Prime Minister rolls out new appointments
Prime Minister Dean Barrow held his first full press conference in months earlier this week. On Wednesday the PM did some house cleaning and announced the appointment of new members of his administration.
“Since a continued and comprehensive information flow to the media and the public is so essential, I have appointed a new Press Secretary/Communications Director for the Office of the Prime Minister. He is Ambassador Bert Tucker who moves now from the Ministry of Foreign Trade to this new assignment. He will share contact details with you at the end of this briefing and he will of course be the go-to-guy in regard to positions coming out of the Office of the Prime Minister. His position is of course separate and apart from the Government Press Office. Now, the Director of the Government Press Office remains up to this point Mrs. Alyssa Noble Carnegie. But she will soon be moving on to, what I hear are greener pastures, and we will announce her replacement immediately after that happens. Mrs. Amparo Masson has taken up her position as the government’s business development officer and liaison to the private sector. You know that our Manifesto laid great emphasis on the central importance; the business community must play in this U.D.P. second term. And now there is a formal public sector [and] private sector structure in place to give practical life and impetus to the partnership. Mrs. Masson appointment will help to ensure the realization of the deliveries that we—business and government—are setting for ourselves.”
Prime Minister of Belize, Hon. Dean Barrow, yesterday, Wednesday, June 13, called his first official press conference in that capacity since being re-elected with a reduced majority in the House of Representatives on March 7, at the River Hall, Belize Biltmore Plaza.
The Prime Minister announced the date for the reading of the General Revenue and Appropriations Bill, also known as “The Budget,” as Friday, June 29, pending the approval by Cabinet of draft estimates due today, Thursday.
According to the Prime Minister, the budget will not necessarily be one of austerity, but one of “discipline.”
While the sugar, citrus, banana, aquaculture and tourism industries are doing “remarkably well” – with sugar reporting a record-breaking and successful year; improvements to citrus and banana; recovery of tourism from some difficult seasons; and new investments across the board in several areas, there remains, he said, a shortfall of $30 million in tax revenue. That shortfall is as a result of a reduction in expected revenues from Belize Natural Energy (BNE), because of the slumping of world oil prices and the declining production of wells in the Spanish Lookout and Never Delay areas of the Cayo District.
Bluntly admitting that “we need to find more oil,” the P.M. noted that with lower world prices for crude oil, Belizeans were seeing relief at the pumps even as the Government continues to lose revenue from its declining share of taxes. He also pointed out that Belize subsisted and survived before oil, and there are efforts being made to take advantage of new initiatives such as medical tourism and the outsourcing of business services, while also propping up mainstays such as tourism and agriculture.
Wells are to be dug as part of the exploration program in Gallon Jug by Maranco, and U.S. Capital Energy in the area of the Sarstoon-Temash reserve by the end of the year.
The Government has also commissioned a feasibility study in conjunction with BNE for one of its manifesto commitments, a local oil refinery.
It has also begun talks with the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and multinational local successor to Esso Standard Oil, PUMA (itself a subsidiary of the multinational Trafigura) on sourcing all of Belize’s imported fuel from that country rather than the United States, in an expansion of a limited program introduced under the PetroCaribe initiative some years ago.
“If we can bring this to a successful conclusion, we can then take advantage of the PetroCaribe arrangements, to trigger the hugely concessionary financing that would accompany oil purchases from Venezuela. You know that some time ago, we had a limited program; what Venezuela does, is to sell us the oil at market rates, but to only require us to pay a percentage up front, and the balance of the purchase price – of the sale price, or the purchase price, we collect – in this case, it would be from PUMA – but we are able to use, in terms of a long-term financing arrangement with Venezuela. If we could bring these discussions to a conclusion, that would provide a tremendous degree of assistance,” Barrow said.
In answering a question from Amandala later about whether any benefits to the public would accrue at the pump from the proposed Venezuela initiative, the P.M. said that the benefits would come in the long-term financing secured, which can be used for social programs and investments. The percentages to be paid back depend on current market prices.
The original program was based in the South, and participants went through Government to import fuel and GOB paid to Venezuela only a portion upfront and the remainder over 20 years at 1%. The program ended when Esso Standard Oil declined to work with Venezuela, preferring its U.S. base of supplies, but with Puma’s new acquiescence, revenues would “increase exponentially” from the $2 million accrued that was handed over to the Department of Social Services for assistance, to “well in excess of $100 million” if the deal can be agreed, says the Prime Minister.
Debt restructuring and national discipline
There has been little said at official level about plans to restructure Belize’s foreign debt and particularly the $1.1 billion “Superbond”, which is being handled by a high-powered team led by Ambassador for Economic Affairs, Mark Espat.
According to the Prime Minister, the talks are going well on two fronts: with the actual creditors and international financial institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which has been asked to provide a partial guarantee to the restructured debt.
That must be approved by the IDB board and while there is no guarantee it will, the P.M. pointed to “a tremendous degree of IDB goodwill” in the ongoing discussions with its officials.
Locally, said the Prime Minister, Belize must show “fiscal discipline” as our part in the equation and then ask the creditors to make their sacrifices. So, according to the P.M., there is no extra money to spend as a result of the “calamitous plunge” in oil revenues, and the Government must now work to rein in expenditure while not compromising its pro-poor programs, the “social and political life-blood of this administration and this nation,” and also while “refusing to implement any growth-stifling tax increases on the Belizean people and business.”
A press conference will be scheduled with the debt negotiating team, who has prepared the draft case for restructuring the debt because Belize cannot pay. The P.M. said he had approved it and it would now be sent to the bondholders, followed by direct meetings with bondholders and creditors, which should begin in another week or two.
According to Barrow, Government will lead the way, particularly with regard to the irking practice of buying expensive luxury vehicles for Ministers and area representatives. Those who go beyond the limit for duty-free purchase of vehicles, such as the Deputy Prime Minister did in the 2008-2012 term, must pay the difference, said Barrow. The limit is reportedly a little in excess of $70,000.
GOB still owns BTL, BEL, insists P.M.; breaks silence on Ashcroft
On Monday, Supreme Court Justice Oswell Legall issued a lengthy judgment on a suit filed by British Caribbean Bank (BCB) and the Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL) Employees’ Trust chaired by former BTL chair Dean Boyce that upheld their claim that the second acquisition of BTL last June via Statutory Instrument No. 70 of 2011 and the subsequent passing of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution attempting to enshrine ownership of public utilities in the hands of the State were unconstitutional and had no basis, but refused to grant relief, instead ordering the sides to sit down to discuss compensation.
While the attorneys for the Employees’ Trust and BCB say Government may have to go back to the House a third time to legitimize their hold on the company or else turn it over to their clients or agree to compensation with them, the P.M. applauded the court’s determination that Government, even if only by a thin thread, holds on to BTL and by extension, Belize Electricity Limited (BEL), which was similarly acquired from Canadian former owners, Fortis.
The Prime Minister said he agreed with Channel 5 News’ Jose Sanchez that Justice Legall’s judgment “left a lot of questions unanswered.” But, he added, there is no longer any doubt who owns the utilities – the Government and the people of Belize, even though the order by which ownership was established was rejected by the court.
By refusing to grant relief, the P.M. said, “…that, then, is checkmate. I don’t see that we need to go back to the House to fix anything. But don’t hold me to that. I will, of course, seek the opinion of the lawyers, and if it turns out that to make assurance doubly sure, we should go back to the House, we will. If the judge had found we don’t own the thing, we would have gone back to the House to re-acquire it. We will never, ever, let go of the ownership of those utilities in the Government and the people of Belize.”
Later, the P.M. said that the judgment made “no difference” to the ongoing negotiations over compensation, and in fact the Government, he believed, could not be threatened with an enforcement order on the basis that the former owners own the company when the court was clear they do not.
According to the PM, Fortis has asked for confidentiality in its negotiations and also has a challenge in court; he believes they initiated discussions in good faith and the matter is how much we pay for what is “now, forever, and eternally ours, amen.” In the case of BTL, the negotiations have not progressed so well, says Barrow.
The Prime Minister also broke his silence on his apparent rapprochement with Lord Michael Ashcroft, the British businessman and “unseen hand” behind the BTL affair. He explained that Ashcroft came to him about a year before the elections, and there have since been “intermittent little flurries that, if you were an eternal optimist, you might have thought could have led somewhere, up to this point they haven’t – but I absolutely, as well, do want to see negotiations proceed. Michael Ashcroft did every damn thing he could to cause us to lose the elections, you know. But it was never personal and it still isn’t. We have Telemedia; we are never ever going to relinquish control, but we must pay the people for what we have taken and we must pay them a fair price. Question again, is how to determine that fair price, in a manner that both sides can be satisfied with.”
Apparently, they would prefer to pay than give it back: Responding to Dean Boyce’s statement that he would be “in contact” with the GOB-appointed board to re-take the company and the BCB’s statement that that board led by Nestor Vasquez should eject themselves and leave, Barrow joked: “Well, I feel that Michael Ashcroft should drop his claim for compensation and give the company to us free! But that obviously ain’t going to go no place, and I think you should treat that suggestion the same way.”
Crime and violence: “Stanch the flow”
But while there will be belt-tightening elsewhere, it is “non-negotiable,” says Barrow, that funding to fight the “war against this seemingly endless cycle of ever escalating, ever more heinous crimes against persons” will not be cut.
It is a fight that Belize does not appear to be winning at the moment, the Prime Minister admitted, on the heels of a weekend when ten persons were shot and two killed, in addition to the discovery of the bodies of two missing teenagers in shallow graves in the Orange Walk District and the death of Jasmine Lowe, 13, last Wednesday. But, he said, “Belize and our hearts cannot continue to bleed like this, and we must stanch the flow.”
On the issue of hiring a foreign police commissioner, the P.M. admitted to no false pride in asking for “all the help we can get, and I fully support outside assistance for training, and administration and structural improvements.”
But based on the recommendation of National Security Minister John Saldivar, who has completed a tour of installations countrywide, according to the Prime Minister, “…we can succeed in our struggle against the criminal elements here in Belize, without having to go the route of a foreign commissioner. He is confident…that there is sound local leadership present in our Police Department, and that we will get the job done. He has confidence, full confidence, in the men and women of our security forces, and I have full confidence in him…Very, very seriously, and saying this in a considered, deliberate way: I sincerely believe, therefore, that while we welcome external help, at the level of advice, and procurement of material, we will progress and prevail with local boots on the ground.”
Barrow told Amandala, when we asked what efforts were being made to locate such foreign advisors in lieu of a foreign-based police commissioner, that there is liaison with the Canadians to pursue advisors in senior positions short of the Commissioner of Police. With regard to the continued implementation of the three-year-old Harold Crooks Report on re-organization of the Police Department and two- and a half-year-old Herbert Gayle Report on male child development in the Southside of Belize City, the Prime Minister said that the “majority” of the recommendations from Crooks, in particular, had been implemented and that for some of them it was difficult to do so without importing foreign assistance.
On the correlation between crime and business and confidence in foreign investment, we cited two cases, that of John McAfee, the wealthy investor whose home was visited by police in early May, and Green Tropics Limited, who had to apologize for moving to dig a canal in a protected biological area without official approval of their Environmental Impact Assessment, which had been submitted but not officially approved, and asked how the Government proposed to relieve the damage caused by those two incidents, and increase investor confidence.
The PM cited the number of new investments in sugar, aquaculture and tourism, as evidence of investor confidence in Belize. He said of McAfee that he as a visitor and resident of Belize is due the treatment that would be given to all Belizeans and there would be no violation of his rights, but that he would never be above the law simply because “he is rich and there is importance attached to money.”
Expressing satisfaction that the Police had “good basis” for the raid at his premises and committed no wrong, the P.M. told us that “damage” has been done by McAfee’s internationally-broadcast statements otherwise, but maintained that the businessman himself is still subject to Belizean law and authority and must yield, for instance, to the Ministry of Health whose inspectors were alleged to have been denied access to his laboratories.
The G.O.B., Barrow insisted to Amandala, is also “not the bad guy” in the case of Green Tropics, who has admitted that they were not aware of whom to talk to in relation of their development and that matter is being smoothed out by the Minister for Natural Resources.
The Prime Minister added that he has insisted for immediate demonstrable progress in surveillance, intelligence gathering and preventive interdiction and that they will soon meet to look at a logistical re-organization of the Ministry and Police Department.
Barrow repeated that a “society-wide” effort was needed to fight the war on crime, and people need to get personally involved, citing the “horrible murder, desecration” of Jasmine Lowe as a catalyst for community assistance to the Police, and, he added, RESTORE Belize and other Government departments remain involved, right up to Barrow himself. He added that “garrison policing” of tourism areas would not be desirable, instead insisting that the government’s first priority is to protect all citizens.
On the touchy matter of the gang truce, P.M. Barrow derided Jules Vasquez of Channel 7’s description of it being “a tissue of a fantasy” as “wholly inaccurate” because of the apparent resurgence of gang warfare in Belize City after an apparent lull from September to January. He said that the truce never was intended to reach all gang members, and therefore not all members were included and some refused to participate. Overall payroll for the program has been decreased because of “budgetary constraints,” but those who refuse to cooperate have been dismissed and not replaced.
“Those who demonstrate that they are prepared to walk the straight and narrow will continue to be employed for so long as they can keep the peace in so far as we can determine that; the others…will simply have to be dealt with by the security forces,” he said.
The DFC write-off
Relief is coming soon to homeowners and students who have made loans with the Development Finance Corporation (DFC), as well as residents of the Mahogany Heights community at Mile 31, Western Highway, Belize District.
Those with loans of $20,000 and below (homeowners) and $6,000 and below (students) will have their loans forgiven on condition of having paid at least 20% of their indebtedness prior to the start of the program, whereas the Mahogany Heights loans will be completely written off.
According to the Prime Minister they wish to avoid being charged with “promoting a moral hazard” in the case of the DFC write-offs for homeowners and students, but the crucial difference with Mahogany Heights, he said, is that “the then [PUP] administration paid money for the land on which that housing site was located, to a crony. It later turned out that that crony was not the true owner of the land, so Government did not get a proper title. The result is that in turn the title of the homeowners at Mahogany Heights, is also dubious. This administration, in fairness and equity, cannot see asking people to continue paying for properties, for which the Government cannot now and for the foreseeable future guarantee ownership, so we are writing these things off completely.”
No formal figure or list has been provided as of this writing, but P.M. Barrow guaranteed that the write-offs would not affect current cash flow as the cost is being offset against a future liability of DFC to GOB to be paid around 2018.
DFC General Manager Natalie Goff told Amandala afterward, with the concurrence of the P.M., that absolutely no DFC staff members were on the list for forgiveness, and that the figures given are the absolute limit of loans being considered, so that no one with a larger loan can attempt to qualify for the program by hurriedly reducing their loan to that level prior to the start of the program as happened with the Social Security Board (SSB) write-offs earlier this year.
Update on Kim Simplis-Barrow
Hon. Barrow has spent much of his first 100 days in office out of the country attending to his wife, Mrs. Kim Simplis-Barrow, who continues to slowly recover from a bout with heart failure while receiving radiation and chemotherapy treatment in Miami, Florida, for Stage 3 breast cancer discovered last October. In opening the press conference, the Prime Minister thanked the nation for its continued support and in particular the Belize Cancer Society. He said his wife would, as soon as next week, go to Houston, Texas’s M.D. Anderson Medical Center at the Texas Medical Complex, arranged for by Belizean doctors Bernard Bulwer (former KHMH Chief of Staff) in Boston and Dorita Arzu in Houston.
In Houston, Simplis-Barrow will be treated by a specialist who does heart care for patients who suffer heart failure as a result of radiation and chemotherapy, and after she returns home, Belizean professionals Dr. Adrian Coye and Dr. Ellsworth Grant will continue to advise and assist in her treatment.