How can giants sit down as equals with pygmies? Consumer Concerns
Stabroek News
January 27, 2002

Quite a while ago a high-ranking minister of the government informed a consumer delegation that the government was already receiving applications from overseas companies who desired to enter into the telecommunication business in Guyana when the monopoly of GT&T ended. I asked why overseas applications were being considered. Were there no Guyanese who could compete? The astonishing reply was that overseas companies had the technology which Guyanese did not have. Pardon me, but expletives passed through my mind at that stage.

There is, at governmental level, a grave undervaluing of Guyanese and their expertise. When the government needs technical and expert advice on telecommunications regulations, it is not Guyanese that it approaches but some US firm that will charge thousands of US dollars.

The problem that local entrepreneurs face is that there seems to be a barrier, or barriers, that they encounter when seeking to begin operations in their homeland. Clients from overseas come and the red carpet is laid down. Laws are changed at their request. This violates one of the guidelines laid down in the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection which were adopted by consensus on April 9, 1985.

An example of this procedure is seen in the 'sweetheart deal' - the description given by Mr Raymond Gaskin to the agreement between the government and the Guyana Power and Light Company. The Electricity Sector Reform Bill came to us in the form of an 'act' which showed that it was drafted overseas and not in our homeland as we would expect.

The Public Utilities Commission Act 1990 has been amended four times, not to satisfy the wishes of the Public Utilities Commission or the consumer associations. Indeed, the two consumer groups would dearly love to see the act amended to make provision for funding for legal and technical services so that consumers could meet GT&T and GPL on a level playing field. No consideration is given to our requests.

This is not all. There are other means of protecting and molly -coddling the overseas firms; a United States Ambassador at one time invited representatives of the Guyana Consumers Association to meet with him so that he could advise them that he was in Guyana to protect the interests of American firms. He himself saw nothing sinister in one of the bills to amend the PUC Act although we ourselves saw several clauses that were not in the consumers' interest.

With the molly-coddling and the sweetheart deals, it is not surprising that overseas firms can prosper while firms managed by purely Guyanese personnel dwindle and fall apart.

The Wall Street Journal on February 1, 2000, found news in the achievements of none other than Mr Jeffrey Prosser, who is known to those of us in the consumer movement who handle telecoms business. The story is entitled 'A Guy From Nebraska Hits it Big in St. Croix, but Triggers a Backlash.'

Let me implore you to read a few excerpts.

"The US Virgin Islands - St Croix, St Thomas and St John - are at a delicate stage. The setting is beautiful, but years of official mismanagement and bloated public payrolls have left the US territory's government all but bankrupt..."

Let me give you snippets from a fairly long article. "Few have benefited more from the tax breaks than Mr Prosser."

"Mr Prosser stayed in the islands where he developed a knack for winning favour with powerful locals."

"Messrs Prosser and Prior purchased Vitelco."

"Next they bought control of Guyana Telephone & Telegraph Co., where they found a well-paying business involving phone-sex calls."

"Messrs Prosser and Prior agreed to route the calls through Guyana and back to boiler rooms in the US, splitting the Guyana phone charges with the phone-sex operators."

"Company reports indicate that by 1996, phone-sex traffic accounted for more than half of the $206 million annual revenue of Messrs Prior and Prosser's umbrella phone company, which they called Atlantic Tele-Network, Inc."

"The partners [Prosser and Prior] finally agreed to a split-up in August 1997. Mr Prior got the Guyana phone company and Mr Prosser got the one in the Virgin Islands, which he took private. Mr Prosser 'had a great relationship with the governor' of the Island, Mr Prior said. 'It was more valuable for him to have the Virgin Islands rather than for me to."

"[Al]though by most accounts he had little income to shelter when he first arrived" in St Croix in the mid-1980s Mr Prosser was in a position to purchase the Virgin Island Daily News around 1998. "Mr Prosser recently agreed to buy the Virgin Islands banking operations of Chase Manhattan Corp."

There ends the tale of success, a model for investors seeking to enter small developing countries where they are treated as royalty. "But Mr Prosser's rise has stirred a hurricane of controversy in this laid-back Caribbean enclave."

So it happens with foreign investors, perhaps not as startling as Mr Prosser's meteoric rise but yet far, far better than locals can achieve.

To consumers, what is disturbing is the fact that monthly meetings were held with the management of the local Guyana Telecommunications Corporation. To date, although invited, consumer groups have held no meetings with GT&T to consider consumer complaints and consumer interests. I ask you: How can pygmies sit down as equals with giants who can break our laws - e.g: phone cards and visa immigrant calls where PUC permission has not been given - with impunity?