On Friday, the entire country awoke to the fact that Belize was completely isolated from the rest of the world. Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL) suffered an apparent act of sabotage which left the entire country without any phone, Internet or fax services. BTL’s national network went down sometime between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. Speednet’s system went down shortly after 8:00 a.m. Unfortunately, BTL was unable to restore its services for the entire weekend, leaving Belize completely stranded.
In San Pedro, Monday dawned with the fact that visitors and residents could make calls within the island. Internet, fax, national or international services still remained down. Because of this major ordeal, two questions arose in the minds of several citizens and tourists, 1) how does this really affect businesses in the country and 2) what exactly happened?
Interviews with many local business revealed that most had seen a decrease in their sales especially when patrons tend to call for deliveries and/or orders. Businesses in the tourism and travel sector could not communicate with their international customers or swipe credit cards. Not being able to use credit cards, tourists have not been able to spend as much money in the country as they would have hoped to. Others simply did not have enough cash to get them through the day. This means that businesses have had to manually swipe cards not knowing whether the card is valid or has enough funds. Big problems for businesses!
But, what exactly happened? Official reports revealed that the fiber optic cable to Belmopan was cut in a deliberate act of sabotage and the BTL switch had a complete failure. BTL staffers able to fix the problem, claimed that they would not repair the situations until critical BTL ownership matters are straightened out, those able to repair the situation were not going to. Government reports are that an expert was brought in to take care of the problem. Nortel engineers flown in from Mexico had the system almost fully restored when due to another act of sabotage it went down again.
On April 14th, union members and management of BTL met to “get direction” on how to acquire part ownership of the company. At the end of Thursday’s meeting, reports were that the workers “unanimously” called for a nationwide telecommunications shutdown for Friday.
What do the workers want? On Friday, after several meetings, BTL employees made a list of five demands. Demands included: 1) Government to transfer the 37% holding on BTL to the employees, either to be conveyed as a gift or they are willing to pay one dollar for it. 2) A BTL employee on the Board of Directors. 3) Full disclosure of all documents and contracts relating to BTL including the agreement with E-com, the buyback agreement with Carlisle Holdings, and the agreement with Innovative Communications Company (ICC). 4) The daily operations of the company to continue to operate without interference from Ashcroft or Carlisle personnel but under the direction of current Chief Executive Officer Gaspar Aguilar. 5) An audit inspection ordered by the Chief Justice to proceed for the period set out by the court. Workers claimed that they would not move from those demands until they were signed by Prime Minister Said Musa.
All this back and forth had workers and citizens upset and a minor unrest broke out in front of BTL headquarters. The National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) joined the efforts of BTL workers as they issued a letter to the Prime Minister on Sunday. The letter states, NTUCB representing some fifteen thousand workers (15,000), wishes to join the thousands of other Belizeans in registering our loss of confidence in your leadership as Prime Minister of Belize. The NTUCB therefore calls for your immediate resignation as Prime Minister of Belize, as well as the resignation of the entire Government of Belize. With regard to your leadership as Prime Minister of Belize, the NTUCB wishes to place on regard the following: 1) The almost absolute disregard for veracity in many of your public statements. 2) The excessive foreign loans incurred by your government and its failure to properly account for same. 3) The general mismanagement of public sector financing. 4) The ongoing fiasco at the Belize Social Security Board notwithstanding the current and ongoing Special Senate Investigation into said institution. 5) The imbroglio in the telecommunications sector, re: BTL, INTELCO, CARLISLE HOLDINGS, ICC; concurrent litigations in Belize, the UK and the federal court in Miami, USA over said telecommunications sector. 6) The current situation at the Development Finance Corporation. 7) The failure of your government to honor, to date, many of the articles of the 11 of February, 2005 agreement between GOB and the NTUCB.
If the government is unable to comply with the demands made by BTL workers, will this situation occur again? According to Paul Perriot, BTL workers union representative, “The staff is saying all or nothing. We are taking the initial steps to get back control of BTL and it’s not only for us as employees, but it’s for the general public of Belize also.” Time will tell.