In our editorial last weekend, we mentioned that our various Prime Ministers, and there have been four of them, often have behaved similarly. One of the reasons for this is that all our Prime Ministers have to take instructions from Washington and London where certain crucial issues are concerned.
The most crucial issue in Belize is the predatory Guatemalan claim to Belizean territory. There are many prominent Belizeans who want for the “Guatemalan claim” to be preceded always by the adjective, “unfounded.” I understand their position, but, as a respectful student of Dartmouth’s Professor Vincent Starzinger, it does not matter to me whether the claim is founded or unfounded: what matters to me is that the claim is real. The claim exists in our daily lives.
The claim exists because of the power realities involved. If Belize decided to claim the Petén, that would not be a real claim, because Belize is not in a position to enforce such a claim. Because of a superior size and military, Guatemala is in a position to enforce her claim to Belize. For me, that is what makes the claim a real and present danger.
Until Belize became independent in September of 1981, the defence of the territory was the responsibility of Great Britain, British Honduras having become a colony of hers in 1862. Even after British Honduras became a self-governing colony in 1964, our defence remained a portfolio responsibility of the British.
After the British devalued the Belize dollar at the end of 1949, we Belizeans became angry and decided that our interests would best be served by self-government and independence. Our anger was such that we did not worry about our future defence after we achieved the proposed self-rule. At the time when Belize’s early self-rule agitation was reaching its peak, it so happened that Guatemala was being ruled by her most progressive President ever, Jacobo Arbenz, who was democratically elected in 1951. Arbenz’ Guatemala administration looked favorably upon Belizeans’ anti-colonial struggle, and People’s United Party (PUP) leaders, who were at the forefront of the anti-colonial agitation, did not see the Arbenz government as their enemies: the PUP received financial and other assistance from Guatemala during the Arbenz era.
After Arbenz was undemocratically overthrown by the Americans and their right wing Guatemalan allies in 1954, the relationship between Guatemala and Belize began to change. And when General Ydígoras Fuentes came to power in 1958, he became the most aggressive Guatemalan President ever where pushing the claim to Belize was concerned. The evidence is strong, as Fuentes claimed publicly and in writing, that he was encouraged in his aggressive attitude towards Belize by U.S. President John F. Kennedy, in return for Guatemalan territory being used as a training base for the American-sponsored Cuban exiles who invaded Cuba in April of 1961.
Not long after Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban dictator and American ally, Fulgencio Batista, on New Year’s Day of 1959, Castro declared himself a communist. The Petén was a large and impoverished area of Guatemala which shared a long eastern border with Belize. The Americans saw Belize, post-1959, as a soft spot through which Cuba’s Castro could penetrate the Petén and destabilize Guatemala’s right wing military government.
Anti-communist Guatemala has been Washington’s most faithful and important Central American ally, especially after 1954. There are exceptionally strong business ties between the United States and Guatemala. The Guatemalans possess one of the most influential lobbies in Washington, the American seat of political power. In addition, from the first day of Israel’s establishment on May 14 in 1948, the Israelis being America’s most important allies in the oil-rich Middle East, the Guatemalans have been some of their closest friends.
When Great Britain was in charge of Belize, Belizeans had a strong lobby in London which ensured that the British responded militarily whenever Guatemala threatened Belize. In 2014, Belize has virtually no lobbying capacity in Washington, and this is an incredible state of affairs. Given the size of the Belizean population in the United States, and the relevant influence of America’s Congressional Black Caucus, Belize should be in a much better position to neutralize Guatemalan influence in Washington than we are.
The fact of the matter is that Belize is being invaded every day by Guatemalans who are violating our territorial integrity and national sovereignty on the ground. We refer to these civilian invasions as “incursions,” but they are invasions: the effect is that of slow death, but death nonetheless. From day to day, Belize is being effectively reduced in administrative size, and a Guatemalan noose is tightening around our neck.
In our weekend issue, a columnist in this newspaper was totally critical of Belize Prime Minister Barrow’s response to a recent incident where the Belize military shot and killed an aggressive Guatemalan invader. I understand her feelings, but the Prime Minister’s hands are tied. I think at some point the political leadership of Belize needs to tell the Belizean people what the real situation is, and stop acting high and mighty. Belize is in trouble, and where we need to begin counter-attacking is in Washington. This is real.