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Health Ministry’s switch from BTL to Smart won’t help us win

EditorialHealth Ministry’s switch from BTL to Smart won’t help us win

The government and the Health minister, Hon. Kevin Bernard, had to have known that the decision by the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) to switch telephone providers, from the publicly owned BTL to the privately owned Smart, would not have been met with cheers. It wasn’t. It’s hard for Belizeans to see how this decision helps the government fulfill its promise to make us all win.

In a letter to the press, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) said the decision would have “far-reaching consequences for the viability of BTL and the well-being and quality of life of the people of Belize.” The NTUCB said the decision was “a conflict of interest”, said government should guard “scrupulously any shifting of government telecom business away from our national telecom provider to SMART – a private company with familial ties to the Prime Minister.” The NTUCB restated “demands that the government uphold its commitment to good governance and strengthen the oversight bodies”, and urged “the management of BTL to offer the government a competitive package that ensures the continued survival of our national communications company.”

His Majesty’s opposition party in the House of Representatives, the UDP, decried the decision in its newspaper, the Guardian (BZ). In a story last week titled “PUP Killing BTL”, the UDP said Minister Bernard’s justification for switching to Smart “was that BTL’s service was not up to par with that of Smart, and that it was also a cost cutting measure”, but that the truth is that the PUP, “from the very first day of their tenure … have systematically been cutting off BTL as their main telecommunications provider in favor of Smart which is owned by family members of the Prime Minister.”

MOHW is not the first government ministry to switch from BTL to Smart. Reporting on the matter, XTV News said the UDP has said that GoB “is depriving itself from profits”, and the party alleges “that based on this year’s budget, Digi [BTL] is on the verge of bankruptcy.” A later XTV News newscast said BTL had issued a release that refuted the UDP’s charge of imminent bankruptcy. XTV News said the Digi release stated that the company “stands firm in its financial strength and robust growth trajectory [and] mentions that over $11.8 million was also paid in dividends to its 1,500 shareholders for the fiscal year ending March 2023, and it anticipates a larger payout in dividends for the fiscal year ending March 2024.”

The Amandala said Minister Bernard “told the media that a year and a half ago, they sought proposals from both companies, and after a review, they chose to drop BTL for some services and are going with Smart as of May 1 this year.” The Amandala said Minister Bernard said “… we saw where, in the case of SMART, we would have been saving quite a significant amount of money in terms of the service they provide and the accessibility to the equipment they are providing.” Minister Bernard said his ministry was still “utilizing some of the main lines that BTL offers.”

The Prime Minister has argued that competition is good for BTL. The Amandala said: “In previous interviews, when Prime Minister John Briceño has been asked about the move from the majority state-owned provider to SMART, he denied there was a policy to switch from BTL to SMART, and chalked it up merely to competition. He stated on August 20, 2021, ‘… BTL needs to change its mentality from a monopoly to a mentality of a market where you have to compete and you have to provide good customer service.’”

The UDP governments between 2008 and 2020 didn’t make all of us win; far from, but one of its administrations made good on a promise to return BTL to public ownership. For various reasons, getting BTL back came at great financial cost, reportedly as much as $600 million. The PUP, which made the lamentable decision to privatize BTL during its 1998-2003 government, has said that the company we bought back wasn’t worth $200 million.

Whether worth 600 or 200 million dollars, the company the UDP bought back was quite different from the company the PUP sold to private interests. The privately owned BTL had monopoly control over all activities involving telecommunications. The BTL we bought back was no longer a monopoly. The BTL we bought back had telephone competition, Smart. The BTL we bought back would soon allow Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) and a number of rival internet providers, which the privately owned BTL had suppressed.

Competition does bring out the best, and it takes selfless leadership working in a transparent system to prevent public companies from becoming the playthings of the people in power. The NTUCB did not congratulate the government for its “good governance” and strengthened “oversight bodies.” There is virtue in competition. Maybe it’s too tall a task for any government to keep corruption out of a public monopoly. Still, it’s a hard sell for the government to make us believe that this switch will help us all to win.

It is expected that when the next general election rolls around, the UDP will state boldly in its manifesto that all government ministries that moved over to Smart, will hook up back with BTL. The party’s die-hard supporters will lap up such a promise. Many non-aligned Belizeans will too. But they will also look this horse in the mouth. That’s because our political arena is a tangled web, at its core an open field with uncontrolled campaign financing.

Optically, and many believe substantially, Smart was at the fore in financing the PUP’s campaign to win the 2020 general election. The PUP leaned on Smart, some say heavily, to counter the “war chest” that the sitting UDP government had amassed, much of it through illegitimately corralling public resources. During their time in office, UDP governments flagrantly influenced who got jobs in the public sector, and there are many questions about their decision to renew the Boledo contract with some unnamed owners of an offshore company.

The UDP, in its newspaper, said Smart “is owned by family members of the Prime Minister”, and that if that was true, then a UDP in government would, without reservation, return all government phone contracts to BTL. But in that claim the UDP knowingly presented 1/5th truth as the whole thing. In 2021, the Guardian’s social media page shared a document that showed close relatives of the PM controlling 76 of 336 shares in Smart. The remaining 260 shares, about 80%, reportedly belong to companies affiliated with Lord Ashcroft.

Recently, the UDP went to bat for Ashcroft’s Waterloo project, even in the face of the country’s most vaunted body, the NEAC, declaring that, as conceived, the project would be a major environmental disaster. Belizeans wonder wherefrom the UDP gets the cash for its numerous relentless anti-government ads in the television media. Financiers will get their pound of flesh. If the UDP switched from Smart to BTL, it would take away business from Lord Ashcroft. It would then have to hand over a plum or plums from elsewhere in the public’s stock.

Both the PUP and the UDP will continue operating the way they do until we get some effective campaign financing laws. Notwithstanding the competition being good for BTL, as some really do believe, the PUP, in approving the snatching of another government ministry’s phones by Smart, calculated that it had little to fear from their only possible opponent in our rigid two-party electoral arena. As for Belize’s poor and less well-off citizens, who must be nonplussed when they look at the games these two political parties play, their only prayer is to win. The majority can’t see how this switch helps the cause.

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