Features — 27 September 2005 — by Adele Ramos


It is the working class?teachers, public servants and utility workers?that has been at the core of the protests over Government?s spending and management of public funds, namely tax dollars and Social Security funds.


At the same time, the Government of Belize has sharply cut back public sector spending on salaries and wages, forcing the retrenchment of over 100 workers in recent months. Developmental projects have also been significantly curtailed, simultaneously slowing down economic growth.


As the dwindling working class cry out about their financial hardships, MILLIONS of public funds have gone to the coffers of the wealthy. Two main players are Michael Ashcroft, PUP financier, and Glenn D. Godfrey, a former PUP minister and close ally of the Said Musa administration.


In 1998, Prime Minister, Hon. Said Musa, became the Minister of Finance and gave Budget Management to his chief financial architect, Hon. Ralph Fonseca. Musa gave Finance completely to Fonseca in 2003 and reclaimed it a year later, after a group of seven Cabinet ministers resigned over public finance issues. Much of the criticism from protestors over the past year and plus has, therefore, been levied against Musa and Fonseca.


We chronicle the events below:



2004


August 16: Seven Cabinet ministers ? the ?G-7??resign from Musa?s Cabinet over public finance


practices. Their resignations came after reports that SSB had paid $6 million for the default of the Glenn Godfrey group of companies, including Intelco, and after the freezing of the capital II and capital III budgets?a prelude to a wave of austerity measures that the Government has been implementing in line with IMF proposals.


August 28: DEMONSTRATION. An estimated 10,000 Belizeans participated in an Opposition-organized demonstration in Belize City. The National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), which is an umbrella organization of 7 unions, supported the demonstration. Protestors came from all corners of the country, including the Mayan villages of Toledo. They cried out about various national issues, such as rising fuel costs and taxes, but by far, the biggest issue was the use of Social Security funds to pay the debt of the Godfrey companies.


 


PIC CAP: August 28, 2004: Protesters flooded Belize City over use of SSB funds


 


December 28: Cabinet shake-up releases three Southside ministers of the G-7: Hon. Mark Espat, who claimed that Musa terminated him; Hon. Cordel Hyde, who said he left because of the G-7 pact that if one of them were removed from Cabinet all would resign; and former Senator Eamon Courtenay, who was previously asked to leave Cabinet for another Government post, but declined the offer. The following day, Musa installed a new Cabinet.


 


 


2005


January 14: DEMONSTRATION. Prime Minister Musa presents his 2005/2006 budget that included $90 million more in taxes, including over $50 million in new taxes. The taxes were approved the same day. GOB maintained that they were necessary to keep down the budget deficit, and thus reduce the need for more borrowing.


Trying to stave off expected tax hikes, the NTUCB protested outside the National Assembly. The unions had begun to dialogue with GOB over the taxes earlier in the week, but talks had failed to reach an amicable conclusion. The NTUCB called on GOB to rescind the taxes, which were slated for implementation on February 1, and to institute financial reform to improve the management of public funds.


The Opposition also picketed in front of the National Assembly on the day of Musa?s budget presentation.


January 20: DEMONSTRATION. An almost nationwide shutdown begins. Many businesses closed for two to three days, and students, workers and business people stage a demonstration in Belize City, decrying GOB?s tax hikes. The 2-week teachers? strike commences and some utility workers stage one-day ?sickouts.?


January 21: DEMONSTRATION. The unions staged a second protest in front of the National Assembly. This was the day of the budget debate. This demonstration was far more intense than that of Jan. 14, and demonstrators had to be forcibly removed after their permit expired. Some teachers and other protesters were tear-gassed by senior police officer, Crispin Jeffries, Sr.


January 26: DEMONSTRATION. Over 1,000 protestors, mostly students from high school and tertiary institutions, staged a march and rally that began and culminated at the Memorial Park. They were supported by other unions, as well as teachers under the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU).


February 1: The new taxes came into effect, and GOB and the unions continued intense negotiations.


February 3: Teachers decide to end strike after a majority of BNTU executives voted to do so. The decision was a source of controversy inside the unions, because some members did not agree and the executives of two major branches?Belize City and Belmopan?abstained.


February 4: DEMONSTRATION. The NTUCB staged a demonstration of about 3,000 participants through the streets of Belize City. Some businesses closed for the day, and so counted along with the flood of demonstrations were businesspeople, as well as some teachers who had defied the BNTU?s decision to return to the classroom.


February 9: GOB takes control of BTL from Jeffrey Prosser, reclaiming 52% ownership after he defaulted on payment for shares. Prosser later sues GOB in Miami before Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages.


February 11: P.M. Musa signed an 11-point agreement with the heads of the unions that fall under the NTUCB, agreeing to undertake a review of GOB?s budget and taxes. Under the agreement, GOB decided to suspend the tax hikes until March 1?pending a review of the budget and taxes. Failing an agreement, GOB reserved the right to implement them, as approved on Jan. 14, while the unions reserved the right to protest.


March 1: After a February 11 agreement to review the budget and taxes, GOB re-implements them. There were reductions of environmental tax and some areas of business tax. The unions rebuffed GOB?s decision to increase the environmental tax from its prior level of 1% to 2% and called on GOB to place the weight of the increase on the beer tax, but also to collect back taxes, such as the $17.9 million business tax arrears, which they said that the Belize Bank had owed to GOB.


March 10: P.M. Musa responds to proposal from Sunrise to buy majority interest in BTL. The group was comprised of telecommunications executives: Gaspar Aguilar, former BTL CEO; Karen Bevans, BTL?s head of business development, marketing and quality assurance; and former director of telecommunications, Roberto Young. Musa did not promise them the entire 52% shares they were seeking, but said that the group should prepare for ?the fullest possible participation in BTL.?


March 15: DEMONSTRATION. BTL workers stage two days of protests on St. Thomas Street, at the company headquarters. Carrying their banner that read: ?Ashcroft and Prosser back off. We noh want unu yah!? they decried foreign ownership in the company and called on GOB to sell them BTL?s shares. Musa offered them 37% of the company. GOB had already been in negotiations with Ashcroft to sell 15% to ECOM.


 


PIC CAP: BTL workers reject Ashcroft and Prosser


 


March 18: DEMONSTRATION. The House of Representatives met to retroactively approve the tax amendments after GOB?s negotiations with the unions. All tax amendments, except that for the beer tax (excise tax), were made effective on March 1. The beer tax was made effective on April 1. There was another protest outside the National Assembly. In the Feb. 11 agreement, GOB had reserved the right to implement its taxes and the unions had reserved their right to protest.


 


PIC CAP: March 18, 2005: workers object to tax hikes


 


March 22: Musa sells 15% of BTL shares to ECOM, an Ashcroft-related company. GOB reduces shareholding, as a result, from 52.5% to 37.5%. Ashcroft?s Carlisle Holdings had originally owned the shares. GOB credited them to Prosser for a promissory note, which he did not honor. Ashcroft claimed that he had a buy-back agreement with GOB, which gave him first preference to get back the shares.


March 23: P.M. Musa announced that, in order to settle a dispute over the sale of shares in the Belize Telecommunications Limited with Lord Michael Ashcroft, who has principal stake in the Belize Bank/Carlisle Holdings, GOB had decided to not pursue the collection of the owed tax, which GOB quotes at $12 million. (The unions quote the figure at $17.9 million.)


April 1: ALL FOOL?S DAY! GOB?s new budget takes effect. NTUCB issues a press release calling the Belize Bank tax write-off ?a slap in the face to all workers of Belize…totally irresponsible.?


April 14: BTL workers were asked to leave the compound, reportedly after a bomb threat. BTL workers call for 37.5% ownership of BTL.


April 15: Nationwide telecommunications shutdown. It took over a week for services to be fully restored.


 


PIC CAP: BTL workers locked out of premises amid national telecom shutdown. They negotiate with former CEO, Gaspar Aguilar, and Chair of the Public Utilities Commission,


Dr. Gilbert Canton


 


April 18: The NTUCB, which represents 15,000 workers countrywide, called on Musa to resign, citing Ashcroft?s $17.9 million tax write-off, ?the absolute disregard for veracity in many of [Musa?s] public statements,? gross mismanagement of public finances, and the telecom imbroglio as some of the reasons for loss of confidence in the Said Musa administration.


April 20: DEMONSTRATION and RIOT. Tertiary level students stage protest. Some high schoolers also participated. The sizeable group of students took their protest from in front of the Prime Minister?s residence on Princess Margaret Drive to the Belcan Bridge. Right at the rush hour, they parked cars on the bridge, blocking the flow of vehicular traffic. Police Special Forces were dispatched to the scene, but withdrew late in the evening.


 


PIC CAP: Students block Belcan Bridge after demonstration


 


Later that night, rioters of a different group invaded downtown Belize City, breaking into and looting a variety of prominent stores, such as Hofius, Brodies, Venus and Gaylord?s.


April 21: DEMONSTRATION. A group of teachers and public servants continued their protests during the day. They demonstrated in front of the Prime Minister?s heavily guarded residence and also in the vicinity of the People?s United Party headquarters on Queen Street – a stone?s throw away from the police station.


April 26: DEMONSTRATION. PSU and BNTU declare ?indefinite? strike. Protest rally staged at Battlefield Park. Unlike the previous strike, this one lasted but a few days and had very low participation. Government workers and teachers were being told that they had no basis on which to strike?that there was no industrial dispute?and if they struck, they could face termination.


 


PIC CAP: At Battlefield Park, teachers, public servants and supporters stage


protest rally over taxes


 


April 28: Police rough up and arrest Opposition member, Collet Division area rep. and educator, Patrick Faber, after he tried to enter a University of Belize public forum at which the Prime Minister was speaking. The Police Department dispatched the riot squad to prevent a group of teachers and public servants from entering the forum.


July 1: Public servants? increments frozen for at least one year.


September 9: Prime Minister appears before Social Security Board directors and persuaded them to lend $10 million of Social Security funds to Ashcroft?s Sunshine Holdings Ltd., which he claimed was the vehicle that had to be used to sell 20% shares to the BTL workers.


September 14: NTUCB?s president, Horris Patten, Christian Workers Union president, Antonio Gonzalez are removed as workers? rep. on Social Security Board for voting in favor of Sunshine loan without consulting their colleagues. Dylan Reneau and Elena Smith are their replacements.


September 22: Sunshine announces close of deal with GOB to purchase 20% shares in BTL. BTL workers reject Sunshine offer to underwrite the shares to them for $40 million debt. Workers claim Ashcroft would still control voting rights even if they agreed to the Sunshine offer and pay the debt. Musa and Ashcroft maintain that the Sunshine deal is the best way for them to purchase the BTL shares.


With the close of the Sunshine and ECOM deal, Ashcroft would control roughly 60% of the shares, while having profited in the tens of millions for the buy-back of his own BTL shares.


Together, he and Prosser would control 90% of BTL. Belizeans would control less than 10%.


Before Feb. ?04, GOB held roughly 32% of BTL shares (25% for the SSB), and Belizeans held about 16% of BTL?s shares.


September 24: DEMONSTRATION. Association of Concerned Belizeans stages Belize City protest over GOB?s decision to lend Ashcroft-related company, Sunshine (not to be confused with Sunrise) $20 million, including $10 million from Social Security and $10 million from Central Government on vastly concessionary terms, such as interest of 8.5% and a 5-year moratorium on repayment. The major business sector organizations did not publicly endorse the protest, as was the case with the unions.

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