The high tension in the nation of Belize on Friday was reflected in the nationally broadcast meeting of the House of Representatives where, early in the afternoon, the elected PUDP representatives of the people, perhaps realizing how irrelevant the following morning’s border clearing expedition of the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) was and would be making them and their discourse, began lashing out at one another across the aisle in all kinds of personal, scurrilous and scandalous attacks. It was the worst House exchanges we have ever heard.
There was high tension in Belize on Friday because Belizeans did not know how the BTV expedition, led by Wil Maheia, would turn out. The Foreign Ministry and the National Security Ministry of Belize had both done their best to frighten off Maheia and the BTV in the days leading up to the expedition. This was because the Guatemalan government had sent a diplomatic note the Friday before, February 22, branding the expedition’s stated border clearing mission as provocative. The Belize government immediately panicked, and did everything in their power last week, short of tying up Wil Maheia and the BTV, to prevent the expedition from setting out for the Jalacte/Santa Cruz border between Belize and Guatemala.
Wil Maheia was calm and steadfast throughout. He had traveled the road from Punta Gorda to Jalacte hundreds of times, and his core group of Toledo-based BTV were also hardy and experienced on the road and in the jungle.
As it turned out, the activities of the BTV expedition were somewhat different from what most Belizeans had understood these activities were going to be. Where the BTV drove and trekked on Saturday was not heavy bush and jungle border. Between Jalacte and Santa Cruz, the border is pretty much cleared already, so there was no danger of crossing the border into Guatemala “by mistake.”
Still, Maheia and the BTV made a brave show of commitment to national sovereignty and territorial integrity for and on behalf of the civilian population of Belize, at home and abroad. This was unprecedented in its drama, and audio and video footage of this expedition, we predict, will make Saturday, March 2, a historic day in the annals of independent Belize. The people of Belize were glad to be assured on Saturday evening of the safety of the brave members of the expedition, in exchange for a scaling down of the original mission goal.
In Guatemala, their leading and arguably official newspaper, Prensa Libre, in their Sunday, March 3, edition referred to “30 Belizean protestors” at the border. It is important to note that Prensa Libre felt the need to reduce the actual amount of the Belizean expedition to a quarter of what it actually was. The fight between Guatemala and Belize is a fight for public opinion points on the regional and international level. On Saturday, Belize scored points, and the Guatemalan government felt compelled to reduce the Belizean score.
While the Guatemalan government, militarized as it is, has always been willing, and cynically so, to take advantage of their superiority in military numbers and firepower to frighten Belizeans on the ground, the Guatemalan power structure has, since the late 1980s and especially since the formal end of their civil war in 1996, been fighting to clean up the regional/international image of the ruling oligarchy and military. If the region and the world believed, as we Belizeans do, that what historically brutal Guatemala wanted to do was overpower a smaller, democratic, Christian neighbor named Belize, regional and world opinion would pressure Guatemala significantly. So, Guatemala has been working to create a civilized, even benign, image for itself, but complacent and seemingly overconfident Belizean governments have been ignoring Guatemala’s public relations advances.
Wil Maheia’s BTV expedition, as small as it was, has changed the nature of the conversation. Anything that makes the people of Belize become a living reality in the newspapers and on the television screens of the region and the world, increases Guatemala’s difficulty where asserting the claim is concerned. Where we are, is the backyard of Washington, the world’s superpower. The American people are different from the American government. Like all human beings, the American people like fair play and justice. But, the American people are not cosmopolitan. In most cases where American foreign policy decision makers side with regional/international oligarchies and dictatorships, the American people know nothing about these countries and peoples. We Belizeans have to find ways to force the people of the United States, just 600 miles away, to “check out the real situation” between Belize and Guatemala. We can do this relatively easily if we have the national and diaspora will.
The Belize Territorial Volunteers proved on Saturday that the Belizean people can take this Guatemala bull by the horns when our elected leaders are dropping the ball. The first duty of the government is protecting the sovereign territory and personal security of the Belizean people. For different reasons, the elected leaders of Belize have given the people of Belize the impression that they are abdicating their duty. On Saturday, the tail, then, had to wag the dog. That’s the real.
Power to the people. Power in the struggle.