“Since independence, Guatemala had been ruled by a procession of personalistic right-wing leaders who governed for extended terms and on behalf of the tiny land-based European-oriented aristocracy. The crude and uneducated Rafael Carrera was the best known of these caudillos, holding power for more than two decades in the mid-nineteenth century. Manuel Estrada Cabrera dominated the country from 1898 to 1920.
“There had been sporadic resistance to this pattern beginning soon after independence in 1821 when progressives, inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution and the English liberal philosophers, fought for democratic reform. For one brief period after 1871, there was a great burst of reform. Guatemala’s most formidable leader, Justo Rufino Barrios, an autocratic general with liberal inclinations, became President in that year, and labored for fourteen years to curb the power of the Church, seize land from the wealthy to distribute among the peasants and establish a system of public education. He also tried to revive the concept of a united Central America, which had foundered in the 1820s. But his enlightened – though hardly democratic – rule was only an interlude. When he was killed in battle in 1885 fighting to re-establish the Central American union, his reforms died with him. The nation fell back into the hands of the landowners, who had traditionally considered Guatemala little more than their fiefdom. Ubico’s ascension to power in 1931 was only a continuation of the suffocating politics of his predecessors.”
– pgs. 28, 29, BITTER FRUIT: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Expanded Edition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Masschusetts, 1999
At this point in the history of the Guatemalan claim to Belize, the most important thing to understand about the republic is that Guatemala is dominated by a neo-European, elitist oligarchy which controls an excessive, obscene amount of Guatemalan land. The majority of Guatemalans, and the majority of Guatemalans are of Indigenous ancestry, are landless. In 2015, then, what the Guatemalan claim to Belize is, is a land grab. What is not clear is whether this Guatemalan land grab is intended for use as a sop to Cerberus, in the sense of acquiring new acreage to distribute to and appease the landless masses in the republic’s east and north, or whether the desired new acreage will end up where land has always ended up in Guatemala – in the maws of the oligarchy and the military with whom they are allied.
In the modern world, where racism, colonialism and imperialism are internationally condemned, Guatemala can not get away with publicizing a claim to Belize which is based on Spanish rights and papal authority which originate in the fifteenth century. Guatemala needs to look her own domestic reality squarely in the eye, and that reality demands immediate land reform. Too few Guatemalans have too much land, and too many Guatemalans have too little.
There was a democratic revolution which began in Guatemala in 1944 with the election of a schoolteacher, Juan José Arévalo, to the presidency. It was the subsequent election of Jacobo Arbenz, a former general, to the presidency in 1951, however, which brought the critical issue of land reform to the forefront of Guatemalan politics. Arbenz’s land reform affected the American-owned United Fruit Company’s massive land holdings in Guatemala, and for that reason the United States of America, using their Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), overthrew Arbenz in 1954. The United States was acting in tandem with the Guatemalan landowners.
Guatemala’s refusal to share the republic’s land more equitably, led to a civil war between 1960 and 1996 which cost more than 200,000 lives, most of them Indigenous. There is a racism in Guatemala which has never been regionally and internationally exposed. Following World War II, Guatemala’s most notorious international allies were apartheid South Africa and genocidal Israel. (Let it be noted that General Jorge Ubico, who ruled Guatemala with an iron hand from 1931 to 1944, was openly pro-German Nazi.) South Africa’s apartheid was exposed for all the world to see in the 1960s, and finally that abhorrent system of racism was eliminated by Nelson Mandela, while it takes US$ 3 billion in annual military subsidies from the United States to continue propping up the state of Israel. Israel’s racism is not condemned in the Christian West, because Christians confuse the modern, militaristic state of Israel with their Biblical notions of a “chosen people.” Guatemala’s racism, for its part, has always flown under the radar. One of the reasons Guatemala gets away with her racism is because Guatemala is the United States’ most important ally in Central America.
There was a time when all the Central American republics, run by Hispanic oligarchies, supported the Guatemalan claim to Belize. British Honduras was seen in Central America as a creation of British imperialism on the “Spanish Main,” and the African majority population of Belize were considered interlopers who were British pawns. The first break in Central American solidarity with Guatemala in her claim came around 1977 when General Omar Torrijos of Panama, Panama being the republic with the largest black population in Central America, began to support Belize’s campaign for political independence and territorial integrity. At that time, both the United States and the United Kingdom were pressuring the PUP Government of Belize to cede land to Guatemala.
Another Central American ally for Belize emerged in 1979 when the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua overthrew the military dictatorship of Anastacio Somoza. The United States government, which has always been supporting right-wing, anti-communist dictatorships in this region, then financed a counter-revolution to try to return Somocista elements to power in Nicaragua.
But, supported by Panama and Nicaragua, Belize had become independent in 1981 and a full-fledged member of the United Nations. Belize’s image in Central America had been changing because of the refugee programs here which were accepting Central Americans fleeing from the violence in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Salvador. Belize is no longer a black, British colony in Central America. Belize is now a multi-racial, democratic nation-state with land ownership policies which are radically different from the latifundista oppression in Guatemala.
The Belize Foreign Minister, Hon. Wilfred Elrington, appears to be following instructions from the United States and the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister of Belize, Hon. Dean Barrow, has declared that he will vote “yes” to a referendum for Belize to go to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for a Guatemalan claim judgment.
But there is a growing feeling amongst the Belizean people at the grassroots level that the Guatemalan claim is utter foolishness, and that Belize really has nothing to gain, and something to lose, from a trip to the ICJ. It is this anti-ICJ mood which seems to have pushed the Belmopan-based Vision Inspired by the People (VIP) and the Toledo-based People’s National Party (PNP) closer together, if we are to judge from a VIP press conference held Wednesday in Belize City.
This newspaper has said to the VIP and the PNP that they are wasting their time as individual, parochial units. When the U.S. and the U.K. come after Belizeans to force us to the ICJ, they will come at us through our national political parties. No isolated political grouping will be a player in this game. The Guatemalan land grab is serious business. Land is gold. We Belizeans have to be ready to fight for our “wealth untold.”
Power to the people.