Editorial — 30 May 2018
The Guatemalan volcano

Occasionally, a particular year transcends its function as a temporal marker to become a shorthand for all the tumult that occurred within its parameters. 1968, a leap year, brought the Tet Offensive, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the student protests at Columbia University, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the bedlam of the Chicago Democratic Convention, the Black Power salutes at the Olympics, the emergence of George Wallace as an avatar of white-resentment politics, and the triumph of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy. That’s a great deal of history, even adjusting for the extra day of February.

– pg. 17, THE NEW YORKER, April 9, 2018

Outside of the World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) years, 1968 was the most sensationally turbulent year internationally of the twentieth century. Inside the colony of British Honduras, which had become self-governing in January of 1964, official release in late April 1968 of American mediator Bethuel Webster’s Seventeen Proposals sparked riots in Belize, then still the capital of the colony. The response of the ruling People’s United Party (PUP) was to organize a Police Special Forces unit, for the purpose of controlling such riots in the future, which became known as the “paramilitary.”

Once the PUP government formally rejected the Webster Proposals, things quickly settled down, even though bloody violence erupted to the north of us in Mexico City in the days leading up to the September 1968 Olympics, while to the east of us across the Caribbean Sea an uprising took place on the University of the West Indies campus in Mona, Jamaica, and in the capital city of Kingston itself, when the Guyanese professor, Walter Rodney, was refused re-entry into Jamaica by the Hugh Shearer government in October of 1968.

As Belize settled down politically after street resistance to the Webster Proposals, an intellectual ferment began to build with the return of Evan Hyde to the country in June of 1968 and the return of Assad Shoman in October. This ferment produced a demonstration by the Ad Hoc Committee for Truth about Vietnam in early January of 1969, and then the formation of the United Black Association for Development (UBAD) in February of 1969, followed by the formation of the People’s Action Committee (PAC) a couple months later.

Fifty years after the Webster Proposals, Belizeans have been presented with a national referendum date (April 10, 2019) to decide whether we will go to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for arbitration of the Guatemalan claim to Belize. Tension is rising in Belize, and the conversations are becoming more volatile.

It is important that Belizeans understand as much as we can about what happened in Guatemala on Sunday, April 15, of this year, when a little more than a quarter of Guatemala’s registered voters went to the polls and voted to submit their Belize claim to ICJ arbitration. This was the first time the Guatemalans had given an opinion in such a type of solution/proposition BEFORE the Belizean people had spoken. In the cases of the Seventeen Proposals of 1968 and the Heads of Agreement of 1981, the people of Belize had risen in violent resistance to the solution/proposition BEFORE the Guatemalan government had rejected same.

Note that we say Guatemalan “government,” not Guatemalan “people,” because in both 1968 and 1981 Guatemala was being ruled by military dictatorships. In fact, Guatemala was in the midst of a bloody civil war, which some historians say began in 1966, whereas many scholars consider the Guatemalan civil war as having begun in November of 1960 with the Yon Sosa–Turcios Lima army rebellion.

There are three former PUP Cabinet Ministers from the 1960s who are still alive – Hector Silva (Cayo North) and Fred Hunter (Belize Rural North), who were both in Cabinet from 1961 throughout the 1960s, and Florencio Marin, Sr., (Corozal Southeast), who joined the PUP Cabinet in 1965. These men are important data bases who should be consulted by Belizean academics and media sources who want to understand the history of the Guatemalan claim in the era when Belizean self-rule began.

Although the Guatemalan civil war officially ended in 1996, and although Guatemala has been electing governments which are supposedly civilian since 1986, the structural and philosophical flaws in their democracy may have been exposed by the 26 percent voter turnout for the ICJ referendum in April. It may, of course, be argued that the matter did not arouse widespread voter interest in Guatemala, but one of the historical reasons for that is the said Yon Sosa–Turcios Lima rebellion, which led to guerrilla and civil war in the republic.

The army rebellion of November 1960 in Guatemala was a nationalist rebellion in opposition to the decision by Guatemalan President, Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes, to allow Cuban exiles to be trained in Guatemala for an invasion of Cuba in 1961. At the time, Fidel Castro’sCuban Revolution, which had triumphed in January of 1959, was still very popular amongst young people in Central and Latin America, because it was clear that the man Fidel overthrew, Fulgencio Batista, had been a brutal and corrupt dictator. Fuentes was playing geopolitical games and seeking to please the Americans, just as Jimmy Morales is doing today, so the Yon Sosa–Turcios Lima rebellion may be considered as basically anti-American.

It was in 1962, the year after the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by the Cuban exiles had failed, that the United States first became an active player in the territorial dispute between Great Britain and Guatemala, when Washington hosted talks in Puerto Rico. The PUP government was invited to, and represented at, these talks, but the Opposition National Independence Party (NIP), leadership of which had just been taken over by Hon. Philip Goldson, following the death of Herbert Fuller, was not invited.

When the U.S. hosted the Puerto Rico talks in 1962, Guatemala had already entered a state of civil war, according to some scholars. It was important to Washington to protect the oligarchy/military in Guatemala from the populist energies entering Central America from the Cuban Revolution. Peten represented an exposed eastern flank of Guatemala, because of its long border with British Honduras, so Belize had to be stabilized, so to speak.

More than two decades after the official end of the civil war, Guatemalan society is still volcanic in nature, her fundamental problem being the massive inequities in land possession. The Webster Proposals in 1968 clearly indicated that the United States considered it vital geopolitically for Belize to be within the orbit of the Guatemalan republic. The reason such is a vital geopolitical consideration is precisely because of the vast majority of Guatemalans who did not show up on April 15, 2018. These Guatemalans are unhappy. What the vast majority of Guatemalans want is land reform, the land reform introduced by Jacobo Arbenz being precisely the reason the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) organized Arbenz’s overthrow as legally elected Guatemalan President in 1954.

Yes, Belize is poor, and yes, Belize has been marching steadily to oligarchy status since political independence in September of 1981, but the fundamentals of Belize’s democracy are strong. The only issue which seriously threatens our domestic stability in modern history is the Guatemalan claim. That is the lesson of 1968, and it is the lesson of 1981. Moving forward to the ICJ referendum in April of 2019, Belizeans, we are not in a good place. Even though it is Guatemala which is the volcano, it is in Belize that the threat of eruptions will arise over the next ten months.

Power to the people.

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Deshawn Swasey

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