Foreign Minister Wilfred Elrington’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Friday in New York City has drawn condemnation in political and activist circles, more for what it apparently failed to do than what it did – offer a short update on Belize-Guatemala relations. According to the People’s United Party (PUP), the Minister neglected to inform the international community that the process leading to the Internationl Court of Justice (ICJ) to resolve the claim in that forum required referenda in both countries. To them, it is a continuation of a failure to take the responsibility of this existential threat seriously, and that is not helped by the studied silence from the United Democratic Party and leader Prime Minister Dean Barrow. Following up on their press release issued late on Friday, the PUP called a press briefing at party headquarters this morning that turned into something of a policy discussion on how a future PUP Government, perhaps one elected on November 4, would address the situation. According to Party Leader Francis Fonseca, who was flanked by four former foreign ministers and ambassadors of Belize with experience on the Guatemala issue, they would not seek to play politics with the issue. But he insisted that it is something Belizeans need to think about at the ballot box.
Hon. Francis Fonseca, PUP Leader: But I certainly will make no apologies for saying to the Belizean people that on November 4th, this is an absolutely important consideration for each and every citizen of this country. When you go into the voting booth to mark your X, you must understand and appreciate fully the consequences of that vote as it relates to this very important issue. The fumbling and bumbling of this UDP administration on this issue of this unfounded Guatemala claim. Over the past 8 years they have taken us way back on this matter. As Aymond rightly pointed out, not only on the ground where it is affecting us directly but obviously in the international community we have lost tremendous ground and we will have a lot of work to do. We understand that after November 4th, to reclaim Belize’s strong position in the international community on this matter. So we make no apologies for that we are in campaign season, we make no apologies for saying to the Belizean people when you go to vote on November 4th, this must be on the front of your mind. In addressing this issue, the People’s United Party understands this issue. We know best how to deal with this issue and that certainly must be a consideration for the voters.
Fonseca called on their opponents to clarify Elrington’s remarks, and release all correspondence between Belize and Guatemala on recent events including the Sarstoon River incident on August 16, including the diplomatic notes exchanged between the two countries. They also demanded that Belize begin building the Forward Operating Base at Sarstoon Island and not on the coast as the Government declared it would in Prime Minister Dean Barrow’s Independence Day address. Fonseca also says the PUP will pursue full nationwide consultations with the people of Belize on the Guatemalan claim if elected in November. But what if Friday’s statement was an error of omission by Elrington – since everybody knows about the referenda, perhaps the Minister thought it was not necessary to say so with limited time on the world stage? If so, according to former Senator, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Ambassador of Belize Lisa Shoman, that would be sloppy and neglectful work on his part. Here is what she told us.
Sen. Lisa Shoman, Former Foreign Minister/Ambassador: Whether it is implicit or not. The speech which was given on behalf of each nation at the opening of the United Nations General assembly is the speech in which to make your views, or your goals definitive and explicit. This has always been so. If you contrast the speech of Sedi Elrington with the speech given by President David Granger on behalf of Guyana. President David Granger laid out very clearly what was the Guianese view vis a vis, the Venezuelan claim, you don’t use 1 minute and 9 seconds of an entire speech to address that issue. You address it explicitly, particularly because of the Guatemalan aggression in the past year and a half, particularly because of the diplomatic note that Guatemala slapped us in the face with to which there has never been, as far as I know, any public response or indeed any response at all. You don’t leave that to being implicit.
Shoman also told us that Belize needs clarification on where Guatemala is with regard to the protocol allowing them to proceed on their own with a referendum, which the PUP oppose in any event, insisting that the referenda should be simultaneous if held. However, Shoman also told us that as part of the party’s consultations many other options would be presented, some of which would involve other parties including, possibly, the United Kingdom. But the bottom line for the PUP is that it no longer trusts the UDP to handle the resolution of the claim. Former Foreign Minister, Ambassador and Senator Eamon Courtenay declared that the onus is on Guatemala to change its bullying behavior and Belize to stand up to them when necessary.
Eamon Courtenay, Former Foreign Minister/Ambassador: The point of the matter is this. Under the incompetence of the United Democratic Party, under the very poor management of the United Democratic Party government, we have lost on the ground, and we have lost on the diplomatic stage. The decision by the United Democratic Party government to change the special agreement to give Guatemala the advantage to choose when Guatemala wants to go to a referendum in Guatemala is a serious tactical blunder committed by the United Democratic Party government and we say here publicly to the people of Belize, that what party leader announced just now is a radical shift of moving back to the people within 2017 the People’ United Party Government will hold a massive public education and consultation exercise for the people to decide how we move forward on this issue. And so we say without apology that our position had matured and our position continues to be refined on a day to day basis meeting the realities on the ground and on the international stage.
The PUP also complained that the bipartisan commission on the claim has not been receiving regular reports from the National Security Council on, for instance, the ongoing threat to soldiers of the Belize Defence Force (BDF) who brave Guatemalan forces to travel to Cadenas on the Sarstoon River.