Budget Speech Ms Rodrigues-Birkett - 20122758 17 Apr, 2012
Minister of Foreign Affairs [Mrs. Rodrigues-Birkett]: I rise, as my colleagues, before me here, on this side of the House, to commend the Hon. Dr. Ashni Singh and members of his team for preparing a budget that is very consistent, as budgets before it, in the sense that it offers something for everyone - maybe not everything for everyone, but it is something for everyone. I think congratulations are in order, especially when one considers the erratic financial environment in which many of our countries in the world have found themselves, so much so that a new category of countries has been coined – the Heavily Indebted Rich Countries (HIRC). It is in this sense that we must not underemphasise the achievement by Guyana.
I also want to, at the outset, congratulate all of the new Members of Parliament who have joined us in this House, and also those who have returned. I also want to congratulate you, Mr. Speaker, for being elected as Speaker of the National Assembly and the Hon. Member Mrs. Deborah Backer for being elected as the Deputy Speaker. I notice that she is also my shadow Minister in the National Assembly.
As is expected, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs continued to focus on the protection and the consolidation of our sovereignty and the preservation of our territorial integrity. Of course, added to that is the promotion of economic and social development. Let me say that where necessary, action was taken to ensure that the internationally recognised boundaries of Guyana were respected. Members of this honourable House would recall that in September, last year, Guyana completed its submission for an extended continental shelf, to which you alluded to, Mr. Speaker, under article 79 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). By making that submission, Guyana has taken the necessary action to safeguard its rights and interests beyond the outer limit of the two hundred nautical miles of the Exclusive Economic Zone. It will be recalled that the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in September 2011 and, indeed, more recently declared its incongruous position on the action taken by Guyana. This Government will always ensure that Guyana remains a responsible actor in the international system. Guyana’s actions, pursuant to the submission, was in keeping with the provisions of international law and I, therefore, wish to assure every Guyanese that Guyana will resolutely and vigorously defend both of its submissions to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), and its rights under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Let there be no doubt about our resolve in these cases.
Mr. Speaker, as you rightly recognised, my absence from this Assembly was due in part to my leading a delegation to appear before the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf and to present our oral submission, and also met with the United Nations Secretary–General, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon.
I have noted that the Hon. Member Mrs. Backer indicated the APNU’s support for the position taken, thus far, by the Government in relation to its submission to the CLCS. National interest must always transcend partisan party politics and I think this is a great example. I hope it will be contagious and would have the same effect on the budget as a whole.
I have noted, too, that the Hon. Member Mrs. Backer spoke about the need to consult on issues of national importance, especially as it relates to our foreign policy. I want to inform the House today…Well, the PPP/C Government has always and will always continue to do so. But, as of tomorrow, the leaders of the Opposition parties in the National Assembly, and your good self, will receive an invitation from His Excellency so that they could meet with him and be fully updated, for obvious reasons in camera, on those developments at the United Nations.
Being a responsible actor in the international system does not only involve a commitment to dialogue, but it also involves a commitment to cooperation, both in a broad sense and in the sense of taking advantage of common interests and goals, and positions. Cooperation allows for the exploitation of both synergies and asymmetries and, of course, can even result in reduced vulnerabilities, as it permits sensible economic partnerships. These have been the guiding principles, in terms of our relations with both Suriname and Venezuela. The differences in views of Guyana and both states are well-known vis-à-vis Guyana’s territory, and in relation to the latter, Guyana’s maritime entitlements. Those differences, as important as they are to Guyana and its foreign policy, must not be allowed to preclude cooperation for mutual benefit. One such cooperation does not compromise Guyana’s legal rights and entitlements. It is on this basis, and what I see as a concomitant reciprocal position, at least in some respects by those states, that Guyana has worked hard to deepen cooperation with the Republic of Suriname and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
It is a fact that, of the fifteen Member States of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Guyana and Suriname are the only two with contiguous borders. We share more overall commonalities and I submit that the movement of people across our borders could very well be more than with other Member States of CARICOM. Then, why not capitalise on what brings us together? The good news, in my view, is that both of our countries now recognise and embrace these realities and possibilities. A new relationship has germinated, I would say, in the last three years, or so, and cooperation is the pivot of the relations now between Guyana and Suriname. We are cooperating in the areas of combating crime and enhancing public security, agriculture, climate change, forestry and many other areas. Guyana and Suriname, as I mentioned last year, have decided that it is in their best interest to bridge the Corentyne River. I must inform this House that a partner of our two countries, one of our friends in the international community – I am speaking here about a country – has indicated its interest and very shortly we will be submitting a joint proposal to that country.
The completion of the Corentyne Bridge will, no doubt, leapfrog integration between our two countries and peoples. But I must also mention that the return of Suriname Airways to our sky is not by coincidence. It is part of a larger plan by our countries to improve transportation and also to bring our peoples closer together, as will be the case with the Corentyne Bridge. We are also working…My dear colleague, Hon. Member Minister Ramsammy is working with his colleague to have harmonised fishing regulations. That is regulations for fishermen. This would, in part, aid the fight against piracy and, also, in other areas as well.
I have noted, too, that the Hon. Member Mrs. Backer spoke about the alternative entry and exit points, albeit of an illegal nature, which continue to exist on both sides of our borders. Mr. Speaker, I want to inform this honourable House and, in particular, the Hon. Member Mrs. Backer that there have been discussions on this issue, as recent as a few days ago, and a meeting is planned for the end of June, 2012, to further discuss the systems that must be put in place. This has to be done simultaneously, on both sides of the border, and Guyana and Suriname will be meeting to do this. I want to assure the citizens of Guyana that we will give adequate notice when those systems are completed and when we are ready to implement them.
In relation to Venezuela, we continue in the areas, as I mentioned earlier, of sensible partnerships. Our rice farmers continue to make significant contributions to Guyana’s development and our nation’s food security, but there is also recognition of the need for further growth. It is in this light that we have signed several agreements with Venezuela for the export of rice, the most recent agreement being one for US$53.4 million in 2011. Under this contract, we will export twenty thousand tons of rice and fifty thousand tons of paddy. This activity has helped to significantly add to our foreign exchange reserves, but also to the reduction of debt which would have otherwise accrued because of an importation of petroleum and petroleum products from Venezuela. Indeed, this type of arrangement, where we obtain petroleum and petroleum products and in return provide rice, is precisely how PetroCaribe was intended to operate. I must say, and this would show if we go to the records, that Guyana has little company when it comes to fully living up to this commitment, and I am very proud of that. We have also been pursuing the possibility of sourcing increased imports of urea from Venezuela to meet the needs in the sugar and rice industries. The Venezuelans have recently indicated an interest in buying building materials from Guyana. We have engaged the private sector in this regard and, where possible, we hope to meet the needs of the Venezuelan market, at least in part, and we will continue to work on that in this year.
Turning to Brazil, our largest neighbour, I wish to inform that our cooperation programmes continue apace in several areas – military cooperation, agriculture, to name a few areas. The joint Commission on Police Cooperation and Drugs has agreed to the sharing of information to combat organised crime and to improve joint border control mechanisms. I saw that a lot was said about that by the Hon. Member Mrs. Backer. Perhaps, it is because we do not do a lot of drum rolls when those things happen, the people might not be aware of all that we are doing. When it comes to security, the Hon. Member Minister Rohee would tell that it is not always everything that is being done is advertised, but we are hoping that we can have the same successes that we have had with our cooperation with Suriname, with Brazil as well.
I know that while all of those cooperation activities with Brazil are laudable, the nation awaits with bated breath word on the paving of the Lethem to Linden road and the construction of the deep water port. Let me say that in recent months there were accelerated discussions on those two projects. I was invited by my colleague, the distinguished Minister of Foreign Affairs of Brazil, to prepare for a visit of His Excellency President Donald Ramotar. That visit will take place shortly, within the next two months, and we are almost sure that the results of that would be something very positive for Guyana and Brazil.
We know that with the rapid pace of development in Brazil there can be an energy deficit, in that country, as early as the end of this decade. Brazil is working very hard for that not to happen. Guyana and Brazil have already signed an agreement for cooperation in hydroelectricity and work is progressing on a feasibility study. Let me say that Guyana will ensure that all of the necessary studies and consultations are conducted as required and, with this in mind, I am confident that there will be further movement in this regard. We need the road and port and Brazil needs energy. I think that we can have some arrangement in that regard.
In terms of our regional integration institutions, let me speak about CARICOM. Let me say, without a shadow of a doubt, that Guyana’s commitment to CARICOM remains strong. This is evidenced in certain facts. This is not just empty commitment. Guyana was one of the first two countries to sign on to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). It is one of the leading countries, in terms of ensuring that the legislative requirements are put in place in several areas. Guyana also built the CARICOM Secretariat which was promised under the People’s National Congress (PNC) administration and it has continued to pay its core allocation to the budget of the Secretariat. This is our regional integration institution, second only to the European Union (EU), in longevity, and it has served us well. It has stood the test of time, but it is ripe for a review, right now. After all, it is thirty-nine years old. Many of us are over thirty-nine years of age and we know that at that time we need to do a review anyway. So, there are certain questions which must be asked. Is this institution ready for this twenty first century? Is it as efficient and effective as it should be? Are the goals that we have set ourselves been achieved or are achievable? How do our populations feel about CARICOM? Is smallness our weakness? How can we use our fourteen votes more effectively in the regional and multilateral arenas?
Those are some of the questions that motivated Guyana to lead the call in asking for a review of the CARICOM institutions. We even offered to host a retreat of the Heads of State, in Guyana, to critically examine the priorities of this vital institution. We have seen the review of the Secretariat which is very telling and we support the hiring of a change agent to assist the Secretary-General in bringing that institution to where it should be. The work conducted, thus far, by the CCJ has made it imperative for us to take a second look at the revised Treaty of Chaguaramas. I am pleased to inform this honourable House that through the capable chairmanship of my colleague, the Attorney General, Mr. Anil Nandlall, who is the Chairman of the Inter-Governmental Task Force (IGTF) on the revision of the revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, Guyana will ensure that it plays its active role there.
Let me end on CARICOM by saying that we believe that CARICOM’s full potential will only be realised when there is full and complete commitment and political will from all of the Member States and when the people of the region can see its benefits. We are not there as yet. I agree with the Hon. Member Mrs. Backer that we need to involve all of the stakeholders so that even if the Government changes the commitment to CARICOM will not change. CARICOM must not only give, it has to receive, and we can only receive based on the inputs, and I believe that Guyana is doing well in that regard.
Even as we consolidate CARICOM, Guyana is well aware of the importance of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) which it had the opportunity to chair in 2011. We do not see CARICOM and UNASUR as competing integration movements but actually as complementary. We were happy that it was during Guyana’s chairmanship that the UNASUR Treaty came into force and was able to have a Secretary-General appointed. We are happy to see, now, that some of the concrete proposals put forward by Guyana are being discussed and some of them are being implemented.
Latin America remains the region with the most inequality and it is in this light that the Ministers of Finance of UNASUR have begun to address the possibility of an economic model - they call it a South American economic model – that allows plurality for both the private sector and the state to develop economic activities where the focus would be on generating wealth, more evenly across the nation and reducing the inequality that exists today. UNASUR also has agreed to have an electoral observation mission and Guyana benefited from that.
Mr. Speaker, you would also know about the new organisation Latin American and Caribbean Economic System (SELA), which is the Latin America and Caribbean Community of nations. There have been talks about SELA being an alternative to the Organization of American States (OAS). We do not necessarily see it as that, but we have to wait and see how this institution develops. Having just returned from the Summit of Americas where I accompanied His Excellency President Donald Ramotar, I wish to say that that summit provided for some good discussions amongst leaders in areas such as crime, security, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and climate change, but it is my humble view that that process is in jeopardy. If thing continues the way it is I cannot see another Summit of the Americas. This is primarily because of the exclusion of Cuba. All, but two countries present at the summit, agreed to have Cuba back in the fold. We were not able to have an agreement from two members of state. Lest we leave this House without being clear on what Guyana’s position is, let me repeat what President Ramotar said at the summit, and I quote:
“The other issue that is testing our solidarity is the question of Cuba’s attendance at this meeting of the Americas thought this issue was settled at the last summit in Trinidad and Tobago. Our position is that Cuba should be here. This island, apart of the Americas, has contributed tremendously to the development of the Americas. This issue continues to be a reminder of another period in our history that has passed, that of the cold war. It is time we move beyond this. It is time for the blockade to be lifted and for Cuba to take her rightful place in our meetings”.
That is Guyana’s position.
Turning to the area of foreign trade. Despite the serious economic challenges and pressures that persisted in the international trading system in 2011, Guyana has maintained an open and liberalised trade policy environment. It continues to press ahead with trade arrangements that allow its economy to expand imports and exports with both traditional and non-traditional sources. As a member of CARICOM, Guyana also remains engaged in the external trade negotiations with third parties. Trade with its regional partners in CARICOM has remained stable, accounting for approximately thirty-five per cent of its imports and over twenty per cent of its exports. At the Caribbean Forum of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (CARIFORUM) level, that is, CARICOM plus the Dominican Republic, we see an expansion of the trade performance with the Dominican Republic.
Since the implementation of the CARICOM- Dominican Republic free trade agreement in 2005, bilateral trade between Guyana and the Dominican Republic has increased almost sevenfold. Our exports to that country have more than tripled from $0.9 million in 2005 to over $3 million in 2010. Interestingly, our growing exports include products such as rice and coconuts, which are excluded from any tariff preferences. So regardless of that, Guyana has been able to increase its trade. During that same period imports from the Dominican Republic grew from $1.5 million to $12.6 million. We expect that the trade with this CARIFORUM country will continue to strengthen, but we certainly would like to see the trading balance shifted in our favour, and we will be working towards this. We negotiate trade agreements because we want to have open greater access for our country’s exports of goods and services and to improve the opportunities for growth and development of our business sector in trade and investment. It, therefore, seems that if the best deal or outcome is to be achieved the private sector’s input and active participation would be critical. This would also be true in the implementation of the negotiated trade agreements.
This year Guyana will continue with its implementation of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union. In our first year of EPA’s implementation, that commenced in January 2011, let me make it very clear, that after all the song and dance of the EPA, we have not seen any change in our trade with the European Union. The first comprehensive review is expected to be carried out next year and the CARIFORUM side will commence preparation for that review later this year.
In terms of Canada, Guyana remains committed to that negotiation. As you might know, Mr. Speaker, CARICOM is insisting that the agreement be a trade and development agreement and Canada is insisting that development must not be in that agreement. We have decided that we are going to have informal discussions on these issues, and, hopefully we would be able to have a negotiated solution. The United States of America is still our leading trading partner, accounting for over forty per cent of our combined imports and exports. We expect that CARICOM and the United States of America will soon conclude a trade and investment framework agreement which will provide a forum under the CARICOM-US Trade Investment Council for the two sides to pursue bilateral trade and investment issues.
I want to speak briefly about the diaspora because both His Excellency President Ramotar, in his address to the Assembly and the Minister of Finance spoke about the policy in that regard. Let me say that last year a Diasporas Unit was established at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and it has embarked on several initiatives. In fact, it is working with the International Office for Migration on a project which would see a database being created of our skills overseas. The project was submitted in January 2012 and we are hoping that it will commence within another few months. As part of this project, we would also be looking at the resources needed internally for development so that these needs could be matched against the resources in the diaspora, and to use the social media to have people registered as well. That is only one aspect of the project. We know that we will have to ensure public sensitisation and we will be doing that so that persons can become registered. Hopefully, next year Guyana will host a diaspora conference. By then this project will almost be completed and we would know what we have out there and would be able to have a successful conference. I also want to say that the International Office of Migration has upgraded its office in Guyana to a regional office, a Caribbean office, so that is also very important. We are working very closely with it and we intend, at the next Foreign Ministers’ meeting of CARICOM, to include our other partners as well in this initiative.
The Hon. Member Mrs. Backer spoke about the Foreign Service Institute and this remains critical to our Ministry’s response to train our human resources. There have been several training sessions during last year and early this year, and the Ministry will continue to do that. It is hoping that it will be able to conclude certain agreements with diplomatic academies in different parts of the world. The Ministry has had interest indicated by several other countries and it will certainly be capitalising on those.
The Ministry is also gearing to be involved in the major transformative change in the way Government services are delivered. I am speaking here about ICT. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, of course, is a part of this and it would be working to ensure that the services it offers are very well advertised and that people will be able to go online. It has started already and the remigration forms issues and visas are already online, but it wants to go a bit further and it would be working on that this year.
I would like to use this time to respond to some of the issues which were raised during the debate. I have noticed in the newspapers that the Leader of the Opposition Mr. Granger, I think it was in an interaction with the media, spoke about disappointment when it comes to the budget and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I rather suspect that has to do with him feeling that the Ministry should have more money. On the other hand, I have read that the Hon. Member Mrs. Cathy Hughes, from the Alliance For Change (AFC), spoke of the need to reduce the travel budget. They are two different positions there. [Mrs. Backer: It is two different parties.] Well I know that it is two different parties, but I am saying that if we are to effectively have our foreign policy positions adumbrated in the international community we have to travel. Now there is an additional institution which this House unanimously approved – UNASUR - and that body has seven councils and several working groups, and those meetings also have to be attended. This is why there will be some increases in the travel budgets because the travelling for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is from that same budget. I think the Hon. Member Mr. Nagamootoo spoke about it, so Members may need to look back at that situation.
I also noticed that Hon. Member Mrs. Backer spoke about the establishing of a mission in South Africa. It is either she has inside information or we are thinking alike, because this matter was discussed, just in January, and it has been agreed that Guyana should work to have a mission established in Africa and South Africa is where it has been identified. We will be working to have that comes into operation at some point in time and, hopefully, it might be later in next year. I should also mention that the Government of South Africa has offered CARICOM to provide some assistance in hosting a mission there for joint representation. That has been in discussion. Let me assure this House, one way or the other, that this is something that the Government has already discussed and is going to do at a later date.
The Hon. Member Ms. Backer referred to a study too that was done by the United Nations (UN) which spoke about the ambassadors being in place for too long, and she spoke about diplomatic fatigue. I was thinking whether we have parliamentary fatigue too. But let me inform Mrs. Backer that that study was done sometime in early 2000 and I want her to know that since then - she should know this - there have been changes in Venezuela, in Brazil, in Canada, in Suriname, in Cuba, at the permanent missions, and also at the consulate in Toronto. That accounted for more than half of all of the missions, and this is an ongoing process. So I think the diplomatic fatigue Ms. Backer was referring to there is not completely accurate.
In terms of rotation of staff, again, as I said, we do not do those things with a lot of fanfare, but let me tell Ms. Backer and the Hon. Members of this House that in the last six months officers were posted to Brazil, Washington and China, and next week officers will be leaving for London, Cuba, Venezuela and New York. Of course, there are officers coming back home so the rotation has already started, and this is an ongoing process as well. So that recommendation too is a bit too late.
In terms of a reduction of staff in the Trade Department, let me make it clear that the, Ministry of Foreign Trade and International Cooperation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have been merged and that is why there is a reduction in staff. In addition to that, with ICT now, there is no need to have forty persons. There is an office, Guyana Office for Investment (Go- Invest), and now the connection is just made with the relevant agency, let say, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and the investors deal directly with those Ministries. I think there is adequate staff, because that question was posed, but if there is need to have more the Ministry will certainly do so.
I have to refer to a particular phrase that was used in Mrs. Backer’s presentation, and this is what she said in, the context of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and International Cooperation and the staff: “We do not have the best and brightest at our missions”. I do not know if Mrs. Backer feels that the monopoly on brain and brightness is over on that side. We have some loyal Guyanese out there, working hard to serve our interest and they are listening to us in this National Assembly.
Let me say, one of our officers, Mr. Troy Torrington, led the negotiations in the UN for the Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs) declaration. It is our officer here, Mr. Neville Totaram, who was a major player in the CARICOM-Canada trade negotiations. Those are our people. These are only two examples. I know that in diplomatic speak a lot of things are said in very flowery ways, but people would say to me about the officers and the work they do out there. I know the good work that they do. I know that time is limited… [Interruption from the Opposition Members.]
I would not want to respond to the issues of ethnicity which were scattered all over the presentation. But let me say this: I head the Ministry of Foreign Affairs…
Mrs. Backer: I rise on a Point of Order. My honourable colleague, who I have the greatest respect for, is indicating that splattered throughout my presentation… [Ms. Teixeira: Scattered.] Scattered or splattered throughout my presentation were ethnic innuendoes. On one occasion I referred to and it was challenged and the challenge had to be withdrawn. I referred to Dr. Luncheon’s sworn evidence in an ongoing case. That is the only reference that Mrs. Backer made that had any racial connotations and I condemned the Government for not forth calling on Dr. Luncheon to withdraw it. That is the only reference and I challenge the Minister to show where else was reference made.
Mr. Speaker: Thank you. There will be no challenges issue, no jewels, no contest, but the Hon. Deputy Speaker is correct. There was an instance which generated some disquiet on the Governments side and I dealt with it. It had to with references to evidence already given and reported in the national newspapers, but there may have been… I do not know. I cannot recall any other reference, but please proceed, because I do not believe that is the real point that you had wanted to make.
Mrs. Rodrigues-Birkett: I would not go through the references but they are there and we can see them. But let me say…
Mrs. Backer: Mr. Speaker, I rise on a Point of Order. I am specifically saying that there was none, and if there is, the Hon. Member either has to produce it. We do not need the video. She can produce the words or withdraw it. I am requesting that. She can withdraw it until she can present it.
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Minister, I will ask that you proceed, but in the interim I am asking the Clerk to provide now a transcript of Mrs. Backer’s presentation, which I will review during the break, and I will report to the House.
Mrs. Rodrigues-Birkett: Thank you Mr. Speaker. I am happy that it is recognised that this is not how we do our work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is based on merit. I am very happy about that. This is how I approach my work and this is how the Government approaches its work. Thank you. [Applause]
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