From the get go it was a near impossible proposition for the government to get the third parties behind the Special Agreement (SA), but did the government try hard enough to get the main opposition, the PUP, on board? The evidence is that they didn’t, and because they failed to do so they were forced to resort to some very disappointing tactics to keep hope alive for a YES vote in the referendum set for tomorrow, May 8th. History, which will be written tomorrow, will tell.
In 2008 the UDP had a supermajority, 25 to 6, which gave them the opportunity to change most anything in our Constitution; they almost certainly had enough support to get a 2/3 majority on the SA. It really doesn’t happen that government representatives in the House vote against anything that comes from Cabinet, and that body was responsible for the agreement with Guatemala.
Instead of going to the House with the SA, the UDP chose to wait and see what Guatemala would do. We are aware that they were of the opinion that Guatemala would balk, but that doesn’t explain why they didn’t get their side of the agreement in order. History records that the UDP spent much of its first term in office, 2008 to 2012, excoriating the PUP for perceived past misdeeds and made no efforts to get support for the SA.
All indications are that the UDP’s leaders did not expect that Guatemala’s leaders would support taking their claim to the ICJ. But from as early as 2010 Guatemala’s Congress gave its approval for the claim to be heard at the International Court of Justice, and that takes away any excuse for the UDP not taking the SA through the proper route.
The PUP had argued that the SA needed the support of the House of Representatives from as early as 2008. Senator Eamon Courtenay exposed this in his presentation to the Senate on the Belize Territorial Dispute Referendum Bill. The following is taken from the Belize Times of April 28, 2019, from an article titled, “Eamon Still Searing on Social Media”:
“…the OAS website recorded the PUP position on the Special Agreement on December 3, 2008, before the Special Agreement was signed in Washington (December 8, 2008)… ‘Officials of the People’s United Party have expressed the view that even before the document is signed at the OAS it must go to the National Assembly which is the body legally empowered to submit an issue of National importance to a countrywide referendum.’”
If the SA had been tabled at the House of Representatives when the PUP suggested that it be done, it would have stimulated a national discussion on the matter. It would have allowed Belizeans to air their views before the fact, not after, as we later did. It is certain that there would have been proposals to amend the agreement. Did the UDP feel that too much discussion of the SA was a bad thing? They must have had intra-party discussions on the matter.
The UDP won a slim majority in the 2012 general elections, and between 2012 and 2015, when the next general election was called, it invested no energy in getting PUP support for the SA. The UDP became even more consumed with lambasting the PUP for perceived past transgressions, and they devoted much of the term working on completing the acquisition of BTL and spending a windfall derived from the PetroCaribe program as fast as they could.
The UDP might have assumed that PUP support for the SA was a given; it is a fact that a number of PUP leaders have been with the process all along. The UDP ignored the fact that the PUP had advised them to take the SA to the House. In 2015 they got the message loud and clear, when the PUP declared against the SA in their manifesto leading up to the general elections.
The 2015 PUP manifesto for the November elections that year said, “No to the ICJ”, that the way forward was to deploy the BDF and Coast Guard to the Chiquibul and the Sarstoon, and to “internationalize our struggle for freedom in the face of Guatemala’s unfounded claim to our territory.” A number of PUP candidates for that election, particularly from the south of the country, were not on board with the SA.
The UDP failed to win PUP support for the SA, and it’s not impossible that this was deliberate. Most everything the UDP does is calculated to forward the UDP party. The UDP insists that they never intended for the SA to become a party political matter. The record shows that they ignored most of the recommendations of the PUP, including their calls to repeal certain sections of the Maritime Areas Act, address the Sarstoon problem, and table the SA in the House. They have accommodated the Guatemalans.
The UDP yielded to the Guatemalans when they demanded that we reduce the 60% threshold in our referendum law. The 60% threshold would have allowed for defeat of the SA by strategic non-participation in the referendum.
By far the biggest ace for the proponents of the SA was the amendment that allowed Guatemala to go to referendum before we did. The YES vote in Guatemala, a given, increased the pressure on Belizeans to affirm the SA.
By 2016 it was too late to go to the House of Representatives with the SA, and the UDP sneaked it to the handpicked Senate and got a majority vote of approval. In April 2018 the Guatemalans went ahead and delivered their YES vote.
The SA appealed to the Guatemalans, and it scared some Belizeans. Many Belizeans believed that the way it was written, opened loopholes for Guatemalan success at the ICJ.
It matters not if the UDP chose to go it alone, if they erred, or if it just happened that way; after Guatemala said YES, all the pressure was on them. To bolster the chances for Belize bringing in a YES vote, the government had yielded to the call to remove the threshold in the referendum law, and gladly yielded to Guatemala going ahead with their referendum. Those decisions could be considered to be above board. The government’s other decisions fall in a different category.
There was the Foreign Minister-led campaign to strike fear in the hearts of Belizeans if they voted NO. There were questionable practices at the government-controlled Vital Statistics Department. There were the leaders of the armed forces — the BDF, Coast Guard and Police — parading for a YES vote on the media. There was the refusal to introduce an amendment to make it easier for Belizeans living abroad to participate in the referendum.
There was the refusal to limit the participation of Guatemalans, specifically those who got their citizenship recently. There was the lack of discussion about the legitimacy of the participation of economic citizens in this referendum. There was the government spending all the funds donated by the Friends of Belize, and the funds available from local sources, to sponsor a campaign heavily weighted to get a YES vote. There was the government even “raising” two beloved leaders and featuring them as YES vote supporters.
The numerous undemocratic and unsavory things the UDP has done shouldn’t impact our decision on the SA. This is a national issue, and tomorrow it will be country before political party. Some say the SA is as good as it gets for Belize. Some say the SA should never have been signed. From the moment it was signed we knew there would be wounds, but the wounds needn’t have been so deep, as deep as you can go without shedding blood.
A YES vote comes with its ramifications and a NO vote comes with its ramifications too. The day after tomorrow we will have to talk about these things and start charting our next steps. Today, we pray for Guidance from the Most High. Tomorrow we do what we have to do. God Bless Belize.