BELIZE CITY, Thurs. July 30, 2020– On Wednesday, July 29, 2020 the Senate convened to discuss a number of bills, namely: The General Revenue Supplementary Appropriation Bill 2020-2021, the Business Names Amendment Bill 2020, the Companies Amendment Bill and the Limited Liability Partnership Amendment Bill 2020.
The Revenue Supplementary Appropriation Bill was discussed most extensively, as it entails the Government of Belize receiving a $10 million USD loan from the OPEC Fund for International Development, which exists to provide financial support on concessionary terms to developing nations. The purpose of this loan would be to provide food security to the poor under the existing Food Assistance Programme that was designed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While several Senators did admit that the funds are needed to support Belizeans who are struggling to feed themselves and their families, some PUP senators pointed out the flaws and lack of transparency in the existing program.
Senator for NGO’s Osmany Salas was the first to identify some aspects of the program that need improvement, including the fact that the program requires residents to be aware of the availability of the assistance, and to know the steps they need to take to access such assistance.:
“I’ve confirmed that the 25,000 means beneficiary households as opposed to individuals. So I did some mathematics and I came up with a total of $22,500,000 Belize Dollars, which essentially is the entire loan package, even a little more. So my question is, what does that mean for the awareness and education campaigns? We need to invest resources in spreading the message every day constantly, just like will soon start to happen because of elections. We’ll start to see political ads every day…If I did my calculations right we, we are left with nothing to invest and focus on the campaign for mass awareness and education which is sorely needed,” he observed.
Senator for the Private Sector, Mark Lizarraga, shared his support of Senator Salas’ statement and went beyond that to say that the existing program has lacked transparency thus far:
“We continue to borrow as we need to in a time like this to help our people survive in these times. If I’m reading this correctly, it is saying that we’re increasing the coverage of the ongoing Food Assistance Program, and we’re increasing it by covering an additional 62,500 persons. It would have been nice, Mr. President, and I think we’re past due, to see some breakdown of expenditures to date along these lines…and, by the way, by now we should have seen a supplementary budget or a readjusted budget, because the existing budget flew out. One would have wanted to see what the impact of Government instructions to cut back on expenses in certain areas. Just so that we know financially where we are. We are going to support this motion because we have to. People are in need; it is our responsibility to help as best we can. But I think that we have a responsibility as well to be aware of what the bigger picture is. What the bigger financial picture is and how this fits into the bigger food assistance and the other packages that government is presenting…I urge again, as did the IMF in its recent country report on Belize just issued in July, which covered the period up to January of this year, for a call for us to be transparent and open in a lot of the programs that we have, in a lot of the things that we do,” Senator Lizarraga commented.
Senator Lizarraga went on to state that it has been said on the news, morning shows and all over social media that the lack of transparency in the process has affected many Belizeans, some of whom assert that persons of a certain political persuasion have received preferential treatment while others are still waiting to benefit from the program. PUP Senator Louis Zabaneh backed this stance presented by Senator Lizarraga, stating that he too has heard the complaints of Belizeans regarding the program:
“In my case it is not just that we have heard those on the radio. I have personally met people from my area across Dangriga, Sarawee, Hope Creek, who have told me that they have been waiting. They have not gotten what they have been promised to get. They have applied. I am telling you what they have told me. What I have seen with my own eyes. This is not second-hand information. This is very relevant to this motion because we want to ensure that these funds reach the people who are in most need,” he said.
The Attorney General, Hon. Michael Peyrefitte, then stood up in defense of the program, arguing that Belize’s feeding program has been commended internationally:
“Mr. President, I wonder if some of the senators who got up to speak know what this motion is about. This is a loan motion for food. Food. Why would it take speech after speech to debate the provisions of food for people who will be hungry, literally hungry? Food. But they can’t help themselves, Mister President. They say this on Facebook and they said this on radio. Who said what? Who? Who is dissatisfied with food distribution in Belize given the COVID-19 pandemic situation? We have been intentionally internationally praised and recognized for our food distribution campaign. Who? So it is so easy to come here and put facelessness to namelessness and say that not everybody is happy and we need to do this and we need to do that and we need to think about people who are border jumpers; maybe we need to provide more for them so that they are not forced to go across the border. Blah, blah, blah. All because you cannot say that this is a loan motion that is worthy and that you accept it. If at times you can’t really see that, then just shut up and sit down, because when you get up and you speak, all you do is speak foolishness,” said Peyrefitte.
Senators of the PUP also raised the issue of the gaming license for the Boledo draw and National Lottery, which was once again awarded to Brad’s Gaming Company for another ten years — conferring to them an estimated BZ$400,000,000 in potential revenue.
Additionally, a supplementary budget for the current financial year was presented which appropriates hundreds of thousands of dollars for multiple projects, including $700,000 for the Caracol Road project, one million dollars for Belize Telemedia Limited for its DigiLearn project, and more than three hundred thousand dollars to be spent on new passports.
This budget roused the PUP senators to question the GOB’s priorities as we continue to battle the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19.