The Belizean people at all levels of society, at home and abroad, must face facts and dedicate themselves to organizing and mobilizing bodies and resources of all kinds, all they have, to save Belize. Enough of this waiting for Government to do something different in its dealings with Guatemala or for the diplomatic course to play out.
Belizeans must be proactive instead of reactive. The ideal is for the Government and the people to be one, to join forces in this struggle for national existence. It’s beyond stupid and shortsighted for the Government of Belize to think they can do this alone, that they alone are capable, or that it is their duty alone to keep the country with all its borders intact.
The Prime Minister just this week called for the people to leave the Guatemala situation to the professionals. How can that be trusted in light of the PM himself, explaining Belize dropping the ball in the extradition of wanted fugitive David Nanes Schnitzer to Mexico, having admitted to being no expert (as then Foreign Minister) at the time Belize entered into the extradition treaty with Mexico?
The Guatemalan claim and the attitudes and behavior coming out of that claim are the nation’s problem. The nation is the people. Every last citizen can and must take action if they want to write their own destiny.
GOB cautions the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV), in their patriotic stance, not to expose citizens to danger, to leave the matter to the professionals. BTV says we got to do what we got to do because GOB won’t assert sovereignty with military or civilian presence on the Sarstoon.
Some keep calling for GOB to “internationalize” the situation, protest to the UN Security Council, include the Sarstoon in the “confidence-building measures” (that omission now looks like a goof, big time (so much for “professional”!), making monetary instead of land compensation to Guatemala part of the so-called compromis in the event Belize loses at the ICJ, and so on and so on. (It is worthwhile noting here that legal terms are being thrown around with no thought of explaining their meanings to the people).
All these voices have a valid point. However, nobody is listening to the other. Members of the legal profession have jumped into the fray, setting out to “educate” themselves (hopefully this will lead to the long- promised education of the people before an ICJ referendum vote). The Opposition in the House has named a committee to look at the situation (no sight of the committee promised by the Prime Minister at the beginning of his new term). Some in the media have resorted to inviting the public to figure things out for themselves, asking questions like Channel 5’s “Do you think Belize has lost the Sarstoon to Guatemala?” and this newspaper’s “Guats taking over southern Belize?”
It’s no wonder then, in the face of all this disunity and uncertainty, and despite both action and official word from Guatemala, it is taking Belizeans painfully and dangerously long to realize that Guatemala is not only claiming but EXERCISING ownership of the Sarstoon, all of it, from bank to bank. THE NEXT GOAL LINE IS AT THE SIBUN! At least for right now!
Belizeans have decided to wait. That’s like waiting on death row – the day of reckoning is coming but hopefully opportunities to ask for a reprieve may not have run out yet. How many diplomatic notes does it take to change Guatemala’s attitude and behavior? What else do we need to find out about Guatemala or figure out about Guatemala’s actions? We already know everything we need to know: Euro-Guatemala wants a piece, if not all, of us, the only truly free nation on this strip, maybe the only one on the mainland south of North America, having been birthed, populated and governed by formerly oppressed people, the despots having fled, leaving nothing behind but minute bloodline traces.
We know the Guatemalan despots smile in our face and stab us in the back. They shake our hands while reaching around and behind and pick our back pockets. They host our children while they poison the minds of their own against us. And all the while telling us they are our friends! Maybe they mean friends with benefits – let’s be friends while I screw you; screw you out of your human rights!
So while Belizeans insist on believing whatever is convenient to them is true, that Guatemala will never get its hands on Belize, that the British will never allow that to happen, the Guatemalans are on the move. Again!
Don’t assume Guatemala flexing its muscle on the Sarstoon is some sick cat-and-mouse game. If it turns to be, let’s err on the side of caution. Guatemala has amassed troops at a border many times, at least once during negotiations with the British.
This gunboat activity on the Sarstoon trumps that – it is actual occupation during negotiations. Diplomacy is never all about making nice. There are many cards in the deck; screws of some kind or another are always being tightened under the negotiation table; any mistake or weakness is always taken advantage of; all positions of strength are used.
How can Belizeans not realize that the caution to GOB from the Guatemalan government to not use the Sarstoon forward operating base to interfere with the activity of Guat fishermen in the river means their river?
As last reported in Belize, Guatemalan officials have not presented for congressional approval the latest revision to the agreement they asked for on how and when to proceed to the ICJ referendum in their country. Supposedly for economic reasons, they wanted to include the referendum in their presidential elections. Did Belizeans notice that those elections have come and gone and no referendum? Or is that yet another detail, we are turning a blind eye to.
Please don’t think that illegal entry and use by Guatemalan civilians of Belizean land along borders are a completely separate issue from the Sarstoon, as the Prime Minister would have us believe. Please don’t think that the bad experiences Belizeans endure at the hand of Guatemalan civilians in border towns and villages on both sides are to be dismissed.
With exceptions, of course, a population tends to take its cue from the government in forming attitudes and acting them out. (To be fair, I guess the same can be said of Belizeans). This is so easy in this case to come to bear directly on and felt acutely by Belizeans considering the geographical proximity and close interaction. Ask the family of Danny Conorquie. Ask the Toledo Maya.
That being said, the fact is the border situation has deteriorated and we have lost territory. How quickly the situation will continue to deteriorate remains to be seen. This worsening could be in small degrees over a number of years; then maybe not.
Why chance it? Whenever, we have to deal with it. We’d better start now. However we got to this point, we got to this point over generations. Every generation must discover its own role and ways to fulfill it.
So what will this generation do? The Guatemala question may very likely play out to its end on this generation’s watch.
Every generation must discover its own role and ways to fulfill it. Our forefathers brought us to political independence. That process was not a revolution in the sense that the existing systems, institutions and ideologies were turned upside down and replaced with those born out of the people’s shared experiences, self-knowledge and their own wisdom. Such revolutions are hard-fought and hard-won. Belize has been existing on the edges of self-knowledge. Sooner or later Belizeans will have to stop tempting fate and fully embrace such knowledge so they can envision a nation in the truest sense of the word.
Belizeans do prove everyday they have the skills and knowledgeto survive daily life; how to plan, organize and mobilize, get things done, meet goals. They know or are learning how to conserve the land and the ocean masses that comprise the country and protect the natural resources to meet today’s needs, the needs of the generations to come and the health of the planet. Many thousands demonstrate this each and every day, from the fisherman to the street peddler to the “big man” and everybody in between. They’ve learned these skills and acquired this knowledge through tradition and life experience, in the school of hard knocks and formal education, through on-the- job training, or by way of the many NGO’s and foreign government–funded organizations that proliferate. The level they are functioning at, however, just barely keeps the wolf from the door. It is imperative to apply these skills and knowledge at the level of national survival. What will this generation do?
Just in the past week different groups of Belizeans publicly demonstrated they have these skills. There was the coming together of citizens from north to south supporting the BTV, small in number but diverse in makeup, in picketing the House last Tuesday. There were the National Youth Council elections, promising, though with some unfortunate flaws.
Then came the 20,000 Strong women’s movement rally. Let’s take a closer look at that rally. Who were mobilized? Homemakers, students, public officers, teachers, members of the armed forces, NGO staff, athletes, entrepreneurs. In the thousands. What brought them together? A common goal coming out of shared experiences, a recognition of self and a shared vision. Some quotes coming out of the rally:
“When we work together we can mobilize and get some change happening”.
“Obviously the message got out that the 20,000 Strong is a movement, it’s a movement to create change”.
“Talking about collaboration and empowerment. I think any day that happens is a beautiful day”.
“It’s important for us to be united (as women) towards one cause”.
“They don’t have to be rich; you just have to have that determination and with the strength of the other women behind you, you get that feeling that you are stronger and you can stand up for your rights”.
“That we can do much as a group if we support each other”.
“It’s imperative that we make a start”.
The picture is clear. Belizeans have what it takes. Imagine beautiful Belize with 20,000 strong AND counting, with a common vision, mobilized to protect her very existence!
THIS IS NOT YOUR GREATGRANDMOTHER’S (OR YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S) BELIZE
A few words to the youth elected to the National Youth Council: in giving form to your vision you need to think smarter, more broadly and deeply than your forbearers. Each generation builds on the previous, and that means having to adjust to a changing world. It is crucial that youth issues be seen in a national existential context. That is the reality of your lives. This means getting off the narrow beaten path that’s taking you nowhere fast. Drop the parroted phrases and the thinking of the old guard. To those not part of that movement: you are the masses the government serves, yes; the government is your partner. Your responsibility in that partnership goes beyond voting. It is also your responsibility to yourself and country to work in spheres outside the partnership, but in conjunction with it, to make true citizenship a reality.
In a recent interview on Channel 5 the Foreign Minister proclaimed of the BTV’S activities, “This type of behavior never existed before”; from he was born, he said, he never heard of this kind of thing happening. Well, Belize has not been frozen in time. The world has shrunk such that its dangers are much more varied and imminent; in other words, dangers now come in more forms from more directions and reach every corner of the world, time and distance no longer slowing them down. Greed is at an all-time high and those who want what the other has will go to any extreme to get it. The jungles of Belize of yesteryear have turned out to be more than a source of mahogany and chicle. The sheen and glitter of black and yellow gold “red” the predators’ eyes. The thought of more black gold under the sea beds has Big Oil’s mouth watering. The mangrove swamps and cayes are yielding coveted natural attractions and beaches that spell big tourist money.
Belize today is wide open in both directions to the rest of the world. Citizens know in an instant what’s happening oceans away; they communicate with and learn from the world like never before. The Foreign Minister admitted that the Guatemalans cannot be taken lightly, and mentioned the 1948 threat. He went on to say that the British took the threat very seriously; they understood the consequences of invasion or incursion. That’s when the British sent warships to the area, people. Somebody has to take this ongoing incursion on the Sarstoon seriously! The British and their warships of great grandma’s day are long gone.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE
Belize has no defense guarantee according to the Foreign Minister; not from any nation. The British have made it clear they have adopted what the Minister termed “an even-handed policy”. What does that mean? Could it mean the British are not on any side, not Belize’s, but rather are putting the pressure equally on both sides to resolve the Guatemalan claim? The Foreign Minister said GOB is talking to the various diplomats, “to our friends” in the US and the UK, to talk to the Guatemalans to better manage the situation in the Sarstoon. He pointed out Belize would not survive without the support of these nations. When pressed, without revealing them, he said Belize is seeking every type of support, but insisted that the most successful instrument is diplomatic.
Diplomacy has failed since the nineteenth century. We are now in the twenty-first. In the meantime, there is a serious incursion. Diplomatic notes to date have made no difference. While the country waits for “our friends” to talk to Guatemala, and until, if the ICJ, how is the Sarstoon incursion to be dealt with?
The Belizean military was formed to replace the British in the defense of the country. We are the only country in the Caribbean whose military was formed primarily for defense from external threats. Yet, even with today’s circumstances, if one were to look at where national security was placed on the list in the budget speech presented last Tuesday to the House of Representatives, national security is a low priority item. In the Prime Minister’s own words: “Mr. Speaker, our priorities for the Budget for FY 2016/2017 remain as in previous years, with an emphasis on investments in streets, roads and bridges; in sporting facilities; in health and education; in national security; and, of course, in alleviating the conditions of the poor and the disadvantaged”; one step above the poor whom society in general usually relegates to the bottom of the heap. One would be surprised the ways the workings of the mind and heart show through what one articulates.
The increase in Current Expenditure does include national security, but with its low priority it couldn’t be much that will be spent “to provide for increases in the number of officers in both the Coast Guard and the Police Force, and to strengthening of the senior management of the Police Department as well as to extending the pay scales for the rank and file”. Only two brief references to national security in the budget speech; roads and sporting facilities got top billing. As crucial as national security is, it did not even rate a separate category or line item in the charts. Any alternative plan to deal with the Sarstoon incursion certainly doesn’t seem to include much from the Belizean military.
That should make for a very interesting budget debate in the House.
The sixty-four thousand dollar question: is this generation prepared to step to the forefront for the nation’s defense?
GUATEMALA INVADES BELIZE!
How does it feel seeing and reading those words? Read it again. Notice how it makes you feel. Heart beating a little faster, palms sweaty? Scared? Angry? Think that’s an unthinkable headline? Not in today’s world. How are you feeling today, Belize, after last Saturday’s encounter between the Guatemalan military and our BDF? How did it feel to have Guatemala state in plain language that all of the Sarstoon is hers? How did it feel to wait to see what the diplomats would bring back from Washington?
This is a call to action. What are Belize’s options? That’s a debate that needs to be held on a national level. How does it feel to imagine a Belize without the Toledo District and part of Stann Creek and Cayo? If Belize were to lose half its territory, what do the people who live there now do? Do they automatically become Guatemalans? Do they run and leave everything behind? Will Belize experience what we see today in parts of the African continent, the Middle East and Europe – refugees moving across borders by the thousands to restart life? It’s a sure bet many Belizeans get these thoughts and quickly dismiss them. Yet that scenario has been a part of life throughout this planet. When bad things happen to others we humans tend to believe it can’t happen to us; that’s just a way to cope. Deep down, however, we know better. What options do you as a citizen have? It’s a debate each citizen needs to have with himself or herself.
ICJ: AT WHAT PRICE?
This is not about fear. It is about reality and building up our hope and confidence. There was never a time in our history when Guatemala did not claim this land, even during the era when the practice of the day was the colonizers’ plundering and taking. Any flare-ups would subside and everybody would go back to everyday life. To believe what is convenient is also true, is playing with fire. For the most part over the decades, Belizeans at home and abroad found comfort in the convenient belief that Guatemala just flexes some muscle then goes away. Undoubtedly today many still do, namely, those Belizeans still clinging to the “Britishness” entrenched in the Belizean psyche, including those residing outside the country, far removed from the action. It’s one thing to be in the thick of things, a far different thing to be observing it from a distance. The inconvenient truth is in almost 200 years Guatemala has not gone away; the British did and, worse yet, we are on our own.
The Governments of Belize and Guatemala seem set on going to the ICJ. There is a paper by Janine Sylvestre on the territorial issue published online by Belize by Naturalight. Chapters 5 and 6 are worth checking out, particularly Chapter 6. This is not the first time going to an international court has been on the table. Since the Hague Court prior to WW II through the formation of the United Nations and the ICJ, Guatemala has steadfastly refused to get a court ruling. Quoting from the paper, the focus of their argument was Guatemala “will continue to disagree that the dispute be submitted to the International Court of Justice if it will be judged solely on a legal basis, since fundamentally the case of Belize involves more than just the technical legalities; instead, it is a moral issue that involves history, economics and justice.”
What changed Guatemala’s thinking? What does Guatemala know that we Belizeans are not aware of? It is worrisome that they may have reason to believe the legal route has turned in their favor. So is this really an option for Belize? In addition, there are instances where rulings of the ICJ are not adhered to even though they are legally binding. Check out the Colombia-Nicaragua and Nicaragua-Costa Rica sea and river border disputes at americasquarterly.org/content/borders-central-america-and-international-law. Is there a UN enforcing arm of ICJ rulings? Don’t think so!
Now is all we have in terms of time. There is no tomorrow, no future; now is the only real time. Our “now” is different from the “now” of those who came before us. They did what they could with theirs; what do we do with ours? In his budget speech March 8 the Prime Minister said of Petrocaribe, “But we do know one thing for sure. Despite being buffeted by all sorts of travails including the precipitous fall in oil prices and export earnings, Venezuela has so far steadfastly refused to withdraw or alter the program and the support it gives to participating countries. I can think of no greater example in recent times of self-sacrifice and international solidarity” (italics mine). Are Belizeans ready to make the necessary sacrifice for their own country?
CITIZENS ON THE MOVE
Whatever options are considered in Guatemala’s dispute with us, the fact that the BDF and Coast Guard are too small in number to protect Belize’s borders in terms of mere presence is an issue that should be dealt with even in peace time. Illegal activity is rampant. Are you young Belizeans, male and female, ready to partner with your government and volunteer for service? Are you ready to volunteer as reserves in the military? In Jamaica a seventeen year old can enlist. Would Belizeans press the government to change the enlistment age to 17 to 34 years of age? This group makes up approximately 30% of the population. A source which compares military expenditure by country shows a 2014 figure for Belize of 1.1% of GDP, no actual dollar figure. That 1.1% compares on average with the rest of the Caribbean, countries with no external threats! Are any prepared to sacrifice so GOB can allocate more funds to national security, willing to postpone the streets and roads expenditure and sporting facilities, willing to postpone or reduce a rise in salary to free up funds?
We all know violence is never the best option. We are glued to our TV sets so we also know that non-violent action has been and is used around the world by many different people for many different causes. BTV and NTV are using it. The workers unions use it. Not only is non-violence used to bring attention to a situation that needs correcting, it has also been used to humanize, resist and end an unwanted situation, including invasion and occupation. A study quoted from by one Rivera Sun, author of “The Dandelion Insurrection,” notes that “nonviolent action is twice as successful as violent means, works in a third of the amount of time, and incurs a tiny fraction of the casualties as violent conflict.” It also points out that “while researchers don’t know how few people are necessary to successfully use nonviolent action to accomplish their goals, they do know that every movement they studied that successfully mobilized four percent of the populace always won.” Four percent, people! We’re talking 14,000; we have over a hundred thousand just counting the young and able! Note, however, non-violence is a two-pronged strategy of opposing and proposing, saying “no” to the situation while saying “yes” to an alternative. That’s what GOB is attempting though it must be combined with a citizen movement and treated by all as a united front! One doesn’t hear the Palestinian government blaming its citizens for resisting; even when they throw rocks!
Ideas abound about non-violent action. Here’s a starter: the pressing need is for presence at the borders, south and west. Belize has people trained to navigate the difficult and dangerous terrain. Active BDF and retired military, whether living at home or abroad, and off duty FCD personnel could donate their time, weekends and vacations, to train volunteers for citizen “hike-ins” and camping. The FCD itself can use more rangers. Who are ready to serve weekends with the FCD as unpaid volunteers? The FCD had a successful fundraising in late 2014; it is clear Belizeans see their service as critical. Remember, we are talking presence, nothing more.
TO INTERNATIONALIZE AND OTHERWISE
The Foreign Minister in his recent Channel 5 interview stated that the difficulty in trying to solicit sympathy in the international community “with respect to this kind of activity” is that the international community understands fully “the ramifications and implications of what is going on because there is nothing recent about this.” What that actually means is not clear but what is clear is that his Ministry is not thinking of making any moves to internationalize the Sarstoon border situation. It’s time for citizens to step up! Artists, use concert tours to take the message to audiences. There is at least one group, who will not be named, that extensively travels the US and Europe. Young people, steel bands,use cultural exchanges with Japan and Taiwan and wherever you go to get the word out about our plight. Athletes, use sporting events in the US and other countries to do same. Playwrights, dance choreographers, let your creative juices flow; tell Belize’s story and take your work abroad. Maya brothers and sisters, use your connections with the international Indigenous movement. A sense of patriotism must start with the young. Schools principals must take the initiative; there’s the national anthem and the national prayer. Use them daily. Parents, you must support your principals.
Media, you have a frontline position. Radio and TV stations (those whose signals reach Guatemala can get two for the money), you can help strengthen patriotism: go back to signing on and off with the national anthem like in the old days. Be hard-hitting in your reporting; keep politicians on the hot seat. Chase down all aspects of this story and keep the public informed and educated. How long was it that it took for the nation to find out what the Toledo Maya are experiencing and suffering in those villages nearest the borders? Also report on the struggles of other people in the region such as in Honduras. Do Belizeans know about the recent assassination of Berta Cáceres Flores, a fighter for her people’s control of their land and resources and for true democracy? Take advantage of interviews with every high-ranking visiting government official from other countries to test their awareness of Belize’s precarious situation and where they stand. Journalists, develop networks outside Belize. Join regional and international professional associations. Submit articles to regional and international publications.
Business community, Diaspora, you are citizens too. Be generous with resources: material, money, bodies, skills, knowledge and connections.
Churches, Guatemala bases her claim on land she says she inherited from Spain. Write the Vatican and ask Pope Francis to rescind the papal bull of 1493, Inter Caetera, which granted Spain “full and free power, authority and jurisdiction of every kind” over non-Christian people in the new land. Francis has asked forgiveness for the church’s wrongdoings against Indigenous peoples in the Americas. His next step ought to be righting those wrongs as best he can. This bull and others like it in the 1400’s grew into an international norm known as the Doctrine of Discovery. Join the movement to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. For more information, the National Catholic Reporter carried a six-part series available online – Doctrine of Discovery: A scandal in plain sight.
And that’s only a start. Sounds too ambitious, too daring? So is Guatemala’s threat.