It is commonly held that World War II started in September of 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, and England and France declared war on Germany. However the case can be made that it actually began March 7, 1936 when Hitler ordered his troops to march into and reoccupy the Rhineland. Hitler issued the orders for them to march with the caveat that should the French begin troop mobilization in response, the German troops were to retreat immediately from the Rhineland. As late as 1936 Hitler was not prepared for war. The French and the British governments, with the horrors of the first great war fresh in their minds, were paralyzed and rationalized that the best response to preserve peace was to do nothing. If Germany had been made to retreat, it is commonly held by historians that it would most likely have been the end of the Nazi regime. As it happened, Hitler’s stock shot up and the British and French got what they feared most – another world war.
As I watched the response to this latest episode in our dispute with Guatemala, I am looking everywhere for it. I am straining my ears to hear it from members of our government, or the common people, or those in the press. The utterance that came closest to what I was looking for was in an editorial in the Amandala. What is it that I am straining my ears to hear? Some hint that people in Belize are ready to defend Belize-militarily.
I get the argument from many people that Belize cannot hope to defeat Guatemala in a war. That is correct, if the BDF with its present numbers are expected to take care of the matter.
I hear from grown men in Belize that the British will defend us. I want to ask them two questions. When the British soldiers are heroically fighting the Guats, where will you be? Also, I want him to ask himself why an English boy should be sent all the way from England to fight a battle on his behalf that he (the Belizean man) doesn’t express much enthusiasm to fight himself?
And yes, I know that the British could provide an effective deterrent. But we are no longer a British colony. Contrary to what many people believe, Britain is under no obligation to provide for the defense of Belize. Although, it would be very responsible of them to maintain a presence in Belize in the interest of stability in this region. That small British presence and a policy that is ambiguous enough to give Guatemala pause, is a very small price to pay to prevent what could be the unraveling of peace in Central America.
Then there is the question of the ICJ. I fail to see how the ICJ will resolve this issue. In the event everything is adjudicated in Belize’s favor, the Guatemalans have made no promise they will fully accept the verdict. They have not even clearly defined, in unambiguous terms, the extent of their claim. I see that as them keeping the door open to rework the claim in the event things go against them.in fact the whole claim itself, from its inception, has been arbitrary and unprincipled. The Guatemalans hold to no principle in any of their dealings on this issue. What did they say about the Maritime Areas Act? That it was supposed to help the Guatemalans save face and be more amenable. Didn’t President Serrano recognize Belize and come as close to dropping the claim as anyone to date before he was ousted? From 1859 to the present there has been a pattern. We seem to make progress on the issue, and the reactionary elites in Guatemala place someone in power to reverse course.
Now, in the event that the ICJ does not completely repudiate Guatemala’s claim, it will breathe new vitality into an issue that the majority of Guatemalan people don’t even care about. And for those who think that this is only about a claim to half the country, I would like to remind them of Mexico’s warning that any resolution to this issue that results in land concession to Guatemala will nullify any agreement Mexico made with the British in the nineteenth century and result in their demand for territory from Belize. So this ICJ business is more than an issue about the Guatemalan claim to the south: it is about whether Belize will continue to exist at all.
This issue should not be of concern only to Belize. The British have been saying lately that they will take a more even-handed view on the issue. I take that to mean they will no longer give unequivocal support to the Belizean position. That makes one question the benefits of our membership in the Commonwealth and having the Queen as head of state. It will also not help their position on the Falklands issue. Any solution that changes the borders of Belize will cause more complications and could jeopardize peace in Central America. It is also sure to embolden the Argentines in their claim to the Falklands and reanimate Venezuela’s claim to parts of Guyana.
And so I come to the watchword of my essay and the crux of the matter – deterrence. The Belize Defence Force does not have to be built up to a strength and capability sufficient to defeat the Guatemalan Armed Forces to serve as an effective deterrent. It is my opinion that if Belize could bring 8 to 10 thousand under arms in an emergency, Guatemala would be presented with a situation where not only would quick victory be in doubt, but many uncertainties would come into play.
Guatemala is a very troubled society. The conditions that led to the civil war have still not been addressed. There are even groups that have expressed a desire to return to armed insurrection due to the government support of multinational businesses in the dispossession and exploitation of the Indigenous and rural population. Added to this are economic problems that are leading to increased dissatisfaction. Should Guatemala engage in any military adventure and it does not lead to quick and lasting pacification of Belize, it might well embolden those who contemplate armed insurrection in Guatemala. And this time they would have allies in Belice.
There are those in Guatemala who have contemplated this scenario. A YouTube video from former President of Guatemala Serrano mentions such a possibility in broad terms. And if the Guatemalan elite were not so blinded by greed they would see the possibility that conflict with Belize could ultimately be a danger to the status quo in Guatemala and their own interests.
I know the thought of war is so alien to the Belizean mind that this kind of talk seems absurd. And to be sure, in the present world environment, Guatemala is unlikely to attack Belize militarily. The international community would condemn it and it is uncertain how much material and maybe even direct military support Belize would receive particularly if such an operation gets ugly as it did in their civil war. At the present time it will confine its actions to infiltration and psychological warfare. But there are two conditions under which Guatemala might well use military force against Belize: if some belligerent clown comes to power in Guatemala. Or if there is some great crisis in the world that distracts and occupies the great powers and the rest of the world. Well, it could be argued that the first condition has come to pass, literally.
As for the likelihood of some great crisis arising in the world, watch the news. The world is on edge. It’s as if people are expecting something. They say America is almost certain to experience a devastating economic reversal in the not too distant future. Some Americans are talking about where they might run to when the sh-t hits the fan. Ironically, Belize is one of the places they see as a potential refuge. When the Chinese want to curse you, they say, may you live in interesting times. Dearly beloved, we are living in interesting times.
So it is my conviction that the way forward now for Belize is to build a volunteer force to augment the BDF in times of emergency. They could even reconstitute the old Home Guard or it could be called Belize Territorial Volunteers. As far as I can tell Home Guard did not cost the government a lot to maintain. What the government should be doing quietly right now is seek to source small arms to equip about ten thousand men. They could ask Britain for help in this. Even if they have to get cheap Chinese SKS rifles, that would do. These arms would be under the control and be the responsibility of the BDF at all times. Recruiting would be voluntary and only compulsory to fulfill the numbers. I believe such an organization could serve to increase social cohesion, and instill a culture of discipline in our society. If it is wisely and imaginatively implemented it could well become the vehicle for the social renewal that we so desperately need.
As I said, this force should be in the neighborhood of eight to ten thousand. However if we increase that to fifteen to twenty thousand, it could be a game changer. There is a military doctrine that says an attacking force should be at least three times that of the defending force to have a chance of victory. By this doctrine a force of fifteen to twenty thousand should, in theory, be sufficient to deal with our present problem. If we were to reach that point and maintain it, we would not have to even seriously entertain the Guatemalan claim. We could at that stage dispense with the paper shuffling and hand wringing exercises. If we could maintain that year in year out going forward, the Guatemalan claim could be made to die of neglect and, for all intents and purposes, be resolved. This is possible, people.
I can anticipate two counter arguments to this proposal. The first is, how do we pay for this? The second would be that Guatemala has the resources to also increase its armed forces and bring more of its people under arms. To address the second question first: believe me, Guatemala would be very wary of arming too many of its people, particularly its Indigenous population, and sending them off to fight in a conflict that could potentially be difficult. Some of its people bear grudges and grievances. It could be said that arming too many people in Belize could also be tricky. Does not have to be if it is well regulated.
As for the first counter argument: how to pay for this. Considering the potential benefits of such a reorganization of our society, I think we cold convincingly petition Britain and maybe Canada to aid us in this enterprise. Also, the government needs to be aware of one forgotten resource – the thousands of Belizeans living in the U.S. and other countries, many of whom would be willing to help in such an endeavor. The Prime Minister lamented the four million dollar price tag for helicopters recently. I guess it never occurred to him to solicit Belizeans working in the U.S. to help in this project. I would have gladly written a cheque for five hundred or more towards the ‘copter. I am sure there are thousands of Belizeans in the U.S., and maybe even some Americans who care about Belize, who could have and would have done the same. I would dearly love to be a part and involved in setting up such an organization. I also call on Belizeans in the U.S. to start making contact with each other and organizing.
I want to make it clear that I am not calling for war in any way. I believe that war is probably the most asinine thing that mankind engages in habitually. But as illustrated by the experience of Britain and France leading up to the Second World War, having a fervent desire for peace is not enough to avoid conflict if your adversary doesn’t share that desire. It also provides the lesson that decisive action and concrete measures taken early in dealing with an aggressor are usually less costly and more effective than attempts at appeasement and futile bargaining. The sustaining force of the Belize-Guatemala dispute is the implicit threat of military invasion by Guatemala. If Guatemala were made to understand that military action would be potentially costly in blood and treasure, doubtful in outcome, and even potentially destabilizing to its own society, the threat of military action could effectively be neutralized. And without the military threat, the dispute will have lost its sustaining force. If this could be achieved, the destiny of Belize would no longer be in the hands of the UN, the ICJ or Guatemala. It would lie in the hands of the Belizean people.
P.S. Anyone who is wishing to comment, is of like mind and/or interested in organizing can contact me at [email protected]
(Ed. NOTE: Mervin Robateau is a Belizean who lives in the United States.)