Belize Bank chokeholds payment process for OBRS

The content originally appeared on: Amandala Newspaper

Photo: BCCAR office location at Gian Gandhi Building in Belmopan

No other financial institution can be used to make payments to create an IBC or 250 company on the new Online Business Registry System at this time. 

by Marco Lopez

BELMOPAN, Tues. Jan. 24, 2023

If you have registered a local company or IBC in Belize lately (or tried to), you would have found that the payment options, which are limited to Belize Bank-provided services, were limited, thus creating a less-than-user-friendly space.

We went through the process of trying to register a new company using the new Online Business Registry System (OBRS) platform recently launched by the Government of Belize — the Belize Companies & Corporate Affairs Registry (BCCAR) — and found that it was impossible to use any payment method or bank to complete the process of registering a new company other than Belize Bank’s two digital services: online “self-serve” payments and the E-kyash digital wallet application, which are the only options available for payment on the new BCCAR platform.

During a conversation with a gatekeeper, we were told at one point to “ask someone to pay for you,” after being told repeatedly that using Belize Bank was the only available option at this time.

That individual confirmed that only the online Belize Bank services, which are embedded in the payment transaction tab for the BCCAR – OBRS system, can be used to complete the online form. The other option available is the E-kyash app, created and owned by Belize Bank as well.

No option to use a credit card or to submit payment via any other bank, either digitally or manually, is allowed on the new platform. The BCCAR, since its digitization, no longer accepts cash payments.

This locks out a sizable chunk of the population who do not do business with Belize Bank, or simply operate by cash. But it also raises many questions, in light of the fact that Belize Bank is owned by the same Lord Ashcroft-affiliated set of entities that once controlled the International Companies Registry in Belize under its BISL, and which less than a year ago received 70 million Belize dollars from the nation’s coffers in compensation for the nationalization of that registry. Now that same cluster of entities, of which the Belize Bank is a key part, is the only one benefiting from what appears to be the exclusive provision of online payment services for all new companies registered in Belize. Such an arrangement would generate a substantial amount of revenue for the bank, owned by Waterloo Investments Holdings Limited, and would constitute a monopolization of financial services for company registration if other payment methods are not coded into the system.

The BCCAR late last year claimed that other payment options are coming soon, but it has been two months, and the services offered by the Belize Bank are still the only option available. There has been no indication when any other payment options might become available, since no timeline for the introduction of such alternatives has been laid out. It must be noted that the most common payment method used online by the public is credit and debit cards. The lack of an option on the registry platform for payment using a credit card, and the availability of financial services from only one bank on that platform has placed considerable constraints on new companies seeking to be registered — defeating the purpose of digitizing the registration process.

In August 2022, the government of Belize arrived at a settlement with the Ashcroft Alliance for the nationalization of the International Business Companies Registry and the International Merchant Marine Registry, once owned and operated by Belize International Services Limited (BISL). Just days after the settlement, Waterloo Investment Holdings, the Ashcroft-affiliated, multi-tentacled company, entered into an Acquisition Agreement with Caribbean Investments Holding Limited, the parent company of Belize Bank, to bring that company’s assets under WIHL’s portfolio. 

Belize Bank, after its Scotia Bank acquisition in June 2020, became the largest commercial bank in Belize, effectively seizing 50% of the market.

We made various attempts to reach out to the Deputy Registrar, Santiago Gonzalez, via multiple calls to the office and a string of e-mail messages, and also by visiting the office in Belmopan City at the Gian Gandhi Building. However, we were told he was unavailable — reportedly “in a meeting”. 

We will continue to follow.