Focusing this time on the state-owned PetroCaribe SVG Ltd., the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) on Wednesday intensified its call for the Ralph Gonsalves-led Unity Labour Party (ULP) administration to account for millions of dollars of public funds.
“Some time ago, we received a private copy of what was supposedly a cheque payments register, showing payments made by a company called PetroCaribe SVG Ltd in 2015. And when you add up all the cheques paid in that year by that company, the total is $24,533,033.07. Almost 25 million dollars!” Leader of the Opposition, Godwin Friday told a press conference in Kingstown.
He said the document showed large sums of money being paid to “all sorts of entities and individuals” in that year.
Among the amounts paid out was EC$4 million to VINLEC.
“Why is PetroCaribe SVG paying VINLEC?” he said.
Under PetroCaribe, Venezuela sells oil to participating nations, including St. Vincent and the Grenadines, at terms of preferential payment.
PetroCaribe SVG, to which the fuel is consigned, receives full payment for the fuel from local entities — including VINLEC — but the government keeps some of the money as a loan and pays back the rest to Caracas — repaying the loan over a two-decade period.
Friday said that in 2015, more than EC$3.5 million was paid to Tankweld, a company in Jamaica from which the government buys building material.
“… and it is alleged that these materials are used by the ULP in their election campaigns. Why is PetroCaribe SVG paying Tankweld?” Friday said.
He further said that over EC$1 million was paid to the Farmers Support Programme,” adding, “but are farmers in this country getting support? Farmers in this country are suffering under this administration! Where is that money actually going? Is it going to farmers? Or to others?”
The government has said that state-owned Farmers Support Company uses PetroCaribe money to provide low-interest loans to farmers.
Friday noted that under Caracas-Kingstown arrangement, PetroCaribe SVG passes the fuel on to VINLEC, for VINLEC to generate electricity; consumers pay their electricity bill in full; VINLEC pays PetroCaribe for the fuel in full, but PetroCaribe pays a portion of the money to Venezuela and gives the rest to the Gonsalves government as a loan.
Friday commented: “Large sums of money — money taken from the money you paid on your light bill — paid out to various entities and individuals — for what? What services have these entities and individuals provided to the taxpayers of this country?”
He noted that the cheques he referred to were for one year, noting that the PetroCaribe companies were set up in 2005 and 2006.
“Also remember that the IMF told this country last year, that the ULP government had left $112 million dollars of PetroCaribe debt off of the books! Think about that for a while.”
The Jamaican contrast
The opposition leader said the Gonsalves government does not account for the PetroCaribe, a contrast to what happens in Jamaica, where information about the PetroCaribe entity is published online.
“This is what the 2015 report looks like,” Friday said, holding up a copy of what he said was Jamaica’s report on the PetroCaribe Development Fund.
“Anyone can go online and download a copy and print it, for free. This report — the 2015 report — contains 98 pages of narrative on various aspects of financial oversight in Jamaica — and eight of those pages are devoted to the Auditor General’s review of PetroCaribe… This, Vincentians, is what accountability looks like,” Friday said, referring to the situation in Jamaica.
“That is what accountability requires! Not rambling on a press conference every Monday morning and calling in on a radio program every day — even on Mother’s Day — to make excuses about why you are not laying audit reports in Parliament! You see the difference? That is the difference between real governance, proper governance on the one hand and mere old talk about ‘good governance’ on the other,” Friday said.
‘The citizen sees what is happening’
Friday said the issue of accountability has resonated with Vincentians since he raised it in an April 19 press conference — at which time he focused on the International Airport Development Company (IADC), which was responsible for building the Argyle International Airport.
The government, in response, said that opposing the airport — which opened in February, six years later than plan and at twice the estimated cost — was in the DNA of the NDP.
But Friday said that the issue resonated with citizens because they see a widening gap between the haves and have-nots.
“This I firmly believe is why this matter of accountability has taken hold of the public imagination. The citizen sees what is happening. Vincentians see what is happening, and they do not like what they see,” Friday said.
The opposition leader had followed up his April 19 press conference with a May 2 letter to Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Finance.
He told the media on Wednesday that in his response, Gonsalves basically did two things:
“He studiously avoided the real issue at hand, which is the need for full accountability to the citizens of this country, through Parliament, for any expenditure of public funds, as is clearly specified by the Constitution and the law, and he tried to paint our call for accountability as an attack on the Argyle International Airport.”