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Aug 29, 2003

Guatemala rejects differendum proposals

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It’s official…without the benefit of a national referendum the Guatemalan government has said no to the proposals aimed at ending Guatemala’s long-standing territorial claim to Belize. Today News 5 obtained a copy of the communiqué sent to O.A.S. Secretary General Cesar Gaviria on August twenty-fifth from President Alfonso Portillo’s government. The communiqué reads in part: “After detailed analysis, it has concluded that the proposals and recommendations do not safeguard the equilibrium required, which would allow the interest and claims of Guatemala to be identified and therefore they are unacceptable.” It continues by stating that “the proposals include stipulations that conflict with the laws of Guatemala.” The official Guatemalan statement did not clarify what conflicts the proposals presented, but the communiqué ended by suggesting that, as recommended by the facilitators, if the bilateral negotiations were not successful, both governments should submit the differendum to arbitration at the International Court of Justice.

However, Guatemala has indicated that it is prepared to continue to honour the confidence building measures. The communiqué reads: “Regarding the Confidence Building Measures, the Government of Guatemala reiterated its commitment to continue complying with said measures in accordance with the terms agreed to by both governments, recognizing the efforts of the O.A.S., and the office of that organization recently established in the adjacency zone, in the defence of human rights of the inhabitants and in support of a climate of harmony in the said area.”

But while the Guatemalan rejection of the proposals did not come as a total surprise, given their lukewarm reaction to them in the first place, Minister of Foreign Affairs Godfrey Smith says the latest move by our neighbours to the west must be taken seriously, but cautiously. With general elections in Guatemala only three months away, and with that country’s established reputation for using the Belize-Guatemala issue to gain mileage in their local campaigns, this latest announcement has all the marks of a typical Guatemalan electioneering strategy. And while the implications of the Guatemalan rejection of the proposals cannot be taken lightly, Smith says it is not time to hit the panic button just yet.

Godfrey Smith, Minister of Foreign Affairs

“The position of the government of Belize is that a calm, focussed approach need to be adopted to this. Clearly if it is a mater of electioneering, we can’t fall into that and be making knee-jerk reactions and issuing threats and so on. We have never adapted that position or that stance at any point in these proposals, or in this process, and certainly at this time where it is likely that it might be linked to electioneering, we can’t fall victim to that and make irresponsible or irrational decisions or statements.”

“The position of the government of Belize is that the O.A.S. process will be kept alive. As you have heard me advert to in the press statement, we consider that the February seventh agreement is binding on both Belize and Guatemala. We believe that the group of friends, many countries internationally, international organizations are already aware of this matter, have expressed concerns, both to the Government of Guatemala and to the Government of Belize. And I am sure that the international community will be mounting a lobby to try and ensure that this process remains on track.”

Patrick Jones

“Guatemala has national elections on November ninth, is this just an election gimmick on behalf of the Guatemalans?”

Godfrey Smith

“We would not divorce this latest development from what is happening electorally in Guatemala at this time. As you may be aware, in the last general elections in Guatemala, I believe in 1999 thereabouts, a similar thing had happened in that it was around the election time that Guatemala re-instituted, in a different form, its claim to Belize. So yes, there is precedent for that, it has happened in the past and we do not divorce this latest development from preparations for elections in Guatemala. That is the view, as well of many of our friends internationally who are carefully watching this process.”

Patrick Jones

“Two, three years after the facilitation process started and no doubt millions of dollars later, not to be defeatist, but this would look like it’s all for naught.”

Godfrey Smith

“Well we can’t get away from expressing our disappointment and concern. Clearly it will require tremendous international effort from the international community, international organizations, the O.A.S. You will recall that this facilitation process was under the auspices of the O.A.S., and in fact at the final ceremony where the proposals were presented, it was presided over by the Secretary of State of the U.S. It is a matter that they take seriously, and as I said, certainly our position is that they can?t unilaterally do this. We will galvanize, mount whatever lobbies are necessary to keep it on track, and we would hope that after the events of November in Guatemala blow over, that we will be able to put this matter in its proper perspective and focus again.”

Smith says that while the options open to Belize at this time are limited, an aggressive diplomatic lobby to inform friends of Belize of its official position, and to keep support for the proposals alive has already commenced. He says Belize will not recall Ambassador Fred Martinez from his post, as this would play right into the hands of the Guatemalans. An official government statement this afternoon expressed disappointment with the action of the Guatemalan government.

Meanwhile, Smith says early reaction from the international community to the Guatemalan rejection of the proposals is disappointment, frustration and concern. Although the Guatemalan communiqué is dated August twenty-fifth, Smith says the document was not delivered to Ambassador Martinez until late Thursday evening. He says the issue is no longer a matter between Belize and Guatemala.

Godfrey Smith

“I would hope that we don’t have any knee jerk reaction. I don’t think there is any basis for fear, perhaps even concern in terms of any border incidents and that kind of thing. What I would say is that we have seen in the past where nearing an election, things come out of Guatemala in terms of the claim to Belize. That happened in the last election, their last general elections had where few months before, we are seeing it happen again. What I can say to the Belizean viewers is that this is not just a matter between Belize and Guatemala; it is an international matter. It is a matter that involves the international community. Evidence of that is the fact that it is an O.A.S. matter, the fact that the U.S. Secretary of State himself was involved, the fact that discussions involved not only Belize and Guatemala, but at the diplomatic level many important countries in the region. So I would say categorically that at this juncture there is no need for any fear, nor irrational concern. The only concern is that we need to get this thing back on track and we need to mobilize, carry out whatever dialogue, engage the international community, which is happening to ensure. I should point out as well that I have personally spoken to the Leader of the Opposition, brought him up to date with what has happened and our intention is to keep the Opposition fully briefed, fully informed on his matter as it develops from here on.”

Smith says Prime Minister Said Musa hopes to raise the matter personally with President Portillo next week when it is expected that the Guatemalan President will be in Belize for a SICA Summit.

For their part, the Organization of American States, under whose auspices the facilitation process was held, has issued a statement saying that O.A.S. Secretary General, Cesar Gaviria, has indicated that they will continue to assist Belize and Guatemala. Gaviria says he will consult with the parties at a mutually convenient meeting and is appealing to the leaders of political organizations to quote: “Leave this topic out of electoral campaigning, with a view to finding a consensual solution.”

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