Features — 02 December 2017
To pay or not to pay … that is the question

December 1, 2017

Dear Editor:
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, five titans of industry emerged in the United States. These men would set the tone and model for modern capitalist businessmen and corporations alike for the rest of the 21st and the way it seems, for the foreseeable future:

Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made his fortune from shipping and railway, was shrewd enough to see when competition in the shipping industry was getting too intense, but was able also to see the potential of rail and capitalized on it.

John D. Rockefeller, on the other hand, understood the need for energy in a growing and more industrialized world and the role that crude oil would play in that. He saw crude as the way of the future, first not only as kerosene for lighting, but gasolines also for the powering of engines.

Andrew Carnegie’s wealth was from steel. Carnegie understood from early on that steel would be the element that would be needed in mass, not only for construction but also for manufacturing of the means of transportation: ships, railways and vehicles.

Henry Ford realized that with wealth, man would crave and develop a lust for moving. He envisioned transportation for the masses and improved on the assembly line concept to reduce the cost of the assembling of vehicles and hence lowering the cost of production in order to make it affordable to the ordinary man.

J.P. Morgan was the banker, and his name still stands today on one of the largest, richest and most successful financial corporations in the United States, but also globally. In a way, the business interest of each man complemented the other. Rockefeller provided the energy that powered the vehicles that Ford produced, while Carnegie provided the steel that was used to make them. Morgan was the banker that pretty much had his hand in everything, kind of like the bottom feeder attorneys of today. They produce nothing, manufacture nothing, design nothing, but have their paws in everything.

If one thing can be said about these men, is that they were visionary, competitive and extremely driven. In the end they were also extremely successful to the point where the millions they made almost 100 years ago is still enabling their present families to live super wealthy lives.

However, there is a dark side to the success of all five men. All were ruthless, indulged in what may be considered corrupt business practices by today’s standards, were mostly anti-union, for the most part exploited their workforce, and some even went so far as to commit murder to ensure financial success; and hence the label of “Robber Barons” was also attached to them.

However, in their later years, as with most people, they began to slow and mellow down and when money and power were no longer the driving forces in their lives, they began to think about their own mortality and the legacy they would leave behind. The five then developed a renewed rivalry in philanthropy.

All were trying to outcompete the other in who could give away the most money. Vanderbilt gave away a large amount to The Central University of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, who then renamed the university Vanderbilt University in his honour.

Carnegie, not to be outdone, donated to the arts and education. His name is on over 3,000 libraries throughout the United States, including the famous Carnegie Hall, all of which he donated to.

Rockefeller, Ford and Morgan also gave away vast amount of their monies to charities, school, museums, and in setting up foundations worth in the billions today that help in education, and environmental and social issues around the world. The vast campaign of giving away probably in their own minds was some sort of a penance for some of the horrendous things that they did and somewhat to establish a legacy of what they wanted future generations to see them as. Ironically, the Robber Barons set up the tradition of modern philanthropic giving that now exists around the World.

Belize is not America and Michael Ashcroft is no American titan of industry, but he does have a propensity to display some of the characteristics of the Robber Barons while being less like a titan of industry. The long and short of any story involving Michael is that he has not proven to be a good thing for Belize. There is no doubt that he has made a fortune off the back of Belizeans, but that is no surprise since Great Britain, his mother country, also has; and he has also made a very few Belizeans filthy rich.

Michael is a businessman and as businessmen have been doing since time immemorial, they have relations with politicians, political parties, and by extension, nations. These relationships are primarily set up for pretty much three reasons: foreign investment, campaign financing and, because we live in a real world, politicians will always try and find a way how this can benefit them personally.

The Michael Ashcroft relationship with the nation of Belize has been a complicated one at best. He has been able to survive financially regardless of which political party is in power and just when you get the impression that the Prime Minister and he are mortal enemies, the relationship seems to rapidly change.

The whole fiasco with him has left most Belizeans confused and wondering just who the good guys are and exactly who the bad guys are. One thing can be certain, Michael’s motivations seem to be purely financial, while both the present and former Prime Ministers who dealt with him seem to have been driven by a weird combination of objectives — power, monies and now setting up some type of positive legacy for themselves for the history books of Belize as they are both in the final days of active party politics.

The honest truth, no matter which way we want to put it, is that neither Dean or Said were ever any match for Michael because at the end of the day he is the last man standing with the bottom feeders naturally, with a huge cheque in hand. Michael was able to secure all loopholes with whatever deal he was able to make with the nation of Belize, either with or without the acquiescence and/or knowledge of Dean and Said.

The big problem is that whatever monies have to now be paid to Michael or that has been paid to him in the past for any ‘mistakes’ that were made, never came out of Dean’s or Said’s private pockets, and they were the primary ones dealing with him as it relates to matters concerning the nation of Belize. What has resulted, is a never-ending blame game both on party and persons while the people and the nation are left to settle and pay, pay and pay more. The payment of monies to Michael or his business interests and companies will have zero effect on the bottom-line of the business interests, personal finances or the family fortunes of the Musas or the Barrows.

The same cannot be said about the rest of us. The financial hit that this country has taken over the last couple of years is like if an elephant took a buckshot to the head by a trophy hunter; they are huge. The likelihood of the elephant hemorrhaging to death is higher than him surviving, and with the most recent payment that’s due, that might just be the coup-de-grace. After all the blaming and finger- pointing and the grandstanding by all those who are desperately trying to preserve their political legacy, the big question is will, or will we not pay.

One thing is as certain as the sky is blue — this problem will not go away, and this debt will not just disappear. Michael did not amass an estimated $1.48 billion by forgiving debt and he has shown that he will pursue Belize to the ends of the earth to get what he believes is his. Am I upset at him? The simple answer is as a Belizean I have to because he took advantage of us, but I also expect a Great White to eat meat and to prey on the most vulnerable.

I understand the nature of most businessmen and what drives them. I am more upset, however, at the Belizean (since I consider him British and not true Belizean) who facilitated for him and his business interests to rape, pillage and plunder our nation. Hyenas are not vegetarians, so we can always expect them to eat meat; similarly, businessmen will always try to make money by any ruthless means, but I blame the idiot who puts our hand in his mouth.

The politics of the nation has made it so that the Blues are pitted totally against the Reds and the reality is that both are virtually inseparable socially, democratically and politically. There are but a few politicians who are capable of explaining to their constituencies what is the fundamental difference between both parties. Corruption — check, incompetence — check, nepotism — check, increasing the national debt — check, inefficient — check, not improving the lives of the ordinary man — check.

What is also certain is that neither of the much-adored political parties will pay a dime towards anything and we all know that both they, and the political elite that they have created, are bursting at the seams with cash.
If the Belizean public has not come to realize after the recent financial bukut that we have taken that the political system needs to change, then we are totally blind. While I am not advocating for a Samuel Doe change-in-regime type of removal, what we need are concrete fundamental changes, because the basic switching of political mass parties is not working. There needs to be constitutional and institutional changes in the way we are governed because left on its own, 25 years from now the country can face another generation of Michael, Dean and Said.

Who is to say this will not happen again. The structure of the political system of the winner takes all, makes it conducive for poor management and dismal nation-building. If left unchecked the mass parties will just flourish, and the gap will widen even bigger between the haves and the have nots, while the Middle Class who in most developed capitalist democracies are the backbone of the nation will be virtually obliterated. If you are struggling to meet bills every day, to put food on the table, to pay for education, pay for your home, pay for your medical needs, pay for safety and security, any GOB payment now or later will only make that worse.
So, whether Parliament decides to pay now or later, is rather immaterial, because pay it must. The question is simply whether the nation wants to take the lick now or later. I am convinced that the egos, greed and selfishness of the politicians have blinded them to the needs of the people. They do not have to make the decision of whether it is corn beef or chicken on the table because they can afford both, plus much more.

Gone are the days of their financial struggle, and their only desire is to remain in power at all costs so that the gravy train can continue. Expect no rational thinking and reasoning in the House debate when this discussion comes up for debate. What is guaranteed is finger pointing, blaming and name-calling on an issue of utmost importance that has the potential to wreak havoc on the Belizean economy and the overall survival of the nation. This will be an opportunity for individual grandstanding, propaganda and party politics for some and a disaster for the nation.

Before I end, I must comment on my distinguished colleague Colin Hyde’s commentary dated Friday, November 17, 2017 in this newspaper in reference to my articles on nationalization. I must comment because in some ways it ties into the article I am writing today and my general view of governance. I am a firm believer in two things, democracy and capitalism, and while there are different variations on both, on other things we will agree to disagree.

I am honored to share the same platform as he does in such a distinguished newspaper, since it gives us the opportunity to discuss, debate and disagree on some issues, and that is the cornerstone of healthy nation-building.

It’s all about the people!!!!

Neri O. Briceno

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