During colonial days, Toledo was isolated from the mainstream of life in British Honduras, to the point where it was sometimes referred to as “The Forgotten District.” Today, we know that the stone which the builders rejected, as it is said in the Bible, has now become the cornerstone. Everyone knows Toledo will be Belize’s wealthiest District in more ways than one, and it is the area which the Guatemalans most desire.
In colonial days, the daily lives of the people of Toledo were more linked, by sea and by land, to nearby Guatemalan communities and municipalities than to the rest of Belize. As late as the 1960s, it was much easier to travel to Punta Gorda, the only town in Toledo, by sea than by road, and the trip by sea from Belize City took from morning until night. The road was a bruiser. Remember, the Hummingbird from Belize City to Stann Creek Town (now Dangriga) was a nightmare on its own back then.
I made the trip from Belize City to Punta Gorda by road along with my father and his driver, in my father’s capacity as Postmaster General, in a Land Rover sometime in 1960 or 1961, I would say. It was rough. Trust me. In the summer of 1964, I travelled from Belize City to Punta Gorda by sea (Heron H, I guess) along with a few St. John’s College Sixth Form classmates. And then, in June of 1969, after I had been promoted to President of the United Black Association for Development (UBAD), I made the Belize City to Punta Gorda trip by road, along with Charles X “Justice” Eagan, who drove, and Robert Livingston. Another rough trip.
On that 1969 trip, I believe I met Alejandro Vernon. He was the Toledo North constituency standard bearer for the ruling People’s United Party (PUP). I must have made a bad impression on Mr. Vernon, because all the indications I have from that time are that I am not one of this gentleman’s favorites. At the same time, what you have to understand is that the Vernons are like royalty in Toledo. Alejandro’s dad, Samuel Vernon, was so big in Toledo that when the PUP was at the early peak of its anti-colonial power in 1954, Toledo was the only one of the then nine national constituencies that they lost (to Charles Westby). In Toledo, Samuel Vernon, who became the PUP’s Toledo South area representative in 1961, was bigger than the PUP in Toledo in 1954. He was the one who elected Charles Westby. If Alejandro, then, had an attitude in 1969, he was entitled to it, family wise.
Alejandro, who had lost in his first run for the House of Representatives in 1965 to Edwin Morey (National Independence Party), won the Toledo North seat from Morey in December of 1969, but then lost in Toledo South to Charles Wagner (United Democratic Party) in October of 1974.
By 1976, he had formed his own party. Having worked at a Guatemala City hotel in the mid-1950s, Alejandro Vernon had become friendly with some very powerful people in Guatemala. This was the belief of the leaders of the PUP. The following is what Assad Shoman wrote in his recently published work, Guatemala’s claim to Belize: The Definitive History, on page 154 (Image Factory Art Foundation):
The Committee (United Nations Fourth)then heard statements from Belizeans from Toledo who were brought and paid for by the Guatemalans. In 1976, Guatemala had financed the creation of a new party, the Toledo Progressive Party (TPP), led by former PUP parliamentarian Alejandro Vernon. In statements made by Vernon, Martinez, and Cirilo Caliz in this and a meeting in October 1978 before the Fourth Committee, they alleged that the people of the border areas spoke the same language and had the same culture and should not be separated. They criticized the Belize government for refusing to countenance the cession of land, and demanded that independence be postponed until the dispute was settled, the economy was in a better state, and they were sure that parliamentary democracy would be preserved. These declarations had no effect whatsoever on the members of the Fourth Committee, since it had become widely known that Guatemala had sponsored their appearance at the United Nations. Indeed, on a visit to the Belize Office in the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry, Belizean journalists saw a secretary “busily running off copies of Alejandro’s United Nations speech.”
In last weekend’s issue of The Reporter, the aforementioned Alejandro Vernon made an attack on Amandala, a newspaper he criticizes publicly from time to time. The following is Mr. Vernon’s opening paragraph in the article, “Amandala putting fear into Belizeans,” which appears on page 11 of The Reporter issue dated Sunday, June 17, 2018:
For quite some time the AMANDALA editorials and other articles are putting fear into Belizeans that if they vote YES at the referendum to go to the ICJ we may be losing instead of gaining. That we may even lose land. This publication uses sentences like: ‘Belizeans have been presented with a national referendum to decide whether we will go to the ICJ for arbitration of the Guatemala claim to Belize. Tension is rising in Belize, and conversations are becoming more volatile.’”
Over the years, I almost never respond to anything Mr. Alejandro writes. I feel that he is disrespectful, and I do not wish to abuse him. I always say this to you: Belize is a small place. On a visit to Punta Gorda in 2011 at the invitation of Wil Maheia, I met Alejandro Vernon, Jr., briefly. He had been a classmate of Cordel Hyde’s at SJC Junior College twenty years or so before. My impression was that he was a fine young man. Perhaps the time has come for senior to give way to junior. I’m just saying.
Anyway, as I prepared to write this column in the pre-dawn of Sunday morning, I was saying to myself, if anyone had said to you forty years ago that Assad Shoman and the senior Alejandro Vernon would have been fighting to achieve the same objective in 2018, the chances are you would have been very skeptical indeed. But, both Assad and Alejandro have come to the public conclusion that going to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the way to put the Guatemalan claim to Belize to rest.
My personal position is that, all things being equal, I would not want to go to the ICJ. But I have pointed out that I am willing to concede that the situation may reach a point where the ICJ is our best option. My father, for instance, is hard core in favor of the ICJ solution. I have close friends who are 100 percent opposed. This is how it is all over Belize. The issue is existential, and therefore it is volatile.
Mr. Alejandro, if you would ask the Belizean people who is putting fear into them, I am willing to wager that they would point the finger at some oligarchs and generals you probably consider your very good friends. Think about that.
Power to the people.