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Dec 14, 2017

A Review of the B.T.L. and U.H.S. Saga

2017 has been a case of the chickens coming home to roost for the Barrow government in two particular cases. In the span of two weeks in November, the Caribbean Court of Justice delivered two separate but damaging blows to the government in the matter of the settlement of Belize Telemedia Limited and Belize Bank Limited in favour of Universal Health Services. For B.T.L., the government was immediately ordered to pay the second half of the arbitration award to Dunkeld International Investments and B.T.L. Employees’ Trust of seventy-eight million U.S. dollars, with just a quarter million dollars left over for charitable projects out of the monies for the so-called Accommodation Agreement of 2007. G.O.B. is also on the hook for a total of ninety million dollars in principal and interest owed to the Belize Bank for a loan to U.H.S. in 2004, which the Government plans to take to the United Democratic Party-controlled House of Representatives once the official notice of collection is given. Adding in the first payment for B.T.L. made last year and other still outstanding arbitration debts, Belize has paid or still owes more than seven hundred million dollars. News Five’s Aaron Humes takes a look back at the extraordinary events of the past few weeks.

 

Prime Minister Dean Barrow [File: November 1st, 2017]

“What we have paid, which is what the tribunal found we were supposed to have paid, we are supposed to pay, much less than what the alliance was hoping for, is in any case, I insist, absolutely worth it in terms of our long-term eternal ownership of B.T.L., a B.T.L. that will take telecoms in this country to higher heights and that will make beaucoup bucks for government and people.”

 

Dean Barrow

Prime Minister Dean Barrow [File: November 29th]

“Implicit in the very action of going to parliament is possibility that a bill, any bill, may not pass.  Parliament is free and indeed mandated to pass fair and correct laws, but it is equally free and just as mandated not to pass laws that aren’t fair and aren’t correct.  And when it comes to the particular matter of a law to provide for the payment of judgment debt which, though legally valid, is morally reprehensible, it is the essence of a country’s sovereignty and parliament’s authority, that a decision can be made not to approve the law, not to pay the debt.”

 
Aaron Humes, Reporting

The same man – but is he contradicting himself? Prime Minister Dean Barrow would say no; after all, it was his decision in 2009 and again in 2011 to acquire Telemedia, and then to settle compensation with Lord Michael Ashcroft in 2015, although the matter returned to court over the quantum of currency twice since. Both B.T.L. payments come out of the main reserves, which Financial Secretary Joseph Waight notes will not bounce back so easily.

 

Joseph Waight

Joseph Waight, Financial Secretary [File: November 8th, 2017]

“It will not wipe out; it will reduce the reserves by about twenty, twenty-five percent. Remaining after that will be about three months of import cover which is fairly comfortable. Reserves are built over time, generally from surplus between your import and exports. It will take time to rebuild, but it is in a positive direction because the balance of payments is largely in equilibrium – some months you’re in, some months you’re out -  but it’s largely, over the period of time, the current account of the balance of payments as it is called, your trade account is largely positive over time. It will take some time, and we hope that production remains and prices remain and we don’t have natural disasters.”

 

As for U.H.S., it was ex-Prime Minister Said Musa who ultimately had the final say on acquiring the debt of Universal Health Services as part of the National Health Insurance Scheme – a decision that briefly threatened him with jail and set the Barrow administration on its current path of resistance. But Musa still thinks he did the right thing.

 

Said Musa

Said Musa, Former Prime Minister [File: November 22nd, 2017]

“It was settled, as you know, by my government at the time, and indeed we had received grants from Taiwan and from Venezuela that would have paid off that debt completely at no cost to the Belizean people.  It was done at the time, since you want to go back into history, let’s look at the full history.  The debt was a debt of the Development Finance Corporation in the sense that the D.F.C. had guaranteed the debt to the bank, eventually.  The D.F.C. was unable to pay U.H.S.’ debt, so the government took it on as a responsible government, but not only did we take it on; because the understanding clearly was and the agreement clearly was that the government would have eventually owned that hospital.”

 

Except that never happened. But what happens next, the Prime Minister has said, is entirely up to the rest of his lawmakers, some of whom have already vociferously expressed their views. He rests assured that whatever decision it is, it will more or less be final – unless the Bank chooses to take up cudgels again. Aaron Humes reporting for News Five.

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