Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace on Monday read from what he said were two Cabinet memos as he again raised concerns about the use of PetroCaribe funds and its impact on the national debt of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Under PetroCaribe, Venezuela’s oil alliance with several countries, nations only pay up front part of the cost of fuel they import from Caracas and keep the rest as a low-interest, long-term loan.
“I believe there is a responsibility on the part of the government to give an explanation for certain things because very often we get confused. I see the Prime Minister was accusing me in the press of being confused. I am quite sure he is more confused than me,” Eustace said, adding that he has information that Gonsalves “can’t deny”.
Eustace spoke of monies that Cabinet recently approved for the purchase of building material from Tank Weld in Jamaica.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said last week that the monies were approved in this year’s Budget and that the materials will be used in the government’s housing programmes. He further said that it is EC$4 million to be spent and not EC$10 million as Eustace said.
But Eustace maintained that building materials are also being used for strictly electioneering purposes.
“A lot of money is being spent in these programmes, including the distribution of materials to persons for purely election purposes. Millions of dollars are being used for that purpose,” he said on his weekly radio programme.
He said the Cabinet Secretary sent the two memos to the permanent secretaries in the Ministries of Housing and National Security on June 25.
Eustace said that the internal communications show how St. Vincent and the Grenadines could be included among over 20 countries listed by Jubilee as being in a debt crisis.
In the memo to the Ministry of Housing, the Cabinet Secretary said that Cabinet on June 24 “granted approval for the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines to obtain a loan from PetroCaribe in the amount of EC$350,000 with an interest rate of 2 per cent per annum, for the purpose of supporting the Lives to Live programme.”
The memo was copied to Director General of Finance, the Director of Audit, and the Accountant General, Eustace said.
The Lives to Live Programme is an initiative under which the government constructs timber houses, or, in some cases, bathrooms with water closets for persons with physical or mental disabilities.
Eustace further said that on June 25 the Cabinet Secretary also sent another memo to the permanent secretaries of Housing and National Security regarding purchase of building material from Tank Weld in Jamaica.
In that memo, the Cabinet Secretary reportedly said that on June 24, Cabinet granted approval for building materials with a total value of EC$4.5 million to be ordered from Tank Weld Jamaica at the end of July 2015.
“This is to facilitate and support the following programmes: Low-Income Housing, Lives to Live Programme and material assistance to the needy individuals and families,” Eustace quoted the memo as saying.
“That is the political money,” Eustace commented, adding that the
memo said payments are to be made monthly by PetroCaribe beginning in January 2016.
“So this is a loan. You see what I mean? … But you are not seeing those figures there in the Estimates when you look at the national debt of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Eustace said.
“The Prime Minister can say about who confused … I know I am not confused. And sooner or later, he will have to admit what the total PetroCaribe debt is and how it impacts on the national debt of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I am not making any jokes about that.
“He has an obligation, as Minister of Finance, to keep the public abreast of these things,” Eustace said.
“I want to know and I want to see it reflected in the public accounts of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in a proper manner,” Eustace said of loans from PetroCaribe.
He said that if elected to government, during its first month in office, a New Democratic Party administration will set up a committee on public financing and debt to know upfront the nation’s fiscal situation.
“Then, the truth will be known. We can’t fool around with these matters. In the end, it will be our population, in terms of our brothers and sisters, our children born and some unborn who are going to pay this debt,” Eustace said.
Eustace noted that he had said last week that about EC$11 million has already been used or approved to bring in materials in these programmes, “especially where you are giving away materials to persons for political reasons”.
He also reiterated his disappointment and said it is wrong that the materials are being bought in Jamaica while the local private sector is in a “poor condition”, and asked who is getting the commission on those purchases.