During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, United States Air Force General Curtis LeMay clashed again with U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, arguing that he should be allowed to bomb nuclear missile sites in Cuba. He opposed the naval blockade and, after the end of the crisis, suggested that Cuba be invaded anyway, even after the Russians agreed to withdraw. LeMay called the peaceful resolution of the crisis – whereby Kennedy secretly agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey and Italy – “the greatest defeat in our history.”
Unknown to the U.S., the Soviet field commanders in Cuba had been given authority to launch – the only time such authority was delegated by higher command. They had at least twenty nuclear warheads for medium-range R-12 Dvina (NATO Code SS-4 Sandal) ballistic missiles capable of reaching U.S. cities (including Washington), each carrying a one megaton warhead (equivalent to 50 Hiroshima bombs), and nine tactical nuclear missiles. If Soviet officers had launched them, many millions of U.S. citizens could have been killed. The ensuing Strategic Air Command (SAC) retaliatory thermonuclear strike would have killed roughly one hundred million Soviet citizens. Kennedy refused LeMay’s requests, however, and the naval blockade was successful.
In October of 1962, the United States of America and the Soviet Union came close to nuclear war because of nuclear missiles the Russians had installed on the island of Cuba, which is only ninety miles away from the American mainland.
In April of 1961, the United States had organized and financed an invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles, because the Americans wanted to overthrow the communist administration Fidel Castro had set up in Cuba after he overthrew the corrupt dictator, Fulgencio Batista, in January of 1959.
The Ydigoras Fuentes and Anastacio Somoza governments of Guatemala and Nicaragua, respectively, military regimes which were allies of the United States, had allowed their national territories to be used as training bases for the Cuban exile invasion.
So that, Fidel Castro knew that Cuba and the revolution were surrounded by enemies, and he solicited the nuclear missiles from Russia because he and the Cuban people were desperate to defend their freedom and sovereignty. When the Americans demanded that the Russians withdraw the missiles from Cuba, Castro insisted that the missiles remain. He knew that the very existence of his nation-state was in jeopardy, because there were people in the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, such as Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who would have liked to bomb Cuba into oblivion. LeMay, in fact, wanted to attack Russia itself with nuclear weapons.
We speak of men and we speak of nations. When the Russians buckled under American pressure and withdrew the missiles, Fidel was angry. For him, it was truly a case of liberty or death. He made his point. Today, the United States and Cuba have opened embassies in each other’s capital after more than five decades of bitter hostilities.
When Belizeans began their fight for self-rule in 1950, British Honduras was a place which was defended by white Englishmen. This remained the case even after British Honduras became a self-governing colony in January of 1964: Great Britain remained responsible for our defence and foreign affairs. On September 21, 1981, Belizeans took over responsibility for our new nation-state’s defence and foreign affairs.
The core issue of Belize’s defence and foreign affairs is the fact that the neighboring republic of Guatemala claims half of Belize’s territory – from the Sibun to the Sarstoon. Belizean taxpayers pay the salaries of a thousand Belize Defence Force (BDF) soldiers who are in principle responsible for the primary defence of Belize. But the BDF have been taught to cooperate with their “Guatemalan counterparts.” In other words, Belize’s soldiers have been instructed by Belize’s political leaders to consider Guatemala’s soldiers as their friends.
On Wednesday morning this week, Vision Inspired by the People (VIP) spokesmen publicly praised the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) for a Monday evening press release which called for Belize to begin immediate construction of a forward operating base on the Sarstoon Island, a project to which Guatemalan government spokesmen have expressed objections. VIP unequivocally endorsed the NTUCB call.
Belize’s United Democratic Party (UDP) government, which constitutionally represents the people of Belize, has been officially hesitant where the Sarstoon Island forward operating base is concerned. In fact, on May 29 this year the Belize Coast Guard were instructed by Belize Prime Minister Dean Barrow to withdraw from Sarstoon Island at a time when Guatemalan Navy elements around the Sarstoon Island were behaving in a hostile manner.
The VIP is a small political party which has not established mass support. The NTUCB is an umbrella organization which represents the trade and labor unions of Belize. The NTUCB is much stronger in numbers than the VIP. In line with Belize’s parliamentary democracy, however, it is the UDP which speaks for the Belizean people. In a matter as delicate as the Sarstoon Island matter, the burden of proof would now lie on the NTUCB and the VIP to show that the majority of the Belizean people do not support the position which our elected leaders have taken on Sarstoon Island.
It is amazing to consider that while the Guatemalans have been teaching all their children for more than six decades that Belize belongs to Guatemala, no attempt has ever been made in Belizean schools to ensure that Belizean children understand the nature of our situation next to a hostile neighbor. In purely military terms, Belize’s situation is a precarious one. Guatemala is a demonstrably militarized society, besides being forty times larger in population than Belize. Belize is a fun-loving society with a colonial mentality: we still expect someone to take care of business for us.
The Belizean people are divided in opinion on the Sarstoon Island matter. The NTUCB and VIP position is one which we believe is supported by many Belizeans. But, in regional and international circles, other nation-states look to the UDP government position as representing the majority feeling and will of the Belizean people. This is the politics of the situation.
The larger question has to do with a decision to be made by the Belizean people whether or not to submit the Guatemala dispute for judgment by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Under the terms of an agreement originally signed several years ago, Guatemala and Belize will have their respective populations vote in referenda on whether they wish the Guatemala dispute with Belize to go to the ICJ, whose judgments are considered binding.
In 1968 and 1981, the Seventeen Proposals and the Heads of Agreement, respectively, violently divided the Belizean people. Both these documents presented solutions to the Guatemala dispute which were unacceptable to a large portion of the Belizean people. Going forward, it would be good if we Belizeans are able to avoid any kind of violent division on Sarstoon Island now, and the ICJ later. But, these are emotional issues. The Guatemalan claim to Belize is an existential threat to us Belizeans.
In the beginning of this essay, we showed you where a man and his nation were willing to risk destruction in the cause of freedom and national dignity. Fidel Castro had not acquired his mandate through the ballot box: he did so on the battlefield. Historically, there have been times in the affairs of men and nations when politics and war have intersected. The Belizean people have always been told that we must never consider war. What this means is that we have had to fight with one hand tied behind our back. We’re just saying.
Power to the people. Remember Danny Conorquie. Fight for Belize.