Commentary: An opportunity for opposition parties to win the next general election in Belize

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Born in Dangriga Town, the cultural capital of Belize, Wellington Ramos has BAs in Political Science and History from Hunter College, NY, and an MA in Urban Studies from Long Island University. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science and History

By Wellington C. Ramos

Since the United Democratic Party (UDP) government of Belize and the People’s United Party (PUP) both agreed to take the Guatemalan claim over Belize to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the Belizean people at home and abroad have become more insecure. Historically, in all the elections that were held in Belize the two main political parties, UDP and PUP, would bring up this issue and accuse each other of making concessions to Guatemala.

But the only time this issue was front and center of Belize politics was back in the days when the leader of the National Independence Party (NIP), the late Philip Goldson, made it his top priority issue. I remember when some members of the PUP said he was crazy and that Guatemala will end up leaving Belize alone. Today, we can see that he knew what he was talking about because Guatemala still remains a ghost to our future.

Goldson used to say that we needed a defense guarantee from Great Britain until we can resolve the dispute. The PUP was not concerned about a defense guarantee and wanted independence, so they got it. They even accused Goldson of being anti-independence, which he was not.

Surprisingly, after we achieved our independence in 1981, Guatemala started to bait our UDP and PUP governments to enter into negotiations with them. They knew that they could manipulate our politicians and representatives easier as opposed to the British. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, our Belizean politicians started on this journey and they came up with the Maritime Areas Act in 1992, which passed the Belize National Assembly with support from the PUP and the UDP with concessions of maritime areas contained in it.

After this, they presented it to the Guatemalan government for their Congress to approve. The Guatemalan Congress voted it down and the talks came to an end. If the Guatemalan Congress had approved the Maritime Areas Act, Belize and Guatemala would have signed a treaty ending all hostilities with each other over the Guatemalan claim to our land. Providing, however, that the agreement be brought to the citizens of both countries to be approved in a referendum as required by their constitutions.

The Organization of American States, an arm of the United Nations (UN), then started to encourage Belize and Guatemala to resume talks to find a solution to the old dispute. Belize could have said to the OAS tell Guatemala to take their dispute to Great Britain, with whom they have the dispute. Instead, they agreed to enter into negotiations with them.

Belize and Guatemala then signed a document called the “Compromis” in 2008, agreeing with Guatemala to take the territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in order to determine our borders, boundaries and maritime areas.

Guatemalan citizens have voted Yes with a low turnout of their eligible voters.

The problem with the document is that Belize’s borders, boundaries and maritime areas are clearly defined in the constitution of Belize based on the 1859 treaty signed with Guatemala. Also, that any attempt to discuss the changing of the borders, boundaries and maritime areas by the sitting government must be brought to the Belizean people to decide in a referendum.

The PUP and UDP have never held a referendum to discuss the Compromis and went ahead and agreed and signed it on behalf of the people and government of Belize. Then, they came to the Belize people telling them it is a good opportunity to settle the dispute with Guatemala once and for all and they should vote “Yes” in the referendum scheduled for April 10, 2019. Belizeans are now asking: “Why must we go to the ICJ, to decide that the land, borders, boundaries and maritime areas we now have after independence is not ours?”

The UDP government and the PUP opposition are both scrambling to answer this question. In the mix of this a re-registration of voters that was long constitutionally delayed was implemented. Belizeans have been reluctant to register to vote but, if they do not register, they will not be able to vote on this important issue.

Most of the other opposition parties, namely, the; BPF, VIP, BPP, Will of the People and other parties have adopted a NO to the ICJ position. They even have some of their members sitting on the national panel forums presenting their case. As the government and PUP opposition struggle to explain their reasons for YES, the opposition parties keep explaining why they are saying NO.

Belizeans have been threatened by Guatemalan invasions for years now and they are fearful that if the case goes to the ICJ and the court rules in favor of Guatemala, they will just come across the border with their troops and take their country. Currently, Guatemala has its troops in an area of the Sarstoon that belongs to Belize and the government is doing nothing about it. This has caused Belizeans to mistrust their government and the PUP opposition even more.

The BPF, a new political party that is headed by their leader Nancy Marin, is courting all the opposition parties to come together in a coalition to challenge the two major parties UDP and PUP in the next upcoming general elections which will be held in 2020.

The issues of crime, gangs, corruption, land, housing, denying Belizeans citizens who live abroad their rights to register and vote, granting Guatemalans Belizean citizenships, excessive borrowing of money from foreign countries, unemployment, poverty along with the ICJ is gaining momentum.

Bringing all the opposition parties together will be a major task because of pride and egos. However, if the leaders of these political parties decide to come together, there is no doubt in my mind that this will be the first time in Belize’s political history that a third party coalition can win the next election in Belize.

The two major parties have money but when it comes to the issue of Guatemala, Belizeans have proven that no matter how much money you give them, they will not put their people and country’s future at risk for a few dollars with politicians. As the referendum date is drawing nearer, signs are beginning to point to fragmentation among the two major parties, especially the PUP. The Prime Minister Dean Barrow is struggling to hold on to his ministers and representatives but I do not think that will last for too long.

Because of the fear of losing the next general election, he was asked recently by some of his party supporters to stay on as party leader and prime minister much longer. He is ailing and wants to leave politics to transition into retirement. I do not see him running again so he will still leave at a later date and all will fall apart with the UDP. No matter what he does, along with the PUP leader John Briceno, the Belize people seem to have lost total trust, faith and confidence in them.

Even if the opposition parties do not win the majority of seats, the situation is so bad for the UDP and PUP that, even if they win some seats, they will not be able to form a government by themselves unless they join in a coalition with all the opposition parties. That will then make one of the major parties UDP or PUP a new third party.

Now is the time for all the opposition parties to seize this golden opportunity and become the next government of Belize. Look, no political party or position granted by them is greater than a man or woman’s love for his people and country. When PUP first became a political party, many Belizeans believed that they could not win. Then UDP became a political party and the Belizean people felt the same way about them. All new political parties must face this challenge.

The momentum that the Belize People’s Front (BPF) is now picking up in Belize is faster than most of the party members expected. As the days to the ICJ get closer we must all think about our beloved people and country Belize.

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