BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Aug. 26, 2021– This week, Belizeans learned of yet another source of revenue that was taken away from the national telecommunications company, BTL, when documents emerged that showed that SMART, despite not being a Microsoft partner, as BTL is, was awarded a $3.37 million contract to provide the licenses for the Government of Belize’s Microsoft 365 software packages.
When interviewed, Prime Minister Hon. John Briceño stuck to an assertion that he’s made several times before — that no “policy decision” was handed down from his office directing a move from BTL to SMART. He did not indicate, whether, instead of passing one sweeping policy, the GoB might be embarking on a strategy of stripping BTL of revenue sources and awarding them to SMART, one contract at a time. What is known is that an invoice from the Ministry of Finance, which he heads, indicates that Ministry’s approval of the payment of 3.37 million to SMART Belize, and it’s been reported that it ordered that payment to be made immediately — despite the fact that BTL’s bid (according to BTL’s CEO) had included a deferment of payment of almost half that amount, which would have been subtracted from GoB dividends to reduce government’s cash outlay.
He insisted that the decisions being made by the various GoB ministries are cost-saving measures prompted by budget reductions — referencing a 20% cut to ministry budgets which he said has caused those departments and offices to seek cheaper services. And he asserted that SMART is offering cheaper services to those ministries, despite comments by BTL’s CEO, Ivan Tesucum, that BTL had not been given the opportunity to present a counter-offer to GoB that would have been lower in price than SMART’s bid.
“I have never, ever asked anyone to get involved to do any for BTL or for SMART. I don’t even have time to think about those things. When that comes to my attention it is after the fact,” the Prime Minister claimed. Whether surrogates of his could have possibly done so on his behalf was not a matter that was addressed.
He then noted that all those payments sent from the Financial Secretary to the various Ministries for payout are a normal course of business that do not require him to sign off on them. Whether it should be of concern to Belizeans that the head of the Ministry of Finance/GoB is unaware of multi-million-dollar payouts of taxpayers’ dollars was another issue not directly addressed.
When asked how the loss of business would affect the nationalized telecommunications company, BTL, effectively turning it into a shell company, Hon. Briceño made a startling statement — that BTL is, in fact, already a shell. Many members of the public might be hoping the statement does not suggest abandonment of an enterprise with which the pensions and financial well-being of a majority of Belizeans are inextricably bound.
“BTL is already a shell company, and this is what you all don’t want to understand, that the money that we have paid for BTL has been a rip-off, that what we have paid we will never get back, but more importantly, that BTL is a private company and they need to learn to compete.” PM Briceño said.
He claimed that the company was charging the Government of Belize $2,000 monthly for 500MB internet to schools packages that were advertised as free.
“Now my company, Centaur, a cable company, not SMART, I have nothing to do with Smart — we could offer that same 500 MBS for $500. BTL has been used to fleece the Government; now we have a responsibility. The unions are telling us that we have to see how we are spending our money, we cut what we give to each Ministry and now you get upset because the Ministries themselves are trying to save money and get the best deal from themselves,” he said. In his remarks, no distinction was made between the type of thinking and analysis that is done in corporate settings when costs are being cut, and the type of calculations made by a head of state responsible for an overall economy and for the protection of the investment of public funds.
Hon. Briceño then said that it does not matter that the Ashcroft Alliance holds the majority of Speednet shares — only that the government is now seeing cost savings at this time of austerity. He ultimately put the blame for the entire situation on former Prime Minister Dean Barrow, who had predicted that as soon as the PUP took office, that they would effectively abandon BTL to ensure greater profits for SMART.
Prime Minister Briceño said that there was no competition under the Barrow administration and that BTL was allowed to operate with millions of dollars of GoB contracts.
“There was no competition under the Dean Barrow administration. They just gave all their business to BTL, and we, the government, and yourselves as taxpayers, have been propping up BTL. BTL needs to learn to compete,” PM Briceño said.
In reference to the awarding of the Microsoft 365 licenses contract to SMART, he said once again that it was the prudent business decision for the CITO to make, given the cost of the service and the available funds.
In regard to the government’s responsibility and what the public feels should be a vested interest in ensuring the success of BTL, the Prime Minister said that they have tried to appoint board members with the brightest business minds within the country to salvage the company.
The UDP is currently calling for the resignation of Mark Lizarraga, the appointed chairman of the board of the company.