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Antigua wants to end social component of PetroCaribe

Published:Friday | September 12, 2014 | 9:00 AM
File Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne.

The Antigua & Barbuda government and the main opposition United Progressive Party (UPP) are at odds over the level of debt owed to Venezuela under the PetroCaribe oil initiative.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne, speaking at a news conference earlier this week, said that the country owes Caracas US$375 million and that efforts are being made to have it restructured.

"In terms of the existing debt, we have asked for some forbearance so that we would not end up in any serious issue," Browne said, telling reporters that his new administration has been using "diplomatic and political tools" to resolve the issues.

"But you can understand if it weren't for these interventions we would have ended up in a crisis," he said.

Under the PetroCaribe initiative, Antigua acquires oil and petroleum products from Caracas on concessionary terms with 60 per cent being paid upfront and the remaining 40 per cent being converted into a concessionary loan to be repaid over a 25-year period at two per cent interest.

The savings are used to fund Antigua's social programmes.

Prime Minister Browne said that he wants to change the terms of the agreement.

"I went to Venezuela. I met with President (Nicolás) Maduro, I have arranged for a little restructuring of the facility, going forward, that we can possibly utilise ... for investment purposes. So that instead of spending the funds on social projects directly, invest the proceeds and then we utilise the returns from investments to fund the social programmes," Browne said.

But former prime minister and UPP leader Baldwin Spencer, under whose administration Antigua joined the PetroCaribe initiative, said he was against a change in the philosophy of the programme.

He said PetroCaribe was the brainchild of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez and the social programme "is an integral part of the arrangement ... designed specifically to do with social projects that will benefit the most vulnerable members of society".

Spencer, whose government lost the June 12 general election, also disagreed with Browne on the amount of the PetroCaribe debt.

"That is absolutely ridiculous because there is no problem in meeting our obligations as far as the debt under the PetroCaribe arrangement is concerned," he said of the US$375m figure.

"We don't have a debt that is piling up with Venezuela under the PetroCaribe arrangement," Spencer said.

- CMC