The Belize-Guatemala Territorial Dispute – Part 2

One problem with treating Guatemala’s claim as irrelevant is that it does nothing to stop Guatemala’s unofficial ‘colonisation’ of western Belize. Now that Petén is so environmentally damaged, poor Guatemalans have been coming over the unpatrolled border in increasing numbers. Harvesting of xate (a palm leaf used in flower arrangements), illegal logging, poaching endangered animals (like rare Scarlet Macaws), looting Maya ruins, and now gold-mining, are all becoming daily problems in the Chiquibul (a protected area that contains 7% of Belize’s land). And Belize simply doesn’t have the manpower or resources to patrol the huge jungle. There have been several years of skirmishes between Guatemalans and the BDF (Belize Defence Force – the Belizean Army), at times necessitating an armed escort for tourists visiting the remote Maya site of Caracol. And things came to a bloody head last year, when Guatemalans shot and killed a BDF soldier at Caracol, in full view of tourists. The damage to Belize’s fragile environment and its economically-important tourist industry is far worse than any macho posturing and sabre-rattling from Guatemalan politicians. And while these problems won’t suddenly disappear if the claim is dropped, the prevailing Guatemalan view that ‘Belice es nuestro’ isn’t exactly discouraging these incursions – on the contrary, it’s giving them an air of undeserved legitimacy.

And because of these events (and Belizean’s feelings of frustration with their government’s actions, which they see as cowardly appeasement), some have taken to forming groups to demarcate the border, by hacking through the thick jungle with machetes. In the tiny southern village of Jalacte (the last village in Belize and right on the border with Guatemala), the absence of both obvious border (man-made or natural) and immigration post, means that there’s constant confusion about which country people are in. Normally, the locals from Jalacte and Santa Cruz (the first village in Guatemala) get along with each other, and do a roaring cross-border trade in various goods (and many of the Guatemalan children go to school in Belize, to learn English). But the confusion that everyone (or everyone who doesn’t own a GPS) has over their location occasionally leads to tensions (including a famous incident from 2000, when Guatemalan soldiers arrested BDF soldiers, while they were all in Belize).

Hence, one thing that I think a favourable ruling from the ICJ would do (in the unlikely event that the two countries go to the ICJ, and the more likely event that the ruling is in Belize’s favour) is give Belize greater international goodwill and support, which may well be needed in the (very possible) event that Guatemala refuses to accept the ICJ’s decision. It may then be easier to ask the international community for assistance with clearing and demarcating the border on the ground (and it’ll be done ‘officially’, rather than by a random group of Belizeans acting without obvious government support). At the moment, no countries are going to assist Belize with anything if it’s near the border – because the area is currently disputed, and they don’t want to appear to be taking sides (even if they have taken a side, and almost everyone has taken Belize’s side). A definitive ruling from the ICJ may well open doors for further, practical help in the border zone, from countries like the USA.

In 1991, the dispute came closer to being solved than at any other time. Guatemala finally elected a civilian government, ending decades of right-wing, military dictatorships; a new Constitution was written, removing the clause declaring Belize to be Guatemalan territory; and Guatemala had an apparent desire to present itself as a new country that had put aside civil wars and human rights abuses. But within a few years, Guatemala had yet another coup, the Constitution was suspended, the old President was out, and a new, military government reinstated the claim.

Seeing as the likelihood of a successful negotiation (or any kind of negotiation) with Guatemala’s military rulers is roughly nil, and considering that the problem of Guatemala’s illegal incursions into Belize is only going to get worse: in the absence of any political and cultural change in Guatemala, what is the way forward, if not the ICJ?

Belize has the lowest population density of any country in Central America (one-tenth that of Guatemala!); and it’s only by travelling across the country (and especially by flying over it) that one gets a sense of how small are the pieces of land that have actually been cleared and populated. Belize has the opposite problem to Guatemala – too much land and not enough people. In some ways, Belize suffers because the small population (concentrated on or near the coast) and large amounts of empty land (in the interior) mean that the country simply isn’t able to exercise real control over much of its territory. To achieve true territorial integrity, Belize would need to have communities (each with the requisite schools, houses, hospitals, electricity, water, and of course people) all over the country. Or simply have a smaller country. So perhaps one solution would be to encourage people from the coast to settle in the interior? The Mennonites hacked their way through the jungles of northern Belize in the 1960s with machetes and axes, and they’re now one of the most successful groups in the country. The Creoles of Belize City are often complaining about the invading Guatemalans, and envious of the successful Mennonites – but would they leave their crime-ridden and gang-controlled neighbourhoods to work the land in the west? I don’t know. And like most globally-aware people, I’m no fan of opening up huge swathes of untouched forest, or of encouraging people to have more children in order to increase a population. But if Belize doesn’t do something to exercise genuine sovereignty over its territory (for example, by increasing the population and infrastructure in the west, or by courting foreign investment in projects in that area), the Guatemalans will do it instead.

Another thing that would help (and I’ve heard this from many people in Belize) is a government that possesses some testicular fortitude. Whatever Guatemalans do, from illegal incursions to murder, their actions elicit the most tepid responses from the current Belizean government. Instead of using all diplomatic means to register their anger and frustration with the Guatemalan government, Belize’s politicians seem too afraid to confront their neighbour. And everyone knows what happens when you don’t stand up to a bully…

For a young people, Belizeans possess a remarkably strong sense of identity. From Maya and Spanish to British and African, they’ve evolved a uniquely multicultural culture, distinctly separate from that of Guatemala (they’ve also avoided the Guatemalan problems of political instability, civil wars, brutal dictatorships, and human rights abuses). This national identity was a pivotal issue in the anti-colonial / independence movement and the making of the country as a ‘nation’. I hope that Belize’s unique cultural identity and history continues, and that Belize’s government (whatever political party they may be) makes defending the country’s borders and solving the Guatemalan ‘issue’ its number one priority.

Whatever happens, one thing’s for sure – the overwhelming majority of Belizeans most definitely do not want to become part of Guatemala. Not the Creoles and Garifunas (whose culture is more Afro-Caribbean than Hispanic); not the Mestizos (who are similar to most Ladino Guatemalans, but who are perfectly happy to be Belizean); not the Maya (who’ve suffered more in Guatemala than in other Maya country); and certainly not the thousands of immigrants from other Central American countries (who’ve fled their homes to get away from precisely the problems that Guatemala has in abundance).

The UN’s Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples states: “All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development”.

Further, the Declaration affirms that “Subjection of people to alien […] domination constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the charter of the United Nations, and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation”. Since then, the concepts of self-determination and territorial integrity have become internationally-accepted legal rights. I hope that Belize’s political parties can unite with each other and local NGOs (particularly Friends for Conservation and Development), and, along with its international partners (especially the US and the UK) can resolve this issue, before Belize unofficially becomes the 23rd department of Guatemala.

The Guatemala-Belize border, the Guatemalan side in the top image and the Belizean side in the bottom image (courtesy Tony Rath)



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