Opposition Leader speaks on PetroCaribe issue
May 19, 2017
Opposition Leader speaks on PetroCaribe issue

Despite the constant talk by Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves about good governance, Vincentians have seen the opposite.

This was the charge of Leader of the Opposition New Democratic Party Dr Godwin Friday, as he addressed the media on Wednesday at Democratic House.

“We have no idea what this Unity Labour Party (ULP) administration is doing with our money. Hundreds of millions of dollars being spent by this Government, with no accountability… Being spent in the dark… with no light on it from the Director of Audit,” Friday said.

Friday, during a press conference on April 19, raised the matter of accountability and transparency, and has since sparked a national debate on the issue.

During Wednesday’s press conference, the Opposition Leader again spoke about transparency and accountability on national boards, paying specific attention to PetroCaribe.

Friday explained that in 2006, two companies, PetroCaribe No126 of 2005 and PDV, were set up by the Government under the Companies Act and were registered at the Commercial and Intellectual Property Office (CIPO), as required by law.

“The PetroCaribe company or companies, whether they are Government-owned or controlled, or not, are involved in transactions involving Government and taxpayers’ money – because that money has already been paid by you and the loan has to be repaid by the Government, using money collected from you, the taxpayers of this country,” Friday explained.

He said that some time ago they received a private copy of ‘what was supposedly’ cheques showing payments, adding up to $24,533,033.07, made by a company called PetroCaribe.

“That document showed large sums of money being paid to all sorts of entities and individuals in that one particular year,” Friday alleged.

He said that $4 million was paid to VINLEC; $3.5 million to Tankweld, a Jamaican company that supplies St Vincent with construction equipment; and over $1 million to the Farmers’ Support Programme.

The Opposition Leader also recalled that the IMF had said that the Government had left $112 million of PetroCaribe debt off the books.

“How is that even possible? Was that a matter of incompetence on the part of the Minister of Finance? Or was it by design? Was it meant to provide a cover, or an avenue for something else?” Friday questioned.

The Opposition Leader said that in Jamaica there is a similar situation, where the Government creates a company, or companies, to handle and manage the PetroCaribe scheme; however, that is where the similarities end.

“If you google ‘PetroCaribe Jamaica,’ you will get the website of the PetroCaribe Development Fund. The website describes the fund as “a body corporate created by the Government of Jamaica in December 2006 to manage the proceeds which accrue to Jamaica under the PetroCaribe Energy Cooperation Agreement.”

He added that the website has a devoted section called “annual report,” where you will find the annual reports of the Auditor General up to 2016 on the website for the Jamaica Auditor General.

“Eight pages of a report written by the Director of Audit in Jamaica, transmitted to the Minister of Finance and subsequently laid in Parliament, reporting on their audit of the activities of PetroCaribe in Jamaica for 2015. This, Vincentians, is what accountability looks like,” Friday said.

He noted that the Constitution requires that the Director of Audit has oversight of any and all companies that Government owns or controls, and/or any companies that are involved in spending Government or taxpayers’ money, and transmitting the relevant audit reports to the Minister of Finance, who must lay them in Parliament.

Friday added that the Constitution requires parliamentary accountability, pointing out that the the Companies Act, which covers CIPO, is ordinary legislation and therefore companies must report to CIPO, but that could not reduce, replace or modify what is required under the Constitution.

“The Registrar at CIPO has no role in accountability. The Constitution clearly defines where the responsibility for accountability lies – and it is not housed at CIPO. CIPO is irrelevant to this matter of accountability — plain and simple,” he added.

Friday said too that on Tuesday, May 9, financial statements were lodged at CIPO for one of the two companies for 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.

“Here we have two PetroCaribe companies transacting with hundreds of millions of dollars of our money – that you paid on your light bills every month, money that people are paying for ‘Labour gas’; money that is a public debt to Venezuela, that Vincentians have to repay with interest to Venezuela – and yet, you know nothing about these companies and what they are doing with our money!”

Friday stated that despite the responses given by the Government, their fears have not been calmed.

“The contradictory stories, the untruths, the excuses, the evasions, the beating around the bush, the hurried filing of 10-year-old accounts for PetroCaribe companies at CIPO: all of these things, taken together, convey a sense of the abnormal… and a sense of scandal. These things, taken together, raise the question of whether there is a cover-up in progress. Is someone covering up the truth? Is there a widening scandal here? What is the ULP hiding,” Friday asked.

The NDP has called for an urgent government audit into the operation on the PetroCaribe programme, supervised by the Director of Audit.