Prime Minister Dean Barrow this week sent a strong public signal to the Michael Ashcroft camp, and particularly Belize Telemedia Limited (B.T.L.), when he made public statements signaling that he is fed up with the hostilities and will, as he told Amandala today, “go to another level to end things, one way or the other.”
“We cannot continue in this fashion indefinitely,” said Prime Minister Barrow. “We will have to do whatever is required to put an end to this situation.”
When we asked Barrow what Government’s options are at this point, he declined to go into details, only saying that, “we are trying to get all the ducks very clearly in a row...”
“I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth,” he also told us.
While Barrow took the position that he “...won’t enumerate the options” open to them at this time, he added: “We are trying to work through all the ramifications of all possible courses of action... We must think through and plan very carefully.”
Government and B.T.L. are no longer on talking terms, and the last rounds were held about a month before the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA) awarded B.T.L. $38.5 million in damages from the Government of Belize, because of the accommodation agreements ex-Prime Minister Said Musa signed with B.T.L., guaranteeing the company a 15% rate of return on its investment.
If they say tomorrow that “we let go of the Accommodation Agreement’...and make suggestions as to how to move forward, said Barrow, Government is prepared to listen, but that is premised on B.T.L. letting go of the Accommodation Agreement.
Since that is not likely to happen, the Government is purportedly looking at its options for bringing the dispute to a close.
Barrow expects that the fights inside and outside the courtroom will continue:
The “principals” or “moving forces” behind B.T.L., said Barrow, are “extremely powerful” and “extremely well-resourced,” and “they will go to the ends of the earth to fight us.”
Apart from a string of litigations mounted in the Supreme Court of Belize, the Ashcroft group of companies (which include primarily B.T.L. and Belize Bank) has multiple proceedings against the Government pending before the LCIA.
“There is no way we can allow this to hang around for the next four years,” said Prime Minister Barrow. “We have to go to another level to end things, one way or the other.”
Barrow would not say whether he would go the route of passing new laws to diffuse the dispute or whether Government would go down the more controversial road of brokering a buyback, as Musa, his predecessor, did.
But any such move by Government would very likely spark strong resistance from the public, given the tens of millions in losses taxpayers had to swallow back in 2004 when government brokered a buyback of B.T.L.
When we asked Barrow about the cost of the bouts of litigation with the Ashcroft group, he said he did not have a specific figure, but that it has been costing “far, far too much.”
He told our newspaper that he intends to one day make that figure public and hopefully that would help Government when it makes its case to the public as to what it proposes to do to end the battle with B.T.L.
Other investors are interested in the market – a prominent company from Mexico and another from the Caribbean, Digicel [sic], which had proposed a buyout of B.T.L. at the time of the change in administration.
Barrow said he told the company when they proposed the buyout that they would have to talk directly with B.T.L. and not with him.
The Accommodation Agreements, which seek to give B.T.L. a monopoly, are slowing down the process of opening up the telecommunications market, the Prime Minister said, adding that in the Caribbean monopolies are a thing of the past.
B.T.L.’s efforts to have the Government’s case before the Supreme Court (to block the enforcement of the arbitration award) consolidated with those from the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) in a second case and the Association of Concerned Belizeans (ACB) and Senator Godwin Hulse in the third case are “absurd on the face of it,” because Government’s case is entirely different, but more than that, the Government is an applicant in one case and a defendant in the other two, Barrow argued.
As we explain in a separate article in this edition of Amandala, B.T.L. is also trying to have the court remove Lois Young as the attorney for the PUC and ACB/Senator Hulse.
“They obviously fear her,” Barrow commented.
So many of the top-ranking lawyers have worked for B.T.L., and the idea is to deprive the ACB and the PUC of having first rate counsel, he commented.
Lois Young has represented the Government of Belize in a string of cases that Government has been fighting against the Ashcroft group of companies, including B.T.L. Michael Young is another private counsel that the Government has engaged to take on major court cases.
We note that the Government still has to fill a longstanding vacancy for the post of Solicitor General, and when we asked Barrow about that today, he said that he had just received a new application, and that the Attorney General, Wilfred Elrington, is currently in Guyana, where he is also looking into the prospect of recruiting someone from there.
One man who had initially seemed a good prospect for the post, said Barrow, turned out to have been disbarred in the United States.
Belize Bank has taken its dispute with GOB to London arbitration. However, GOB had also instituted legislative measures amid that dispute, hiking the tax levied against Belize Bank and other PIC (Public Investment Corporations) from 8% to 12%.
If they are not paying, said Barrow, the Income Tax Department will eventually bring court proceedings against the bank.