Our country’s main opposition party, the UDP, has been saying for some time that the present PUP government would likely be abandoning the services of the national telecommunications company, Belize Telemedia Ltd. (BTL), in favor of the privately owned SMART, and this week a rather alarming release from the PSU informed the public that the switch is well underway. The PSU release says that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has contracted telephone services from SMART, while one ministry has indicated its intent to do the same, and another is reportedly also planning to do so.
It isn’t easy to differ with the PSU’s expressed view that the government is being “politically nepotistic, unpatriotic and… [making] a direct attack on a national investment of the workers of this country.” The government has some explaining to do.
After the 1998-2003 PUP government had given over majority control of BTL to private interests, mainly to companies controlled by Lord Ashcroft, getting back the company was one of the primary jobs the people of Belize gave to the UDP when they were voted into office back in 2008. Belizeans insisted on taking back the privatized BTL, primarily because the majority shareholder’s concern for profits far exceeded the best interests of the nation.
The UDP nationalized BTL in 2009, at a cost that is difficult to overlook. Rubbing salt in a gaping wound, Lord Ashcroft, in an interview on his television station (Channel Five) last year, said the UDP government paid out roughly 500 million dollars for BTL, and that it was his view in 2020 that the company wasn’t worth a third of what we paid for it. As it relates to the direction of the company, however, how much we paid for the company is spilt milk, gone. When we look at BTL, it is critical to remember those disappointing days when it was in private control.
Before going on, in any discussion involving Lord Ashcroft we cannot ignore that, according to the international courts, our country owes him a lot of money. From time to time, the capitalist system spawns fishes that are difficult for even the most powerful countries to handle, and in the case of Lord Ashcroft, what we have here is a large fish swimming in a relatively small pool.
Earlier this year, Lord Ashcroft, in an interview on his television station, suggested that Belize should sell BTL to an international operator to bring in foreign currency to bolster our weak economic position. He noted that the present majority shareholders in the company — SSB, the Government of Belize, and the Central Bank, which he estimated controlled 95% of the shares — were getting a pittance in dividends from the company because it was debt-ridden.
Ashcroft, scoffing, said some might see BTL “as a fundamental jewel to the nation of Belize without which the country has no dignity”, a position which he said he does not share. He mentioned that Belize might also consider putting other assets on the block. It is possible he might be showing the government a path to find the money to pay him.
This idea of a privatized BTL — we’ve been down that road before and it doesn’t bring back fond memories. Said Musa, the leader of the 1998-2003 PUP government that gave over majority control of the company to Lord Ashcroft, said in with malice toward none, his memoir of his time as leader of our country, that the objectives were “to bring down rates, to expand access throughout the country, and to provide a free internet in schools program.”
When the Ashcroft-controlled BTL did not deliver, Musa’s government issued a license to a new telecommunications company, Intelco, but the privatized BTL hard-balled until Intelco collapsed. Musa said that after the Ashcroft-controlled BTL smashed the competition, it “thereafter proceeded to behave in a most arrogant and hostile way towards the government and the Public Utilities Commission (PUC).”
Unable to get BTL to deliver what his government had envisaged, the Musa government forced the sale of the company to an American, Jeffrey Prosser. Information in the public domain is that Prosser did not have the funds to pay for the company, thus it fell back into the clutches of Ashcroft and his friends.
While these battles were ongoing in the telecommunications field, Smart, a subsidiary of Speednet Communications Ltd., was introduced by, or with the major involvement of, family members of the present Prime Minister, Hon. John Briceño. Today, former majority shareholder in BTL, Lord Ashcroft, is believed to be the majority shareholder of Smart. In 2009, then Prime Minister, Dean Barrow, told the House of Representatives that 77.38% of the shares in Speednet are held by three companies that are headquartered at a Belize City premises of Lord Ashcroft.
Going back to the days of the Ashcroft-controlled BTL, the company absolutely refused to allow VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). Everyone knew that the profits of BTL would take a hit, especially in the area of direct paid cell phone usage, if VOIP was allowed, but the benefits for the country were expected to be enormous. About three years after the UDP government took over the company, the national brain trust decided that BTL’s losses would be the country’s great gain, thus Belizeans got full access to the protocol.
It was unkind of Lord Ashcroft to say, in 2021, that our people would do well if we found an international buyer for BTL; our memories aren’t so short that we’ve forgotten that we had an “international buyer” in control of the company before, and he ran roughshod over our government and people, to satisfy his bottomline. According to the international courts, we owe this gentleman a heck of a lot of money, but we’ll have to find another way to pay him.
Turning to the report that some government departments are giving up the services of BTL for the privately owned Smart, that’s a real eyebrow raiser. We do need to see the fine print, and hear from the management of BTL. It’s unlikely but not totally impossible that Smart’s payment for use of our undersea fiber optic cable is quite sufficient to keep our golden goose fed.
The private companies that use BTL’s equipment employ Belizeans, and contribute to our tax base, and competition does bring out the best if the playing field is level, but in the not distant past we tried privatization of BTL, and we got bitten. What is for sure is that under no circumstances can the government encourage any deals that weaken our company in a way that makes it vulnerable to hostile takeover by private entities.