Central America

Why does the Belize-Guatemala Territorial Dispute Matter?

By Aurelia VanderWilde
Posted June 20, 2022

“The situation is fine for now, but it depends on the next president.”  This is what our tour guide at Xunantunich,  Josef Panti, said as we stood atop El Castillo and looked across the border between Belize and Guatemala on March 11, 2022. He was referring to Alejandro Giammattei, the current president of Guatemala, and his position on the long-simmering territorial dispute between his country and Belize. Like many other democracies throughout the world, the issues that matter most to voters, as well as politicians, change each year. As a result, the dispute between Belize and Guatemala, though now seemingly a non-issue, could change with a new president. 

If you look at the U.S. for example, former president Donald Trump capped the number of refugees allowed into the US at 18,000, the lowest in decades, and promoted anti-immigration policies, including “the wall.” This stood in stark contrast to the policies of the Obama administration, which allowed 30,000 refugees into the country and opposed wall building. In Guatemala and Belize, the tensions between the two countries vary depending on the people in power. This is one of the most precarious borders in the world, and yet many do not realize it. As our guide said, the situation is stable for now, but the future is unknown. Typically, when people think of border or territorial conflicts, they think of flashpoints like Russia and Ukraine, Palestine and Israel, or China and Taiwan. Many who know of these conflicts know little or nothing about Belize’s ongoing fight for sovereignty. In fact, Belize has been fighting to gain, and now maintain, complete independence from its neighbor Guatemala for three centuries. The conflict in Belize is historic and complicated, and should peace give way to open conflict, it could have a significant impact on the geopolitical situation in the southern hemisphere.

To understand the current conflict between Belize and Guatemala, it is vital to understand its history. How did these two countries, end up in a century-long conflict? As with many things, the answer is, well, complicated. Both countries are former colonies, Belize a British colony, and Guatemala a Spanish colony. Belize used to be known as British Honduras, and some British remain in Belize to this day, partially because should Guatemala invade Belize, Belize does not have the military power on its own to defend itself. In 1839 Guatemala made its first formal attempt to claim Belize (though there had been tensions between the two countries prior to this date), stating that it was an “inheritance” from Spain.  This claim was rejected by both the Spanish and British. However, in 1859 Guatemala signed an agreement stating that they would respect Belizean sovereignty, and they established borders between the two countries (read the full document here). This agreement was viewed as unfair by some Guatemalans, however, who saw it as losing part of their territory.

The 1859 agreement remained in place until 1940 when Guatemala once again began threatening Belize and declared the 1859 treaty invalid. In 1945, the new Guatemalan constitution declared Belize part of Guatemalan territory. And in 1976, according to Nestor Quixtan, Guatemala’s “string of victories over leftist guerillas” led some in the government to suggest that Guatemala should “cash in on that momentum by taking over Belize.” However, an earthquake struck Guatemala’s capital Guatemala City on February 4, 1976, these plans were put on hold, and the government once again acknowledged Belize’s independence. This is significant because had Guatemala not been hit by the natural disaster, there may have been an invasion. This would have changed the geopolitics of Central America, and as this was still during the cold war, the USSR and the US could have entered the conflict on opposite sides. Later, in 1981, Belize finally declared official independence from the United Kingdom. This was later than many other former colonies, and the delay was due to the persistent threat posed by Guatemala (to this day the British Army maintains an army support training unit in the country). The longer wait time is a good example of how the conflict between Belize and Guatemala has hindered the country’s full independence.

While Guatemala has acknowledged Belizean independence, this peace is very tentative and over the years several incidents have occurred on the border that could have escalated into all-out conflict. The border between the two countries is not a line, but a one-kilometer-long area between the two countries where neither is permitted to station any military forces. As a result of the lack of surveillance, the area has seen higher rates of crime, specifically the illegal trafficking of flora and fauna.  This highlights the fact that while the countries have officially stopped the conflict, the borders remain dangerous and contested. There have also been military clashes in this region. In 2016 a 13-year-old Guatemalan boy was shot by a Belizean soldier on the border between Belize and Guatemala. As a result, the Guatemalan army amassed 3,000 more soldiers on its border with Belize, described by defense Minister William Mansilla as a “preventative measure.” The use of the word “preventative” highlights the fact that Guatemala views Belize as a continuing threat. One year before this killing, the former Guatemalan president claimed that “we are about to lose Belize. We have not lost it yet.” The former president’s words highlight the tensions between the two countries and the need for a solution to this dispute in order to avoid future conflict. A couple of years later, in 2019, the Belize Coast Guard was prevented from patrolling the Sarstoon River (a river that runs between the border between Guatemala and Belize) by Guatemalan navy gunboats. This was described by Breaking Belize News Now (BBN) as an example of Guatemala acting as an “ignorant nation.” The news describing Guatemala as “ignorant” is significant, as this is a leading news source in Belize, and its words will influence  readers. This also highlights how Belize has described Guatemala in the past, and while BBN is not owned by the Belizean government it is likely that this is a sentiment shared by the government. 

In order to find a lasting solution, Belize and Guatemala took their case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hauge to negotiate. The ICJ is responsible for settling cases sent to it by nations, and providing advisory opinions to the UN. Notable cases include a dispute between Kenya and Somalia regarding a border dispute. Currently, relations between the two countries are relatively peaceful, but although both countries have agreed to wait, and see what the ICJ says, there is still tension around that decision since it will be final. Belize continues to identify as an oppressed country and in 2021, in a show of support for Taiwan, a Belizean legislator said that he “knows the challenges in defending sovereignty and the right to independence as we too have fought a large neighbor.” This is, of course, a reference to Guatemala as the threatening neighbor. This is in some ways a valid comparison. Just as the Chinese government insists that Taiwan is a part of China,  many in Guatemala do the same.

Significantly, Some maps made in Guatemala don’t include Belize, such as the one pictured below:

Belize “erased” in map made in Guatemala

These maps were created by the Guatemalan government as part of their “education campaign” campaign prior to the ICJ Referendum. All of the maps were to be included in all classroom textbooks starting in the fall of 2018.  This is clearly propaganda and highlights the fact that while Guatemala may say that they support Belize, they are still actively challenging its sovereignty. The fact that the maps were placed in classroom textbooks is key to understanding why this is dangerous. Students are taught to trust what they learn in school, and regardless of whether not what they are told is true, these students will bring this information home to their families. Overall, the maps are problematic for a few reasons. One, they demonstrate that while the current president is not actively engaged in a  war with Belize, he does not actually recognize its sovereignty. This creates a false reality for Guatemalans and teaches them that Belize is a part of Guatemala. No matter what the ICJ rules, this disinformation will have already done damage and will continue to do so, unless all textbooks are updated. Furthermore, if the ICJ rules in favor of Belize as they are expected to do, this may inflame protests in Guatemala.

Beyond the history, violence, and political conflict of these two countries, there are also significant cultural differences. To understand the conflict, it is crucial to understand the cultural differences between Belize and Guatemala and why  Belize becoming part of its neighbor to the west would not make sense. One thing that separates Belize from the rest of its neighbors in Central America is the fact that many Belizeans consider themselves to be more closely allied with the Caribbean than Central America. Additionally, the Garifuna are an important minority population group in Belize, and while there are 17,000 Garifuna in Belize and Guatemala, they are less than one percent of the Guatemalan population.  In comparison, the Garifuna make up approximately six percent of the Belizean population. As a result, they have had a significant impact on Belizean culture through food, music, and overall ethnic identity. Should Guatemala win the ICJ cases, it is likely that the Garifuna will have less of a voice politically and socially, which would engender further cultural loss. As Garifuna activist Uwahnie Martinez told a group of Agnes Scott Global Journeys students on March 7, 2022, the Garifuna people are concerned that national immigration trends, as well as globalization, are already producing “cultural erosion” within the fiercely proud and independent Garifuna community.

Beyond the ethnic differences which divide the two nations, language is another distinction. English is the official language of Belize, is spoken by 62.9% of the population, and is used for all formal communication in the government and media. Only 30% of the population speaks Spanish as their native language. On the other hand, Spanish is the official language of Guatemala and is spoken by 93% of the population.  This language difference is a result of the legacy of British colonization in Belize and the Spanish colonization of  Guatemala. These differences highlight the fact that even if Guatemala and Belize were to become one country, there would immediately be issues caused by the citizens not being able to communicate with each other, as well as the fact that there would be another conflict created by determining what the official language should be and then additional work created by translating documents. The language differences alone is an important reason why it is vital that Belize maintains its independence.

In the end, only time, negotiations, and possibly the ICJ can resolve this conflict, and even then there will likely still be tension between the two countries. It is also important to keep in mind that no matter what an international court decides, tensions could still be sparked if a president or politician on either side of the border decides to make it an issue for voters. There has been a huge rise in populist nationalistic candidates across the globe, from Borris Johnson in Britain to Viktor Orbán in Hungary to Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, so it would not be a surprise if someone decided to campaign on this issue.  Additionally, given the conflict in Ukraine, it would not be unthinkable for this conflict to spill over into Central America as it did during the cold war. This would be the worst-case scenario, and I would hope that the U.S. avoids intervention, to avoid history repeating itself.  It is vital that this issue is given the attention it deserves, and that the people, the civilians directly impacted by the consequences of this dispute, are given the proper support that they need.