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Apr 28, 2004

Foreign Minister previews Guatemalan talks

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In early May, a Belize delegation headed by Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defence, Godfrey Smith, will meet with its Guatemalan counterpart in Washington, D.C. for an official “where we are” in the negotiation process. While the primary discussion topic will be an agreement on confidence building measures, recent cross-border incursions will no doubt receive their fair share of focus. Within this context, this morning Smith hosted a press conference in Belize City to brief the public on government’s position going in to the latest round of talks between the two countries.

Janelle Chanona, Reporting

This morning, members of the diplomatic corps, businesspeople, senior government officials, the press, and members of the negotiating team gathered in Belize City as Minister of Defence and Foreign Affairs Godfrey Smith reiterated Belize’s position on Guatemala’s territorial claim to the country. According to Smith, Belize will continue to use the proposal package made public on September seventeenth 2002, as the backbone of its presentations.

Godfrey Smith, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Defence

“The best proposals are in the recommendations. In other words, we will not deviate from the position that the years that it took to come up with that set of proposals, the fact that it was hailed by the international community as a model set of proposals, is the best that we can offer at this time.”

But while Guatemala has agreed to the confidence building measures and to the negotiation process, as recently as the twenty-fourth of February the new government of Guatemala has rejected the proposals and the subsequent referendum. The sensitive situation has been made even more tense after numerous clashes between Belizean military patrols and Guatemalan civilians well east of the border.

The latest incident, involving a group of xateros, has received media attention from both sides of the frontier and led to contravention of Confidence Building Measure twenty-one, which speaks of restraint and caution on statements by public officials in order to facilitate harmonious relations and the maintenance of peace between the two countries.

Godfrey Smith

“Their assertions were based on false assumptions, i.e. that this thing was anywhere near what is termed as the adjacency zone, and that it was just a matter of cutting down a few trees. As I explained before, it is more than that so our position has always been to act in a calm and rational manner in relation to this whole negotiation. We don’t think that it does anything to help the process or Belizeans to get them unnecessarily inflamed.”

But the reality is inflammatory. Today, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicized the identities and addresses of more than forty Guatemalans who were found well inside Belize harvesting xate, and in some instances, collecting Mayan artefacts.

Latest reports are that the xate plants in the so called adjacency zone have been depleted, leading to illegal encroachments as many as twenty kilometres east of the border. At least two incidents since April 2002 have included gunfire…and then there is the “note”. Found stuck to a tree near the site of the April seventh incident, the author(s) claim to be armed with guns and grenades, and more alarmingly, promise to kill Belizean soldiers on site.

Godfrey Smith

“The security forces take the threat seriously and will take adequate measures to ensure that they are safe and protected.”

The collection of xate leaves is a multi-million dollar business in Guatemala, and for many of her impoverished citizens, running into a Belizean patrol while illegally harvesting is a risk they are willing to take. International partners, like the United Kingdom have recently led initiatives to develop plantation style operations in Guatemala to dissuade xateros from illegally harvesting in Belize.

Godfrey Smith

“There is the intention–and in fact, we are working on doing the same thing in Belize with the assistance of the British government, so it’s not a one-sided program. It’s meant to work on both sides but it will take a little while before the thing comes to fruition fully.”

One positive development from the negotiation process will come to fruition on Friday with the resettlement of the residents of Juda, a Guatemalan settlement near Melchor that extended into Belizean territory. Those people will be relocated into houses built in Guatemala. Joining Minister Smith in Washington will be Ambassador to Cuba Assad Shoman, Ambassador to the United States, Lisa Shoman and Diane Haylock representing the United Democratic Party.

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