Missing PetroCaribe funds…Responsibility for missing money lies with past Finance Ministry – Seeraj
By Jarryl Bryan General Secretary of the Guyana Rice Producers Association (GRPA) and formerly Vice- Chairman of the
Guyana Rice Development Board (GRDB), Dharamkumar Seeraj, yesterday made it pellucidly clear that the GRDB bore no jurisdiction or authority over the PetroCaribe fund. Thus, the body could not be held accountable for the misuse of the millions of dollars that the new Government declared missing from the fund. Addressing a press conference, at SleepInn Hotel on Brickdam yesterday, Seeraj pointed to the former Ministry of Finance, at the time under Finance Minister Ashni Singh, stating that his or the GRDB’s knowledge of the fund was limited. The Government of the day had control of the fund, he said, when asked about the final responsibility for the missing money. The rice industry was rocked by the news on Wednesday last, that the Government had accepted the resignation of General Manager of the GRDB Jagnarine Singh. There was news that Seeraj would also be off the Board of Directors. This, Minister of State Joseph Harmon had said that same day, was as a result of the ‘empty’ PetroCaribe fund the new administration encountered when it came to office. Brandishing the newspapers containing the headlines-Kaieteur News, Stabroek News and Guyana Times, Seeraj accused the government of misrepresenting the facts on purpose, in keeping with political machinations, in order to turn farmers away from the GRDB and GRPA. “I cannot believe that as a senior Minister, he would not be aware of this. We don’t know where the account is or how it was set up. So when the Minister starts bashing the GRDB for payment to farmers and blaming it for the misuse of money, he is barking up the wrong tree.” “I have limited knowledge of the PetroCaribe fund and account. I have extensive knowledge of the GRDB fund and account. The PetroCaribe fund does not play a part in the overall management and responsibility of the GRDB. Wherever that is going, it is not at the GRDB.” Seeraj stated that the rice board had been appealing for payment from the PetroCaribe fund. So, responsibility for the fund was not a matter for either the GRPA or the GRDB, but rather for the custodians of the Petro Caribe fund/account, who he said would be the Ministry of Finance. “I want to think it’s the Ministry of Finance, since it was them we would approach and make representation to. We would make our representation (for payment) to the then Minister (Ashni) Singh and Minister (Leslie) Ramsammy. Now, we have made representations to the new Minister of Finance and Agriculture.” According to Seeraj, when the PetroCaribe deal was initiated, rice was not a part of the deal. He intimated that the GRDB was never privy to details about the fund. There are also widespread accusations within the industry that the selection process for exporters was a biased one. According to Seeraj, the tendering process was a public and occurred with every season. According to him, the quality control board within the GRDB examined the tenders and then made subsequent recommendations to the rice board. He stated that the millers are also invited to make recommendations. “Every (rice) season, if you are desirous of exporting to Venezuela, you can submit to GRDB a public advertisement. What we use as a rule of thumb is we look at the amount that you (potential exporter) purchase and we give the exporter a percentage of that to go to Venezuela.” He explained that in terms of the exporters, the rice board was the contracting partner to supply a combination of rice and paddy. He explained that in 2009 he was a part of a team going countrywide in efforts to get the vessels loaded. According to him, exporters were reluctant to come on board until 2010, when a payment system was set up. It was then that more exporters were brought into the enterprise. According to him, since the export amount was higher than what went to Venezuela, the Board looked at what percentage of the 200,000 tonnes going to Venezuela played in the overall export. Seeraj was adamant that advertisements were placed in the newspapers, asking for interested exporters to come forward and tender. In explaining the criteria used to allow quotas, Seeraj explained that this was reflective of the overall percentage of total export, which is thirty/thirty-four percent. “So if you buy a hundred tonnes of paddy, you will be allowed thirty-four tonnes, in keeping with that percentage, to go to Venezuela. The remainder will go to our traditional markets e.g. the Caribbean, Europe, and more recently Central America and further afield towards North America.” Asked whether he was happy with the state of rice in the country, Seeraj was affirmative. An inquiry into the spending and operations of the GRDB has since been launched, with the audit firm Nigel Hinds and Associates being given the task to undertake. The PetroCaribe fund was identified as one of the aspects that auditors will pay close attention to. The PetroCaribe fund is an account used to store money the Government would have saved, as a result of the Venezuelan oil for rice deal that sees Venezuela supplying oil to a number of countries, including Guyana, who would pay part of the money up front, at a minimal interest rate, over a 20-year period. In return, Guyana would supply rice to Venezuela, which accounts for 36 per cent of Guyana’s rice market, while using the extra money to pay farmers and millers. Millions of dollars were supposed to be in the fund, especially after assurances from the PPP/C, that only US$15M was used from the fund for projects like the Hope Canal and the new Guyana Power and Light (GPL) Wartsilla generators. But the new administration discovered an empty fund. Alternate means were subsequently found by the Government to pay millers and farmers, with some $800M being allocated for this purpose.