Friday 28 February, 2020

Bill approved by the House to retake Petrojam shares held by Venezuela

Prime Minister Andrew Holness in Parliament (file photo)

Prime Minister Andrew Holness in Parliament (file photo)

Jamaica has moved a step closer to forcibly taking back the 49 per cent stake in Petrojam that is held by Venezuelan state-owned oil company, PDVSA Caribe SA.

The development follows the approval of a Bill in the House of Representatives Tuesday night, after a more than five-hour-long debate along partisan lines that was at times contentious.

The Bill was piloted by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, and he and other Government members sought to cast the debate in a purely economic light aimed at ensuring Jamaica’s energy security.

However, Opposition members, led by Dr Peter Phillips, cited politics and external influences as being at the heart of the decision to take back the shares via the legislative process.

In the end, the Government used its superior numbers to approve the Bill which is titled, ‘The Compulsory Acquisition (Shares in Petrojam Limited) Act, 2019’. It will now head to the senate for debate and approval there.

Opposition member, Mark Golding, described the Bill as shameful, and he was supported by Peter Bunting, who at one point accused the prime minister of “not coming clean” when there was a dispute as to the true valuation price that was offered to the Venezuelans.

In the end, the offer price was revealed to be US$34 million on a 2018 valuation.

However, Bunting accused the Government of deliberately leaving out information which showed that Petrojam was valued at US$170 million in 2017.

Meanwhile, Golding was firmly against the Bill, aspects of which he questioned.

“Mr Speaker, I don’t support this legislation. I’m not going to vote in favour of it. This is a disgrace to Jamaica,” said Golding.

The former Minister of Justice and current Member of Parliament (MP) for South St Andrew said the Bill was poorly conceived “and the circumstances which have given rise to it have not reached the standard to necessitate Jamaica taking this drastic and unprecedented step.”

Earlier, Opposition Leader, Dr Peter Phillips, described the move as unprecedented. He cautioned the Government not to yield to the “power of the mighty”, a clear reference to the United States and the pressure it has brought to bear on the Nicolas Maduro regime in Venezuela.

Phillips also suggested that the Bill was premature, since the Government has appointed a commission, led by noted businessman, Christopher Zacca, to examine the future feasibility of Petrojam. The commission is to provide its report by May of this year.

But when he closed the debate, the prime minister noted that the commission has indicated that if Jamaica does not recover the share from the Venezuelans, its proposals on Petrojam’s future would not be workable.

And while Phillips suggested that the Government should pursue a different route, the prime minister, who had earlier chronicled the 55-year history of Petrojam, said it is time for decisive action.

Holness said that in the 12 years since the Venezuelans promised to upgrade Jamaica’s lone oil refinery, nothing has happened while the plant has become increasingly obsolete.

Holness also said that on 18 occasions, the Venezuelan representatives failed to attend meetings to discuss the upgrading of the plant.

He also pointed to meetings which he has had with Maduro, and commitments which were reportedly given by the embattled president, which were said to have yielded no positive results.

During his contribution to the debate, Finance Minister, Dr Nigel Clarke, like Energy Minister, Fayval Williams before him, insisted that the decision to buy back the shares was purely economic in nature.

Said Clarke: “This Bill is not about politics. This Bill is not about political ideology. It is not motivated by political or ideological goals. It is in Jamaica's economic interest.”

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