The Belize-Guatemala Territorial Dispute – Part 1

At every Guatemalan border crossing, on the Guatemalan side, in the immigration office where travellers get their passports stamped, is a map of the country. Not too surprising really, but these maps are a bit different – they include Belize in the territory of Guatemala. At first, I thought they were on display only in the Guatemala-Belize border crossings, to make some kind of unsophisticated point to their neighbour. But they seem to be in every crossing – they’re certainly on the Mexico-Guatemala borders, as I’ve recently seen them there first-hand.

And they’re not the only maps of Guatemala that include its smaller neighbour – on La Mapa en Relieve in Guatemala City, the one-hundred-year-old relief map clearly shows Belize included. At least that has the excuse of being a product of a different time (plus, its distorted topography makes it a pretty unrealistic representation of Guatemala, never mind Belize). But the same can’t be said of the school textbooks that are still being printed, and that show Belize surrounded by a dotted line accompanied by the ominous words “Territory Under Dispute”. Nor can the same be said for the new passports Guatemala are issuing (that contain a map showing Belize as part of the country), or the tourism guides that state that Maya, Creole, and English are spoken in “Guatemala’s 23rd department”.

The issue goes back a long time – Guatemala has claimed all of (or parts of) Belize intermittently since the 19th century. And the justifications for the claims go back even further – to various treaties written by Imperial Spain centuries ago. The native Maya of Belize had kicked out the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries by the early 17th century, and soon various characters, from pirates to buccaneers to shipwrecked sailors, starting washing ashore and settling on the coast. Despite frequent run-ins with the Spanish from Mexico throughout the 18th century, the settlers prevailed (with more-than-a-little help from their black slaves). Finally, the Battle of St. George’s Caye in 1798 marked the last time the Spanish would try to remove the British and take over the area. The Baymen (the British settlers in Belize) never signed a treaty with Spain, they simply carried on as before, until they joined the British Empire in 1862 (by which time Guatemala had become independent).

It seems Guatemala never recognised the Baymen’s territory, or the UK’s claim over British Honduras (Belize’s name from 1862-1981); but in 1991 it did finally recognise Belize’s independence (ten years after it actually happened). And although Guatemala has swung between publicly making its claims and keeping quiet, recently it’s become more vocal. This, and the country’s rejection of (and reneging on) all agreements, means that Belize and her neighbour aren’t exactly BFFs.

The independent countries that emerged from the Spanish Empire in the 1800s all claimed that they’d inherited Spain’s territories. Which is a pretty ridiculous argument, like Brazil saying that it owned Macau, or Australia claiming Gibraltar. And one by one, they dropped their claims and got on with the business of running their own countries. There are still outstanding territorial disputes over small areas, like Argentina’s claim over the Falklands, but no Latin American country claims that it owns another. Except Guatemala.

Guatemala’s ‘evidence’ for their claims range from 15th century maps of the Spanish Empire, to vaguely-worded treaties of the 17th century, to accusations that Britain failed to hold up its end of a 19th century agreement by failing to build a road between Guatemala and the Caribbean. In 1954, a US-sponsored coup ousted the democratically-elected Guatemalan government using the threat of Communism, when in reality the States was protecting its business interests in the country, mainly bananas (the incredible and disturbing story is detailed in the excellent book Bitter Fruit). And since then, Guatemala has been ruled by a succession of right-wing, military governments, who’ve used the territorial dispute to whip up nationalist sentiment and divert people’s attentions from domestic problems (of which Guatemala has many).

Spain never had much interest in the territory that Belize now occupies – the area was never a priority, and the Spaniards never settled there. As a result it was left “virtually abandoned by the Spanish, who had an unusual fear of its dense, forbidding jungles and unhealthy climate”, as one historian put it. And this “opened the doors for the British occupation of Belize, and a new era of colonial history”. Of the Guatemalans I’ve discussed this issue with, many say their claim is based on Spanish records, but the historical facts show that Spain didn’t occupy (let alone colonise) Belizean territory. She may have considered it part of her Central American possessions, but it was never remotely “Spanish” (unlike Mexico or Guatemala).

1494’s Treaty of Tordesillas divided the newly-discovered lands outside Europe between the Spanish and Portuguese Empires. The treaty demarcated a line (which was often ignored by other colonial powers), and included Belize as part of Spain. The Treaty was invoked (unsuccessfully) by Argentina in the 20th century as part of its claim to the Falkland Islands. Guatemala’s claim is much bigger than that though, akin to Argentina saying that it owns Britain.

In the Treaty of Paris (signed in 1763), Spain accepted that she had no right over Belizean territory, but like so many of these treaties, vague descriptions and incomplete (or incorrect) maps mean that they can be used by differing parties to justify whatever point they want to – one of the reasons why these ancient documents written by colonial empires shouldn’t be used in a modern context.

Over the years, Guatemala has made various threats to invade and ‘recover’ their ‘stolen’ territory. And after being repeatedly unsuccessful annexing the whole country, Guatemala’s most recent claim, from 1999, asserts that they’re owed roughly half of Belize’s territory, from the middle of the country south.

And yet Guatemala has never made a claim on its other Central American neighbours. Possibly because Guatemala needs them for trade and/or aid; perhaps because they’re as big and developed (or bigger and more developed, in the case of Mexico); maybe because those neighbours would tell them (diplomatically or otherwise) to f*** off; or maybe because most of them have the same problems as Guatemala – overpopulation, poverty, and a degraded environment.

All of which begins to point to why Guatemala persists with Belize. With a population 50 times bigger and an area 5 times larger (and therefore a population density 10 times greater), Guatemala constantly struggles to meet the basic needs of its people. As successive governments have stolen land from their people, the county’s population pressures are even greater. And with no sign of those land appropriations being reversed, the country has to accommodate its people somewhere (and the problem grows every year, with more people and less land). As a result, eastern Guatemala’s Petén department (which has been the country’s largest, emptiest, and most remote part ever since the Spanish conquest) has been opened up to settlers and farmers – and its population has exploded from 15,000 people to half a million people in less than 50 years. And in that short time the environment has been ravaged – oil drilling, cattle ranching, illegal logging, drug trafficking, animal poaching, and slash-and-burn agriculture have destroyed half the rainforest.

And what’s next-door to Petén? A thinly-populated country that consists of mostly empty space (including jungle that’s full of various economically-important crops, from mahogany to orchids). Could this be why Guatemala has never claimed its overpopulated and deforested neighbour El Salvador?

Having Belize would also give Guatemala greater access to the Caribbean Sea (and the Atlantic Ocean), rather than the tiny piece of coastline around Puerto Barrios that it currently has. Access to the sea appears to be a key point in the claim – in 1859, Guatemala agreed to “recognise the present boundaries of the settlement of Belize as definitive”, in exchange for Britain building a road from Guatemala’s interior to the Caribbean coast. The British never built the road (they considered the cost of £10,000 to be too high); Guatemala chose to ignore the issue at the time; and Belize, caught between its colonial master and its expansionist neighbour, had no say in the matter.

In 2008, current Belizean Prime Minister Dean Barrow proposed referenda for both countries, asking whether they support the idea of referring the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The referenda were supposed to be held in 2013, but weren’t – the Guatemalan government is resistant to having the matter examined from a legal point-of-view (which says something). And many Belizeans don’t want to go to the ICJ either – for fear that the ruling may adversely affect them, or because the ICJ only makes the rulings and doesn’t subsequently enforce them, or because Guatemala is likely to simply ignore anything that goes against it, or because Belize is a sovereign state recognised internationally and with internationally-accepted borders (so the argument is that there shouldn’t be a need to go to the ICJ in the first place). Some Belizeans think the country’s current government has given Guatemala’s claim legitimacy simply by agreeing to negotiate with them, and it would be better to ignore it.

Personally, I can’t imagine any legal reason why the ICJ would rule against Belize, but I can readily see Guatemala choosing to ignore any ruling it doesn’t agree with (much like it has ignored the rest of the world’s opinion on the matter for the last 30 years). It seems to be quite easy to disregard international law (especially if you’re powerful) – the USA rejected the UN Security Council before invading Iraq, and who knows how many UN resolutions have been passed against Israel that they’ve scorned. And the point is probably irrelevant, as I can’t see a time when enough Belizeans and Guatemalans agree to go to the ICJ (in the unlikely event that they even have referenda). It seems that, at least while it has the kinds of military governments that it’s had over the last 60 years, Guatemala will have its claim on Belize.

Guatemala’s current claim



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