Features — 24 March 2018
Wi done pay (thru wi nose)  fu BTL, Troy

I am aware of some third party leaders who didn’t agree with the nationalization of BTL. Their argument is that the Public Utilities Commission could have regulated the business so that monopoly didn’t trample on the rights of Belizeans.

If we go back to PUP 1998-2003, we see that government “introducing” a new telephone company, the Intelco. The government argued that Belize’s schools needed internet, and the country needed internet that was more affordable, and BTL, under the ownership of Michael Ashcroft, was not providing same.

If we go back to the PUP government of 1989-1993, I believe we see the PUP disposing of the “golden share” in BTL, a mechanism that gave government veto control in the telephone provider’s business. I say, believe, because with deadline looming to post my article to the newspaper, I cannot verify the period. This excerpt from a story by Michael White at www.theguardian.com does appear to corroborate the timeline. “Telemedia was originally created as BTL in 1987, when Barrow’s UDP party was last in power, to counter the telecoms dominance of Cable & Wireless. When the rival PUP took power in 1992 it sold BTL to Ashcroft, whose father had been a diplomat in Belize.”

Ah, 1987, this was during the UDP’s first chance at governing Belize. Ah, an interesting period that would set Belize in a direction that would see the “value of voice” send Belize back into colony status.

We see the UDP 1984-1989 privatizing the local version of Cable and Wireless. Other people have the details of that. What I will point out here is that it is during this administration that Belizeans begin to see how lucrative the law business can be for lawyers in private practice who have friendly relationships with politicians in power. We had heard of them making some mint off oil exploration contracts, but nothing like the hay that would be made off transactions involving properties made by the Belizean people.

How Belize has changed. Once upon a time the lucre for lawyers was in the swindling business, and there wasn’t that much fame in the game. Now the lucre is feeding off government businesses, and there’s fame galore in the “criminal defense” game.

The story of Cable & Wireless, the international version, is good trivia at the least. Here are some excerpts from a 2015 Financial Times story, “End of the line for Cable & Wireless”, by Daniel Thomas.

The sun is setting on Cable & Wireless, the trail blazing cable company that was set up more than century ago to connect the far-flung parts of the British empire. The agreement to sell Cable & Wireless Communications to Liberty Global on Monday night will mark the end of one of Britain’s oldest companies, which at its peak employed 54,000 people around the world…

…”C&W has been lurching from crisis to crisis for the past twenty years,” says Steve Malcolm, analyst at Arrete. “Selling the businesses was always the preferred end game.”

At the start of 2000, C&W group was worth about £38bn. By the time of the demerger, its market capitalisation had fallen to £4bn.

….The company was nationalised after the second world war but privatised by Margaret Thatcher in 1981.

Here’s a story about Cable & Wireless, the Belize version, taken from a 28/11/2008 column in the Amandala, “Ideas and Opinions”, by Janus.

This is how it (Cable & Wireless) all started. After the hurricane of 1961, the Government of Belize decided to build a new capital in Belize which was named Belmopan. They decided at the same time to establish a modern telecommunication network countrywide. At the time there was a Telephone Department which provided, inter alia, a telephone service based on land lines carried by wooden telephone poles. The first step was to invite a British company named Cable and Wireless to establish a telephone system in Belize City using underground cables.

At the same time, the Telephone Department was merged with the Post Office under the administration of the Postmaster General, who was charged with rebuilding the land lines and restoring communications with the interior. The Cable and Wireless and land lines system were later on interconnected.

The man chosen as Project Manager to oversee the construction of a modern telecommunication network countrywide was a former member of the Royal Air Force and a qualified telecommunications engineer, Lester Young. Mr. Young was attached to the Office of the Postmaster General, and they were charged jointly to lay the groundwork for the national system.

If Troy gives a daam what people think of him, he might be thinking he is off the hook. Well, I needed all that introduction because I really want him and his ilk to back off his blanket anti-nationalization theme.

So, Troy tells Marshall Nunez, the main host of Vibes Radio Show, that Belize had no need to nationalize BTL (and BEL), that all would have sailed smoothly with the BTL under the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). Here’s Channel Five’s Janelle Chanona 5/9/2003 discussing BTL resistance to being regulated. “By any account, it’s about as close to a rock and a hard place as you can get. Tonight the Public Utilities Commission is charged with finding common ground between the monopoly telecommunications provider, Belize Telecommunications Limited, and the Belizean consumer. B.T.L. is insisting that as part of its ongoing preparation for the onset of competition it must revise its rates to, ‘help reduce B.T.L.’s exposure to unfair cherry-picking of international voice services by competitors and continue to reduce the level of cross-subsidies required for local calls.’”

I could be corrected but my recollection is of the BTL getting the better of the PUC, to the dismay of the Belizean people.

Does Troy remember the government he worked with (PUP 1998-2008) introducing the government-sponsored privately-owned Intelco? The owner of BTL hollered that that company was a “retirement plan for the boys”, and UDP propagandists multiplied that cry. Intelco ended up on the rocks when BTL used its privilege to delay it getting interconnection, a vehicle which, it must be mentioned, it readily blessed Smart with.

Does Troy recall the PUP getting control of BTL and then trying to sell off majority shares to a company controlled by a man named Prosser? The figures mentioned at that time were a little over 100 million in BELIZE dollars for Ashcroft’s majority shares.

Then, UDP (2008 – ?) came in and acquired it. Of course, of course things went off tack, maybe deliberately, maybe ignorantly. Yes, we know that the BTL acquisition ended up costing a ton more than we had anticipated.

PM Barrow holds the line that the acquisition cost was fair. He says the Accommodation Agreement, which purportedly came into existence just for BTL to absorb Intelco’s losses (the Intelco that BTL destroyed), was onerous and cost us plenty. He insists that we still made a great deal.

Troy and company (not Marshall; he didn’t bless Troy’s pronouncements) say the BTL was a terrible buy. Troy points to the seven years’ worth of humongous interest payments that accrued while Barrow played his endless political games, and the flat out failure of a government that negotiated a part of the settlement in Belize dollars and ended up paying in US ones. (Color me anti-Red for this. How do you build a little country if you always have your eye on the next election?)

Troy and company say that the projections for BTL are dismal. We’ve been sailing along but now I have the question, with a comment here for Mr. Troy. Would BTL still be a bad buy if we had acquired it at a fair price? Let me say this: Braa, we di people done pay for it, so the question of the cost of acquiring it is not relevant to the viability of the business.

There is room for foreign investment (ideas, finance) in our country, but we should definitely not roll over, or give up our prized plums. BTL must remain ours and our government must give it every opportunity to grow, and grow, and grow, for the good of Belize. If we will turn Belize around, justly distribute the nation’s wealth, the public must hold on to its properties. The private sector needs every opportunity to grow, but they must build their own toys to play with.

Some of us (me, for example) didn’t realize how much gold there was in VOICE. Bully, Ashcroft was not alone in recognizing this. UDP and PUP leaders both, knew the worth of the telephone lines. And everybody knows now. There is gold in VOICE. This cow must be milked for the benefit of all of us, not just for certain types of educated elite.

BTL must be put out of the reach of narrow political agendas. There are competent, honest, nationalistic Belizeans who can sit on a management team and get the job done without being partisan. The UDP negotiated the BTL buy-back poorly, and they played politics with it: that’s one of the reasons why they struck out. As per the buy-back, those members of the PUP who are sold completely on free market better andastan that that ship has sailed.

The PUP were duped into parting with the golden share. Ashcroft (BTL) foiled Intelco. Prosser couldn’t raise the funds. Ashcroft had us over a barrel and we paid for the Intelco weh get hambog. UDP got points for acquiring BTL, and then they squandered it all by playing politics with it. In this story I haven’t mentioned the endless cronyism every step of the journey. I end with the fact that we paid through wi nose for that property.

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Deshawn Swasey

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