An unprecedented drama will be played out this weekend when Wil Maheia leads his band of Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) to the Belize border with Guatemala in Toledo and tries to clear the border so that it can be demarcated. Symbolically, this would represent the first time that any Belizean or group of Belizeans has put up a red flag for the Guatemalan government to see, essentially saying to Guatemala City that these are territorial rights Belize is declaring, for Guatemala, the region, and the world to see.
This coming weekend’s expedition represents, again symbolically, a rollback of the “confidence–building measures” of 2005 wherein the Organization of American States (OAS), Guatemala and Belize agreed to replace the border between Guatemala and Belize with an enlarged area called an “adjacency zone.”
Predictably, the Guatemala government protested last week to the Belize government when they heard about the mission of the Belize Territorial Volunteers. The Belize government reacted by immediately calling on Wil Maheia to cease and desist from the Belize Territorial Volunteers’ expedition, declaring that the members of the expedition would be in physical danger, and basically telling the BTV that they would be on their own, or, in other words, that the security forces of Belize would not provide any cover for them.
Where we found the Belize government’s response to the Guatemalan government’s diplomatic note to be disappointing, was in the panicked speed of it. The Maheia expedition was ten days away: the Belize government could have hemmed and hawed a little, but they rushed to try to discipline the Belize Territorial Volunteers, using scare tactics. The Belize government behaved like an adjunct of the Guatemalan government. The Belize government did not behave like a sovereign, independent government.
Our sense had been, from the time Wil Maheia announced this border-clearing intention, about three weeks ago if we remember correctly, that he would have liked cover from the security forces, but that it was not a requirement or sine qua non for the border-clearing expedition. This is a very important consideration, because if security cover had been a sine qua non, then the chances are exceedingly great that Wil Maheia would have had to call off the expedition once the Belize government panicked last week Friday because of the diplomatic note from Guatemala City.
And so the question is, did the Belize government know, did they make it their business to know, that their security cover was not a sine qua non for the Belize Territorial Volunteers? If they did so know, why did they believe, if we are to judge from their domestic response to Guatemala City’s diplomatic note, that they could make Wil Maheia turn chicken? Because the Belize government believed they could make the BTV turn chicken, then the Belize government itself now comes off as chicken, and the Belize Territorial Volunteers would become genuine Belizean national heroes if they can do what they intend to do – clear the border.
Unless the Belize government declares a state of emergency in Toledo or prepares some statutory instrument or the other, they cannot stop the Belize Territorial Volunteers from going to the border. As things presently stand, the BTV are going to the border. If they do, then, despite what the Belize government is saying, a constitutional responsibility lies on that government to protect the Belize Territorial Volunteers as citizens of the independent, sovereign nation of Belize.
Once the BTV do not enter the sovereign territory of Guatemala, then what danger could they be incurring? We have heard the argument that, technically speaking, you cannot do such a thing as to “clear the border” without infringing on your neighbor’s space – air, land, or whatever. In other words, if you want to clear the border and your neighbor does not wish for that border to be cleared, and you then go ahead and clear the border, you may provoke an incident. Technically, this may be a valid argument.
But then, how about our argument as Belizeans? Technically, and also in real terms, our nation is being invaded every single day by Guatemalan citizens who are robbing our natural resources. When Belize tries to protect its natural resources, in sovereign Belizean territory, these encounters with invaders sometimes become incidents which the Guatemalan government exploits, for domestic and regional propaganda purposes, to accuse Belizeans of taking advantage of Guatemalans. Belizean environmental wardens and security forces are operating under the most stressful of conditions: they are supposed to protect Belizean property and resources, but they are not sure how far they can go to defend themselves, in deep jungle. The Belize government is being routinely humiliated by the Guatemalan government. Belizeans who are out there in the jungle defending us and our patrimony are aware of this.
This is a very big initiative on which Wil Maheia and the BTV are embarking. In the 72 hours or so remaining before their journey begins, the diplomatic wires will be hot as far away as Washington and London. This is, to repeat, a very big initiative. As Belizean citizens, we support the initiative. For too long, we Belizeans have felt as if we are being encircled and confined by a net which is drawing tighter and tighter around us.
Do the people of Belize as a national entity support the initiative? The UDP government, expressly, does not. The Opposition PUP has not formulated an opinion. The churches, trade unions, business organizations, and other civic bodies have not published an opinion. On the ground in Belize, the issue is much more casual and informal, we think, than it is in the relevant corridors of power in Guatemala City, Mexico City, Kingston, Havana, Washington and London. Out there, this border clearing expedition is big news. Whether Wil Maheia and the Belize Territorial Volunteers know it or not, this amounts to an attempt to change the nature of the conversation. It’s big.
Power to the people. Power in the struggle.