From a friend in Washington D.C. :
In remarks delivered Wednesday evening at the George Washington University’s Ambassador Series forum in Washington, DC, Belizean Ambassador to the U.S. and O.A.S., Nestor Mendez, made clear that the Belizean government is “frustrated” and “upset” with recent actions by the Guatemalan government. His comments and answers to questions from the audience indicate the whole ICJ referendum process is now in serious jeopardy. Furthermore, Belize clearly feels while it has acted in good faith, the Guatemalans have let them down and even disrespected them during this last week in particular. I’ve known Ambassador Mendez for several years now and the always unflappable diplomat showed clear signs of frustration and even said at one point, “I’m sorry if I seem upset but it’s not the first time our neighbors have bowed out. It’s not helpful.”
This was a special night for the Ambassador as he returned to his alma mater to deliver an address at one of the George Washington University’s most distinguished forums.
Ambassador Mendez received a Master’s Degree in International Policy & Practice from the Elliott School of International Affairs in 2006. He was accompanied by his wife Elvira and several members of his staff. He spent 45 minutes of informal discussion with the audience at a reception in his honor before delivering prepared remarks for another 45 minutes. He then took questions from the audience.
Ambassador Mendez opened with what he called a “commercial” for Belize and praised the agricultural and tourist sectors for their contributions to the Belizean economy. He noted 5.8% growth for the first three quarters of 2012 and record tourism numbers. He also mentioned new investment in the sugar industry by Domino and said that their new facilities are the most modern in Central America.
He also had words of praise for the Organization of American States and said it should be strengthened, not eliminated as some have suggested. I was not surprised to hear these remarks since the Ambassador is expected to be a candidate for Assistant Secretary General of the OAS in 2015. He said the organization is underfunded and this, along with ideological issues, has hobbled the effectiveness of the organization. He would like to see more action and less talk from the OAS, noting there needs to be implementation of programs and agreements already made, as opposed to simply generating more agreements. He half jokingly suggested an OAS “Year of Implementation.”
As the evening went on, however, it became clear that two issues are occupying a large amount of his time these days and both are a source of continuing difficulty and frustration: the illegal drug trade and Guatemala.
Ambassador Mendez described Belize as “under siege” by the drug cartels and their money and financially pressured by demands of the United States. There is some clear resentment towards drug consuming nations and he said he believes consumers bear responsibility for the problem just as producers do. The situation is particularly deviling to Belize because the country is not a large producer or consumer, just a small country sitting “in the middle of the street.” With scarce resources, Belize is forced to spend money on the problems created by others when it would rather use its money for schools and other domestic concerns. He made it very clear that Belize needs more financial assistance if it is expected to be a reliable partner in fighting illegal drugs on behalf of drug consuming nations.
The issue that many in the audience were interested in, however, was Guatemala, particularly with the recent controversy over possibly delaying the October 6th referendum as suggested by Guatemala. Belizean Foreign Minister Elrington returned to Belmopan from Washington Wednesday afternoon a few hours before Ambassador Mendez gave his talk. The Foreign Minister went out of his way to tell Jules Vasquez of Channel 7 that he was “absolutely not” offended at being snubbed by the Guatemalan Foreign Minister Fernando Carrera on Sunday. Carrera was a last minute “no-show” at an emergency OAS meeting Sunday to discuss the referendum because he decided to jet off to Rome and meet the new Pope instead. Since he could not participate in the meetings, neither could Belizean Foreign Minister Elrington, since the only available Guatemalans were below ministerial rank. So he returned to Belize empty handed, without having even discussed the issue with Guatemala. Ambassador Mendez described this snub as similar to a fiancé being left at the altar, so you can bet, in fact, the Belizeans do feel slighted, despite Minister Elrington’s denials.
Ambassador Mendez noted the request to delay the vote for a year is itself contrary to all previous preparations with the Guatemalans. The original date was carefully chosen to fit into a rotating 24 month window where neither country has other elections scheduled. This was to keep the issue isolated from any particular candidate or competing issues on either side. So asking for the delay is yet another diplomatic disrespect from Guatemala because they already know that date is outside the carefully agreed upon “window.” He also questioned Guatemala’s concern over the 60% threshold and said that he had little doubt that such an important vote would draw the needed 60%. As for Guatemala’s request to change the 60% requirement, he labeled it “ridiculous – why should we change our law?”
So this is where it stands. There has been no further word from Guatemala at this time. The Belizean cabinet is to discuss the issue this coming week. But unless Guatemala sticks to the original agreement of October 6th – highly unlikely based on what we now know – there is likely to be no ICJ vote in October, not one that will count, anyway, should Belize hold the referendum by itself.
The behavior of Guatemala raises a concern voiced by many in Belize that have been concerned about the ICJ and questioning the participation of Belize – can Guatemala even be trusted? After carefully agreed upon procedures going back years suddenly Guatemala has decided to back out for reasons still not clear. Would they suddenly back out from the ICJ if Belize were to win the ruling? There is no question that the Belizean government has gone out on a limb with this whole ICJ process and now it seems Guatemala is going to saw that limb off. That’s clearly the feeling in Belmopan right now.
I asked Senator Lisa Shoman, a supporter of going to the ICJ, some months ago why this process was necessary at all. She said that the process must be done under this legality so that the issue will truly end once and for all. This has been the feeling by many. Her uncle, Assad Shoman, wrote the much the same in his “13 Chapters in the History of Belize.” Belize can never truly move forward until this issue is “solved” once and for all. Ambassador Mendez said that the Belizean government came to the conclusion some time ago that no negotiated settlement with Guatemala could ever be achieved so the ICJ was necessary. But now it seems this “solution” has run into a dead end as well. This raises the question as to whether accommodation with Guatemala will ever be possible. As the Ambassador himself noted, it’s not the first time Guatemala has bowed out. So the questions must be asked. Can Guatemala ever be considered a reliable partner? Will Belize ever be able to trust them again?