BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Mar. 3, 2016–Belize-Guatemala relations—and more specifically the recent reports of incursions by Guatemalan military on the Belize side of the Sarstoon River—was the highlight of talks held on Wednesday, March 2, 2016, between Prime Minister Dean Barrow and Opposition Leader Johnny Briceño, who was appointed a month ago after winning the People’s United Party’s leadership race.
Earlier this week the People’s United Party announced its decision to set up a Belize-Guatemala advisory group, amid fury over actions taken on Saturday by Guatemala’s military to block Belizeans, led by the Belize Territorial Volunteers, from visiting the Sarstoon Island, which is within Belizean territory as recognized on international maps.
“We have expressed great concern that the Guatemalan navy was there to stop any Belizean who wanted to access the island that is clearly within our territory,” Briceño told us.
Furthermore, the PUP signaled its willingness to engage the Barrow administration on the Belize-Guatemala issue. The members of the advisory group, who have all served as Foreign Ministers in Belize, would advise the party on the way forward, the Opposition Leader added.
The Prime Minister welcomed the Opposition’s gesture and wants them to participate every step of the way, Briceño said, adding that Senator Eamon Courtenay, a member of the advisory group, would lead when representing the PUP in talks with the Government.
Last year the Opposition, under the leadership of Hon. Francis Fonseca, had withdrawn its support for the decision by the Government of Belize to have the territorial differendum adjudicated at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). We asked Briceño what the current stance on the ICJ is. On the personal level, said Briceño, it is difficult to say what he thinks, since as PUP Leader he would have to represent the party’s position, and as he recalls it, the party’s last position statement expressed concerns about going to the ICJ. Briceño said that they were concerned about the way the Government was managing the whole issue, and that is why his party appointed the advisory group.
“This is not a political matter. This is a matter regarding the sovereignty of our country, and as such we have to be at the forefront at every step of the way,” the Opposition Leader said.
He told us that going back to the 50s the PUP’s policy is that Belize should NOT cede any land to Guatemala. HE said that despite what happened at the Sarstoon last Saturday, he does not think Belize has ceded anything to Guatemala.
“The Guatemalans are being bullies and trying to prevent our people from trying to have access to an island that clearly belongs to Belize. The PUP are not going to in any way, shape or form… accept Guatemala’s position. That is clearly within our country,” Briceño emphasized.
Barrow and Briceño also discussed the economy, the decision by US banks to end correspondent banking relations with banks in Belize, and crime.
Briceño has furthermore told the media that he has grave concerns over economic hardships being faced in the North. The most recent development there is the announcement of the closure of Fruta Bomba and the layoff of employees. Meanwhile, businesses in the Corozal Commercial Free Zone who trade cigarettes had been advised by Atlantic Bank that they can no longer take money from those enterprises. Briceño said that he heard of the development two weeks ago, and he fears that it could lead to a collapse of businesses in the Zone. “What are they going to do with the monies?” questioned Briceño, who noted that the traders also use banking services to pay their suppliers in US dollars.
On the issue of crime, Briceño said that his discussion with the Prime Minister was brief. He told us that he expressed concern that “crime has reared up its ugly head again…” Although there were signs that they were getting it under control, it is again spiraling out of control again. Briceño pointed also to the state of the Belize economy, the lack of jobs, gang members preying on children to commit crimes, and the breakdown of the family as factors which have contributed to the state of crime in Belize.