Venezuela has until Senate debate to agree to sale

Senior staff reporter

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

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THE House of Representatives last night approved a bill giving the Government the right to compulsory recovery of Venezuela's 49 per cent share in Jamaica's only oil refinery, Petrojam.

Government Memebers of Parliament voted to approve the bill – The Compulsory Acquisition (Shares in Petrojam Limited) Act, 2019 – which provides for the acquisition and: ownership of the property to be vested in the Accountant General, in trust for the Government, and for compensation to be paid to Venezuela.

The vote followed a passionate and partisan five-hour debate, which forced Speaker Pearnel Charles on his feet to bring order to the House.

Leader of the Opposition Dr Peter Phillips warned Prime Minister Andrew Holness against yielding to the “power of the mighty” in an obvious reference to the role being played by the United States Government in the Venezuelan crisis.

He urged the Government that it was not too late to take a different position and delay making a decision.

However, Holness, who piloted the Bill in the House, would only offer to give the Nicolas Maduro Administration until it reaches the floor of the Senate, which could meet as early as Friday, for final approval on a mutual agreement. Otherwise, he said that the Government would go ahead and acquire the shares and pay the offer into an escrow fund.

Holness said that an agreement was reached on a price at one stage with the Maduro Administration. However, the terms of the agreement were not acceptable to Jamaica.

“Let me also state for the record that we have, at all relevant times prior to this moment, made it clear to PDV Caribe that if it were to agree to feasible terms for the sale of the shares the Government of Jamaica would suspend this legislative process. Despite our various efforts, we have not, to date, had success,” Holness said.

“I want to make it clear,that if they were they to sign the draft share purchase agreement before this debate is concluded today, the Government of Jamaica would have been willing to suspend this process and sign the agreement as well. Furthermore, if they were to do so prior to its passage in the Senate, this position would still stand,” he said.

In agreement with the prime minister, Minister of Finance and the Public Service Dr Nigel Clarke insisted that the decision was a purely economic one; however, the Opposition rejected the idea.

“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,” Dr Clarke, agreed with the prime minister.

“This is a last resort, because we have been dealing with it for the last 18 months,” he added.

But, Opposition spokesman on finance, Mark Golding, disagreed.

“I am not convinced that bar has been reached,” Golding responded, suggesting that Jamaica's vote against the Maduro regime at the Organisation of American States (OAS) had soured the relationship between the Government and the Venezuelan Administration.

Dr Phillips, meanwhile, insisted that the timing was wrong, as the Government has already appointed a commission to study Petrojam's future possibilities and report on what direction it should take by May.

However, in winding up the debate, Holness explained that the position of the commission has been that, without recovery of the shares from Venezuela, their proposals on the refinery's future would not be workable.

The prime minister said that the entire Bill had been carefully considered and drafted so that it adequately satisfies the principles expressed in Section 15 (1)(b) of the Constitution of Jamaica, which requires that any law which seeks to compulsorily acquire property of any description must secure to any interested person claiming an interest in or right over such property, a right of access to the court for the purpose of (i) establishing such interest or right, if any, (ii) for determining the compensation (if any) to which he is entitled; and (iii) enforcing his right to any such compensation.

Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte said she had looked at Section 15 of the Jamaican Constitution and was assured that the Bill was a “legal and constitutional move”.

She said that the circumstances that led to the drafting of the Bill were unusual, so there should be nothing surprising about it being an unusual response.

Closing the debate, Prime Minister Holness said that it should be realised that the Government was unable to make any major decision on the future of the refinery without Maduro's consent.

“The Government of Jamaica had no choice but to take the action it has taken today…I believe that we have discharged our duty in this matter,” he noted.

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