the decision to support UHS.
Lake I area representative and Minister of Defence, Housing, Youth and Sports, Hon. Cordel Hyde, also does not support the unlimited guarantee. He told us that the first he knew of the existence of a guarantee was last December, when Cabinet discussed taking over two-thirds of UHS in exchange for settling the Belize Bank debt. He said that he only learned the guarantee was unlimited last Tuesday, when Cabinet received the document. There is no way that he could have supported it when it was signed, and there is no way he can support it now, Hyde declared, calling for an accounting of how the proceeds of the loan was spent.
To date we have heard the comments of six members of the National Assembly on the UHS guarantee: Barrow, Briceño, (Mark) Espat, Hyde, (Vildo) Marin, and Senator Godwin Hulse. Only one supports the guarantee.