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Home Editorial Nuts and bolts of The Jewel’s democracy re: ICJ

Nuts and bolts of The Jewel’s democracy re: ICJ

BELIZE CITY, Wed. March 4 (1981)
“The Man Who Invaded Belize” is dead.
Luis Francisco Sagastume Ortiz, agronomist, hotel owner, and a Christian Democrat candidate for Congress in Guatemala, was shot and killed in a suburb of Guatemala City on Friday.
On Sunday morning, January 21, 1962, Sagastume, then a 25-year-old agronomist, led a party of Guatemalans into the Ketchi village of Pueblo Viejo, three miles across the Guat border inside Belize.
The invaders tore down the Union Jack, burnt it, and hoisted a Guatemalan flag in its place.
From Pueblo Viejo, they went to San Antonio, calling themselves “Belize Freedom Fighters,” asking the villagers to join them to help “President Price” liberate Belize.
Said Sagastume: “I am willing to die for your country.”
( – from a page 1 story in AMANDALA No. 603, Friday, March 6, 1981)

As the referendum date approaches for Belizeans to decide whether or not to go to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for “final and binding” arbitration on the Guatemalan claim to Belize, this newspaper has been considering the role we have been playing, and the role we will play, in this whole process as we move forward to April 10, 2019. If you think about it, this is a process which began with the signing of the Special Agreement in 2008 between Guatemala and Belize.

Ten years ago most Belizeans did not pay a lot of attention to the Special Agreement, because we were drained by almost four years of intense domestic politics which had begun with the G-7 Cabinet rebellion in August of 2004, and culminated with the change of government in February of 2008, and because we had become jaded when it came to the Guatemala issue.

After the 1960s and 1970s, when Guatemala would threaten to invade from time to time, and the British would reinforce their garrison (in 1962, one Franciso Sagastume and others actually did), and after Belize finally achieved political independence in 1981, the Guatemala business became a lot of talking more than anything else. The Maritime Areas Act in 1991 sparked excitement, but the Ramphal/Reichler proposals in 2002 became merely another in a line of suggestions, beginning with the Puerto Rico talks of 1962, which did not go anywhere.

We Belizeans had become complacent. Our youth had become hedonistic. The 2008 Special Agreement, it now appears, caught the masses of Belizeans with our pants down. Something had been going on between Guatemala and Belize in the years leading up to 2008, and that “something” was being orchestrated by the Organization of American States (OAS), which is to say, Washington. That “something” was so-called confidence building, the adjacency line and the adjacency zone, and the implicit admission by Belize that either we were not 100 percent sure of our borders, or we were scared to defend said borders. You and I know, if we never knew it before, that the second of these hypotheses is the fact. Still, the nature of the military realities with respect to Guatemala and Belize, is not our discussion today.

We want to look at the fact that a democratic exercise has been made available to Belizeans to express our ICJ opinion. For months, the “ICJ no” option appeared to have been the spontaneous reaction of many Belizeans. In the last few weeks, however, the “ICJ yes” forces have given us a sense of just how organized, well-financed, and determined they are, and will be on April 10, 2019. In fact, the “ICJ yes” forces obtained a majority “ICJ yes” vote from a group of students they brought together in Belmopan last week Thursday night. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first such public poll which has been won by the “ICJ yes” side.

The significance of Thursday night’s poll is that it featured students and youth, the groups which will be critical in next year’s April 10 referendum vote. The details of how the Thursday night debate which preceded the vote was conducted, are not available to us. We are convinced, nevertheless, that the poll was a democratic one, that is, conducted without coercion or corruption.

A precedent has been set here which should catch the attention of the “ICJ no” people. Despite the fact that many of us, including this newspaper, have the feeling that most Belizeans do not want to go to the ICJ, the decision whether or not to go will be based on the majority of votes cast on April 10, 2019. Nothing else really matters. With the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) now completely committed to “ICJ yes,” and with the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) divided and still unable to draft a definitive position paper, suddenly “ICJ yes” becomes a distinct, democratic possibility.

This newspaper is no doubt considered to be supportive of “ICJ no” by the “ICJ yes” authorities, but we have not declared an express opinion. The reason we have not declared an express opinion on this matter of massive moment, is that our history has been since 1969 that when we declare an express and momentous opinion, we fight for that opinion. Our most significant newspaper competition, The Reporter, for its part, has been campaigning outright for “ICJ yes” for a long time at the editorial level. The owner/publisher of The Reporter was one of the founders of the ruling UDP in 1973, and he has never deviated to any significant extent from his historical support for the UDP.

Amandala has a different history, much different. In some critical general elections in Belize’s past, such as the generals of 1979, 1984, and 1998, this newspaper has gone out on a limb for one of Belize’s two major political parties. When this newspaper went out on a limb for a major political party (for the PUP in 1979; for the UDP in 1984; for the PUP in 1998), our credibility was seriously on the line. Such was also the case on March 7, 2018 in a municipal election where we felt compelled to come out openly for the PUP Belize City Council slate.

There is a 4 percent bloc of voters who are influenced by this newspaper. This 4 percent bloc only has a definite role to play when the two major political parties are in direct competition with each other. Such has been the case in general and municipal elections. Five months before the ICJ referendum vote, however, there is no such faceoff between the ruling UDP and the Opposition PUP on the ICJ matter.

The 1979 and 1984 general elections were probably the most critical in Belize’s history. All of us can see today that the result of 1979 general election in the PUP’s favor led directly to Belize’s attainment of political independence in 1981. Had the UDP won in 1979, independence would have been delayed, perhaps indefinitely. 1984 was of notable significance also, because Belizeans saw an unprecedented change of national government from the PUP.
But 2019, which is a referendum and not an election, appears to be an existential exercise. Most Belizeans, then, view April 10 of 2019 as the most critical exercise in our public life since June 1, 1797. At this tense time, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is not performing as it classically does in general and municipal elections. Why is this so, beloved, and what does this mean?

The ICJ referendum involves a democratic vote, but the traditional adversarial structure of parliamentary democracy in Belize has, up to this point, been abandoned by the Opposition PUP. In other words, it appears that a vacuum of some sort has been created in this ICJ conversation. The saying is, nature abhors a vacuum. Will the ICJ vacuum be filled by some ad hoc coming together of third parties, or, worst case scenario, street energy?

Do you understand what we are dealing with here, Belizeans? None of us has ever been down this road before. It seems to this newspaper that giant forces are pushing Belizeans in a certain direction. This newspaper instinctively resists these giant forces, but it is not for us, it has never been for us, to lead Belizeans. If the ruling party is in collusion with the giant forces, then all our experience in Belizean public life tells us that the constitutional resistance should originate with the Opposition party. Failing the Opposition party’s stepping up to the plate, then only the people can save the people.

Power to the people.

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