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Dec 14, 2005

Luke Espat: G.O.B. has breached terms of port deal

Story PictureIt was just one of several government owned entities that have been sold off in privatisation deals by the Musa administration since 1998. But tonight, the man at the helm of Port of Belize Limited, Luke Espat, is fighting mad, asserting that Belmopan has systemically breached parts of the agreement it signed with investors in the maritime facility in 2002. According to Espat, later that same year, another port was permitted to conduct similar commercial operations, and today, the resulting financial situation is now threatening to sink his entire company. But tonight, those big blows come in the face of reports in the local media that Espat et al is failing to meet loan obligations for the port and as recently as last Friday, had to be rescued by the Belize Bank. But according to the Belize City businessman, he retains controlling interest in the Port and as for the “Belize Bank” deal, that arrangement was brokered by the Port’s investors with the Belize Bank Turks and Caicos institution simply because it offered the best “soft money” package deal. Espat categorically denies that majority shares were offered in exchange for the money. And while the cash is in hand tonight, this morning, Espat told News Five’s Janelle Chanona that ownership of the port has been anything but smooth sailing for his company. Who does he blame? In no uncertain terms, the Government of Belize.

Janelle Chanona
?Public perception is that you are operating a facility that you haven?t paid for and you aren?t paying for. What would be your response to that??

Luke Espat, Chairman, Belize Ports Limited
?That is totally ludicrous. We have repeatedly made our position clear from when the port was purchased way back after privatisation that the government received their full payment for the port. There is evidence of this that can be sustained at the Central Bank and from the ministry itself if responsible people would act responsibly and find out the investigations themselves.?

?For the Port to pay for itself right now, it cannot, it can meet interest. So you have to negotiate arrangements to take you out of below. And it?s not overnight; it?s not going to happen overnight. The port, we made certain commitments to government and these are some of the things that are integral in what is happening. At the time of privatisation we were given certain assurances, certain representations were made by government that the Port of Belize, Belize Port would have been the exclusive port in this country. This is commercial port, it is precise, it is clear. We have had relentless letters from the Prime Minister on this, from the Minister Responsible for the Privatisation at the time, that the port in Big Creek would have been a banana port, strictly and remain a banana port. Even when the government of Belize owned the Port of Belize they realised that they could not have another port operating because they could not even pay their bills at the time. Now to answer your question directly, there are two parallels: we have to develop the free zone. Without the Carnival investment of being the catalyst, not to say that the port would have failed, the catalyst to attract other bona fide investors into the area of port investment and into the area of commercial trade to the magnitude, we would have had to develop the free zone and then sell off these properties to be able to pay principal payment. That was what we were successful in doing in the Belize Bank Turks and Caicos deal. That principal payment would not have been taken from recurrent operational because it can?t pay it, and worse so it will not be able to pay it with this rogue business that is happening with the license issued by Minister Canton back when privatisation was going on.

?The same illegal thing he did when he issued license to other people when they do they took public money to buy Novelo?s Bus Line. He knew that he was destroying that, he knew exactly what he was doing. The only difference is that Luke Espat is not Novelo. We are going to fight to the end to ensure that the representations made to us by government will be upheld. We have to do this.?

Janelle Chanona
?You feel that you have enough leverage to do that??

Luke Espat
?It?s not about leverage right now, it?s about the reality that we made commitments to government. We have over the amount of workers needed to run a port. We have the unions, we have the stevedores, nothing like this happening in Big Creek. Big Creek does not have a union; they have one or two people working. We have to keep on the south side of Belize City and throughout Belize City over four hundred and fifty workers all inclusive of stevedores working at that port. It?s uneconomical to continue like that, but we have a commitment.?

Janelle Chanona
?But can?t government simply come back and say, well that was Henry Canton doing that and he is no longer a minister, so…?

Luke Espat
?That is precisely the point, but the government is responsible for the actions of its ministers. That?s not my problem. I have had as recent as the closing of this arrangement with the syndicate last week, the Prime Minister?s assurance of all the outstandingness of privatisation, unequivocal. And he had assured us this before because this was a thing that we were working on moment by moment as we went along, because there is a lot of hinges and bolts and nuts to tighten and to put in to make it all legal, and they have assured us of this. Now the next step is for them to do whatever is necessary for the correction of that licence that was issued to the Big Creek port.?

Janelle Chanona
?So you want the licence limited to just banana shipping??

Luke Espat
?What it was and anything related to banana…?

Janelle Chanona
And you want money back??

Luke Espat
?We are not talking about damages at this time, everything is negotiable, everything in this world is negotiable. But at this point we will take the confidence that we have that government will correct it quickly. There is a time frame to this now.?

Janelle Chanona
?How long??

Luke Espat
?Well we figure it has to be done within the next month…as fast as that.?

?I am not here about selling bibles. You are elected into politics, you have commitments and you have made commitments. Whenever you go to the international forum and you write or you make an agreement, stick to the agreement regardless of what it is. You either did it at the time for whatever reason it was. Where the public is concerned, I think we?ve got to be more responsible to each other. I do not expect that the backbiting against me finishes overnight, please, because we live in a crab mentality. The crab barrel theory works here. And I keep saying, if it?s a white man come tomorrow, the bank will give him money faster than it give you and me. It?s about us looking inward and saying where we want to go. I have no intention of staying backward.?

Tonight we understand that of late business has boomed at the Big Creek port as companies are capitalising on the fact that shipping to the southern facility on the empty boats that come to Belize to pick up bananas is far cheaper than using the Belize City port. The Big Creek facility is owned and managed by the Banana Growers Association. According to Luke Espat, in addition to paying G.O.B. twenty million U.S. dollars–money borrowed from the International Bank of Miami and Caribbean investors–his company Port of Belize Limited, also assumed millions of dollars in debts to local and foreign institutions.


Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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