A wildfire of public outrage continues to burn within Belizean veins, as leading public figures have joined the voices of concerned Belizean citizens who have taken issue with statements made last Thursday by Belize Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Attorney General Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington, who told press staff of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington that the border Belize shares with Guatemala is “artificial” – that the people on the two sides of the border are the same, with the same aspirations and desires.
Some have gone on record to call for his apology, others for his removal or resignation from Cabinet, because of what the term denotes to them – that the border is “not real.”
“We can’t have a minister of government talking about an abstract or artificial border,” said Leader of the Opposition, Johnny Briceño, calling the comment “ludicrous.”
Briceño told Amandala that at the very least, Elrington should publicly apologize. If a minister of government were to make such statements about the border under his tenure, “he would have to go.”
However, “that is a decision the Prime Minister needs to make,” said Briceño.
Speaking with Amandala tonight, Prime Minister Dean Barrow said that he would not, for the moment, contemplate stripping Elrington of his portfolio. He said he would go out on a limb to say that he is SURE that Elrington would, in the future, be more careful to not use words to substantiate such interpretations.
According to Barrow, he has not yet spoken to Elrington about the matter, has not read the OAS press release, and has not seen the television news reports on the issue; though he was briefed earlier by Cabinet Secretary James Murphy, who, Barrow said, told him that Elrington had indicated on Channel 7 that he wished he had made himself clearer.
(What Elrington did tell Channel 7 was that he could perhaps use different language in the future, but he firmly held his ground with no regrets for saying Belize’s border is “artificial,” using a Ugandan cockroach analogy to reiterate his claims of persecution against him: “In a court that is manned by chickens, the cockroach has no chance.”)
Barrow said that he has no doubt in Elrington’s bona fides, at all! He thinks calling for his resignation is blowing the issue completely out of proportion. Neither does he think an apology or further clarification to the OAS is needed, as some have suggested.
The Prime Minister does concede, however, that the way Minister Elrington framed his statement was “unfortunate.”
Senator Godwin Hulse said that in diplomatic language, our officials need to be very careful.
“This statement [about the artificial border] would be true in the context of a country like the USA, which has different states and intra-state borders which are not intended to separate but simply for the internal administration of states within the same country...” said Senator Hulse. “The same would be true of the departments of Guatemala or the districts of Belize, within the country of Guatemala and Belize, respectively, and since we are not a department of Guatemala, our border with Guatemala cannot be classified as artificial, nor can we be classified as ‘still the same people, with the same aspirations and desires.’”
Elrington made a big slip and should apologize or resign if his comments were not reflective of the position of the government and people of Belize, said Hulse.
He suggests that Minister Elrington “...needs to offer a clear statement on this matter and inform the OAS accordingly, requesting them to issue another press statement with the clarification....
“I think also that the Government should clearly state what its policy is on our border with Guatemala and whether the Government considers it ‘artificial.’
“If not, then the Minister has not represented the views of the Government and people of Belize, and, therefore, should apologize or resign from the post of foreign minister,” said Senator Hulse.
Elrington’s comments, in their context, diminish the importance of the Belize-Guatemala border, continued Hulse.
“If Guatemala wanted to demonstrate such position of common aspirations, then they simply should drop their unfounded claim, and we could get on with our lives,” he concluded.
Gregory Ch’oc, Executive Director, Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM), calls the Minister’s comments “outrightly outrageous.”
Ch’oc said that Elrington should have relied on his technical team (ambassadors) to draft a carefully worded statement to the press at the OAS level, because that’s what the Guatemalans do.
“I know for a fact that in Guatemala, the Commission de Belice signed off on every word that is used in any talks or documents that pertains to Belize,” Ch’oc says. “SATIIM and Fundaeco had developed a project, [proposed] to the British Embassy in Guatemala for both organizations to work with communities in the border areas.
“The proposals never got funded, because the Commission would not accept ‘border’ in the proposal,” said Ch’oc.
“The Guatemalan negotiators understand the significance of the terminologies used. Look at the adjacency zone, which I hope will not come to haunt us should it go to the ICJ,” he added.
Ch’oc “strongly” urges Prime Minister Barrow to replace the Foreign Minister. If the Prime Minister refuses, this would confirm, said Ch’oc, that the Foreign Minister’s statement is the UDP Government’s official position.
Patrick Rogers, politician and civic activist, who also thinks Elrington should be replaced as minister, said, “...Elrington stands ALONE! He does not have a FACTION he controls in the House of Representatives; as such, he is no threat to the PM if he is placed in the back bench!”
Sharon Pitts, spokesperson for the Patrimony & Stewardship Working Group (PSWG), named for patriotic stalwart, Philip S.W. Goldson, issued a press release today marked “urgent.”
“Diplomatic double-speak and diplomatic dilettantes can get our country into diplomatic ‘doo-doo,’” said the release, taking issue with the message Elrington sent with his private interview with OAS press staff by referring to the border as artificial.
Pitts had staged a one-woman protest and thrown eggs at members of the Belize negotiating team last December after they had signed the compromis (special agreement) to take the Guatemalan claim for a final and binding decision at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The PSWG goes on record, again, to reject that notion.
“We did not appoint leaders to preside over the dissolution of Belize,” said the PSWG release, adding that, “If the people don’t trust the leader, it is because they have breached the public trust by closing ranks against the people and country.”
Poet and activist, Harley Burn, a.k.a. River of Fire, said: “Technically, you [Elrington] are correct that artificial means manmade. But [if] you were using a figure of speech, figuratively you were wrong, because the border has been established since 1859...
“You need to resign as foreign minister, for you are not speaking for the people of Belize.”
Even if Elrington’s definition of artificial border (erected by man) versus natural border (a river or other natural marker) were to be applied, for argument’s sake, it would not ring true for the district of Toledo, since Belize is separated from Guatemala there by the Sarstoon River, which, by the definition Elrington gave on Channel 7 and Channel 5 Tuesday night, would fall within the ambit of a natural border.
“We believe that our foreign minister spoke out of context, and because he represents and speaks for all Belizeans, we demand that he publicly apologizes for endangering our right to self-determination,” the Toledo-based People’s National Party (PNP) leader, Wil Maheia, said in a letter to the editor.
Like several other Belizeans, “artificial border?”,with a question mark, was the instant reaction of Michael Finnegan, Minister of Housing and area representative for the ruling UDP for Mesopotamia, Belize City, when he learned of the statement Elrington had made at the OAS last Thursday.
“He should consider his choice of words,” advised Finnegan, who believes, nonetheless, that Elrington’s “heart was in the right place.”
“I don’t like the word artificial,” said Finnegan, adding that there is a boundary treaty between the English and Guatemala dating back to the 1800’s that is legally binding.
“Our mental skies are different,” he said of Belizeans and Guatemalans. They want our land; they deplete our forests, invade and take our mahogany, the Mesopotamia area representative elaborated.
It was a Cabinet decision that the dispute should go to the ICJ, though Cabinet’s position is that Belize belongs to Belizeans, said Finnegan.
Amandala asked him: “What is the pulse of your constituents?”
“They don’t want to go,” said Finnegan.
“Why?” we asked. He replied: “They are afraid that the ICJ may rule against Belize.”
Finnegan said that there is no need for a public attack on anyone, especially Mister Elrington.
“I don’t think he wants to give an inch of Belize to Guatemala. I believe his heart is in the right place,” said Finnegan, who recollected a younger Elrington back in the ‘60’s, as they fought shoulder-to-shoulder, vocally against the Webster proposals. “I don’t think he has changed.”
Punta Gorda’s Wil Maheia, activist and environmentalist, who recently led a mission to erect the Belize flag at Gracias de Adios in Toledo, said, “I don’t see how he [Elrington] could talk about trust and confidence when every time we turn around there are incursions. So I find that statement to be totally out of context. How can you say something like that when every time you turn around those same people are crossing into our territory?”
Rafael Manzanero, program director of the Chiquibul Maya Mountain Program and Executive Director of Friends for Conservation and Development, based in San Jose, Succotz, Cayo, very near to the border, reported Thursday:
“Our recent imagery for 2009 indicates that for the Chiquibul National Park alone over the years, a total of approximately 8,000 acres have been impacted. Via satellite imagery, it is calculated that some 925 acres were actively being utilized for the period 2008-2009. Our ground reconnaissance has verified that primarily, the active zones have been under agricultural farming.”
The Chiquibul National Park, spanning 200,000-plus acres, is “the highest impacted of all the bordering protected areas with Guatemala,” he added.
“The Chiquibul forest [roughly 400,000 acres] is one of Belize’s largest remaining blocks of tropical forest, and we ought to maintain it due to its natural, cultural, economic and aesthetic values,” Manzanero added.
However, he warned that unless concerted efforts are taken on both sides of the border, “The communities dotted across in Guatemala will continue exerting pressure” on Belize’s forests and natural resources.
When we spoke with him about the issue (see our extensive interview with Elrington for his side of the story), Minister Elrington had no apology, but instead took issue with Amandala for “the spin” he said we put on his statements at the OAS.
In speaking to Channel 5 News last night, Elrington restated his stance: “...to be very candid with you, I’m not as hung up as some people are on the whole concept of the border. [A] border is a demarcation... That marks you politically, that is your geographic boundary. In this case, it is agreed upon by man, but it is not my view that it creates a whole big difference between people.”