Mid-March is here, and to paraphrase the classic Christmas Carol – “Gee Whizz, it’s Referendum Day.” On the 10th April 2019, the Belizeans who received newly-minted Voters ID cards and are on a slimmed-down Voters List will decide whether they approve of putting Guatemala’s claim to the ICJ for determination or not. It is a turning point in our history akin to the 1979 General Election where one of the dominant issues of that day was whether to proceed forward with Independence or not.
Belize’s national emblem on our flag proclaims “sub umbra floreo” – “under the shade we flourish,” but the shadow of the Guatemalan claim has been stifling and anything but fertile due to many problems stemming from lack of adequate co-operation, which has been inhibited by the everpresent claim. The claim needs to be brought to an end, but is the ICJ truly the most practical way of doing it?
No “Win-Win” on Referendum Day
After the tally on April 10th, it will be settled which group is the larger:-
• the “yes” voters, essentially driven by faith that the ICJ ruling will usher in PEACE between Belize and Guatemala in the form of an outright rejection by the ICJ of any and all of Guatemala’s claims vis-à-vis Belize; or
• the “no” voters who are fuelled by a variety of reservations underpinning their fear that the ICJ process puts us at risk of losing a PIECE of Belize.
The results, one way or another, will bring dismay and disappointment for those whose numbers fell short, and they won’t “have a merry, merry Referendum day.”
No “Win-Win,” whatever the ICJ ruling
In the event that the “yes” votes outnumber the “no” votes and Belize is propelled to the ICJ, then somewhere around the year 2025 the $100 million question will be answered! Why a $100 million? – because an article appearing on page 35 of the March 8th 2019 issue of Amandala by Marcelino Avila, Ph.D., at N1.6 states that the cost per annum for Belize to be represented at the Hague is $10 million and this will be over the course of a minimum of 5 years (bear in mind that things have a way of taking longer than expected, remember the original Referendum date for both countries was the 6th October 2013). No doubt official estimates will be revealed and eventually debated in the House of Representatives once expenditure passes a certain threshold. Interestingly, unconfirmed reports indicated that it could be as much as $40 million to thereafter clear the border in compliance with an ICJ ruling. Again, an official estimate would be enlightening, as well an indication of any other costs. The overall price won’t be cheap.
The ICJ ruling itself will generate one of two possible results:-
• A victory for Belize, confirming pre-existing boundaries and rights contained under our Constitution which was supported by around 99% of the nations on earth, will lead to an eruption of jubilation, “I-told-you-so’s” aplenty, and relief. Meanwhile on the Guatemalan side, it will be interesting to see the level of official effort to stop illegal border crossings, fishing, etc. after having spent millions on their efforts, only to have their claim exposed as unfounded the whole while;
• On the flip side of the coin, a ruling against Belize, forcing it to relinquish territory or rights will affect the collective Belizean psyche like an amputation without anaesthetic! Whether such an ICJ ruling is made on the basis of a legal technicality, or discrepancy with the history that we were spoon-fed, or survey differences, or by any perceived conduct by Belize, however unintended, the ICJ decision – right or wrong – fair or unfair – will be final and there will be no appeal. Needless to say, on the Guatemalan side, in this scenario, they will be like Fantasy-Five winners.
One way or another, an ICJ decision will without a doubt provide great disappointment for either Belize or Guatemala, and one of them will inevitably face political fallout – not the best recipe for future cooperation at a bilateral level.
Negotiation is best chance for “Win-Win,” but just how profound have past negotiations been?
Respect is due to the legion of officials and individuals who have participated in the negotiation process spanning different eras. The question today is – has the diplomatic road really come to an end and is it absolutely accurate what is being insisted in official quarters that the ICJ is the only option remaining for Belize?
Looking back at just over 50 years, there have been the following initiatives:-
Pre-Independence: The Webster Proposals and the Heads of Agreement where Belize as a colony was “a fly on the wall” for what were to have been comprehensive settlements. There wasn’t going to be any planned referendum as the “Mother Country,” Guatemala, and collaborators were to decide our fate, but once proposals were publicly known, then a street referendum in the form of unrest and civil disobedience gripped the nation and eventually subsided when there was backtracking and withdrawal.
Post-Independence: The Anglo-Guatemalan dispute was re-labelled the Belize-Guatemala dispute and Belize became responsible for charting negotiations with Guatemala. Taking an overview of the major developments over the 37 going on 38-year period of Belize being in charge, one finds that from Independence to the early 2000’s there was a singular dramatic initiative at around the mid-point of that 20 year period – the Maritime Areas Act, where Belize volunteered to limit its sea boundaries in the south of the country, to which Guatemala responded with recognition and formal diplomatic relations. However, fate intervened to shuffle the deck of cards, as the then president who recognized us was forced out politically and then Guatemala focused on its serious internal matter of bringing to an end their Civil War, while on the Belize side there were also fresh actors after a general election where the winner had a successful 1993 campaign song “We nuh wah no Guatemala..” The breeze in the sails died for a while.
The early 2000’s featured the Ramphal-Reichler talks, where both country’s mediators met to identify areas of common ground. This was then followed by a busy period, with the OAS playing a prominent role as mediator between the two countries, with the Friends of Belize in the wings. What emerged was the Adjacency Zone, meant to be a pressure valve mechanism where the OAS could mediate directly on border issues/incursions as well as Confidence-Building Measures. According to OAS literature, at a second set of Ministerial meetings in February 2016, the Secretary General of the OAS proposed that the negotiation process proceed with the maritime zone (presumably picking up where the parties had left off with the Maritime Areas/recognition initiatives). The OAS further stated that after 2 years of negotiation the parties failed to reach an Agreement and the Secretary General of the OAS therefore recommended that the most appropriate venue for resolving the differendum would be the ICJ. Shortly thereafter, Belize’s Foreign Minister publicly announced that he had already signed the Compromis, committing the Government of Belize to hold a referendum on the ICJ question, effectively shutting the door, slipping the latch, and snapping shut the padlock on negotiations. Interestingly, after the parties passed the initial deadline of the 6th October 2013 for mutual referenda 5 years after the Compromis, both Belize and Guatemala signed a Road Map of the Strengthening of the Bilateral Relations in 2014 –
“to maintain and deepen friendly bilateral relations, while the territorial, insular and maritime dispute remains unresolved”
The document appeared to be a sort of useful placebo to maintain calm and raise comfort levels while the referenda were to eventually take place in the future.
Looking back, Belizeans rejected the colonial master’s initiatives for settlement, so practically speaking those do not count as truly Belizean initiatives, as Britain’s motive would have been guided by eventual withdrawal from Belize as the trend at the time was Caribbean countries were getting their Independence. Then when we were at the helm as being the ones prepared to stay, after Belize’s 10th Anniversary, the Maritime Areas Act initiative was put forward, but momentum stalled for another decade. Then around Belize’s 20th anniversary, the OAS shepherded along both countries at a faster pace during ¾ of a decade and the negotiations were declared over in 2008, the 27th year of Belize’s Independence. After that, everything has been geared towards the ICJ for the past decade.
What special value does any part of Belize hold for Guatemala in 2019?
• with a population of approx. 17 ½ million there is no shortage of people in Guatemala, so the attraction of several thousand new citizens is not immediately obvious;
• with 100,000 square miles more than Belize, space shouldn’t be a pressing issue, and undoubtedly they have undeveloped areas to expand into within their own country; so it’s apparently not driven by their being particularly deprived or in immediate desperate need.
If one were for a moment to accept Guatemala’s argument at face value that it was a matter where they were cheated by the British a century and a half ago then isn’t it strange that:-
• while Belize as a condition of its Independence from Britain had to accept that it inherited the Claim and is banned from joining England as a party, Guatemala is not bound in any way by this. Guatemala isn’t obliged to this state. Interestingly though, they haven’t insisted on having the British, a nation with far deeper pockets than Belize in terms of monetary compensation, be joined as a party to the ICJ matter on the basis that they did sign and allegedly violate the 1859 Treaty;
• the infamous cart road and offer of $50,000 pounds for compensation by the British back in the day has been dwarfed by Belize borrowing just under $50 million to build a road to the border down south and then Taiwan’s pumping in $600 million for a 4-lane highway over on the Guatemalan side, but yet the Claim stubbornly persists in spite of the prospect of 250 million pounds being spent on the road and the Maritime Areas Act providing an outlet to the sea. Wasn’t this what had motivated Guatemala to sign the 1859 Treaty: access?
This curious behaviour opens the door to wide speculation, including the scenario that maybe the Guatemalans salivate every time they hear the phrase in the National Anthem which refers to “wealth untold.” An old letter from the then foreign minister of Guatemala to then US president Roosevelt makes reference to large oil deposits – interesting, one of the pre-independence proposals talks about an oil pipeline. Maybe Belize should heed the words of the old newspaper columnist “the old man seh” and “check wi change.” Maybe some of the money earmarked for the referendum would be better served to engage an international reserve audit firm to conduct an independent engineering study, as we are in the area of the Peten Basin just to see if we truly have oil and how much. Is it also the tip of the iceberg that Guatemalans are striving across the Sarstoon to pan for gold? What else could be below? If it is not these things, then what else could it be for the Government of Guatemala to invest so much political capital, money and several decades? If the above is not the actual motive, then what else could be it be? We need to know how much we are really worth.
To be continued