By Hervé Jean Michel
The Haitian government sold a 60% share of the country’s national telephone company, Teleco, this month to the Military Telecom Company, known as Viettel, a subsidiary of the Vietnamese Army, based in Hanoi.
Teleco now no longer belongs to the Haitian people. The new private company which owns all of Haiti’s land-lines will be called Natcom.
Teleco was the crown jewel of Haiti’s state enterprises, but was sold for the fire-sale price of $59 million.
On April 29  Viettel directors were in Port-au-Prince where the deal, reached days before the Jan. 12 earthquake, was consummated. Representing the Haitian government at the signing ceremony were Haitian officials like Yves Bastien of the Council for the Modernization of Public Enterprises (CMEP), Charles Castel, the Governor of Haiti’s Central Bank (BRH), and Michel Présumé, Teleco’s director.
“Teleco sustained permanent attacks, its network was sabotaged on several occasions, and the situation was not sustainable,”
Castel said in a statement after signing away the company. (In past years, Teleco union leaders have charged that President René Préval’s government has deliberately undermined efforts to modernize equipment and improve service in the company to force its privatization.)
Castel also said that the Haitian government had spent $16.875 million (675 million gourdes) to make improvements to Teleco in order to sell it. If this investment is calculated into the deal, it means the Préval government sold Teleco for a mere $42.125 million, a company that used to bring in many dozens of millions of dollars in revenues annually.
“Teleco had over 5,000 employees who weren’t doing anything,”
said Michel Présumé, Teleco’s chief.
“Many of them spent more time at radio stations than at their workplace.”
He was referring to the regular interviews Teleco workers and unionists gave about the company’s mismanagement and the pending privatization.
Mr. Nguyen Khac Chung, a leading Viettel official, said during the signing ceremony that he wanted to make Natcom
“the best telephone company in the region.”
He said that all current Teleco employees will be kept in their jobs if they prove able to assume their new responsibilities. He said that Viettel has provided leadership in other countries such as Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam’s neighbors.
“We are eager to participate in the rebuilding of [Haiti] with reconstruction of a new infrastructure and distribution of telecommunications services,”
said Nguyen Manh Hung, Viettel’s Deputy Director.
Teleco’s privatization is the culmination of a long process that began in 1996, when President Préval, in his first administration, legalized the privatization of public enterprises. Two other key state enterprises, the Minoterie, Haiti’s flour mill, and Ciment d’Haiti, the state cement company, were privatized in 1997 and soon after closed their doors.
Teleco was always a strategically key state enterprise. During the 1991-94 coup d’état against former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, it was millions of dollars in Teleco revenues which, in large part, financed his government in exile.