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Friday, September 17, 2021
Home Editorial Privatization, competition, and “interest” issues in telecommunications

Privatization, competition, and “interest” issues in telecommunications

It wouldn’t surprise anyone if former Prime Minister, Said Musa, said that handing control of BTL to Lord Michael Ashcroft and his Carlisle Group was the biggest mistake he made as leader of Belize. Some think it was our biggest blunder since Independence, almost 40 years ago.

In Musa’s memoir, with malice toward none, there’s an entire chapter on all that transpired AFTER the Ashcroft Carlisle Group was allowed to gain control of the company. The story there is that the Ashcroft Group which the PUP blessed with control of BTL, turn tiger pahn dehn. Musa, in reference to what took place in the course of the entire BTL saga, said, “I and the PUP government were fighting Ashcroft to bring about competition and to reduce rates…” while “the very same people who now attack me were supporting Ashcroft and representing his interests in the Courts.”

For most Belizeans, the PUP settling on a scenario in which Ashcroft was at the helm of BTL is a no-brainer. It is widely believed that he must have paid for that blessing with substantial contributions to the PUP’s election campaign fund. At the time control of BTL shifted to private hands, the company was on a steady, sometimes spectacular trajectory, guided by well-trained Belizeans and with excellent technical talent on the ground.

The new majority shareholder had a lot on his mind, primarily the use of the asset to give him dominion over an entire nation. Twelve years ago, The Guardian (UK) reported that Ashcroft had repudiated “a charge from the prime minister of Belize (Dean Barrow) that he had ‘subjugated an entire nation’ through his extensive business interests in the former British colony.”

When Ashcroft gained control of BTL, he did all the things Musa accused him of, and when he couldn’t have his way, he reportedly drained BTL with management fees and lured away talent from the company to support the startup, SMART. Most everyone suspect he is the major contributor to the PUP election campaign fund, and everyone knows he hires our top lawyers – Dean Barrow, Eamon Courtenay, Godfrey Smith – to blow us away in the courts.

It is alarming that some see his “management style” as the standard for business genius in our country. Presently, private companies compete with BTL to provide cell phone and internet services in Belize, so there shouldn’t have been shock waves across the country when it was mentioned that BTL was exploring the potential of competing in the cable services field. But when Lord Ashcroft took to his television station some months back and lambasted such a move as a ridiculous idea, why, all over the country the idea of BTL providing cable television services was declared— nonsensical.

Going verbatim, Ashcroft said (in an incredulous voice): “BTL thinking of buying cable companies, where cable is a dying industry, you say, what is happening here…” Indeed, what is happening here? If Ashcroft has done anything in Belize that proves him a better managerial talent than Mr. Markhelm Lizarraga, we haven’t seen it.

Lizarraga, the board chairman of BTL, explained that his company has tremendous capacity that it isn’t utilizing, and we have to support the company’s efforts to study every avenue to increase its revenue. There’s much brilliant technical talent that still resides at BTL, and all the ambitions of the company that were derailed when it fell into private hands that had one aim only, self-enrichment and power, must now be explored.

Lizarraga came under some fire recently after a few government departments switched from BTL’s cellular services to those of its rival, SMART. As mentioned, private providers of internet and cellular services have been competing with the publicly owned BTL, for over a decade. These private companies rent the vast assets of BTL, thus their competition is not a total loss. On the national landscape, these companies pay taxes and employ Belizeans.

When talent from BTL migrated to SMART, they knew where BTL’s coverage was weak, and SMART has concentrated on those areas. The Prime Minister, Hon. John Briceño, insists that it’s all in the name of healthy competition, but government departments switching to private providers, even where the private provider gives a better and cheaper service, in any language is very strange.

It’s all in the name of competition, says PM Briceño, and he punctuated the extent of his passion for the virtues of the free marketplace with his very forgettable love for better panades. He didn’t make a sale there, not at all, so until further explanation, until he “wheel and come again” with a better pitch, we’ll have to try and figure this one out for ourselves.

We are being pushed into a rethink, one where we definitely need more input from our top technical and managerial talents. Is this wholly a bad thing — SMART getting short-term contracts to provide services for government departments in areas where BTL is supposedly deficient? Is the government about to “level the playing field”? We know there is abundant talent at BTL to form more companies that provide cellular services. Could BTL explore/develop in areas that will have long-term benefits for Belize and its shareholders?

Looming large in the ongoing saga of the private SMART taking away business from the public BTL, and having the audacity to say it is actually after more, is the report that prominent shareholders of SMART are closely related to the Prime Minister. It is the consensus that Ashcroft holds the lion’s share of that company, about 80%.

We have heard the PM go to the extreme to divorce himself from SMART, and its dealings with government departments. The PM says he gave no directive to any ministry to move its business – but we all know how the world works. In the real world, everyone wants to be friends with the PM, and it’s not just so they can get an invitation to his next birthday party.

There’s a lot to cover here. For one, it is for sure that if Belize were Singapore, a country many Belizeans wish we were like, and Singapore is really what we believe it is like, there would be a big problem.

A second thing is that the PM and the PUP lost quite a bit of political capital with this move by SMART on BTL. As it relates to the bottom line, the PM has said that his government’s end game is to see that BTL is firm as a rock, and board chairman Lizarraga at BTL has said things are improving. However, as it stands now, the jury is definitely not leaning toward giving the PM/PUP a pass.

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