April 19, 2005 – Virgin Islanders complain about Innovative Telephone service and slow Internet connections, but at least they have Internet service. Customers of another telephone system being bought by Innovative Communication Belize Telecommunication Limited — didn't even have slow service at the beginning of this week.
According to an Associated Press report, "Telephone, fax and Internet services were down throughout Belize on Monday after more than 500 employees of Belize Telecommunications Limited continued to strike for the fourth day."
The report said, "the strike is designed to return the company, currently foreign-owned, to Belizean hands."
While the employees want to go one direction, a court ruling in Miami appears to be leaning in another direction. That court has ruled the government of Belize faces a $50,000-a-day fine for not turning over control to Jeffrey Prosser, the president, chairman and chief executive officer of Innovative Communications Corp. ICC is the parent corporation of the Virgin Islands Telephone Company, known alternately as Vitelco or Innovative Telephone. ICC is one of the largest private employers in the Virgin Islands.
The AP said BTL employees and union representatives want Belize's government to sell or grant them a 37.5 percent stake in BTL, which would give them majority control.
Lord Michael Ashcroft, a British investor and former owner of BTL, is a third party involved in the dispute. In the power struggle, Prosser apparently has secured the support of a Republican congressman from Illinois, as well as several rulings from a U.S. District Court judge in Miami. On the other side of the issue, according to reports from Belize media outlets, are the government of Belize (GOB), the opposition party in that country, the nation's Supreme Court and the phone company's workers.
The dispute started on Feb. 9, when the GOB seized control of the phone company, complaining that Innovative had not paid $57 million it owed for the controlling shares in the company (previously owned by the GOB); Prosser, in turn, said the GOB had not loosened regulation of the firm, as he said it had promised it would. (See "Belize Takes Control of Phone Company After ICC Fails to Pay").
Neither the Belizean media nor The Hill, a Washington, D.C., publication that has written about the case, has reported payment of the $57 million or any regulatory changes on the part of GOB.
The GOB, in what many agree was an unusual move for a sovereign nation, agreed to be subject to the jurisdiction of U.S. courts when it borrowed $57 million from a Florida bank to buy the controlling interest in BTL from Ashcroft, a member of the House of Lords and one-time Belizean ambassador to the United Nation. Following the seizure of the company, ICC, a Florida-based firm, sued GOB in the federal courts.
In the Southern District of Florida, U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages has made a series of rulings favorable to Prosser. On April 12, she found the GOB in contempt of court and laid down $50,000-a-day fines, retroactive to March 29. "The Court notes that Defendant is a sovereign government and therefore its financial resources are much larger than the average party before this Court. Consequently the Court must impose a sanction relative to Defendant's resources in order to ensure compliance with this Court's Order," the judge's order stated.
The Belizean press is less impressed by the GOB's financial strength. Television station 7 News reported on April 13: "That finding is going to cost dearly," and "it's a stiff penalty."
Meanwhile, the Belizean Supreme Court has interpreted the U.S. judge's decision as saying that the board of directors of BTL "stood 6 to 2 in the government and Ashcroft's favor," again according to 7 News.
Ashcroft, according to media reports, re-entered the scene recently and bought a substantial number of shares in BTL.
But the judge in Miami still sees the "Board of Directors . . . in a four-four configuration; that means four directorships for Jeffrey Prosser and four for the Government of Belize and Michael Ashcroft," according to 7 News.
How such a stand-off would be resolved was not clear to anyone.
A new element in the Belize situation emerged earlier this month as a Republican congressman, Jerry Weller of Illinois, entered the scene. In a letter to Belizean Prime Minister Said Musa, the congressman protested "the clearly illegal and costly actions the government has taken against this company." Weller delivered the letter to the prime minister in person.
The Hill newspaper identified Weller as vice chairman of the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. News5, an Ashcroft-owned TV station, further identified him as "no stranger to Central America, having married the daughter of former Guatemalan General Efrain Rios Montt." BBC news, in an earlier dispatch, had characterized Montt as a "former Guatemalan military leader [who] briefly held power after a coup in 1982."
In addition to Weller's demonstration of interest, The Hill also reported that Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II , a freshman Democrat from Missouri, has written to Musa asking about the matter.
The Belizean media have been full of stories about Belizean executives and workers seeking to buy shares in the phone company, always with the provision that they will need to borrow the money to make the purchases.
The AP report said telephone "landlines were restored in Belize City on Monday, but communication between districts and international calls were still unavailable" Tuesday.
The report said "Internet cafes with direct satellite hookups provided the only Internet connections."
Some strike-related violence has occurred in the Central American country, the AP reported. Rocks and bottles reportedly were thrown Sunday outside the BTL compound, and a spokesman for the government press office, Vaughn Gill, was beaten by an angry mob. Rocks also were reportedly thrown at the prime minister's house, located down the street from BTL.
Meanwhile, Belize News Channel 7 reported Monday that "the National Trade Union Congress had finally put in writing what it had been thinking for a long time: that it's time for Said Musa to resign."
While the fighting for control continued, much of the country remained without telephone and Internet service as of Monday.
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