Monday, February 16, 2009

A view on the ‘COMPROMIS’ Between Belize and Guatemala

Frank Edward Paco Smith, Jr. (JP)

My time spent at SALISES (Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies) has left an indelible imprint. As a proud graduate (MSc. Governance and Public Policy -- 2007) I have drawn upon the many lessons learned from that gruelling, yet marvellous experience at the Mona Campus. My instructors not only introduced me to interesting concepts such as good governance, globalisation, decentralisation and citizen participation; more importantly they challenged me to employ a critical eye toward the myriad issues which permeate our global reality. While I continue to hone my skills toward analyzing matters which affect the Caribbean and the world at-large, I wish to share a matter of territorial concerns which impact my home, Belize.

Many in the wider Caribbean may not be aware of pressing territorial matters which affect the handful of land-based Caribbean territories such as Belize (formerly British Honduras). With the exception of three, possibly four CARICOM Member States, such terrestrial issues are not a reality. Nonetheless for Belize, these are issues of national interest/security and is virtually part of our genetic make-up.

Since time immemorial, Belize’s neighbour to the West, Guatemala, has asserted a claim on Belizean territory. The land which currently comprises Belizean territory can be referred back to June 7th, 1494, when the Treaty of Todesillas was signed, and the “New World” was apportioned between Spain and Portugal. The arguments in defence of the claim have taken a variety of forms over the centuries and the counter-arguments have (for the most part) remained consistent.

The Battle of St. George’s Caye, September 10th, 1798, is a source of pride for many Belizeans. In fact it is a national holiday commemorating the defeat of Spanish forces, by the territory’s inhabitants. Amidst numerous occurrences over the years, the Clayton Bulwer Treaty of 1850 acknowledged the legitimacy of British Honduras. The 19th century saw numerous engagements between the Governments of Guatemala, the United Kingdom to resolve the former’s unfounded claim.

Fast-forward to the late 20th & early 21st century and there are many significant developments including: Guatemala’s assertion of the “Belice es nuestra” (Belize is ours) doctrine; several aggressive military mobilisations by Guatemala threatening invasion (1972, 1975 & 1978); Belize’s Independence (1981); the issuance of a defence arrangement from the British and its subsequent end in 1994; numerous stalled and failed talks between Belize and Guatemala; Belize’s continued attempts to facilitate Guatemala (such as the passage of the Maritime Areas Act in 1992) and the adoption of a Guatemalan strategy of encouraging the illegal encroachment of its citizens onto Belizean territory. The latest round of diplomatic efforts involved an attempt at mediation by the Organisation of American States (OAS). This led to the current initiative – the December 8th, 2008 signing of a Special Agreement or Compromis between the Government of Belize (GOB) and the Government of Guatemala, which sets the framework for this issue to be decided at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Diplomats worldwide have touted this as an outstanding step toward settling the age-old dispute and eventually normalising relations between the two countries. Although, on the surface, the recent decision may appear laudable, I take a more realistic view. The decision of the GOB to potentially seek adjudication via the ICJ is too risky and quite frankly unnecessary. I have heard the wide range of arguments on both sides and think there may be more to this scenario than meets the eye!

Being a proud Belizean who upholds the nation’s Constitution as the supreme law of the land I believe the aforementioned decision to sign the Compromis is tantamount to an affront to Belize’s Constitution. Within certain circles it has even been likened to an act of treason! I recognise the importance of diplomacy and advocate no other approach, yet given the relevant history, diplomatic efforts on the part of Belize have abounded, despite marked and repeated intransigence on the part of Guatemala. Pundits like to refer to “the Guatemala question”. In my humble opinion there is no question, where Guatemala is concerned. The matter is straightforward, for Belize is: (1) a sovereign nation, (2) a legitimate member of the international community and (3) a full member of the United Nations -- WITH ITS INTERNATIONAL BORDERS INTACT! To buttress my opinion, I draw upon successive UN Resolutions beginning in 1975 which affirmed Belize’s right to secure its independence with all its territory. The 1975 Resolution further pronounced that any proposals emerging from negotiations between the two countries must respect this right. For five successive sittings of the General Assembly, this position was reinforced, eventually leading to Belize’s independence.

Although the diplomatic community has lauded the Compromis, I believe the Government of Belize acted in a risky and short-sighted manner. I hold this position because by singing the Compromis, the GOB may be considered to have given credence to the possibility that Guatemala’s claim has enough merit, to warrant it potentially being taken to the International Court of Justice (CJ), despite the long-standing legitimate recognition of Belize by the world community. This, for Belize and all Belizeans, is a terrible mistake. Such actions have potentially weakened Belize’s position in this matter of unparalleled national significance. Diplomacy can be engaged in, conducted and successfully concluded, via degrees and I believe that Belize’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has lost sight of this.

I welcome a final settlement, via diplomatic means. Yet, given the context I draw upon the counsel imparted to me by my parents, “…nothing in this life is guaranteed, save for the fact that one day we must all expire”. While entrusting the matter to the ICJ, we must remember that whatever the decision, it is final. This is entirely too risky for Belize! I am not comfortable placing the fate of Belize in the hands of the learned individuals who serve on the ICJ, no matter how strong Belize’s case may appear. Belize has too much to lose in this process while Guatemala only stands to lose their unfounded claim. Placed on the proverbial scale, an unfavourable decision for Belize could very well mean a loss of already scarce territory. Let us not forget that with the recent growth in oil exploration in Belize, various untapped resources of prospective economic viability could potentially be forever lost. Honestly, who do you think potentially stands to lose more, by going the route of the ICJ?

I believe in the basic tenets of good governance. Therefore, I understand that the recent signing is but the initial step in a process. Although I am utterly disgusted with the decision to explore this route, I rejoice that Belizeans will be afforded a say in whether or not to proceed. Therein lies the intrinsic challenge. Persistent societal ills such as voter apathy, the lack of civic pride, the ever-declining levels of citizen participation and outright ignorance of the matter at hand, must be overcome. That is why it is imperative that those who share my view concerning the unmitigated risks to Belize, must become constructively proactive toward addressing the issue. Belizeans from all walks of life, especially civil society, must concertedly embark on a public information campaign which clearly analyses the issue in its entirety. Without such an effort Belizeans could potentially go to the poles, in a referendum, with less-than-adequate information with which to make an informed decision. That is if we even opt to participate in the process!

I alluded to the possibility that there may be more to all this than meets the eye. I cast no aspersions, but faithfully hope that those who have been entrusted with the honour of governing Belize’s affairs in a responsible manner are not engaged in what could potentially amount to an extremely high stakes endeavour of international proportions, simply for political gain. I admit the position regarding this observation is speculative, but whenever the human element is factored into such an equation, there exists the possibility that the motivation toward solidifying some form of legacy, could very well be at the core of this effort. Recently, elements of the local press reported that certain high ranking government officials have made unfortunate remarks which insinuate that if Belizeans don’t go the route of the ICJ, we should then be prepared to “take up arms”. Such rhetoric is regrettable, irresponsible and grossly misleading. Hence, my position that Belize’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has seemingly lost sight of the fact that diplomacy, devoid of ego, is the most tenable route toward success.

I call on Belize’s civil society to awake from its perpetual slumber and apply critical analysis to the overall issue by: (1) establishing whether Belize’s Constitution is the supreme law of the land, (2) determining whether the international recognition of our nation-state is of any consequence, (3) deciding whether the associated risks of entering this Compromis are minimal enough to warrant placing Belize’s territorial integrity in the hands of the jurisprudence of the ICJ and (5) ultimately take proactive steps to educate the general public. Belizeans must become aware of what precisely is at stake and make an informed decision.
For me, Belize’s Constitution takes precedence in all matters relating to its territorial integrity and sovereignty. The associated risks are too great to undertake the ultimate course of action set in play through the signing of the Compromis. Finally, Belize’s current existence is already, legally, recognised by the international community.

Long live Belize in its, current, legal and geographic legitimacy!


  1. This is a thoughtful an interesting essay on a topic that I know little about. That said, the author did not convince me that Guatemala's claim (which he indicates is as long standing as Belize's claim to the same territory) is unfounded. He makes no attempt to address the Guatemalan point of view, leaving the reader to imagine that Guatemala initiated, and persists in, it's claim out of sheer cussedness. A more balanced description of the argument would have strengthened the author's case. Instead, I conclude that the Govt of Belize is wise to both take steps to refer the matter to the ICJ and to let Belizeans vote on this couse of action.

  2. Thanks Vanessa! your criticisms are valid and i hope Paco will address them in the follow-up piece he intends to write.

  3. Thank you Vanessa for your comment.
    Admittedly, this is an opinion paper. Unfortunately, the information that would provide some insight as to what you seek is rather volumunous. Given this is a national issue of regional (Central America) concern, I didn't wish to lobby Guatemala's case in this essay.

    Nonetheless, I have found a link that can provide a "timeline" of events regarding the issue. Please feel free to check it at
    It is not the most detailed "timeline", but I presume it will allow for some of the additional information you seek. Please be advised that given it is from Belize's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Website, the informationis presumably biased.

    Beyond that, I am certain Guatemala's Ministry of Foreign Affairs website could provide you with the Guatemalan perspective regarding the matter. Likewise, you may already discern that it will provide a "different" perspective.

    I'm glad that I've raised an issue which you might find intriguing.

  4. I agree with Vanessa that the paper is quite informative and Paco passionately articulated that stance of a patriotic Belizean. I support your stance on the issue and do concur that the Boarder issues must be urgently addressed. You made a call for civil society to play a more active role and for citizens to be more participatory, but how is this issue viewed by the average Belizean? Does the average Belizean feel a strong connection to Central America or to the Caribbean?

    As a Social Psychologist I was so excited when I visited your country, I could not help but think that the Nation seems like a misfit on the continent. I visited Belize City and my view maybe biased but the black population seem quite spare and I heard as much (if not more) Spanish as English during my sojourn. At the hotel my experiences were the same, there were mostly Mestizo (not sure how this is pluralized) represented. The indigenous cultures seem so rich and they are in my opinion linked to a Central American identity.

    I have been to other Caribbean countries and I felt some common connection, visiting Belize I did not feel as it I was in the Caribbean. The Blacks that I spoke with did seem apathetic and more outward looking, one person in the bus told me that he refuses to learn Spanish because he lives in an English speaking country and the government is pushing for bilingualism. The few Garifuna (not sure how this is pluralized) I spoke with seemed more enthused. Whatever the ruling, however the diplomatic talks turn out, Belize as an English speaking country with a Caribbean identity is definitely under threat.

    Nicola Satchell

  5. Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment Nicola. Hopefully Paco will respond at some point.

    The last observation you made reminded me of my visit last year to San Andres in Colombia. The black population there which is of Jamaican/Caribbean origin also were disdainful of speaking Spanish, talked of feeling unrepresented politically etc etc

  6. Frank Edward…lets see if I have the History straight.

    The Spanish “visited” Belize and saw the Maya inhabitants but claimed the territory as their own anyway.

    The British entered Belize with the permission of the Spanish for economic reasons and import African slave labour to cut timber. The British and African population increase beyond the Spanish population. Eventually the (majority) British oust the Spanish.

    Unable to hold on to the territory because of the British and persistent Maya the Spanish “give” Belize to Guatemala.

    On that basis Guatemala continues to assert claims over Belize despite the fact that “Belize is: (1) a sovereign nation, (2) a legitimate member of the international community and (3) a full member of the United Nations”

    If my take on history is correct Guatemala seems to lack the moral high ground on this issue if their claim is based on inheritance of an unsettled territory. This is especially true since Guatemala formally recognized Belize’s independence in 1991.

    As for some Belizean politicians presenting false choices (ICJ or armed conflict) to further their agenda…well…thats what politicians do! Jamaican politicians are experts at the craft.

    Finally, apathy among voters (and the black population) is nothing to be alarmed about. It’s as common as sand on the sea shore. The solution is simple. What Belize needs is a Charismatic, patriotic political leader with a nationalist view and global appeal to champion the cause of the masses and rally the people to action.

    Maybe F.E. Paco Smith can become that person for the people of Belize. He already has the passion for the issues.

    Viva Belize!

    Rick R. Harris

  7. Thank you Nicola, for your input.

    Undoubtedly, Belize is "unique" within many respects. I believe you touched on one of the most outstanding points, that of it being both amidst and amongst the two regions.

    The question of whether Belizeans feel more a part of the Caribbean or Central America is right on target. In order to attempt to answer, I must first set the context. Over the past 30+ years, Belize has undergone a transformation. Many black Belizeans (primarily Creoles) have migrated to North America and the United Kingdom. The most significant historic event which appears to go hand in hand with the numbers going from a trickle, to more of an increasingly steady flow, involves Hurricane Hattie (1961). Following that event, many black Belizeans began to immigrate at a greater frequency.

    This, along with successive National Administrations (both PUP and UDP) acquiescing to the requests of agencies such as the UNHCR, to allow people from the neighbouring Central American Republics (primarily El Salvador and Guatemala) to settle in Belize. These Latinos were allowed to settle, under the guise of escaping the Central American civil wars of the 1980's. Interestingly enough, although roughly 20 years removed from those wars, the Belizean government still allows a considerable number to take up residence, even today. It is common knowledge that these immigrants have an extraordinarily higher birth rate than blacks (Creoles and Garifuna). As a result, we have seen a population shift in which the Mestizos/Latinos far outnumber black Belizeans. With that said, in order to grasp the prevailing sentiment as to whether Belizeans more identify with either of the two regions, it primarily depends on who you ask. Most black Belizeans (I presume) would certainly register their vote for the Caribbean and interestingly enough, I believe that a considerable number of non-black Belizeans (those who are NOT recent immigrants) would also identify with the Caribbean. But the burgeoning number of Mestizos/Latinos who are either recent immigrants or their offspring would be inclined to, most likely, identify with Central America. For the latter, we must remember that in addition to comprising the larger portion of the nation's population, their first language is Spanish.

    In terms of apathy, unfortunately, I believe it is widespread. Many people simply do not pay much attention to matters of national significance. It is as though they are living for today and not truly thinking of what may be on the horizon; Hence my call for civil society to become proactive, especially in a matter such as the Compromis. My greatest fear is that due to widespread ignorance concerning the salient issues, Belizeans may just tow the line and accept that the Government might be right in addressing the situation in this manner. What we need is for Belizeans to be enlightened as to the many dynamics which shape the issue, as well as the various non-military options which are at our disposal. We are too often used to being spoon-fed, by the government, and therefore result in being unaware of the facts. I am of the opinion that taking the matter to the ICJ is entirely too risky. Belize potentially stands to lose too much. Belize’s status within the international arena is well defined and accepted, so there is no need to place ourselves in any sort of legal entanglement for the sake of "proving" our reality to Guatemala.

    I agree that Belize as an English speaking country (located in Central America), with a traditional Caribbean identity, is certainly at risk. It is evidenced through the ongoing population shift, as well as the continued migration of black Belizeans abroad. Not to forget that the compliance of successive Administrations to continue to allow Central American immigrants to settle in Belize, only serves to exacerbate the issue. This is a serious matter and I believe that the Government of Belize's decision to sign the Compromis is indicative of the extent to which our psyche has been influenced. Belizeans must not be apathetic and recognise what could potentially be lost by providing a mandate for the government to proceed with taking the matter to the International Court of Justice. Its time for Belizeans to critically assess this matter and not be blindly led down a path potentially beset with irrevocable consequences.

  8. Anonymous (Rick) ;-)

    Thank you also, for chiming-in.

    For the most part, your overview of the history is relatively accurate. Of course, that depends on whose opinion you seek!

    I agree that Guatemala lacks the moral high ground. In fact, ironically enough, I would also concede that they APPEAR to lack the sufficient legal basis. But as in all things with the court of law, nothing is guaranteed. That is why I believe the GOB's shortsighted signing of the Compromis is far too risky.

    Given the process, it will be up to the Belizean people to decide whether or not we need to prove our reality, to Guatemala, despite the fact that virtually every nation in the UN recognises Belize as a sovereign nation. As you accurately stated, even Guatemala has too! That is where this issue should be a non-issue for Belize and Belizeans. The Guatemalan government usually uses this as a political football, whenever they seek to divert attention from their many internal problems. Most often, it works. That is why I am so taken aback by the actions of our so-called "learned" politicians who have played right into the hands of their Guatemalan counterparts' cunning exercise. Yet, in keeping with your extremely accurate observation regarding politicians and their "agendas", I trust that Belize's politicians have an underlying (dare I say?) personal motivation, for engaging in this lunacy.

    In addition, I agree with your assessment as to what Belize needs, in order to curb and hopefully reverse our voter apathy. Fundamental to this effort, is the need for civil society to stop paying lip-service and become energised!

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, but for that to take effect it would have to be the will of the Almighty, for I cannot see myself embracing either of the two traditional political parties. We have a saying in Belize, "...half a dozen ah one and six ah di otha", that's how I view our current political choices. There is a small movement to bring forth a third party. I am overjoyed and their recent showing in the Belmopan Municipal Elections gives cause for optimism. But, for the masses, I am uncertain as to what it will take in order for them to awake from their seemingly inescapable "Red or Blue" slumber. Once the people realise that a change from the status quo is necessary to move Belize forward, I believe that significant progress will be made.

    With that said, I guess you are absolutely right in that it may very well take "a charismatic, patriotic political leader with a nationalist view and global appeal to champion the cause of the masses and rally the people to action". He/she could prove the catalyst. I pray this will eventually happen, but my people seem firmly set in their chosen political quagmire!

    Nonetheless, I remain the eternal optimist.

  9. Point taken my friend!

    Rick R. Harris.

  10. This issue has been out of the headlines for more than a year until the Guatemala Congress approved the move to the ICJ. But since that decision in September 2010 very little is being reported. Seems like nothing is happening to be reported.
    I therefore take this opportunity to encourage Belizeans and our friends to read Paco Smith's article again. It is now on Facebook: BELIZE,SOVEREIGN AND FREE, NO ICJ. Please visit and sign on.
    I believe it is time to start preparing the Belize voters for a referendum. The traditional Belizean general apathy and complacency must be overcome this time.