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Friday, August 14, 2020
Home Editorial Corruption, party before country, and naiveté

Corruption, party before country, and naiveté

We could lay the blame for all our losses in the international courts on Lord Ashcroft-owned companies or on corrupt political leaders or political leaders putting the interest of their party before the country’s interests. No one would say that such a conclusion is entirely farfetched, because we have seen some of our political leaders do things that should have landed them in jail.

There is another conclusion we can arrive at to explain the massive losses we’ve suffered in our business dealings with Lord Ashcroft, and that is that our political leaders are guilty of incredible naiveté.

A PUP government arranged for Lord Ashcroft to get the controlling share in Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL) (now Belize Telemedia Limited), and when BTL went rogue, when the government’s regulatory body, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), couldn’t control what BTL charged its customers, and when local companies were complaining that BTL was blocking VOIP, the government borrowed money from a bank in the USA and purchased Lord Ashcroft’s company’s shares.

Prior to the government buying back BTL, the company had complained that the PUP government was unfairly using public funds to support the startup of Intelco, a rival telecommunications company which belonged to one of the party’s close affiliates. Ashcroft’s BTL blocked Intelco from getting interconnection (renting essential BTL assets). The BTL story is that Intelco didn’t get interconnection because the companies hadn’t met to decide on the rental fees, and they couldn’t decide on an arbiter in the event they couldn’t come to an agreement when they did (meet). Intelco wanted the PUC, while Ashcroft reportedly insisted on an international arbiter to determine the matter between the two Belizean companies.

In the midst of this impasse, the government of former Prime Minister, Hon. Said Musa, took control of BTL. In his book With Malice Toward None, Musa said that when his government met with Lord Ashcroft and told him that BTL’s lack of compliance with decisions made by the PUC was forcing the government in the direction of renationalizing the company and selling it to a more cooperative investor, the “meeting was very confrontational.”

In the end, Lord Ashcroft’s Carlisle Group sold its BTL shares to the government, with the intriguing provision that “they were given a first option to repurchase, if any new investor failed to pay up, and further, that they be given the same concessions as were being extended to the other investor.”

After acquiring the BTL shares from Lord Ashcroft’s Carlisle Group, the government entered a purchasing arrangement with Mr. Jeffrey Prosser, a gentleman who had controlling shares in Innovative Communications Corporation (ICC), a company based in the US Virgin Islands.

Unfortunately, somebody contracted by the PUP did not do proper due diligence on the financial affairs of Prosser, nor his vision for BTL. The bottom line is that Prosser did not come up with the money, and the lap of the Ashcroft Group was there, waiting.

There are many questions we don’t have the answer to, but what we do know is that prior to that BTL saga, Lord Ashcroft had shown he had a savage bone. In 1992 his Belize Bank dealt a blow to Mr. Derek Aikman, one of Belize’s most popular political leaders of the day. Mr. Aikman had borrowed money from the bank to invest in a national carrier (aircraft) to help develop Belize’s tourism industry, the very same industry that was the backbone of our economy prior to COVID-19.

Interestingly, the bankruptcy of Derek Aikman satisfied the PUP’s desire for revenge, because Aikman had unseated their beloved leader, George Price, in Freetown in 1984, and it also satisfied the UDP’s desire for revenge, because Aikman had broken ranks with them over the Maritime Areas Act, in 1991.

At great cost to Belize, BTL fell back into the lap of Lord Ashcroft, in whose hands it remained until a few years later when along came a new government, the UDP, under the leadership of Hon. Dean Barrow. The UDP would prove that it didn’t understand that international arbiters have no interest in morality or history, that they see only the cold letter of the law.

The UDP government renationalized BTL, again, and then ran into a roadblock in the international courts. We ended up paying more than three times what a PUP government had paid for the company about a decade earlier. That is not the only folly of the UDP in its dealings with Lord Ashcroft’s businesses in Belize. The UDP challenged Ashcroft’s Belize Bank over a loan a PUP government had guaranteed for a private hospital (UHS), and it ran into a roadblock in international courts. In this one we lost over $60 million. On Tuesday, our government ran into a roadblock in an international court again, over another company that involves the Ashcroft Group, IMMARBE, and we lost, again.

The UDP deserves some credit for its efforts to get our affairs with Lord Ashcroft on a fair footing, but the country’s lawyers must have known, should have known, that the cases could not be won in international courts. For their political gain, or corruption, or naiveté, the UDP bulled ahead, costing Belize millions.

That is not the last of the UDP’s failures in its dealings with Lord Ashcroft. The UDP government should have intervened when the owner of the Port of Belize Ltd., Mr. Luke Espat, couldn’t meet his company’s debt payments to the Belize Bank. Instead, the UDP played observer as this vital asset fell into receivership.

There is just no limit to our political leaders’ naiveté, corruption, and ambition for their party, and there is seemingly no end to their mishandling of our financial affairs when dealing with Lord Ashcroft.

The UDP government fought Lord Ashcroft’s companies over every business agreement they made with a PUP government, but they uttered not a peep as the person they appointed to head the Central Bank rolled over as the Ashcroft Group moved to acquire Scotia Bank Belize, an acquisition that would give him control of close to 50% of the banking sector in Belize.

Indeed, when Scotia Bank Belize went up for sale the present government not only didn’t see it necessary to make sure that control of the asset didn’t fall into the lap of a businessman who has not been the best corporate citizen, but they actually seemed to be cheerleaders as he wrapped his tentacles around it.

Fortunately, on Thursday, at a press conference, the Prime Minister seemed to have grasped the full implications of the prospect of Belize Bank gobbling up Scotia. He announced that the matter wasn’t a “done deal”, and that his government would be scrutinizing it more closely.

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