$228 million Petrocaribe Loan Motion gets house clearance amongst heated debate; Hundreds of UDP supporters gathered to support PM’s Loan Motion
Friday, November 21st, 2014
After a much heated debate, the House of Representatives of Belize approved a Petrocaribe loan motion of the $228 million on Tuesday, November 18th. The ruling United Democratic Party lead by Prime Minister Dean Barrow, mobilized hundreds of party supporters who gathered at the foot of the National Assembly building to show support to the Petrocaribe loan motion. The monies, part of which has been spent prior to getting House of Representative approval as required by law, are to be used to roll out several government programs.
The Petrocaribe fund comes from the returns of fuel at concessionary terms given to the Caribbean countries by the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Since 2005, Belize has been taking advantage of the Petrocaribe financial initiative in which the monies should be used to benefit the poor and middle class. However, under the Finance and Audit Act, PM Barrow is required to introduce a bill for any loan in excess of $10 million. As such, PM Barrow was required to have taken the loan motion to the House of Representative. Until he was questioned by the press, he had not done so.
Because funds were being used without legal approval, the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) through Julius Espat, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), filed court actions against the government of PM Barrow. But while the legal process is still being played before the Supreme Court, PM Barrow took the loan motion to House for approval.
According to Barrow, the funds from the Petrocaribe loan motion, part of which has been spent, is being used to initiate various government programs geared to improve the lives of the poor class and creating jobs. “We pioneered the food pantry support outreach to our people; the cash transfer to struggling families, homeowner relief by the write-off of millions and millions of dollars in the Ministry of Housing, DFC and the S.S.B. with respect to mortgages; we came up with the high school subsidies, with the Apprenticeship and Second Chance Programs. We provided ample rural access to credit and we brought in the training and financing opportunities for would be entrepreneurs and small businesses. What Petrocaribe has done now though, is to enable us to take our social justice trailblazing, our economic protection and empowerment of the poor and the middle-class to new levels. It has allowed us to realize now giant achievements for the people of Belize that hitherto, we can only dream of,” said Barrow in justifying the use of the Petrocaribe funds.
The PM, while justifying the use of the Petrocaribe monies, hammered the PUP on the past record of perceived corruption. In response to the PM’s finger pointing at the PUP for their past mistakes, Opposition Leader Hon Francis Fonseca fired back, stating that the government of PM Barrow has been in office for seven years. “We are required to be here for the Prime Minister’s multi-million-dollar circus show. You put on the lights, you put on the music and he begins to sing and dance…. And today you hear him sing and dance all day today to his favorite tune and song, “No blame me, blame the P.U.P.” That’s his favorite song… Well Mister Speaker, there is nothing more pathetic and desperate than a Prime Minister and his government seven years in power and they can’t take responsibility for their own government,” said Fonseca.
And while the house business was tense, with much back and forth from the elected parliamentarians, outside the National Assembly building, hundreds of supporters from across the country had gathered. The UDP had mobilized their supporters to show support to PM’s loan motion under the theme “ROLE IT.” PM Barrow said that more progress will come with the use of Petrocaribe monies. “We are back now to do what the thousands of Belizeans outside this National Assembly building, what the hundreds of thousands of Belizeans across this land want us to do. We are back to say once and for all, we are back to sing and shout, Petrocaribe, roll it!” He then went on to explain why he did not seek approval for the spending. “After I was asked a public question by Channel 7’s Jules Vasquez and it was a question that fairly arose as to why I hadn’t done so before. Well the requirements of our Finance and Audit Act mandate parliamentary approval for any GOB borrowing that’s upwards of 10 million dollars. But this Petrocaribe arrangement is and must have become clear from my description, a strange creature, almost what the lawyers called ‘sui generis,’ peculiar unto itself. It is then no straight forward loan from a bank or other financial institution with a known principal amount borrowed for a fixed period at a determine rate of interest.”
Opposition Leader said that while they are not against developing the country and taking advantage of the Petrocaribe initiative, since they are the ones that made it happen and develop it into a working program. “We can’t support a loan motion, Mr. Speaker, where there is so much waste and corruption. There is only a small circle of cronies, hustlers feeding off this Petrocaribe funds, you know Mr. Speaker. Bloated contracts, poor quality work. No value for money. It’s a circle of family and friends. So the people know, Mr. Speaker, that it is all political posturing. That it is all empty rhetoric. The Belizean people know that, they understand that,” indicated Fonseca, who said that the approval of the funds and spending must be done in accordance with law.
Chairman of the PAC Hon. Julius Espat closed off the debate by outlining why Barrow’s action violates the constitution. “The authority for such borrowing cannot be lawfully pursuant to section 7 (2) of the Finance and Audit Reformed Act. We have laws, Mister Speaker, and we have to follow the rule of law. And the Prime Minister, unlike me — I am not an attorney— he has no excuse. He even tried to rail up with the judge so that you can’t even take the case in front of the judge. That’s the level that he reaches… I will explain why he is wrong. Mister Speaker, a supplementary bill is supposed to be like a contingency. Under the laws of Belize, the Supplementary Appropriations Bill is not designed for you to come to this House two years after the fact and say, ‘boss I spent forty million dollars and I need approval for it.’ The law says, under the same Reform and Finance Act, that the maximum that you can deal with it in a normal situation is five hundred thousand dollars. You can come if it is an emergency. And you know what an emergency is? An emergency is not called Petrocaribe.”
The loan motion debate lasted for over seven hours, the longest single loan motion debate in recent history. In the end, all the opposition members voted against the loan motion, while the ruling parliamentarians voted in favor of it. As such PM Barrow got the house approval and the motion now goes to the Senate for ratification. The Senate is meeting on Wednesday November 26th, where the motion will also be debated.
Of interest to note: within the same UDP supporters that had gathered, some of who are known gang affiliates, one affiliated to the Supal Street gang in Belize City was stabbed. He refused to cooperate with Police and was taken, given medical attention and discharged. He did not request court action.
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