BELMOPAN–In a press release which was sent from the office of the Ministry of National Security late this evening, the Government of Belize (GOB) has announced that “the United States Army Corp of Engineers, the US agency responsible for the construction of the Hunting Caye Forward Operating Base, has issued a letter to the Guatemalan company BINARQ, which has had the effect of causing all construction at the Base to cease,” an action that came about, it said, “after consultations between the Ministry of National Security, the Belize Coast Guard and the United States agencies in Belize”, and which will remain in effect “until a satisfactory policy decision can be arrived at among all parties that takes into consideration the sensitivities expressed by sections of the Belizean population.”
In the statement, the Ministry claimed that BINARQ, the Guatemalan company in question, was contracted to build the Hunting Caye base in 2011, months before the current Minister of National Security, John Saldivar, assumed the portfolio, and that “Saldivar was briefed on the ongoing Hunting Caye and San Pedro projects shortly after being appointed as the Minister of National Security in the second term of the United Democratic Party government”, which means, the statement said, that “there was no obligation or requirement on the part of the new Minister to report the details of these contracts to Cabinet,” given that the projects were approved prior to the current administration’s second term in office.
Amandala had been reliably informed that since this morning, the group of 17 Guatemalan construction workers who were building the Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Belizean waters for the Belize National Coast Guard (BNCG), funded by the United States government, had all seemingly abandoned operations on Hunting Caye, the country’s southernmost island on the Sapodilla Range.
The provocative issue blew up on Thursday, October 2, when Mose Hyde first broke the story on the KREM WUB Morning Show, and then a few hours later at a meeting of the House of Representatives in Belmopan. The issue was particularly sensitive in the wake of the murder of Belizean Special Constable Danny Conorquie at the Caracol Archaeological Reserve near the western border two weeks ago, presumably at the hands of Guatemalan “bandidos.”
Conorquie’s murder was then succeeded by a confrontation which took place last Friday, October 3, between four Belize Defence Force (BDF) soldiers and a team of Belizean carpenters, and a mob of 40 armed Guatemalan villagers who threatened to burn down the new observation post currently being erected by the Belizean Government at the Valentin Camp inside the Chiquibul National Park, at least 1.45 kilometers from the Belize-Guatemala border (on Belize’s side of the border) in an effort to stem the increasing surge of illegal incursions and encroachments, mainly by Guatemalan poachers, hunters, xáteros and illegal loggers.
These incidents had already made nationalistic Belizeans “very hot under the collar,” and the news that Guatemalan civilians were actually building a Belizean military facility in the face of major territorial differences between the two countries was only more oil on the fire.
Minister of Labour, Senator Godwin Hulse, prodded by the media yesterday about whether the 17 Guatemalans had received proper work permits, appeared oblivious about the status of the workers at the BNCG facility, conceding that so far, he had been unable to find out when or how those Guatemalan workers entered the country – a full six days after the story first broke.
Hulse said that he therefore had assigned a team from the Labour Department to investigate the matter as soon as he was informed about the Hunting Caye contractual arrangement at the last meeting of the House of Representatives. He said, “When it came to my attention, I immediately summoned our CEO [Chief Executive Officer] and Director of both Immigration and Labour to dispatch a team down there to give me a full-fledged report on what happened. Let me make it categorically clear – the contract is one thing, but who you employ is another. Nobody can work in Belize who is not a Belizean, without a work permit. That is the law, and we’re going to uphold it, and nobody can enter Belize without a proper immigration status. It doesn’t matter who gave the contract and who’s paying; that’s the position.”
Hulse implied that he was startled by the fact that even as the substantive Minister of Labour and Immigration affairs, he was not enlightened about the situation by his peers, namely, the Minister of National Security, prior to it being brought up in the House last week, saying, “We all should have known. It is one government, so whatever happens, we all should know. There’s no excuse for that, and no reason why we shouldn’t know. And I will repeat again, nobody will work in this country that doesn’t have the proper legal documents to do so.”
The Guatemalan construction workers at Hunting Caye will have to be expelled immediately if the team of investigators find out that they do not have the proper documents to be eligible for work in Belize, said Hulse.
“We’ll have to expel them, I’m saying that categorically. We cannot have people in this country working without the proper documents and there is no if’s, but’s or maybe’s, and there’s no excuses for that. We have never given cart blanche to any company to bring all foreigners and that goes for ASR, Green Tropics, NCL, and any other [foreign] company, and we won’t change from that”, Hulse declared.
We have been unable to find out if the Guatemalan workers had been issued the appropriate work permits, and our calls and texts that we have sent to Minister Hulse today regarding the issue have gone unanswered.
One member of parliament who did know about the arrangements made for the construction of the Hunting Caye FOB, and who affirmed that as far as he knows, everyone working at the site met the proper requirements is the Minister of National Security, John Saldivar.
Yesterday, the media got a rare opportunity to question him about BINARQ’s development on the island at an unrelated event, and although he confirmed that the Belizean Government is currently dialoguing with the United States Embassy regarding the works, he admitted that he did not find it necessary to inform his boss, the Prime Minister, or his other cabinet colleagues at the time of its commencement because it was not part of their [GOB’s] established protocol.
He said, “I don’t believe that anyone in the security apparatus would have allowed for this to happen if they felt that our national security was threatened by the fact that a Guatemalan company was doing the construction. We understand the sentiment of our Belizean people and the matter has been reviewed. We have already been in communication with the US Embassy with respect to some flexibility in their procurement guidelines.”
Saldivar also mentioned that “it is obvious now that the matter is a very sensitive one for the Belizean people.”
When the matter was initially brought up in the House of Representatives on Thursday, October 2, Saldivar emphasized that while he is not comfortable with the fact that a Guatemalan company was awarded the contract, the process was controlled by the Americans, who, he said, “have their own bidding processes that we must respect… [and so], the question has to be whether we would look a gift horse in the mouth and give up a much needed forward operating base”, but PUP Senator Lisa Shoman sharply responded to those comments at last Wednesday’s Senate meeting, saying, “not only in the name of national security should we look the gift horse [in the mouth], but it is not every gift horse that you should try to ride because one of these days, you will find out that your gift horse is in fact a Trojan horse, and as responsible representatives of the people, we have to say this.”
For his part, Prime Minister Dean Barrow, who said that he had no knowledge that a Guatemalan company was building the Hunting Caye FOB, told reporters after the last House Meeting in Belmopan that giving the contract to Guatemalans was an act of “insensitivity” by the Americans.
“There is a degree of insensitivity… in terms of those who are gifting us this forward operating base, man, in contracting a Guatemalan contractor. I have a difficulty with that… But I guess, ultimately, we need the assistance,” Barrow said.
He added that, “We have to recognize that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and there are no gifts without strings of one kind or another.”
Nevertheless, Barrow said that he is determined that Belize will pay its own way, because in the spirit of nationalism, Belize “can do without those gifts that come with those strings attached…”
The project – which has been considered as a slap in the face of the nation state of Belize in light of Guatemala’s long standing territorial claim to the Jewel, coupled with the reality that Guatemalan workers are aware of the ins-and-outs of a vital Belizean security facility – is being spearheaded by the US Southern Command, an arm of the US military located in Doral, Florida, which is responsible for all US military activities in 19 countries across Central and South America.
Yesterday evening, the US Embassy in Belize issued a response to the media with respect to the contract issued to BINARQ, in which they stated that firstly, in consideration of the strong US/Belize partnership, the US Southern Command and the embassy are currently examining the contracting procedures and construction efforts underway to address the Government of Belize’s concerns, and that secondly, the bidding process for these infrastructure projects is transparent and open to a pool of international contractors under the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Central America “Multiple Award Task Order Contracts.”
According to the embassy, the Army Corps of Engineers grants the contract to the company assessed to provide the best product at the most reasonable cost – as is the custom with contract bidding – and on the basis of these criteria, BINARQ was assessed as the most qualified.
In a disclosure that was previously unknown to many Belizeans, the embassy also confirmed that the US$1.5 million Northern Forward Operating Base which was inaugurated on the outskirts of San Pedro Town last November, was constructed by the same Guatemalan company. (We understand that the building on Hunting Caye will be similar to the Forward Operation Base on San Pedro.)
The statement concluded by making the point that the Hunting Caye FOB will bring positive benefits for the Belize National Coast Guard, denoting that construction on the building will certainly continue.
In related news, today, local activist Yaya Marin-Coleman singlehandedly staged a protest in front of the US Embassy in Belmopan from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. to express her objection to the US-funded Hunting Caye FOB, which prompted the US State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security to advise both American visitors and travelers to “exercise extreme caution when driving in the vicinity of the demonstration”, and “avoid contact with demonstrators,” since “Belmopan police have stated that they expect protesters from multiple civil groups and organizations to attend.” The advisory mentioned that “even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence,” even though the prospects of such an occurrence were considerably minimal, given the fact that it was a one-woman protest.
Hunting Caye is located deep south of Belize on the border with Honduras and Guatemala, 20 miles due east of Punta Gorda and 20 miles from Honduras, but very close to Punta de Manabique, Izabal, Guatemala.
The comments on Amandala’s facebook were swift and pointed. We reproduce a few below for the benefit of our readers:
Lloyd Smallz – their mouth is moving, but they ain’t saying nothing, jack!
Amandala – We sent them follow-up questions but haven’t gotten answers.
Odilia Williams – need more explanation?? , who are they?? , where is our government to stand for our people, we do have very good contractors in Belize, sounds to me that the US is looking for cheap contractors, we are been treated as if though we no nothing, Belize may look small, but we have skilled people out there…..
Mark Mckenzie – Business as usual… What does being a friend to my enemy mean? Then again, who are we little people to make demands of the Massa?!!!
Shelly Usher – So part of this release missing? This feels incomplete… Makes no sense.
Carl Troy – A truly LAME response. What (if anything) were they thinking ///
Anna Loague – That release is empty. Smh
Sandra Zelaya – What about including some consideration in the contracting procedures, to consider special sensitive situations that may occur? Yes, we SHOULD look a gift horse in the mouth because not every gift is necessarily good, or at least the situation surrounding the giving might not be good. One would think the US Govt would have been more sensitive about this, especially after their experience in the Soviet Union some years back with construction of their embassy in Moscow, I believe it was? Maybe the scale is different, since that was between superpowers during the cold war, but there is some comparison to be made. How could the relationship between Belize and Guatemala not be considered in this process? How? Why not? It’s basically a slap in the face for Belize. IMO.
Belizean King – For this project, the Guatemalan company Bonatti Ingenieros y Arquitectos Sociedad was assessed as the most qualified based on the selection criteria. Contract award processes are codified in U.S. Federal Acquisition Regulations. The San Pedro FOB, also constructed by Bonatti Ingenieros y Arquitectos Sociedad, has had a tremendous positive impact on the ability of the Belize Coast Guard to project power.