What we have with Guatemala is a difference of opinion over whether or not the territory which forms the nation state of Belize belongs to us or to them. It does not make sense for a country to claim the land which constitutes another country.
We have been negotiating directly with Guatemala to settle her claim since Independence. Recently, the OAS has had to take a hand in the negotiation, in order to ease tensions not of our making. They have got the two parties to agree that what we have between us is a differendum and, to declare an adjacency zone on both sides of the boundary line agreed upon by Guatemala and Great Britain (our former colonial masters) in the 1859 Treaty. The adjacency zone is like a kind of “no man’s land,” which neither nation should occupy.
The negotiations between Belize and Guatemala have reached the point where both our governments have agreed to submit the differendum, in the form of the Compromis, for adjudication by the International Court of Justice.
This piece is not about the ICJ, it is about leadership. In democratic countries, which our country is, leaders are empowered to make decisions in Affairs of State and take action in the name of the people. I think that the fact that we are uncertain about the outcome of the referendum is a failure by our leadership to lead.
Our leaders of both major political parties, who have held office since Independence, know it is very important that they do all in their power to settle the Guatemalan claim. They know that we can’t survive long as a nation with an unfriendly neighbor on our western border. They know that we need the help of the OAS, even though it may appear that they are more sympathetic to the cause of Guatemala. They should have had 100% people support in the negotiations and, the same in their joint decision to submit the claim for adjudication by the International Court of Justice, according to the terms of the Compromis.
There is strong opposition to so doing by a significant segment of our population. Some have objected to the wording of the Compromis, as if to say that they are more intelligent and nationalistic than our leaders. That is a pity. It is because our leadership has failed to make the people understand the realities of the alternative, which is to accept the status quo. They say we are a sovereign nation and Guatemala will have to accept the fact, sooner or later. However, what has been happening at our border since Independence strongly suggests otherwise. Guatemala cannot drop its claim because, it has been indoctrinating its people for generations that our land belongs to them. What has been happening is with the knowledge and approval of the Guatemalan government.
To the critics of the wording of the Compromis, I say this. I think that it is because of the wording of that document, why the Guatemalans are persuaded to submit their claim for adjudication. Our esteemed negotiators, whose nationalism has been proven, must have considered the exact meaning of every word in that document. Are those who find fault with the wording of the Compromis saying that they are more intelligent and nationalistic than members of the negotiating team selected by our political leaders? Perhaps, they are but, they don’t have the responsibility to make decisions on behalf of the people. Our leaders do.
We will be given a vote to decide whether or not we agree to have the ICJ settle our difference with Guatemala and, it seems that there is much doubt that our people will decide in the affirmative, in support of the leadership. Given that our leadership is confident that a “yes” vote is in the national interest, why then should there be so much opposition to it?
I can understand the political opposition in Guatemala doing their utmost to sabotage the referendum. For them, a settlement of the claim would remove one of the most important planks in their party manifesto. They too prefer the status quo. For them, the issue is more partisan than national.
Despite the expressed negative preferences of individual politicians, our two major parties have always been committed to resolve our difference with Guatemala.
For individuals of a certain temperament, who have made their decision to vote “no,” and cannot be persuaded to reconsider their decision, based on a fair assessment, of what is to be gained against what may be lost from an unfavorable judgment, I have to respect their stand. They are the kind of people you want at your side if you have to defend your country in armed conflict. But, to have an elected representative of the people on either side of the House of Representatives, say that he intends to vote “no” in the referendum is disloyalty. He can take a principled stand, when he is convinced that his party is wrong and, he can personally vote “no” in the referendum but, to make a public statement of his intention to do so, against the position of his party, is dereliction of duty.
I submit that if our leadership discharged their obligation to inform and educate the populace on the issue, there would be a large majority of “yes” votes in the referendum. Why then, does it appear that our people are so fearful of the judgment of the ICJ? It may be that the naysayers have been allowed to carry the day in our public discourses.
One area, in which information available to our citizens is woefully lacking, is knowledge of the adjacency zone agreement. It was left to Wil Maheia and his band of patriots to shine the bright light of enquiry on what is going on in the zone, contrary to the agreement. Why do we know so little about that agreement, when both the major parties have newspapers and radio and television programs to be used for public education? It is almost like a conspiracy of silence by both parties.
In a matter so vital to our national interest as the settlement of the Guatemalan claim, both parties have a duty to inform and educate. Both Red and Blue governments have been engaged in negotiations with Guatemala, since Independence and, they have been jointly represented on the negotiating teams. If settling the claim is a national issue of the leadership of government and opposition, how can you explain the prevailing mood of negativity? Is it possible that the people lack the confidence in their elected leaders that they should have? I submit that a nation which has no confidence in its elected leaders, cannot survive.
I cannot leave this subject without commenting on the diplomatic chess game that the Guatemalan government seems to be playing. Firstly, they want us to reduce the validation level (60%) in our Referendum Act. Although, they do not say so, they would like it to be in line with theirs, which I understand is 25%. Secondly, they have decided, for reasons not disclosed, to postpone their referendum but, propose that Belize should have theirs as originally agreed. I am happy to see that the proposals were rejected by both sides of government.
Now, if government and Opposition forgot their differences and, joined together in a national education campaign to convince our people of where their best interests lie and, set the same or a new date for the referendum, when opinion polls show clearly that a “yes” is assured, then, I will gladly withdraw what I have said in this article about the failure of leadership.