Sometime in the early 1970s, a large vessel, reportedly a Guatemalan gunboat, entered Belize’s waters and beamed its bright powerful spotlight up and down the entire length of Punta Gorda coast as it headed slowly north of the town, then returned south. Allegedly, this was done to intimidate the residents of PG and to signal to the rest of country, Guatemala’s intent to aggressively assert her unfounded claim of Belize, especially southern Belize.
I was a young boy then, returning home from an errand via Front Street that night when I saw this most unusual occurrence. A small group of citizens whom I met along the way had also gathered to observe. Among them, an elderly man opined that this was a sign of troubling times ahead as talks between Britain and Guatemala had broken down. His pessimism made me nervous.
My father appeared not to have been bothered when I immediately reported the incident to him. “That’s nothing to worry about, they can’t intimidate the British” was his response. His reassurance seemed to have reflected the general mood of PG’s typically laid back residents. That night, however, would mark an important awakening among us PG folks about the realities of a dispute that had seemed restricted to the distant halls of power.
In 1964, only less than ten years earlier, Belize (then British Honduras) was granted internal self-government by the United Kingdom. With the fears from Guatemala’s unfounded territorial claim slowing Belize’s progress towards Independence Britain retained responsibility for defence, internal security and foreign affairs.
In an effort to resolve this dispute, Britain and Guatemala had engaged in a number of talks between 1962 and 1972. However, these broke down in 1972 after Britain announced that it was sending soldiers to conduct military exercises in Belize. In response, Guatemala deployed military troops Belize’s border. This must have been around the time when that gunboat scanned its bright spotlight along PG’s Front Street. Britain quickly responded by doubling the size of its regular battalion of troops. By the mid-1970s a flight of fighter aircraft, RAF fighters, as well as ground attack aircrafts were kept in Belize.
In 1973, Britain and Guatemala resumed talks but again this broke off again two years later when Guatemala threatened invasion, first in November 1975 and again in July 1977. Each time Guatemala threatened to invade, Britain responded by sending in land, sea and air troops to Belize, along with fighter aircrafts to reinforce those already stationed in the colony.
Being the only district that shares borders with Guatemala on its western, southern and eastern boundaries, Toledo and PG became an important strategic location for increased land, air and sea military defense activities that might not have been seen in such concentration in any other town in Belize.
Starting in the early 1970s, the rather quiet, slow, easy-going PG became abuzz with intense military activities in preparation for potential war. Camp Rideau, about two miles west of PG became a main base where the battalion was stationed. Salamanca camp near the village of San Jose close to the western border also bustled with military activity. The periodic sighting of British naval ships stationed offshore PG, the incessant chakk-chak-chakk-chak of helicopters overhead and the camouflaged anti-aircraft vehicles positioned along PG airstrip and other areas around town soon became a new norm for PG folks. Within a few weeks, the disembarking of war tanks, military hardware, and supplies off the pier in PG also became commonplace.
Even the top of the PG’s twin Saddleback Hills (locally called Cerru) became a strategic outpost that also served as a landing pad for helicopters. The sight of armed soldiers in camouflaged foxholes near PG airstrip fascinated many in PG. The heavy military presence became a deterrent to threats by Guatemala.
I was most fascinated by the Harrier fighter jump jets that often sped across PG’s sky. To be able to see this supersonic aircraft in flight one had to first learn to detect the whistling sound that precedes its loud booming roar. By the time one would hear the roaring engines that sent stray pot-licker dogs dashing for cover, these sleek flying war machines would have already been almost out of sight, occasionally swirling in synchronized aerial acrobatics.
Interestingly, the popularity of the world’s only vertical take of jet soon became integrated into the community’s cultural expressions. There was the popular “Harriers Combo” of local musicians that dominated local dances and festivities.
Harrier (locally pronounced harria) also became a popular new word that PG folks coined to imply sexual misconduct. I remember overhearing a streetside quarrel: “Luk ya, yu betta no even try harria yuself bout with mi man, yer?” A concerned aunt warned her two teenage nieces, “Unu mek shure dat I no hear bout unu di drink and behave like harria da di paaty.” There were also the local gossips, “Dehn da harrias.” I often wondered how the name of such aircraft became so commonly used in the local lingo.
When the Guatemalan military threats subsided, off-duty British troops stationed at Camp Rideau would swarm PG’s restaurant and bars on weekends to socialize. Military Police patrolled the town to keep a watchful eye for drunken brawls. Owned by Alex Chee and family, Mira Mar became one of the most modern and best discotheque in Belize, offering the troops high quality, modern and diverse selection of sounds in an air-conditioned, soundproof, colour lit, cozy hall adjacent to its plush restaurant and bar. Bobby’s Restaurant became a favorite for troops to enjoy family style local foods specially prepared by Chef Bobby Polonio and his family. These businesses and others now largely a shell of their glorious past, benefited substantially from the presence of the troops.
In 1975, a local group of about 20 teenage and older men from PG, (including my high school classmates Simon (Pancho) Paulino, Simon (Oak) Lambey, Marion Cayetano, Earl Gutierrez, Rito Lambey and myself) joined the Belize Volunteer Guard and received basic military training. Squad leader, Edmund Zuniga, coordinated training sessions with the British army. Within a few months, we learned basic combat tactics as well as the use of the self-loading rifle (SLR) and the general purpose machine gun (GPMG)
Interestingly, amidst the military threats and activities, Garifuna families in PG continued to regularly visit their relatives in Livingston, the nearby Garifuna community in Guatemala. Cross border trade between residents of PG and Puerto Barrios continued. Yet, people remained firm in their position – No Guatemala- which made for interesting rallying cries for local and national elections.
On the local political scene a new political party, the Toledo Progressive Party emerged with a platform focusing on the settlement of the Guatemalan claim and economic development of the Toledo District. On November 27, 1977, TPP’s Party Chairman, Anthony Martinez and its Secretary General, Alejandro Vernon, both attended a meeting of Fourth Committee (Decolonization) committee of the UN to offer their party’s proposals towards the settlement of the dispute.
According to UN reports, TPP’s proposals included that the Toledo District “should be declared a zone under the administration of British, Guatemalan and local authorities, so that its economic development could proceed at the same pace as that of an independent Belize.”
On November 30, 1977, Deputy Premier of Belize, C.L.B. Rogers also met the committee and reported that his Government “had rejected and resisted ceding land to Guatemala as the price for independence and had secured from the United Kingdom an undertaking that any settlement must be negotiated with the people of Belize.”
Two years earlier, Guatemala was reported in an article in the New York Times of November 7th, 1975 as saying that the United Nations and its legal arm, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), were not competent to decide on her claim to Belize. That had been position long held by Guatemala.
Despite that position which Guatemala consistently maintained through repeated talks with Britain, the Government of Belize pursued and achieved impressive victories in securing support for Belize’s territorial integrity from every country – thereby leaving Guatemala isolated in its claim.
Several years after Independence, Belize (through skillful diplomacy by a bipartisan negotiating team, and with support from regional and hemispheric organizations) was able to finally convince Guatemala to consider the ICJ as an option for settling the centuries old dispute.
Interestingly, just when Guatemala was recently softening its long held anti-UN and anti-ICJ position and just after Belize had gained impressive achievements in securing international support for its territorial integrity through the UN, Non-Aligned movement, CARICOM, OAS and other bodies, a number of Belizeans have now adopted the same no-ICJ position that Guatemala has held for decades.
Unfortunately, the national discourse for a crucial issue that requires a united, multi-partisan, national approach as well as an astute and strategic diplomacy, has now seemed locked in divisive political and emotional positions. How do we as a nation engage in clearly reasoning this out and making deliberate steps for resolution? Long gone are the harriers, bombers, helicopters, warships, and British troops that swiftly responded to Guatemala’s threats of aggression.
As for Belizean youths these days, perhaps due to the increasing disconnect between elderly and youths, the ineffective teaching of civics and history in Belize’s school system, and the growing lack of genuine leadership, there seems little informed commitment to engage in resolving this dispute. Perhaps it is time for our youths to relax their addiction to distracting foreign-oriented gadgets and explore new avenues for becoming more informed and more engaged in the building of their nation. Indeed, as our national hero Philip Goldson reminded, “the time to save your country is before you lose it.”