Social Security Board (SSB) Chairman Doug Singh has been quick to point out that while the SSB approved a loan of BZD $12 million to the Santander Group on January 28th, the money has not been disbursed just yet.
That may be a good thing, since public outcry against the loan, at least on the airwaves, has been consistent and escalating.
The two primary criticisms have been that (1) the company is Guatemalan, and the monies held by the SSB belong to Belizean contributors; and (2) complaints that a giant foreign company, allegedly investing $142 million in Belize, has to borrow money from the SSB. The insinuation, and in some cases direct assertion from the second criticism is that the company is already starting off on shaky ground.
On Tuesday Singh said a portion of the criticism may be based on a lack of information. But he wasn’t in any way dismissing or downplaying it. In fact, he was careful to point out that following an approval, even before a loan offer is made, loans from SSB are published just so there is full disclosure and Belizeans can weigh in. Singh admitted that in the past, disclosures have not always been made before an offer, but certainly before disbursement.
“If there is a fundamental objection on the part of the public who are the contributors to the funds, it is the Board’s obligation to review it, to look at it and to make changes if necessary, to revoke it or not to issue an offer at that point in time if that’s the circumstance, and that’s exactly how it will be with this particular loan,” Singh said.
There is more information which has come out though…information which was not disclosed prior to the news of the SSB loan to the Santander Group. The fact is that while Belizeans quibble over US $6 million, four Belizean banks have actually invested US $54 million in the project, located near Valley of Peace in the Cayo District. Banks in Washington, Guatemala and Panama have only invested US $35 million total, making Belizean banks the primary investors in the consortium.
Santander had sourced US $95 million to finance the construction of its facility, but a bank in Guatemala which had committed to US $6 million pulled out after it changed ownership. That is the reason behind the application to the SSB, which was formally made in October 2015.
Singh says that for the SSB, based on the recommendation of the Investment Committee, the investment is sound and he hopes that with the proper information, Belizeans will not force the halting of the disbursement. The company has already grown cane on thousands of acres of land, and is nearing completion of its milling facility. The Board had to take that into account, Singh revealed, citing that, “Santander indicates that during the peak period of processing they will employ up to 1,000 people and during the lower periods it will be between 600 and 700 people. There are lots of benefits to this. This investment is being made in Belize. It is not being made overseas. So when the Board of Directors look at it they look at the return…they look at the risk.”
That risk, say many Belizeans, should not be taken because the company, while registered in Belize is not owned by Belizeans, and not one cent of Belizean money should be pumped into it. The SSB has indicated that it will start doing media rounds to inform the public and get input on the Santander loan from as many persons as possible.