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May 29, 2008

Barrow press conference covers electricity, oil, amendments and Ashcroft

Story PictureHe promised to meet the press on a quarterly basis … and today, while admittedly a few days overdue, Prime Minister Dean Barrow made good on his pledge. Since there is no shortage of pressing issues, the P.M. got right to the point. First was the question of electricity. While Barrow emphasized that the existing rate setting mechanism utilised by the Public Utilities Commission is perfectly capable of dealing with the situation without his involvement, he could not help but respond to the not so subtle threat issued publicly by Fortis C.E.O. Stan Marshall.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“I always want to operate as Prime Minister in a fashion that’s not personal. But I think it’s hard not to get personal when remarks of that nature are made by a foreigner doing business in our country, but who ultimately remains a guest in our country. I will content myself with saying only that those remarks were unfortunate and I certainly found them offensive and insulting.”

After speaking to B.E.L.’s C.E.O. Lynn Young and receiving confirmation from the P.U.C., Barrow said he was satisfied that the recent power outages were not intentional. But in case they were, he had taken the liberty of preparing emergency legislation to deal with any eventuality.

As for what government could do to ease the situation, Barrow pointed north, saying that on June fifth a delegation led by former Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel would travel to Mexico to meet with officials of the Comision Federal de Electricidad. They would see what C.F.E. could do to reduce the ever increasing charges for current purchased by B.E.L. But if that effort proves unsuccessful the P.M. is ready to take it to the next level.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“There is a meeting of the Tuxla process, which is Central America and Mexico, at the end of June and I hope, if things have not progressed satisfactorily based on the meeting with C.F.E., to be able to bend the Mexican presidents there on an individual basis, again to see if some comfort might be had from the Mexicans.”

In any case, Barrow promised that for the eleven thousand smallest B.E.L. customers who now pay a discounted “social rate”, their light bills will not go up, even if government has to subsidise their payments.

Turning from the negative side of the energy issue to the positive, the P.M. reiterated the need for a windfall profits tax on domestic oil production and said that with advice from experts, negotiations were proceeding with Belize Natural Energy and he expected that a deal would be concluded very soon.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“I need to indicate that it is the sovereign right of the government to impose a windfall tax and a windfall tax will be imposed. So the discussion really is about the extent of the tax, the degree of the tax, the nature of the tax. I want to see that completed by the end of next week because everyday the prices keep going up and I don’t expect to do this retroactively. So the longer we spend in negotiations, the more we are missing the opportunity to start collecting some additional revenues. It is out of those revenues, for example, that I expect that the government will offer the subsidy to the B.E.L. consumers that are on the social rate.”

The next meeting with B.N.E. will be held Friday afternoon.

On the subject of government’s tax fight with B.T.L. over the company’s attempt to achieve their government guaranteed fifteen percent of return by not paying millions of dollars in business tax, Barrow accused Telemedia of acting in bad faith by continuing with court action. As retribution he ordered the tax department to file its own legal case to force Telemedia to pay two more months of overdue taxes. Despite the ill will, the two sides keep negotiating. As for its differences with the Belize Bank, that institution has been ordered by the court to take its grievances to a tribunal as provided by law. Otherwise, Barrow insisted that the Central Bank’s order for the Belize Bank to pay up must stand. And while the Prime Minister showed no signs of backing down in his battle with the Ashcroft Group, he did admit defeat on the issue of a constitutional amendment to permit preventive detention of criminal suspects.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“In Toledo, all those that spoke on the amendments and had anything to say about the Preventative Detention proposals spoke against those proposals. And again in Corozal, all those that addressed that issue spoke against those proposals. I had said from the beginning that I understood that this was a very dicey, tricky issue. In proposing it, I myself had to, in a way, come loose from my constitutional moorings but I thought that the law and order issues in our society had become such that we at least to contemplate what was admittedly an extremely draconian measure. I am satisfied on the basis of the two public consultations and on the basis of the call to the radio station that we’d been monitoring. Everything so far indicates that even if there are people who support it, but even if there are those who support it, there are deafeningly silent. Everybody that as spoken about it so far, that might be a slight exaggeration but–by my reckoning—everybody that has spoken about it so far is against it. I had said from the start that as the democratic government, I would rebound to heed the position taken even if it were by a minority as long as it is a vocal minority. I don’t know if it’s a minority but those that are against it are certainly vocal and I say again those that may be supporting it have not said anything. I am therefore, prepared to indicate at this stage that the government would not be proposing or will not be proceeding with those aspects of the constitutional amendments when the bill goes back to the House.”

And looking to the future, while candidate Dean Barrow often spoke in terms of gloom and doom regarding the nation’s financial situation, Prime Minister Dean Barrow appears to be a zealous convert to the religion of economic optimism.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“We had already secured a principle commitment from Taiwan for twenty-five million U.S. dollars as budget support. They confirmed that when I went for the inauguration. So that obviously—the first grant is supposed to come some time in July—so that would help us in terms of the budget. The windfall tax with B.N.E. will also help us in terms of the budget. The experts all are as certain as they can possibly be, with something that is not an exact science, that there is additional oil in this country. So I am hoping that we can stay afloat, we can still do some of the programmes that we want to do. Cabinet approved that we certainly start the year now of giving the three hundred dollar subsidies to first formers who deserve it, that we will do that come hell or high water. I am hoping that, again, with the monies that we are trying to unlock from the multilateral financial institutions, that we can stay afloat and do more than stay afloat; make progress, however incremental it may be, until our ship comes in with respect to the additional oil that all the experts tell me is there.”

Barrow cited impending exploration by U.S. Capital Energy in Toledo as well as new efforts by other companies, including Belize Natural Energy, as reasons for his optimism.

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