I recently read an editorial on the Reporter’s website from last week’s paper. And honestly, while it makes some valid points about the need to resolve the situation with Guatemalans, who have Belizean citizenship illegally; I disagree with the position that the Opposition and the Government must accommodate them to be able to become Belizeans and keep their Guatemalan citizenship. The gist of the editorial is to find a fair and equitable solution for the Guatemalans, and Belizeans, so that the Guatemalans who wish to become Belizeans do not contravene Section 26 of the Constitution, can be Belizeans, despite not renouncing their citizenship from Guatemala.
There are several problems with this position, and while it is a sentiment I share that it must be fair, there are obstacles in the way of this happening. Namely, the position of the Guatemalan government, stating that every Guatemalan will always be a Guatemalan national, and that they will not do anything to render their citizens stateless. A very similar problem exists with the Guatemalan claim, in which despite recognising Belize as an independent nation, Guatemala’s congress cannot or will not repeal their claim to our territory, and their courts have made such constitutional amendments in the past notoriously difficult.
Let’s start with why is it that the debate is so prominent. As all of you know, the visa and immigration scandal that erupted in 2013, which many of us know as Pennergate, exposed the corrupt dealings of various government ministers in the Dean Barrow Administration, and exposed the practice of granting Guatemalan nationals Belizean citizenship, and this was done to pad voter rolls in general elections. Let’s be honest, this happened during the Musa Administration as well, but it was especially pronounced during this period, and we are dealing with the consequences of that today. The Senate Select Special Committee has exposed quite a bit of illegal activities taking place under Elvin Penner’s watch as Minister of State for Immigration. Among those is granting Guatemalan nationals, who did not renounce their nationality to Guatemala, Belizean citizenship. Dianne Locke, the Immigration Director, testified in 2017 that before changes were made by the Immigration Department in the wake of the scandal, there were no efforts to verify that those Guatemalans who became Belizeans took any steps to formally renounce their citizenship in Guatemala. And even after those changes, she testified that absent any notification that the Guatemalans would reject the paperwork from the immigration committee, that the Guatemalans would not respond to anything that the department would send to the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry, regarding renunciation of Guatemalan citizenship. This was further complicated by the response to the Government’s inquiry to the issue before us. Guatemala believes once someone is Guatemalan, they are forever Guatemalan, and that even if it was to facilitate Belize’s process of nationality, they cannot render a citizen stateless. If one views Guatemala’s reply through their history, then such a stance, especially in context of what is happening in Myanmar(Burma) with the Rohingya makes sense. But if you look at their official policy position regarding Belize, and their ongoing claim, then you would be of the belief that such a policy is used to infiltrate Belize, to influence their politics, and their policy, so they can be friendly to Guatemala. Such a goal was the reason why the prohibition on Guatemalans becoming Belizeans exists, outside of the exceptions of being married to a Belizean or being born in Belize.
Let’s come to the crux of my disagreement with the editorial. The Government has not displayed any willingness to work with the Opposition, or civil society on this issue, or for instance, the 9th Amendment. The Barrow administration in 2011, pushed a constitutionally dubious amendment, that would have stripped the right of judicial review from the courts on constitutional amendments, as well as other provisions that would have allowed the government to control Belize Telemedia Limited. The provision that would have stripped judicial review was declared unconstitutional some time later. The Government has also been unilaterally signing agreements with the Guatemalan government regarding the change to the referendum law, and de-linking the referenda for Belize and Guatemala, without consulting the Opposition. Since 2015 GOB and the Opposition have not seen eye to eye on the matter of the Guatemalan dispute, with the Government consistently saying that the People’s United Party is playing politics. The facts however speak to the politicisation of the dispute being the handiwork of the governing United Democratic Party, and therefore the bungling of the referendum result, as well as Belizean discontent surrounding the Sarstoon river and isle is squarely on their hands. I do not have the confidence that the Government believes that it is in the best interest of Belizeans and Guatemalans who have Belizean citizenship, through the schemes of ministers during Pennergate, or otherwise trying to become Belizeans legally, to resolve this, by working with the Opposition. Their history on the 9th Amendment, and the history of the Government working unilaterally on what was traditionally a national issue is the guide here. I believe that the Government will rush through an amendment that will nullify section 26 (3), and allow Guatemalans to keep their citizenship, as they become Belizeans. Appeasement is the order within the Government, especially if you consider the representation Belize has on the dispute with Guatemala. The Opposition, while they believe that any one who is a Belizean must be able to vote on this issue, would be remiss not to challenge this glaring problem, especially given the controversy this caused from 2013. However, given the statements from the Leader of the Opposition, do not hope for a productive solution for this issue.
Given the complexity of this issue, I have a few solutions to this issue, should they be taken seriously. Guatemalans should be allowed to become Belizeans, should the paperwork that acknowledge the renunciation from Guatemala City is given to Belizean authorities. This is the easiest and clean solution for those Guatemalans who legally go through the process of becoming Belizeans. But given Guatemala’s Congress, their courts and their government, this is unlikely to happen. Another solution is to clean up the voter registration list and scrutinise it for Guatemalans who have gained citizenship during Pennergate. While this seems to be what the Government is doing, I am not going to hold my breath, because there has yet to be a case tested in court over a Guatemalan gaining citizenship during that time. And the fact that they announced the date for the referendum, and the voter re-registration exercise, suggests to me that they have not taken this issue very seriously at all. We must also look at the possibility of disenfranchising those Guatemalans who have gained citizenship through Pennergate. While it is a potentially unconstitutional move and very controversial, there is a valid national security reason for it. Given the fact that the Government has facilitated this activity, albeit through the illegal activities of some government Ministers, one could make the case that such a move to disenfranchise this group of Guatemalan-Belizeans is a necessity. But the editor is right. It is a complex issue that requires an elegant solution to this problem. However, given the past 10 years, and recent history, I do not believe that the Government is one for elegant solutions, unless it is expedient and benefits them.