Importing Internet Satellite in Belize -- Good Luck!
Date: 19 June 2003
In attempt to make a little income down here, I looked into selling and installing internet satellite dishes since I was able to get mine up and running. I noticed that a few internet cafes had satellite service, and I asked around to find out how they were able to do it. I researched on the internet and eventually made an agreement with a Texas company to be a reseller in Belize. Now since Belize has only one phone company, the only internet service available is dial-up, and it is very slow, besides being very expensive -- my dial-up bill was usually around $150US per month and that is without being connected very long. My satellite service is only $90US per month with unlimited always-on access.
In Belize, the Office of Telecommunications requires that every satellite dish be licensed -- TV and internet dishes. The license is $75US per year for TV, and $150 per year for internet; however, the Office of Telecommunications will tell you that satellite dishes are illegal (even though they collect license fees?). The laws are circular, arbitrary, and basically open to interpretation -- as long as someone can figure out a way to skim a buck off the top, anything is doable. Most dishes have been brought in and installed without the license, and the Belize government doesn't make any money on the satellite services since all are via subscriptions from the US or Guatemala. Belize Telecom Ltd (BTL) is the monopoly in Belize, and only in January did the telecom business become open to competition.
So as a trial, I ordered 2 satellite dishes from Texas for a couple friends. For a fixed price, I was going to do everything and make a little profit for my trouble. The dishes were shipped via air to Belize City. I went down to pick them up but first had to clear them through Customs. The Customs officer said that they could not release the dishes without the Telecom License. I then went to the Office of Telecommunications to buy the license. I then learned that only certain sat dishes were being allowed in, and that there were only 2 companies on their list of approved suppliers, and my guy wasn't one of them. They would not give me a license unless my supplier could prove that he was allowed by his parent company to sell the service outside of the US. (This of course doesn't make sense since the Office of Telecommunications is empowered to only act in accordance with the Telecommunications Act -- not to serve as an auditor for a foreign corporation like Hughes.)
The real intent is to prevent these dishes from coming into Belize at all. They want these kinds of services to be offered in Belize from Belizean corporations who give the government 20.5% of their gross sales plus collect 8% sales tax -- that is to say, with a sales total of $100, $28.50 goes to the Belizean government before a dime goes to the business -- and that does not include corporate income taxes that are also to be paid. Needless-to-say, there are few to zero new start-ups to compete with BTL. So the government and BTL are in bed together and have been for years. Belizeans pay 3 times what anyone else pays for telecom services, and since there are no other options, they have to pay it.
Anyway, I tried to get my supplier to send something, anything, that would appease the Office of Telecom, with no success. My supplier offered to buy back the dishes and send them on to El Salvador and Honduras, but I decided to try and work it out. It was about 3 weeks before I finally was able to arrange to have the dishes transported to Mexico where I had found new clients for the goods. Of course the paperwork was horrendous -- dozens of documents and forms. I had to go to a Customs Broker to get it all handled. It was arranged that I could go pick up the dishes in Belize City (2 hours away) and transport them to the Customs compound at the Mexican border up here just a few miles away. From there I could continue on to Mexico.
Since I have no car, and the bus is expensive to drive, I asked a buddy of mine who had a Voyager if he'd like to take a road trip. So we headed down to the Belize Customs office. After a couple hours, we were given permission to transport the dishes north, but we had to carry a Customs guard with us -- which we didn't know about. We had already removed the seats to make room for the dishes, so there was no where for him to sit. He was required to have a seat so my buddy sat in the back while the guard got the front seat. We were to pick up the dishes and drive directly to the border. So now we were off to the airport where we eventually were able to pack up the dishes and go. (Forms, forms, and more forms...)
The trip back up was uneventful. The Customs guard was a wet blanket who barely uttered a word. In the old days, you could probably give him a few bucks, and he'd let you empty the boxes and just ship an empty container, but not being very good at the whole bribery thing, I just hoped that doing everything legally was going to be fine. The crazy thing is that if I had hired a Belizean to go get the dishes in Texas and bring them down 'their own way' I would have gotten these dishes a month ago without any duty or license fees. It is no wonder that smuggling is the #1 business in Belize -- and I am not talking about drugs, I am talking about avocados, tomatoes, used clothing, toilet paper. Belize is a poor country whose government has sold off all its utilities. The primary source of income for the government is taxes on imported goods, so the borders are teeming with Customs officials checking everyone's bags as they travel between Belize and Mexico.
As we are getting close to the border, my buddy who was getting a bit sore from riding on the floor of his own vehicle asked to be dropped off at his house and I could carry on to the Mexican border without him. I asked the Customs guard if I could pick someone else up to continue on to Mexico because he had the directions to where I was supposed to go. He agreed and we picked up my other friend.
We got to the border around 5:30p. The Customs office was officially closed, but my friend knew the officer on duty, and all our paperwork was in order, so we were allowed to continue on instead of leaving the goods in the Customs warehouse until Monday. So we drove to the Mexican border, got our passports stamped and drove up to the checkpoint. My friend spoke Spanish and makes this trip regularly so I let him drive. Now I did not know this then, but I do now -- at the actual checkpoint, there is a stoplight, sometimes is says 'Pass' and sometimes it says 'Alto' (stop). It is random so that it is not left to the discretion of the officers which cars to search and which to wave through. If you get the green light (Pass) you just keep going. If you get a red light, there is no discussion, you open your car and trunk and let the officer look through your stuff.
Well, we simply drove up. If we get a green light, we're in, if not, we'll have to declare the goods. Red light. Before we could even declare anything, they were already going through the vehicle. Apparently, we were supposed to park and walk into the office first to pay the duty. Since we didn't we were pulled over. My friend was speaking in Spanish to the officer, but it wasn't going well. It turned out that since we didn't follow the procedures, and the office was closed, they were going to seize the dishes and the car until it got straightened out. Aye chihuahua! Begging, pleading, nothing would change their minds. Long story short, we returned home with no van and no dishes.
I returned to Mexico the following Tuesday since Monday just happened to be Mexican Independence Day. Oh, Lord, too many details and too much bureaucracy. I had to get a lawyer, I did. I had to translate all the Belizean customs docs into Spanish, I did. I had to pay $1600US to get the car back, I did. I had to make at least a dozen trips over a period of 3 weeks to finally get the car out -- my cash deposit will serve as security for whatever fine they may eventually make me pay -- because let's face it, it's always just about money. It will be a couple months before any decision is made about the dishes. I am telling you, after all this I was just wiped from stress, fear, and disgust. We started making plans to move back to Canada right around this time. ;-)
Upon returning from Canada in October, I thought I'd check in on the status. The lawyer informed me that the court ruled against me and that I would not be getting the dishes back or the $1600. I can appeal however, but I have chosen to chaulk the whole thing up to another set of credits towards my independent study degree at the University of Hard Knocks -- affectionately known as Screw U. ;-) C'est la vie.
Until the next time, au revoir,