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High price for PBL, but we like the fresh air

EditorialHigh price for PBL, but we like the fresh air

Since the GoB announced that it had bought back PBL (Port of Belize Ltd.) from the owners/receivers, the price we paid for the asset, why we took it away from private hands, how it had ended up in private hands, and what it means for the workers at the port, have been dominant topics in the media. Not lost is the freshness of the air in which these discussions are taking place. Few, if any, aren’t tired of the stagnant environment at PBL, and the cost to our nation while the asset languished in the hands of a receiver/owner who insisted that no improvement of the facility was feasible if it wasn’t complemented by a cruise terminal that could berth the largest ships in the world.

Many say the price we paid is exorbitant. The port has been neglected, run down since a government, after spending tens of millions of dollars to deepen the approach, acquire modern equipment, and improve the pier and storage facilities, sold it to a local company headed by Luke Espat. About a decade later, the company lost the prized plum to the Belize Bank, to receivership.

The main opposition party, while supporting the reacquisition of the port, remains suspicious of all business transactions involving the PUP. So it is when you don’t have the best track record. The PUP does not have the best track record. Neither does the UDP. The Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Shyne Barrow, is suggesting that the deal was done to pave the way for the proposed cruise port, Port of Magical Belize (PMB). They have called PMB a “retirement plan” for PUP insiders. The facts we have are that the National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC) declared PBL to be an unsuitable site for a cruise port, and gave the green light to PMB.

Mr. Jules Vasquez, the owner of Channel Seven, claims that the government purchase of PBL at the high price it paid, is the product of pressure from the Ashcroft Group. Vasquez said no less than 60 attack ads were run to force the government into this deal. Mr. Vasquez should know about these ads, because they were a nightly feature on his television station. Mr. Vasquez and his television station are award winners for their regular exposés, but he didn’t cause any eyebrows to rise when he informed his viewers that the ads, many of which featured the usual UDP operatives, were paid for by the Group. No one questions the gentleman’s veracity. The question Belizeans were asking during the bombardment was if the Group, the owners of Channel Five, had major shares in Channel Seven too.

PM Briceño insists that his government got the best deal. He says GoB bought the port from the receiver/owner because the workers were crying out for “fairness”, the employer refused to “budge”, and because the port wasn’t ours the government “was unable to do anything for merchants, for workers, for consumers, for exporters.” He said the owners/receivers of the port had won “various court-issued awards” which were “growing everyday”, and that we pay millions of dollars to “cover the fees of topnotch lawyers to ward off a sudden grab by the Ashcroft consortium of assets and funds that we need.”

The port was privatized by the PUP government of 1998-2003, during an era when the viral privatization bug was sweeping through our world. The leader who made privatization very popular was UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. In her governments between 1979 and 1990, she privatized just about every public asset. Centre for Public Impact, at the website centreforpublicimpact.org, said privatization was a minor part of Thatcher’s first manifesto, “but it became a central part of its ideology as the 1980s progressed. Many industries and utilities that had been nationalised in the Attlee government of 1945-51 were made into private companies: in industries, steel, railways, airways, airports and aerospace; and, of the utilities, gas, electricity, telecoms and water.”

The justification for privatization is that businesses managed by governments are run inefficiently, they become infested with nepotism and other forms of favoritism, and they become feeding troughs for politicians in power. The PUP of 1998 to 2003 swallowed the privatization sales pitch—hook, line and sinker. Immediately after coming to office, that PUP government set about selling control of electricity, water, the telephone company, the government printing press, and PBL. Majority control of the nation’s sole telephone company, BTL, landed in the hands of the Ashcroft Group, the same one that brought misery to PBL. For Belizeans, BTL under private ownership was nohtn nice. There are questions about the negotiations to buy back BTL, but we were desperate to own the company again. The private owners didn’t need to tell us that we paid too much.

The present government has a little gall to scoff at the profits the publicly owned BTL is making. When the PUP 1998-2003 administration sold BTL, it was a monopoly. When a UDP administration bought it back in 2015, it had been broken into a number of pieces. The reports are that we paid over $600 million to get it back, an extremely steep price. The reported yearly profits can’t cover the interest on that amount. But the air is fresh, though the government that bought it back did, for a spell, foul our space again. Incredibly and disappointingly, one of the first acts of the prime minister who negotiated the buyback of BTL was to put one of his sons in charge.

The sale of the port in Belize City, PBL, was a fiasco. And now, after two long decades, it is back in public control, once again the property of the government and people of Belize. It is the hope of Belizeans that the present government does nothing to sully public ownership of our assets again.

The call from the main opposition that the management of PBL is drawn from the ranks of public employees wasn’t well thought out. The private sector is a different kind of space. The private sector is 7 days a week, and the days aren’t 8 to 5. There are many top professionals in public employ, some of whom can deliver the goods in the private sector, but they don’t possess the proven expertise.

The talent that is selected to run PBL must be seasoned, and prepared to compete with private interests. That last requirement means they cannot be connected in any way to rivals. We don’t want to be let down again. We are a proud people. We don’t like to be members of caravans to America. We can win if we get the right people in charge. The GoB gets big points for getting back PBL. We paid a high price. But we like the fresh air.

UN Security Council votes 13-1-1 against US and Israel

Israel has the US on a thin limb, supporting their murderous war in Gaza. Israel says the sole objective of its bombardment of the Gaza Strip is to destroy Hamas, the dominant political party in Gaza. On October 7, a radical wing of Hamas that crossed into Israel executed over a thousand innocent people and took over 200 hostages. Israel has been dropping bombs on the Gaza Strip since then.

Aljazeera says “More than 18,000 people have been killed and nearly 50,000 others wounded in the Israeli assault on Gaza since October 7, according to the Palestinian health officials. Many more dead are uncounted under the rubble or beyond the reach of ambulances.” The BBC says “satellite images suggest that nearly 100,000 Gaza buildings may have been damaged during the fighting.”

The rest of the world has condemned Israel for the destruction of property in Gaza, and the murder of thousands of innocent Palestinian men, women, and children. The Associated Press (AP), reporting on a UN Security Council vote on the war, said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres “warned of an ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ in Gaza and urged the council to demand a humanitarian cease-fire.” At the UN Security Council, 13 countries voted for Israel to put down its weapons; one, the UK, abstained, and the US voted for Israel to continue pulverizing Gaza. The AP said U.S. deputy ambassador Robert Wood said Israel has a right to defend itself, and “declared that halting military action would allow Hamas to continue to rule Gaza” and “only plant the seeds for the next war.”

Mr. U.S. deputy ambassador, the Israeli assault on Gaza has long gone beyond defense.

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