Editorial — 19 September 2018
Belize: a changing Guatemalan problem

In its rise to national hegemony, the army was helped by U.S. military aid, which, however, was seldom direct or decisive in terms of the political process. Such aid consisted of supplying Guatemala’s military needs with obsolete American war material, providing guidance in the professionalization and modernization of the army, and making specialized training in counterinsurgency and other tactics available to Guatemalan officers at bases in the United States and Panama. When the aid was cut off in 1977 by the Carter administration, other countries – including Israel, Argentina, Taiwan, and Belgium – filled the gap, with Israel becoming Guatemala’s principal military supplier, military adviser, and source of technical assistance and specialized training. Israeli Galil assault rifles and Uzi semiautomatic carbines have become standard-issue light arms for the army; Arava STOL planes are the aircraft of choice for rural counterinsurgency operations; an army transmissions and electronics school was designed, staffed, and funded by Israelis; and many officers go to Israel for specialized training.

While indeed assisted by the United States, Israel, and other countries, the Guatemalan professional military nonetheless rose to power mainly because it was disciplined and internally cohesive, possessing a self-image enabling it to capitalize on the disorganized circumstances of a developing country and the fears of a traditional oligarchy. In the process, the military at its upper levels has penetrated the oligarchy by the vigorous acquisition of land, by marriage, and by other means.

– THE GUATEMALAN MILITARY AND THE ESCUELA POLITECNICA, by Franklin Patterson, University of Massachusetts, 1988

Communist Russia was an ally of the United States and Great Britain during World War II (1939-1945), but shortly after the so-called Allies were victorious over the so-called Axis countries – Germany, Japan, and Italy, the foreign policy of the U.S. began to be dominated by the determination to contain the spread of communism, a belief system which had inspired the Russian Revolution in 1917 and then became the core ideology of the Chinese Revolution which triumphed in 1949.

The nature of the Guatemalan republic was that it was controlled by a business/industrial and military elite which was anti-communist to the point of being fascist. The uprising in Guatemala which overthrew the military dictatorship of Jorge Ubico in 1944, however, introduced democratic tendencies into Guatemala during the presidency of Juan Jose Arevalo, who was succeeded by Jacobo Arbenz in 1951. Arbenz’s presidency was so liberal and reformist that the United States convinced itself that he was a communist, and organized his violent overthrow in 1954.

Arbenz was succeeded by hard line military generals, Carlos Castillo Armas, assassinated in 1957, and Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes, who was overthrown in 1963. Fuentes’ support for an invasion of Fidel Castro’s Cuba by Cuban exiles organized and financed by the United States, had sparked a nationalist rebellion in the Guatemalan military in late 1960. Many scholars see that rebellion as marking the beginning of the civil war in Guatemala, which lasted until 1996.

The region of Mexico, Guatemala, and Central America was inhabited by various Indigenous peoples until the Spanish conquistadors under Hernan Cortes took over the Mexican territory in 1521, and one of their group, Pedro de Alvarado went south to invade the Guatemalan territory. Guatemala became the imperial possession of Catholic Spain, with the Indigenous majority as downtrodden serfs who insisted on holding on to their traditional culture and lifestyle.

After Guatemala became independent of Spain in 1821, various European immigrants – Jews, Germans, Italians and so on entered Guatemala.These European immigrant families, along with the descendants of the original Spanish families, dominate the politics and economics of Guatemala. It is they who organized the professional Guatemalan army in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and it is this oligarchy, along with the military, who have been in power in Guatemala since Arbenz was overthrown in 1954.

Through the decades, young Indigenous males have been forcefully conscripted into the Guatemalan army and many fought against their own people during the civil war between 1960 and 1996. Most of the 200,000 casualties in the civil war were Indigenous Guatemalans caught between the rampaging military and the guerrilla groups fighting against them. The United States’ support for the Guatemalan military was total until 1977, when U.S. President Jimmy Carter recoiled at the excesses of the Guatemalan army and suspended arms shipment to Guatemala. (The arms vacuum in Guatemala was immediately filled by Israel, Taiwan, Argentina, and Belgium.)

The settlement of Belize in the Bay of Honduras became a Guatemalan problem in the middle of the nineteenth century because Guatemala was weak and the British in the Belize territory were expanding west and south. The United States urged the British and the Guatemalans to sign a border treaty in 1859. The Guatemalan oligarchy signed because they wanted to prevent further British imperial expansion.

It is difficult to say at what specific point in the twentieth century the reality of Belize’s majority black population became the issue for the Guatemalan ruling classes. In 1950, Belize’s majority blacks had supported the anti-British, anti-colonial People’s United Party (PUP), which was being led, to a substantial degree, by graduates of St. John’s College, a secondary school run by Jesuits of primarily German and Irish ancestry, the Germans and the Irish peoples having been enemies of the British for centuries. The Guatemalan oligarchy was of the opinion that the British had taken advantage of them.  After 1950, they began to fear that the British would let loose an independent black nation-state north and east of them.

Similarly to how the United States views support for Israel as the most critical plank in their foreign policy platform in the Middle East, the U.S. State Department considers Guatemala its most important Central American ally, and has supported the status quo in Guatemala since 1954. Between 1962, when the U.S. first participated in talks between the British and the Guatemalans, until 1968, when the American attorney/mediator, Bethuel Webster, released the Seventeen Proposals, the State Department’s key objective was to ensure that a post-colonial Belize did not destabilize Guatemala in any way. The emergence of Cuba as a communist state in the region had complicated matters for the Americans.

In 2018, Belize is no longer majority black. But Belize has become a different kind of Guatemalan problem, because Belize now represents a socio-political experiment which, in juxtaposition, exposes the inhumane nature of Guatemalan society. Take the matter of environmental policies. Belize is light years ahead of Guatemala where our progressive, enlightened regard for nature is concerned. More importantly, Belize has empowered its Indigenous peoples with respect to land ownership. Belize still has a way to go, but, compared to Guatemala, Belize is an Indigenous paradise. We can go on to highlight more areas where Belize makes Guatemala look like a feudal and racist country.

For now, our point is that Belize originally became a Guatemalan problem in the mid-nineteenth century because of the British and their imperial presence. Belize became a different kind of Guatemalan problem in the second half of the twentiethcentury when it appeared that Belize would become independent with a majority black population. And in 2018, Belize is a different kind of Guatemalan problem because Belize does not subscribe to oligarchical ideas of government or apartheid systems of rule.

Militant Belizean opponents of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) referendum next April have sometimes claimed that Belize has nothing to gain from ICJ arbitration. Those who are pushing the “yes” vote, however, claim that Belize will benefit from peace and prosperity once we go to the ICJ.

When you analyze the history between Guatemala and Belize since the mid-nineteenth century, nevertheless, one is tempted to conclude that Belize has always been a problem for the Guatemalan rulers, even though the nature of the problem has changed, from the British, to our majority black population, and now to our socio-political democracy. And if we conclude that Belize has always been a Guatemalan problem, it perforce leads us into a pessimistic mindset. On guard, Belizean soldiers.

Power to the people.

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Deshawn Swasey

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