This essay was published in The Belize Times in 1998. At the time it reflected the attendant realities in so far as our national security. My colleague and I were addressing what we saw as a glaring indifference at that particular period in our nation’s history
By: Hubert Pipersburgh and Derrick Estrada
Current Assumptions Flawed:
The recent cross-border incursion by terrorists is a focusing event of a very serious problem: The national security and territorial integrity of Belize may very well be at stake. The incident is but one recent example of how fluid the Belize/Guatemalan border is. The incident on that fateful Saturday morning on the Humming Bird Highway exposed the fragility of our nation’s ability to protect its citizens. Reportedly, the terrorists were well-armed professionals with advance intelligence on the methods employed by Belize’s security forces. Furthermore, they appeared very familiar with Belize’s terrain.
Belizeans have always taken for granted the integrity of our borders. In the absence of any comprehensive peace agreement with Guatemala, perhaps the time has come for us to examine our overall national security policy and strategy and our nation’s ability to deal with any external threats to our sovereignty. It is time for us to abandon the carelessness and casual attitude that have characterized our national security in recent decades. To the extent that there is a current military policy in place to deal with any external aggressions, it was not evident on that fateful Saturday morning.
In the absence of any signed treaties or official declarations from the U.S. or CARICOM, it has been assumed, following the withdrawal of the British military forces, that Belize’s security would now be guaranteed by either the American military, British military, or a combination of both. It has also been further assumed that a combination of forces comprising of CARICOM members would assist us in the event of an external threat as evidenced by the military exercises that were conducted by those forces in conjunction with Belize’s security forces. The preceding assumptions are flawed as policy options for several reasons.
U.S. Policy and Guatemala’s Importance
With the demise of the cold war, according to a recent report from the Center for International Policy in a review of U.S. policy in Guatemala by the Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) reporting directly to the U.S. congress, the report stated that U.S. policy objectives in Guatemala included supporting the transition to and the strengthening of civilian democratic development, furthering human rights and the rule of law, supporting economic growth, combating illegal narcotics trafficking, combating the communist insurgency, and advancing the current peace process between the government and the various insurgency movements.
To the extent that these policy objectives are being accomplished, the U.S. recently issued an advisory for its citizens to use extreme caution when travelling in Guatemala. Far from making a smooth transition to so-called civilian rule, Guatemala is still very much under the suffocating influence of the military/oligarchy. It must be noted, however, Guatemala’s importance to the U.S. stems from historical and contemporary ties which shows, firstly, Guatemala has been both an investment haven and a buffer during the cold war for U.S. multi-national interests. According to the Central America Fact Book, the U.S. Transnational Cooperation (TNC) United Fruit Company owns more land than the combine holding of 50% of the total population of Guatemala. In addition, the Coca Cola Cooperation which is scorned among the labor unions and the working poor is one of the largest U.S. investments in the country. Secondly, but most importantly, Guatemala’s petroleum potential is among the main reasons why Washington deems Guatemala strategically important to U.S. national interests.
U.S. Policy and Belize’s Irrelevance
According to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) fact book, as far as Belize is concerned, the U.S. is preoccupied with transnational issues such as Belize’s role as a transshipment point for cocaine, illicit producer of cannabis, and its role as a money-laundering center. Interestingly enough, our political leaders tote offshore banking as this new vehicle for long term investment and economic development. However, to the U.S. offshore banking is nothing more than a euphemism for money laundering for global organized crime. As a matter of fact, according to the National Intelligence Strategic Planning Center of London, it is estimated that global organized crime is a $1.5 trillion dollar business that threatens the world financial structure. It would be safe to say that Belize, as far as U.S. long term policy objectives in the region is concerned, has no economic and strategic importance to the United States per se. Perhaps in a bipolar world — yes, however, in a multipolar world — no.
Unless we forgot, in 1968, the U.S. endorsed the Webster proposals, which would have effectively placed the economy, foreign affairs, and defense of Belize into the hands of the Guatemalan generals thereby making Belize a protectorate of Guatemala. It took two decades, and only after overwhelming world support at the UN did the U.S. finally voted in favor of Belize’s right to independence and self-determination.
For those who still want to dream, as far as the U.S. deploying troops to Belize in the event of a crisis with Guatemala, it would be naive to expect the sort of fiat accompli as we saw in Haiti and Bosnia. For one thing, those troops must have a clear mission and achievable goals. In addition, any deployment of U.S. troops in any theater of war requires prior U.S. congressional approval. Unless, of course, there is a sympathetic white house that get started with a deployment before congress can interpose objections or conditions, then insist that the legislative branch support the troops by authorizing deployments and paying the bills. The problem with this particular scenario is that the U.S. congress is now ruled by a Republican conservative majority, who is very hostile to any troop deployment when U.S. multi-national interests are not immediately or specifically threatened.
In any event, it would be too risky to hedge Belize’s national security on such an unfolding scenario. Besides, by the time the cavalry arrives, the Guatemalan flag would be flying over Independence Hill. Thereby, the only effective role left for such forces would be as peace implementers, ala Bosnia, thus rewarding aggression. For those preceding reasons alone, it must be understood in times of conflict, let there be no doubt which side the U.S. would take.
Fluidity of the Region:
The region of Central America in which Belize currently finds itself is a breeding ground suited for low intensity conflicts (LIC). Chief among the dynamic force that contributes to LIC are change, discontent, poverty, violence, and instability. According to the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (USATDC), low intensity conflicts are political military confrontation between contending states or groups below conventional war and above the routine, peaceful competition among states. It frequently involves struggles of competing principles and ideologies. It ranges from subversion to the use of armed force. It is usually waged by a combination of means, employing political, economic, informational and military instruments which may also include the use of terrorism tactics LICs are often localized generally in the underdeveloped countries, but contain regional and global security implications, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Mexico being prime examples. However, the term LIC reflects an American perspective to American policy makers and planners. It is subtle, indirect, and long-term. To the people more directly affected in say Chiapas or Quetzaltenango, the threat is immediate and vital.
In order to understand the broader context of U.S. policy, so that there can be no illusion with respect to Belize, we must understand how the U.S. views the geopolitics of Central America, while balancing its own national interests. Maintaining the balance of power and competitive environment of these states is paramount. Although the U.S. primary focus is deterring war with its ability to project military power, supplying these regimes and their surrogates with intelligence, training, military hardware, and logistical support is the U.S. preferred tools, rather than intervening directly in LICs. In short, the nature of U.S. policy is cold and calculating. They would rather use their instruments of international power, which includes economic and information in areas such as Central America, to achieve U.S. policy goals.
CARICOM, which is a combination of former British colonies on the surface, appears as a reasonable policy option. However, on closer examination, it will only be effective if those troops were stationed in Belize permanently. Dispatching military forces on a permanent basis, however, requires sound logistical planning, unlimited supplies, high maintenance, and a huge commitment on the part of the individual governments, not to mention the costs involved. Unless this deployment would be done under the auspices of the UN, CARICOM neither has the means or the ways to afford it. It is also interesting to note that, even though Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic are a part of the Caribbean, for whatever reasons, they are still not integrated in CARICOM. That hindsight alone says a lot about current Caribbean leadership.
The British Model
To maintain peace and protect Belize, the British placed primary reliance on the strategy of deterrence. Deterrence means that by making the consequences of any aggressive acts against your forces so unacceptable to a rational leader of a nation, it will somehow prevent war and aggression towards your forces. This policy of deterrence that the British used so effectively against the Guatemalans relied on the possibility that the British would respond with overwhelming force in the event of any such attack. The irony of deterrence, however, is that the enemy must see that your military weaponry is capable of inflicting devastating damage.
Thus, the military must maintain a high profile, an occasional Destroyer off the coast and the Harriers buzzing in the sky sent that message clearly to the Guatemalan generals. The British did not necessarily wish to use its deterrent physically, but rather psychologically, to inhibit potential enemies from engaging in a war of aggression against Belize. The British model also proved that in order for any armed forces to be a viable deterrent to Guatemala, those forces must be deployed permanently before any such attack, giving them an opportunity to gather intelligence and get accustomed with the terrain and weather.
Policy Options: Detterence,Retaliation,Multilateral Negotiation
When assessing the Belize/Guatemalan boundary dispute, it is important for us to always make an explicit distinction between the blood-soak military/oligarchy and the masses of the poor indigenous population who have suffered under its barbarism (Rigorberta Menchu, et.al). Although peace is highly desirable, our leadership, both past and present, has always negotiated with Guatemala from a position of trepidation and weakness, exempli gratia, Heads of Agreement and the Maritime Areas Act. If Belize does not develop a credible deterrence or an ability to threaten retaliation, peace would then rest on the fragile hope that our potential enemies would be merciful, kind, and compassionate. No national leader can afford to take such a risk.
In the event that no long term peaceful solution can be worked out with Guatemala, Belize must pursue other comprehensive alternatives. As a member of the OAS, UN and other regional organizations, intensified diplomatic efforts should be made to strengthen our ties with countries such as Mexico and Cuba. Those countries are the only ones in the sub-region that can be militarily an effective deterrence to Guatemala. In addition, any OAS forces would be logistically easier to deploy and maintain.
Moreover, in this era of increased globalization, trade, and commerce, countries in the region cannot afford to have long protracted LICs that destabilize populations, devastate infrastructures, constrain economic development, and threaten the overall regional stability. In short, it is in the interest of the region to focus on its common enemies of poverty and underdevelopment. Thus, a NAFTA style free trade agreement with all its neighbors particularly the U.S. and Mexico should be pursued vigorously. In a 1984 essay Alma and Dennis Young argued that the Guatemalan dispute has had a devastating impact on our long-term development socially, politically, and economically. In short, this ancient dispute must face some modern solutions, such as multi-lateral regional diplomacy and economic cooperation. The region is starting to realize that trade and growth is more important than nationalist symbols.
Homegrown Policy Options
As a short and long term policy, a coherent and positive climate should be encouraged and developed to create a dialogue and relationship between the ordinary people of Belize and Guatemala. Psychologically, Belize has always suffered from small, unequal, insignificant syndrome. Henceforth, there must be an attempt to create a climate that will totally and permanently destroy this inferiority complex.
Ultimately, the defense and security of Belize’s independence and territorial integrity is the responsibility of every Belizean. For this reason, we are compelled to look at some home grown options. Our 1991 census tells us that more than 50% of the Belizean population was under the age of 18. This represents over 100,000 young people in our country. It is high time to institute the military draft. We recommend a mandatory 3-year tour of duty in the Belizean Defense Force (BDF) for every 18 to 25 year old able-body Belizean, with no exceptions.
In the U.S., it is the constitutional right of every citizen to bear arms. This provision comes out of the need for the ordinary citizen to defend themselves from any tyrannical ruler or government. Thus, because we have a population of approximately 220,000 people, the need for a militia (civilian soldiers) may not be just an option, but a necessity. In a region that is heavily militarized, why should not our people have the right to defend themselves from external aggression? This is the grim reality of the neighborhood in which we must live. After the mandatory 3-year service in the military, all personnel should become a part of a permanent reserve or a militia man.
For the skeptics and cynics who believe that by adopting hard line policy options it would create a policy conundrum, they only need to look at that fateful Saturday morning and its victims. Moreover, as Belizeans, we must act to safeguard Belize’s national security interests. To our detriment, we have been unable or unwilling to break free from the 5-year manifesto paradigm. In public policy we solve problems by firstly articulating and assigning them compartments. Then we allot solutions to them individually or as they overlap. Hence, in that continuum of challenges some problems are meant to be solved, managed and still others to be left alone. The Guatemalan dispute is not one that enjoys the luxury of being ignored. If we cannot imagine, then we cannot believe; without belief, we cannot achieve.
- Warning: Clearing of Western Border (fiwebelize.com)
- The Guatemalan Claim is being legitimized with the help of Belize by: Aria Lightfoot (twocanview.com)
- Commentary: The ICJ and the Belize-Guatemala issue: A den of strategy and deceit (cayobuay.wordpress.com)
- The Icj and Guatemala’s Claim to Belize: a Case of Self Interest Over Sovereignty? (fiwebelize.com)
- Belize Needs to Be Saved From Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington (fiwebelize.com)