Budget Debate 20133073 05 Apr, 2013
Minister of Foreign Affairs [Mrs. Rodrigues-Birkett]: Let me just assure the Hon. Member that on this side of the House we are ready for the polygraph testing. Just come with us.
It is with a sense of great pride and satisfaction that I stand this afternoon to make my contribution to this debate. Let me, at the outset, congratulate the Hon. Minister Dr. Ashni Kumar Singh and his team for once again remaining consistent and providing to us a people’s budget.
I did not mean it lightly when I said that it is with great pride that I stand to support the budget before us. Guyana does not exist in a vacuum and the global challenges that confront the world today or confront us all today will certainly have an effect to Guyana. We must not dismiss this lightly. As we assess our own progress and indeed the challenges, which we still have to confront, we must look at what is happening around us. In fact, many of us followed the news from around the world and are privy to the difficult times being experienced in several countries. While the Hon. Dr. Ashni Singh can stand tall - yes, I can say that - with shoulders upright and present this budget to this House, his colleagues in Cyprus has just resigned. The headlines on Wednesday for instance, of the UK Guardian screamed, “Euro zone manufacturing slums worsen”, “Unemployment in Euro areas hits high”, and “UK factory output declines.”
Closer to home, our Caribbean neighbours are also facing dire times as the Hon. Minister of Finance said that the overall growth in the Caribbean in 2012 was less 1% with three economies posting negative growth over that period. Our dear land of Guyana was one of only four CARICOM countries which recorded positive growth. Several of those countries are still in recession. Let me be clear. We do not bask in the unfortunate situations of many of our neighbours. Indeed, we stand in solidarity with them because if we are to make this CARICOM integration work all of our economies need to be strong. However, I think that there are moments when we, as Guyanese, must eschew modesty - Mr. Basil Williams does it a lot, but not for the right reasons - and stop being bashful and speak about our successes and the positive things that are happening in our country. We must do this since traditionally we have been seen as a basket case of this hemisphere for more reasons than one, including man-made disasters that set back our country almost to 25 years.
What is the story today of Guyana? This is what the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) report, titled, Preliminary Overview of the Caribbean Economies 2012 to 2013, states:
“Guyana, Belize and Suriname will continue to post substantial growth rates buoyed by the high price in gold and agricultural exports”
In terms of the projection of all the Caribbean countries, Guyana is projected to grow the most this year at 4.9%. The Caribbean is projected to grow at 2.1%. This I believe, if we all put our shoulders to the wheel, we can achieve this. What does it state in terms of tourism? I know that our tourism industry is steadily growing. It states:
“The overall result…”
This is about the Caribbean.
“…is one of a weak performance except for Belize, Suriname and Guyana.”
Guyana had the largest percentage increase of arrivals of 17.9% and the report goes to on to state… I know many of my colleagues on the other side asked about unemployment. The report states:
“Except for Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, unemployment rates are likely to remain elevated for some time within the range in 2012 of being 12 and 20%.”
Guyana, again, features very well here.
Today we are an exception, this time around, for a good reason and our national self-esteem continues to thrive. We have much more to do, but we have gone a far way in restoring self- respect, I believe, in our national psyche. When I say “we” I do not mean the PPP/ Civic only, but all of our Guyanese brothers and sisters who have chosen, as I said before, to put their shoulders to the wheel and in their own way contribute to the development of Guyana - those in the private sector who continue to believe in Guyana and take the necessary risks associated with business; those in our banking sector that have come on board and provided loans to our people so that they can own their own homes and achieve self fulfillment; those in the agricultural sector whom, notwithstanding the erratic weather condition, continue to feed us and provide the necessary foreign exchange; yes, those in the mining sector who travel to the far reaches of our country; the mothers and fathers who send their children to school and the teachers who teach them and those in the public service who everyday come out to work so that the state’s institutions can go on. Of course, I have to say those in the foreign service who keep the flag of Guyana flying high and representing our country abroad.
We are where are today, as a country, doing no small part to the effort of all these people who continue, as Minister Ali said, to believe in the Guyana’s dream and who are determined to make that dream a reality and our country a better place. We are trying to build this Guyana, project Guyana, for us, for our children and for our children’s children. I am one of those who subscribed to the view that if our country is to progress, at the rate we would like it to progress, two things must be in place: good education and good infrastructure.
With an educated population we can move mountains. With the necessary infrastructure we can facilitate investments, trade, tourism, so that our people can have more jobs and that we will be able to generate wealth and ultimately improve the lives of all of our people. This is project Guyana and this is what we believe in, on this side of the House, and what we have been doing about it. As we speak in the National Assembly we should not miss the different pieces of the puzzle that come together to form this whole Guyana that we would like to see.
When we talk about the expansion of the new airport, at Timehri, we are talking about making Guyana a hub of the bridge between South America, the Caribbean, North America and Africa as well. We are talking about south-south cooperation. It is not only with the airport, at Timehri, but look at what is happening at Ogle. I am advised now that there are plans… Well, I have seen it, the lining up at that airport to depart now. It has never been like that before. Again, this is because of the people, all of us, who believe in moving Guyana forward.
Much has been said about the Marriott Hotel, but let me say this, right now, Guyana cannot host a major international meeting because it does not have all of the accommodation required. That is the truth. It needs to provide adequate facilities. There are a lot of smaller hotels. There are two bigger ones, but it still needs to have better and bigger facilities as well. I think we need to see this also as a part of that bigger of the puzzle of shaping the Guyana we want.
We are in discussion, and the Hon. Member Mrs. Backer spoke about this, with the working group on infrastructure, which is a technical working group, comprising of persons of state agencies from Brazil and Guyana. Yesterday, there was its second meeting here in Guyana, and what is it doing? It is discussing infrastructure projects that will be executed by Guyana and Brazil, namely the road from Linden to Lethem, hydroelectric and also the port that we hopefully would be having on the coast.
Mr. Speaker, they are working on the proposals to submit to the two Presidents in June. I can say that these discussions are going very well. We are hoping that in the not so distant future this would be one of the biggest initiatives between two countries in South America. Again, this is about improving the infrastructure of our country, Guyana.
Minister Ali spoke about the competitiveness and what we are trying to do in terms of making it easier for people to do business in Guyana. This is another piece of that puzzle again.
The Low Carbon Development Strategy: as we move forward with these developmental projects, we must be able to create that balance between sustainable use of our environment and also realising the development of our country. The two, I believe, are not necessarily incompatible.
We are, right now, at the level of CARICOM, negotiating a trade agreement with Canada. Even as we wait for that agreement to be finalised, Guyana and Canada will be signing an investment treaty, because we have a lot of Canadian investments here. Also, our people from Guyana export gold to Canada; over 90% of our export to Canada is gold. We have to start preparing ourselves for even more business with that country.
I would like to say to the Opposition that these are all positive things. The Opposition has every right to provide constructive criticism but speaking about the positive things would not make Members disloyal to their party. In fact, if members only carry bad news, the people would ask, “What are you doing?” I think we need to recognise that there are good things happening as well.
In terms of Suriname - and I speak here about the relations with our immediate neighbours - Mrs. Backer, the Hon. Member, reminded about the presentations last year on the border crossings. We are ready to move with this issue. You would recognise that it would have to be done on both sides at the same time for it to work. So, we have begun those discussions with Suriname and hopefully we would be able to move forward with those discussions this year and hopefully implement that later in the year. Like I said, both sides would have to do it at the same time.
Mrs. Backer also mentioned, briefly, I think, about the Border Commission. I am pleased to let this House know that the Border Commission will start its work shortly. We have identified one of our seasoned diplomats, Ambassador Rudolph Collins, to head that Commission on our side. The first meeting should be taking place very soon.
I spoke last year about the decision by both countries to bridge the Corentyne River. We have since written to the IDB to conduct a feasibility study, and we have received a positive response. So, those things are moving.
In terms of Venezuela, we were all saddened by the death of President Hugo Chavez Frias, a true integrationist and a champion of the poor and the vulnerable. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that our relations with Venezuela, under President Maduro, would continue to flourish. Of course, it is sensible to ensure that we cater for any eventuality. In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I can tell you that we have been discussing this but, based on the relations over the last 12 years with Venezuela, like I said, I have every reason to be confident. Let me say this, Guyana is willing to work with any Government of Venezuela for the advancement of the two peoples.
The Minister of Finance mentioned that we have benefited tremendously from the sale of rice and paddy to Venezuela and we are hoping to conclude, very shortly, a new agreement for the sale of additional rice and paddy. We will continue to work on other cooperation initiatives.
Minister Webster spoke about the opening of a homeless shelter here in Guyana. I am pleased to say that we received close to US$2 million from the Venezuelan Government to complete that shelter. Very soon that will be opened.
In terms of Brazil, I just mentioned that the main thing we are working on right now is on these infrastructural projects. All our efforts are placed there right now, but we continue to cooperate with Brazil in other regional bodies as well.
The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) would always be part of my presentation in this National Assembly as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Minister Ashni Singh, in his presentation, reiterated Guyana’s commitment to CARICOM. I am well aware of the criticisms of CARICOM. At 40 years, I think people expected that we would have been much further in the CARICOM project. I think that our founding leaders’ aspirations were great. I do not think that their aspirations are unattainable, but I think all of us in CARICOM have to continue to put our political will where our mouths are. We hear all the time about commitments, but not necessarily the matching actions. Fortunately, if you take the scorecard of CARICOM, Guyana leads in terms of meeting its obligations under the Treaty of Chaguaramas.
Hon. Backer spoke about foreign policy cooperation. I would like to say a few words about this in terms of CARICOM. Let me let the Hon. Member know that there are several initiatives that Guyana brought to the coffer, in terms of foreign policy coordination. For example, this honourable House would be aware that the European Union (EU) was seeking a special status in the United Nations (UN) and it moved forward with that without consulting any of us. As an integration movement, we were concerned. Guyana asked CARICOM to look at this very carefully because Guyana believes that, we at minimum, it should be consulted. That resulted in a discussion with the EU. Our ambassadors in New York worked very hard and, at the end of the day, we had a resolution that we all could have agreed with. That was one time when CARICOM, I think except for one, stood together.
In recent times, we have had some mixed signals. Some members said that foreign policy coordination does not mean unanimity. In other words, we could have different positions, but we should inform each other about our different positions. I and Guyana, like the Hon. Member, Mrs. Backer, believe that if we hold together we would be able to benefit more and make a greater impact.
We are working on this on the Palestinian issue. All but, I think, two member states had some issues and we were able to – I should have said that the other way around... We should have been able to have a single position. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
On the issue of the Malvinas/Falkland Islands, in CARICOM we had a united position in the sense that we called for dialogue at the Organization of American States (OAS). In fact, we were in the forefront of asking for the representative of the United Kingdom (UK) at that OAS meeting in Cochabamba to be able to make a presentation, which he did. However, the members of CARICOM were very clear that there were positions by Guyana and Suriname. And I would like to remind this House that these are not positions only from now. The issue of the Malvinas and the position of Guyana have been there since before I was born. We have ensured that we checked all the documents that we have, but let me say this: the one time that we found that we were not supportive of force being used, but were supportive of the Argentinians, let me say very clearly that Guyana’s position is that. [Mrs. Backer: What?] It is that, very clear. We support Argentina. We have no apologies to make. We support Argentina in this cause. I want to make that very clear. We are not going to wobble on this. That has been reiterated in the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC); it is there.
I also want to say that in terms of the CELAC, Cuba has taken the presidency of CELAC from this year and Guyana congratulates Cuba on that achievement. This is very significant. This hemisphere is changing and, I think, we need to be in touch with that change. We know that Cuba is going to do a superb job during the next year in bringing Latin America and the Caribbean together. After all, Cuba’s cooperation programmes span the hemisphere.
In terms of the OAS - the Hon. Member, Mrs. Backer, spoke of the OAS - Guyana and the Government have every right to update the OAS on what is taking place in Guyana. The Human Rights Commission cannot make a statement without asking the Government what its position is. That is clear. The Commission has accepted that position that whatever it wanted to say about the Linden situation, it should have gone through the necessary procedures and inform the Government of Guyana. It did not do that. [Mrs. Backer: Owww! Mmmm!] If you were sitting here, you would have had issues with that too.
We believe in the OAS and we believe that it has a special place in this hemisphere. For this reason, we have put forward the candidacy of Ambassador Bayney Karran for the position of Assistant Secretary General. We are hoping that Guyana will be successful.
We have had quite a lot of important things happening for Guyana at the level of the UN. You would be aware that we were elected as Chairman of the Economic and Financial Committee, which is the second committee of the UN General Assembly. Guyana’s mission has been doing our country proud at that level. In fact, some of the bigger countries have been asking how small countries like us manage, given the resources at our disposal - as small states.
We have also been elected to the vice presidency of the Executive Board of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). We share responsibility for facilitating inter-governmental oversight and leadership of the work of this premier international institution. We were also elected vice presidency of the Second Review Conference on Small Arms and Light Weapons. We have successfully concluded and adopted...an important part of the outcome document of that conference is the 2013 – 2018 work plan. Guyana played a major role there. Yes, the Arms Trade Treaty, CARICOM played a major role in that and Guyana was part of that as well.
In terms of the reform of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Guyana was appointed, along with Belgium, to serve as co-facilitators of this process. President Ramotar was one of ten member state champions appointed by the Secretary General of the UN to the Global Education First Initiative.
Closer to home, in the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO), we had our own Sharon Austin who worked as State Project Coordinator at the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs installed as the Coordinator of Indigenous Affairs within the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization. We had our former President, the former President Jagdeo, being appointed as Chairman of the Global Green Growth Institute, and, recently, he was among three former Heads of Government, along with former President Obasanjo of Nigeria and President Fernández of the Dominican Republic, appointed by the Secretary General of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of States to the Eminent Persons Group, looking at the future of the ACP.
Our own Ambassador, Patrick Gomes, in Brussels has been appointed to lead the Ambassadorial Group of the ACP, looking at future perspectives of the ACP. These are all very important appointments. Sometimes we do not sing our songs very loudly in foreign policy, but these have been all very important developments for us.
I would like to speak on the Diaspora Project. We have launched it, and let me say that this Diaspora Project is not about saying, “People living abroad, you must come back.” If that is their choice, they will. It is mapping the skills that are out there so that we could then know the interests and skills, and what they are interested in, so that we can develop policies here in Guyana. It is a very important part of development now - the Diaspora - and we want to ensure that it is included in our development. Already, we have had more than 500 persons filling their complete survey. Another 1,700 persons were filling it, but not complete; we are assessing that right now.
Before I conclude my presentation, I want to speak in my capacity as the Member of Parliament of Region 9. I listened to the Hon. Member, Mr. Sidney Allicock, and, for a moment, I had to check whether it was he whom I was listening to. I just want to move directly to some of the things that he said that are not facts.
Mr. Speaker, the Hon. Member spoke about a number of communities being identified for teachers’ quarters. He indicated that of the list submitted, the number one priority, Taushida, was struck out and, instead, the Minister of Finance inserted Sand Creek, a stronghold of the PPP, to use his words. The whole Rupununi is a stronghold of the PPP so... The fact of the matter is this: Taushida had teachers’ quarters built in 2011. So, a request was not made for teachers’ quarters. So, that is the first – how do we say it – untruth.
Secondly, he said that Sand Creek was inserted; it was not requested. Mr. Speaker, they asked for Sand Creek to be included because this Government just built a brand new secondary school there. Already, we have teachers’ quarters there but we want to make sure that the principal of that school is comfortable so we have included, in this year’s Budget, quarters for the head teacher of Sand Creek.
The Hon. Member also spoke of the Amerindian land issues. He said here - and I would like to repeat what he said about that particular matter - “Today, after some 40 years of the passing of the Hon. Steven Campbell, who fought for the rights of Indigenous people, we are still here not settling these issues.” The paragraph before that said, “We need to always be sensitive to the cries of the Indigenous people as it relates to land demarcation and extension. It is imperative that we do so failing which Guyana…”
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Member, have you been able to access the transcript already?
Dr. Rodrigues-Birkett: I have it, yes.
Mr. Speaker: You are doing better than us here in the Parliament Office.
Dr. Rodrigues-Birkett: Mr. Speaker, we are very efficient on this side of the House. This is our transcript. This is not from the Parliament Office, Mr. Speaker; we did our own. [Mrs. Backer: Well that is not authentic.] I wrote, too, when the Hon. Member was speaking.
What is the story of land? Let me zoom into the Rupununi, because Region 9 is actually what we were talking about. One of the first communities to receive extensions in Region 9 was Annai, where the Hon. Member is from. That land was increased to over 300 square miles. In fact, it is double the size of Barbados - the first community in the set. Not only Annai, we have titled Katoka, Parikwarunau, Fairview, Apoteri, Rewa, Crash Water, and we have extended Yakarinta, and Massara. I am only mentioning Region 9. The truth is that we have moved the percentage of land owned by Amerindians from 6.5 per cent to 14 per cent. In fact, it is more. Minister Sukhai will speak about some of the additional ones that we have included.
The one part that really bothered me, which the Hon. Member said, was that the Garden of Eden surely must have been located in this magnificent region, but the lack of vision, will, skill, prudent management and, he went on to say, some other things, have combined to render the Rupununi one of the most backward places in the entire Caribbean. If there was a chance for the Hon. Member to withdraw that, I would ask him to do so. This is the story of Region 9. The Regional Chairman, the REO and the Vice Chairman are all born Rupununians. The medical doctor at Annai, Dr. Joseph Torres, was born in the Rupununi. The Electrical Engineer responsible for the Lethem Power Company, Mr. Silverious Perry, is a graduate trained by this Government, born in the Rupununi. Renita Casimero, Jason Johnny and Natasha Torres are all Cuban graduates, working in that region in senior positions, who were born there. Is Mr. Allicock saying that they do not have the vision, will and skill? No, he cannot be saying that.
He then spoke about the miniscule number of persons of Region 9 being able to attain higher education - the miniscule number. The list is too long for me to call out all the names, but let me call some of them. These are the ones who are in Cuba: Natasha Abraham, Melissa Phillips, Illona Spencer, Shellon Hamilton, Bernadine Foo, Teresa Mansingh, Raline Abraham, Gellisa D’Aguiar, Alex D’Aguiar - all right now in Cuba completing their degrees. We have an additional 25 students who are studying at the University of Guyana.
In the last five years, in education only, 95 teachers were trained from Region 9 and are in Region 9. What is the story of the backward place that was spoken about? [Ms. Ally: Where are they?] They are in Region 9.
Mr. Speaker: I would like to hear the Minister please.
Mrs. Rodrigues-Birkett: In the last eight years, this same “backward region” that the Member spoke about, of the Hinterland Regions, Region 9 led the number of scholars – these are people who wrote and passed exams. Region 9 led the Hinterland Regions in children being admitted under scholarship programmes. It presently has 77 right now under the programme.
Mr. Allicock would have done Region 9 proud if he had come here to say that we have these issues, but our region is moving. The Hon. Member, Mrs. Backer, just said that Lethem is a growing town, doing well. That is not backward.
I would like to end by saying this. There is a saying that goes, if you do not tell the truth, somebody will tell it for you. I just did.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. [Applause]
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