On April 10, citizens of Belize will vote in a referendum to finally determine the boundaries of Belize and Guatemala
We’ve all learned about the Treaty of Tordesillas at school, but few imagine that it still has repercussions in borders around the world. The month of April 2019 will be full of elections whose impact may alter the course of important international relations. On the following weeks, this space will certainly focus on this issue. As well as the second round of Ukraine’s presidential elections, which we already discussed here, there will be elections in Israel, Spain, the beginning of the largest elections in the world, in India, the impact of local elections in Turkey, among many others.
One of them, more exotic and which will certainly have less repercussion in the Brazilian media, may decide the future of half of one country’s territory. On April 10, citizens of Belize will vote in a referendum of a single question, that should be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. “Do you agree that any legal claim of Guatemala against Belize relating to land and insular territories and to any maritime areas pertaining to these territories should be submitted to the International Court of Justice for final settlement and that it determines finally the boundaries of the respective territories and areas of the parties?”
Guatemalans have already accepted
Both Central American countries, Guatemala and Belize, signed an agreement in late 2008 committing themselves to try to solve their border disputes within ten years. As well as bilateral talks and measures establishing mutual trust, at the end of the deadline the matter should be sent to mediation by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which solves disputes between states. The 2008 agreement also established that the populations of these countries should accept this jurisdiction.
Therefore, in April 2018, the Guatemalan population approved in a referendum the ICJ consultation. The question was virtually identical, and 95.88 percent of the voters answered ‘yes’. The problem was that only 26.6 percent of the total number of voters in the country went to the ballots; as a comparison, 56 percent of voters voted in the presidential election won by Jimmy Morales in 2015. One of the possible explanations for that is that, if the ‘no’ won, another referendum would be held six months later. That demotivated the ‘no’ supporters, even though they are a minority in Guatemala, the country most interested in the issue.
Origin of the dispute
In 1494, under the mediation of Pope Alexander VI, born Rodrigo Borgia, Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, dividing the world between both Catholic Iberian kingdoms. Other European nations did not recognize the treaty, especially after the Protestant reform. Regardless of that, the document was used as a basis, to a greater or lesser extent, for Spanish territorial claims that most of the American continent should belong to the Spanish crown.
The region where Belize lies, the Yucatan peninsula, was one of the last regions of Spanish America to be conquered, due to the presence of Olmec city-states. Military and missionary expeditions were defeated by the indigenous peoples, creating a vacuum of European occupation. In theory, the region belonged to Spain, but in practice did not have any European inhabitants until 1638, the year when sailors, pirates, and English castaways established trading centers and small settlements.
During the next two centuries, the region was disputed between three players involved: the Spanish crown, the English crown, and English colonists, who alternated moments of a desire for autonomy with other periods of proximity to London. The Spanish, even though tolerating in practice the English presence, never accepted formally the loss of possession of that territory. Legally, they considered themselves owner of what is now Belize.
To make matters worse, the current territory of Belize had been divided by the Spanish administration. Even though it belonged to the same empire, there were internal administrative borders. Northern Belize was part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which aggregated approximately the current territory of Mexico, the southwestern United States, Cuba, and the Philippines, while the southern part of the country belonged to the Captaincy General of Guatemala, which united the whole of Central America, with the exception of Panama. The division of these claims is established by the Sibun River.
In 1821 the dispute ceased to be between British and Spanish, after the independence of Mexico. In 1823 the Federal Republic of Central America became independent, lasting until 1838. Yes, during a period of time the whole of Central America was a unified country, which then became fragmented after disputes between local elites. The new countries maintain their territorial claims. In 1862 the colony of British Honduras, currently Belize, was created officially.
Picking on someone your own size
Before the creation of the British colony, the United Kingdom and Guatemala, now reduced to its current territory, signed a deal in which Guatemalans acknowledged the British possession of Belize. In exchange, the British would invest in the region, and build a road; the detail may seem insignificant, but it isn’t. Obviously, even though Guatemala has to this day a strong territorial irredentism regarding dominions previously inherited from Spain, would not try to fight the world’s biggest maritime superpower.
For almost a century, Guatemala did little more than protest for the compliance of the agreement. Until the 1940s, when the growing Belizean autonomy and the Second World War made the region cease to be a priority for London. Guatemala denounced the original agreement, claiming the road had never been built; indeed, it never was. Belize, despite its growing internal autonomy, only became fully independent in 1981, and, throughout the entire period, denied Guatemala’s complaints.
For the government of Belize, the agreement was signed with the British, and, therefore, the new country is not obligated to comply with it. The threat of the use of force by Guatemala motivated the constant presence of British troops in the region, and in 1975 a large-scale war almost broke out in the region, but Guatemala did not make the same mistake Argentina would do years later in the Falklands; the dispute for the Falklands even has a similar origin, in territorial disputes which date to the European colonization.
The 20th century made it impossible for a peaceful solution, since Guatemala has been repeatedly governed by members of the military, who saw only force as a viable alternative to the issue. That caused a growing repulsion among neighboring countries, which began to openly support Belize’s independence. This is another argument of the government of Belize, who claims that this territorial claim violates the self-determination of peoples, considering that their inhabitants are not Guatemalan.
Positions and goals
Based on this idea, Mexico waived its dispute on the northern part of the country, and Cuba, Nicaragua and Costa Rica began to openly defend an independent Belize. Another factor which explains that to do this is to prevent a dangerous precedent. If Central American countries recognized the Guatemalan argument that their government inherited Spanish possessions, Guatemala could then desire to rule the territories which once formed the Captaincy General of Guatemala.
Belizeans wish the issue to be solved quickly, during this democratic period enjoyed by their neighbor. An ICJ decision is binding, and must be accepted by its member states; if Guatemala disrespects such a decision, the country would be immediately targeted by international sanctions. Establishing borders is important not only for Belize’s safety, since it is a much smaller country, but also to ensure the economic growth of the country towards the south, avoiding border problems that could make investments become too risky.
In 2016, a Guatemalan boy was shot and killed in the border by Belizean soldiers, sparking a crisis which exemplifies the kind of unpredictable instability that could be generated. The local government strongly supports the referendum and the ‘yes’ vote. A complicating factor is that Belizean law establishes that a referendum will only be valid if it has the attendance of 60 percent of the electorate.
The government claims this rule is not valid, since this is not an internal matter, and the 2008 agreement did not establish a minimum attendance. Opponents of the referendum as a whole have promised to go to the courts if that number is not reached, and claim that the popular consultation is not constitutional. Guatemala, on the other hand, not only desires half of the neighboring territory, would triumph in its great irredentist cause, confirming the idea that the country has been wronged and vilified by territorial losses. The idea of a “Greater Guatemala”.
For decades seats were left empty in the parliament, in Guatemala City, determined to be occupied by representatives of Belize who were never elected. School textbook maps also showed the territory of the neighboring country as “occupied”, and the indivisible character of the Guatemalan territory was mentioned by the constitution. That only changed with the end of military dictatorships in the late 1990s. If the Belizean population authorizes, maybe this dispute could come to a close in a few years’ time.