Since entering into receivership in January 2012, Port of Belize Limited, under the administration of Arturo Vasquez, has undertaken significant expansion of its daily operations. The company was appropriated from businessman Luke Espat by the British Caribbean Bank for failure to service a loan portfolio upwards of sixty-four million dollars. Along with other assets, including an adjoining acreage in Port Loyola, as well as the Commerce Bight facility in Dangriga, P.B.L. was assumed by Private Investment Limited. While development continued here in Belize City, progress remained at a virtual standstill in the south, as a result of ongoing litigation over a lease granted to P.B.L. for the property on which the harbor sits. That case was also inherited by the receiver. This morning, a release was issued by government stating that P.B.L.’s tenancy has been cancelled, following a Supreme Court decision in July of last year in which an injunction restraining the termination of the lease had been discharged. News Five spoke with Vasquez, who confirmed receiving a letter from the Ministry of Works and Transport informing him of the takeover.
Arturo Vasquez, Receiver, Port of Belize Ltd.
“I got a letter today from the government saying that this is in effect and, of course, immediately after I heard from my Commerce Bight security that they were down in Commerce Bight taking over the property. A little history is that this has been in court before. There was an injunction on that property and that was lifted in July of last year, so the minute that was lifted obviously the government was in a position to do this. This property is leased. It was supposed to be leased to own but the port never got the opportunity to purchase the property. So, basically what is happening today really is based on the fact that the injunction was lifted.”
“Now, when PIL assumed Port of Belize Ltd. were you guys made aware by its previous owners as to why there was a delinquency in terms of developing the Commerce Bight port?”
“The case, there was a case already in the courts for that, as to the reasons why, and it’s a lengthy case, there were several reasons why development did not happen. One of the main reasons I can recall is that the port never got the opportunity to purchase the property. So, I would imagine that there is a little bit of hesitation in developing something that you are not sure you may end up owning. I have seen in the documents where it was supposed to have been a lease to own. I have seen where government has attempted on several occasions to take over the property and I have seen where that challenge had continued. So, I would imagine that anybody would be a little hesitant in moving ahead with development if there is never a certainty that the property will become yours.”
Government says appropriation was necessary, PM welcomes it
The revocation, according to the release, states that Port of Belize Limited failed to honor three essential requirements, including the submission of a development plan to carry out any development works at Commerce Bight, the dredging of the approach channel and the dock basin, as well as payment of the lease rental to the Government of Belize. Despite not owning the tract of land, former owner, Luke Espat, proceeded with the construction of a private dock. The appropriation of the port, according to the Ministry of Lands, has become necessary to meet the commercial needs of the country.
Arturo Vasquez, Receiver, Port of Belize Ltd.
“At this point, to be honest Isani, all of this is in the hands of the attorneys right now. I would not want to speak as to what would happen after today but I know that monies were paid towards that property, maybe not for the property itself but the case basically was very clear in that the case was only addressing the land itself. I am sure that the pier would be another matter.”
“Now this injunction was effectively lifted on July twentieth of last year and the government has only taken decisive measure as of today. Was there anything that the Port of Belize could have done during that time to either begin development or either commit to developing the Commerce Bight Port?”
“Yes, we have, actually we had, since I took over, there was a plan of development for that property. That was actually brought up during this case because, as you can imagine, when I took over I became a witness to this case and in one of my affidavits we had mentioned that since my assuming responsibility of the port we had plans for that property. That property is manned twenty-four-seven by security. We keep it well kept, we try to keep everything working, lights, security, everything.”
“What does this mean in terms of either loss of revenue if it was operational or the investment that has been placed into the facility?”
“Loss of revenue may not be something significant because there was not much coming through there but yes, there was some cost to it. Investments, from what I can gather, are monies that were paid initially when this entire agreement was made. Those are the investments that we have sitting in our books where would be amortizing the pier for that matter.”
The government says it will begin seeking outside funding to develop the Commerce Bight port in the near future. In a press release this afternoon, Prime Minister Dean Barrow says G.O.B. “will not be deterred by the challenges that may be encountered in the process and will not hesitate from taking decisive action, wherever necessary in the national interest.”