BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Jan. 7, 2016–There were many important stories that captured the headlines in 2015, but the year’s biggest story is the one that had the greatest national importance and the one which also incidentally captured the most headlines in 2015: the controversy between Belize and Guatemala over the construction of a law enforcement base at the Sarstoon.
That story began to unfold in June, 2015, when Guatemala naval officers ordered a senior Coast Guard and his crew off Sarstoon Island while the Belizean team was doing reconnaissance in the area for the construction of a forward operating base. That trip was cut short, on orders from Prime Minister Dean Barrow, who is also the head honcho for the National Security Council.
In the weeks leading up to the nation’s 34th Independence Day celebrations, the Belize Territorial Volunteers led an expedition to the island, and similarly met resistance from the Guatemalans, who challenged Belize’s longstanding jurisdiction over the island. On Independence Day, September 21, Barrow announced that the base would be built.
On December 9, as 2015 approached its end, Belize Government officials broke ground for the forward operating base at the mouth of the Sarstoon. And although the groundbreaking took place indisputably on Belizean soil, the Guatemala military’s resistance was still evident, and this time, the Guatemalans upped things a notch by sending a drone to spy out the activities of the Belizean officials.
While the issue of sovereignty over Sarstoon Island was the biggest story for the year, the greatest tragedy to have unfolded during the year was the inferno at the Youth Hostel which claimed the lives of three girls on Saturday, November 28, 2015. The untimely deaths of Ana Carlos, Shadisha Arnold and Elizabeth McKoy left the Belizeans in shock.
According to the hostel authorities the fire was caused by the girls, who were on lockdown after an earlier escape from the institution. Furthermore, the authorities conceded that “broken protocol” contributed to the calamity.
2015 saw its share its tragedies, but it also saw its share of triumphs. After decades of land right litigation and international lobbying by Maya activists of Southern Belize, the Toledo Maya celebrated a milestone year with a favorable decision handed down by the Caribbean Court of Justice, which awarded them $300,000 in reparations after issuing a consent order solidifying their constitutional rights to traditional lands in the south. The CCJ order paves the way for further milestones to be reached in 2016, with an order requiring that the Government of Belize put in place a mechanism to give effect to Maya land rights across nearly 40 villages in the South.
And while we speak of victory, 2015 saw the ruling United Democratic Party snag a third consecutive general election victory at the polls, following a sweep of the March 2015 municipal elections. The UDP walked away with 19 of 31 seats on November 4, and with 62 of 69 municipal seats, with the Opposition People’s United Party hanging on to Orange Walk Town.
As the year 2016 starts, the Opposition is preparing to hold a convention to choose a new leader, after Opposition Leader Francis Fonseca announced his resignation on the heels of the November 4 defeat at the polls.
The year 2015 also saw its share of labor disputes: the workers of the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital effected a go-slow, suspending elective surgeries, as they agitated for a salary increase, even as workers of the Belize Electricity Limited hit the streets protesting an apparent breakdown in negotiations over their new collective bargaining agreement.
The two most protracted labor disputes, which are ongoing as we enter 2016, are those involving the workers of First Caribbean International Bank, which exits Belize at the end of this month, and the stevedores, whom the Barrow administration recently included under essential service providers in the wake of a dispute with Port of Belize Limited, which threatened to put the brakes on shipments to the Belize City-based port. Government did so by passing a new statutory instrument on December 18, 2015.
In 2015, Belize was spared from the impact of hurricanes, but the northern and central portions of the country suffered drought conditions. In contrast, there was major flooding in Belize City near the close of the rainy season, which concludes in November, and subsequent torrential rains caused more flooding in central and southern Belize amid an El Niño year which produced unusually sweltering heat across the country.
While 2015 saw a spate of killings in the Cayo area, it was an especially mournful year for the Hydes of Camalote, who experienced untold tragedy due to crime. In May 2015, Rosalie Galvez, the common-law wife of Russell Hyde, a resident of Camalote, was murdered while the family was traveling back home from More Tomorrow. Later that month, Hyde’s cousin, Steve Hyde, was found butchered on his farm and in August, there was an awful double murder in which Hyde himself, along with his then common-law wife, Marcy Humes, were murdered.
Meanwhile, their relative, Brian Hyde, was detained in the US for a triple murder in which his aunt, Dorla Pitts, Russell Hyde’s sister, as well as Pitts’ pregnant daughter and son-in-law were all murdered at their family home in Florida, USA, where he was staying with the family.
The tragedies that befell the Hydes make the unmistakable point of the cost of violent crime – both to the victims and to their perpetrators.
Katie Usher of the Image Factory created a wall chronicling the spate of murders to show the nation what that loss really looks like. She was inspired by the July murder of Kremandala’s star journalist, Kareem Clarke, who was gunned down on the Southside of Belize City.
Whereas the crime situation remains of vital national concern, 2015 ended with better news – that the incidences of murder have dropped by roughly 30% on the Southside of Belize, while nationally it fell by 3%—a good note on which to end the year.