As we view the wreckage of the Belizean economy in the wake of the recent, devastating Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL) financial judgments, our major party politicians have been pointing fingers at each other. Belize just held general elections eight months ago, and our voters returned the United Democratic Party (UDP) to office for a third consecutive term.
The nature of our parliamentary democracy has been such that we have seen Prime Ministers call general elections as many as 17 months before their five-year terms were scheduled to end. The UDP, for instance, could have ruled until March of 2017 on the basis of the five-year term of office they won in March of 2012. They chose, instead, to go to elections in November of 2015. But we have never seen a vote of “no confidence” in the House of Representatives or violence in the streets force a Prime Minister to call general elections early. Theoretically, these things are possible, but they have never happened in Belize.
The nature of Belize’s parliamentary democracy is such that when we become dissatisfied with the party in power, we are supposed to look to the Opposition party, which is sometimes described as a “government-in-waiting.” In the present case, the Opposition is the People’s United Party (PUP), which held office between 1989 and 1993, and again between 1998 and 2008.
When Lord Michael Ashcroft first returned to Belize (he had been in British Honduras as a child in the late 1950s) in 1985, the UDP had just come to power for the first time ever. Belize had become independent in 1981, just four years before.
Lord Ashcroft’s biggest business venture in that first UDP term was the acquisition of the Belize Bank, which had been the Royal Bank of Canada and had done business here from early in the twentieth century. (The Belize Bank account is a very profitable one for the politically-connected law firm which has held it since 1989.)
When the PUP returned to office in 1989, Lord Ashcroft began eyeing the local telephone company, which would have been BTA (Belize Telecommunications Authority, if I remember correctly). The UDP government of Dr. Manuel Esquivel had upgraded BTA to the status of a private company – Belize Telecommunications Limited, in 1988 or so, but had structured the company such that no investor/predator like Ashcroft, a private citizen and a foreigner at that, could gain control of this vital public utility.
In 1993, however, just days before the general elections of June 30, 1993, Hon. Glenn Godfrey and Senator Ralph Fonseca convinced PUP Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. George Price, to change the BTL law to “permit” Lord Ashcroft to gain majority control of BTL.
Some of you will remember that 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, had been a critical year in international politics and business. It was considered the year which marked the victory of free market capitalism over state-controlled communism. By 1993, then, free trade, privatization, and globalization were becoming the rage all over the world. Traditional arrangements which prevented business moguls from becoming too powerful were being overturned. The new thinking was: the bigger, the better. Ashcroft had become the biggest thing on the Belizean landscape. He was bigger than Barry Bowen.
Such was the climate when Mr. Price “permitted” Lord Michael to open the door and get inside the BTL treasure chest. 1993 was a time when the Internet and cellular phones were in their infancy in Belize, but all over planet earth the smart money could see that telecommunications represented fabulous growth industry potential, a brave new world where billions could be made.
Well, Lord Ashcroft began to make millions and hundreds of millions off BTL, even though the second Esquivel government of 1993 to 1998 did not view him with favor. When the PUP returned to office in 1998, Glenn Godfrey hatched a scheme to establish a second telephone company – Intelco. Through scandalous machinations, he succeeded in getting his Intelco infrastructure all in place, but Lord Ashcroft refused to allow so-called interconnection between BTL and Intelco. It is this same interconnection which has allowed SpeedNet, an Ashcroft-owned company which features the new PUP Leader, to become such a technological and financial success and to create such a headache for the now Barrow government-owned BTL.
The long and short of it is that Lord Michael took PUP governments to school, and now it may be said that he has succeeded in taking this UDP government to school. This is a tale best told by lawyers and accountants. It is way above my head. The one thing is that my early teachers had warned me to be very careful of people like Lord Ashcroft. He is a man who comes to you bearing gifts. The Belizean politicians of both major parties, not to mention some prominent, high-ranking individual Belizeans, have been seduced by the Lord and his almighty money, and Belize and Belizeans have ended up the losers in all this.
Personally, I’m not going to be blaming any of our honorable politicians for this catastrophe. In the case of Mr. Price, for instance, the evidence now suggests that when he “permitted” Lord Michael to get his foot inside the BTL door in 1993, the great Mr. Price was beginning to decline, plus, he absolutely believed in Glenn and Ralph. Mr. Musa and Mr. Barrow will continue to point their fingers at each other for some time to come.
What I will say to you is this. The root cause of our young men’s slaughtering of each other is economic. The cause is not sin. With the future now looking so grim for the Belizean economy, you must stop describing the civil war on Belize City’s Southside as “senseless.” This is a case of desperate human beings trying to survive, and self-preservation is the first law of nature. The politicians who have been in charge of our economy have made a mess of it, and the victims have been the children of the working classes who cannot find gainful employment. This is the reason for the crime and violence.
We’ve had “this here” problem, Belize, and now it will get worse. Batten down the hatches. If you want to pray, pray. But, before and during the praying, batten down …
Power to the people. Remember Danny Conorquie.