BELIZE CITY, Sat. Aug. 21, 2021– This week Prime Minister Hon. John Briceño attempted to justify the decision within certain government ministries to replace the services of the national telecommunications company, Belize Telemedia Limited, with those of the privately owned Speednet Communication Limited (SMART) — a company that, according to credible reports, is primarily owned by Lord Michael Ashcroft, as well as by members of Briceño’s own family. The justification presented by the Prime Minister is, it’s strictly business.
In response to the Belize Communications Workers Union (BCWU)’s condemnation of the switch to SMART, which was stated in a press release that referred to the move as “spit in the face of all Belizeans”, Hon. Briceño said that BTL workers must move away from what he calls a monopolistic mentality and focus on improving customer service — a surprising stance to be taken by a head of state, who ultimately bears responsibility for the performance of a nationally owned company.
“I have absolutely nothing to do with that. There is no policy to move from BTL to SMART, but what the union need to do is to ensure that they can provide better customer service and that BTL needs to change its mentality from a monopoly to a mentality to a market where you have to compete and you have to provide good customer service,” PM Briceno said.
Prime Minister Briceño went on to claim that the public servants in those ministries have complained of sub-standard service delivery from BTL and that it was after those Ministries failed to reach an amicable agreement with BTL that they decided to go with the proposal made by SMART. (BTL’s chief executive officer, however, had indicated to a local newspaper that they had not received the opportunity to present a counter-offer that could present more value and savings than the SMART bid).
The references to “business” and “economics”, have prompted questions about the numbers — how much savings, and at what overall cost. The only numbers mentioned by Prime Minister Briceño were vague references to “thirty-dollar plans”— small savings within narrow contexts. Some specific numbers and estimates— which are key to all business decisions and to the assessment of any “economic move” — were listed by Hon. Tracy Panton, Albert area representative, at a UDP press conference last week, and by the BCWU in its own press release.
The BCWU stated in its release that it condemned “the sudden and unjustified termination of phone lines, cell phone plans and the non-renewal of MS365 Licenses [by three government ministries so far], which has resulted in over three-million-dollars in losses to company revenues at BTL”. It further stated, “Our estimate from over 10 years of the audited financials of BTL is that over $80 million of dividends declared has been for the Government of Belize alone. BTL’s Articles of Association mandate that a minimum 45% of net profits is declared as dividends to Shareholders. Therefore, these decisions have long term effects, as any revenue diverted from BTL to another entity is a reduction in the dividends paid to Government of Belize. The people of this nation are immensely affected for every cent of taxpayer revenue that is lost or not reinvested.”
Hon. Panton had further stated at a UDP press conference, “… in the case of BTL, forty-nine percent of the shares are owned by the Government of Belize. That is our taxpayers’ dollars that have been invested. Another thirty-four percent have been invested by SSB. That, my friends, are our Social Security contributions that have been invested. And another eight percent from the Central Bank of Belize. Whatever proceeds we get from our foreign exchange earnings, some of that has been invested in BTL. That is ninety-one percent of the shares that belong to the Belizean people…”
The BCWU has thus stated, in reference to reports that the Prime Minister’s family members own a significant percentage of Speednet’s shares: “… we are forced to deduce that this act is a complete abuse of power with direct nepotistic validation to Speednet Communications Limited, an entity with which several major Government elements has known ties. This act takes money directly out of the public purse and places it in the hands of private citizens whose direct link to the government cannot be overlooked.”
The Prime Minister, as previously mentioned, has insisted that he had nothing to do with the decision to make the switch.
It must also be noted that Lord Michael Ashcroft, the former owner of BTL, to whom the Belizean government must pay almost 600 million dollars in compensation for its nationalization, is reported to be the majority shareholder in Speednet Communication Ltd. (owning an alleged 77% of the shares). He has said in the past that he has nothing to do with SMART.
The PM, as previously mentioned, told local media that the move to SMART was not a policy decision handed down by his office.