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Government to acquire Port of Belize, settle outstanding judgment awards, resolve all Ashcroft claims and litigation

Posted: Thursday, December 7, 2023. 1:05 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Prime Minister and Minister of Finance John Briceño has introduced the Belize City Port Acquisition and Settlement Deeds Bill, 2023.

The proposed Act intends to acquire certain shares and movable assets and real estate by the Port of Belize Limited, by the Government of Belize for and on behalf of the people of Belize, and the implementation of the terms of deeds of settlement among the Government, Port, and the companies Waterloo Investments Holdings, Midway Investments Limited and Belize Social Development Limited to settle certain arbitral awards owed by Government to these companies.

Also, exemptions from the General Sales Tax (GST) Act are contemplated for the renovation of the Radisson Fort George Hotel.

Over the objections of Collet area representative Patrick Faber, the bill will be debated in all its stages today. Faber told the House, “This is a big deal, this is a big issue…it was only this morning that we received – look at this document and this is only one of three. How in the world are we to understand what this bill is all about?” He asked for at least a week’s time to review.

In response, the P.M. reminded that the previous administration signed agreements to settle the acquisition of Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL) following a weekend in Miami, Florida, before “ramming it down the people’s throat.” In contrast, he said, there had been months of negotiations which have just concluded, followed by a discussion in Cabinet. The documentation mostly concerns transfer of land titles, he added, although a more formal explanation would be forthcoming during the second reading of the Bill.

A Government press statement outlines the terms of the settlement. Issued shortly after the first reading was made, it announced that the settlement will return the Port of Belize City to national hands, settle all remaining Ashcroft-related judgment awards against Belize and provoke an immediate withdrawal of all litigation against the Government by Ashcroft companies. 

The cost of the acquisition will be US$83.37 million (BZ$166.74 million) with a further US$15.3 million (BZ$30.6 million) going to resolution of awards. Those cases to be dropped include (1) the Waterloo UK-Belize Treaty Claim relating to the denial, on environmental grounds, of an application for environmental approval to construct a cruise port, (2) a lawsuit against the Christian Workers Union and the Stevedores claiming business interruption damages, (3) an injunction blocking an ex gratia payment to the Stevedores, and (4) various claims against the Ministry of Sustainable Development, the National Environmental Appraisal Committee and the Department of Environment.

As a result, Waterloo and the Ashcroft Alliance will abandon any further efforts to develop a cruise ship terminal in the Belize District. 

Included in the Settlement, Belize Hotels Ltd., owner of the Radisson Fort George Hotel in Belize City, will build a new conference facility as part of their ongoing $57-million reconstruction project. In turn, the Ministry of Investment will approve the company’s fiscal incentive, which the Cabinet had placed on hold since last year.

The Government says it will pay less than half the total settlement sums upfront – US$45 million or BZ$90 million – while the balance will be paid over five years by way of Belize dollar Government Treasury notes carrying an average coupon of 3.65 percent. 

The final settlement sum represents 36 cents on the dollar compared to what the Ashcroft Alliance has sought from the Government in total compensation, awards, damages, and legal costs, around US$274 million. Crucially, current profits from the Port can finance the entire settlement sums while expected increases in revenue will fund the long overdue modernization program for the Port facilities.

The Office of the Prime Minister has also signaled that the Port’s Board of Directors will include a representative from labor as well as the business community. The new management is expected to engage with labor and employee representatives with urgency.

The Bill will be debated today, and if approved, will proceed to the Senate on Monday, December 11, 2023. The government’s takeover of the Port should take place shortly thereafter.   

 

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