By Wellington C. Ramos
This is an issue that is important to us but that many Belizeans refrain from addressing because of their lack of knowledge on the subject, the anger and frustration it causes when discussing the matter and the relationship many Belizeans have with Guatemala in tracing some of their very own family roots, like myself whose grandmother was born in Livingston (Labuga) Guatemala and still has many relatives in Guatemala.
After studying history for many years, I am a strong believer that the Guatemala's claim to Belize is weak because of the following reasons:
1. It is based on the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492, which subsequently led to the Treaty of Tordesillas granting Spain and Portugal territories in the region, which they claimed as their own. This was mediated by a Spanish Catholic Pope Alexander the V1.
2. Prior to Columbus landing in this part of the world, the indigenous people of Belize and the other areas such as the Mayas, Aztecs, Caribs, Arawaks, Incas and several other ethnic groups lived in these territories for centuries until Spain came and forcefully conquered their countries, slaughtered millions of their people and occupied this region. Taking land through the use of force is in violation of human rights and international law.
3. European countries such as Great Britain, France and Holland objected to Spain's territorial claims in the region but in the end did the same thing that they did, which is still wrong and unlawful. Any land obtained through unlawful means centuries ago does not give legal title to the nation that acquired it. Unless the people who were the victims of such actions taken against them agree to settle the matter with the nation taking their lands. Example: recently in the United States President Obama offered several native Indian tribes billions of dollars to settle some old tribal land disputes these tribes had with the US government.
4. Our country of Belize was placed under the jurisdictions of the Vice-Royalty of New Spain and Granados. Half of Belize up to the Sibun River in the north was placed under the administration of the Spanish governor, who resided in the capital city of Mexico. From the Sibun River to the Sarstoon River, the other half was placed under the jurisdiction of the Spanish governor in Guatemala City. Around 1823, Guatemala, Mexico and most of the Spanish countries in Latin America broke away from Spain and declared themselves independent. Mexico assumed their portion of Belize but later ceded all of it to Great Britain in a treaty with newly defined borders separating Belize from Mexico.
Guatemala along with Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nicaragua all got together and formed one country called the Central American Republic with the capital still remaining in Guatemala city. Due to a dispute among these countries with Guatemala, these countries broke away from them and declared themselves independent nations. Guatemala allowed these countries to become independent but still continued to claim Belize. A fundamental question under international law is that, if the people of Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador were allowed by Guatemala to become sovereign and independent, then why can't Guatemala grant that same right to the people and nation of Belize?
5. Spain is the culprit in all this because they were the ones who initiated this problem in the first place by leaving Europe to disrupt the lives of the native indians in the Caribbean and Latin American region and now they are quiet and playing as if they are not obligated to help solve this major problem that they created. All Spain needs to do is tell Guatemala to leave Belize alone and stick by the treaty they signed with Great Britain in 1859 ceding all the territory from the Sibun River to the Sarstoon river with clearly defined boundaries. Based on past cases brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), once borders are defined by the countries it is difficult to readjust them.
6. Great Britain had several opportunities to solve the dispute with Spain but had little interest in Belize and failed to put Belize in several treaties they signed with Spain when they acquired several other territories from them, especially the Godolphin Treaty in 1670. They were busy exploiting all the logwood and mahogany and using Belize as a strategic port for all their military maneuvers in the region.
7. Belize has been accepted by all the countries of the world as a sovereign and independent nation by the nations in the United Nations. Guatemala has refused to accept Belize as such but it is going to leave Guatemala isolated as a country among the nations of the world. Guatemala is a vast country compared to Belize and does not need any more land.
What Belize can negotiate is granting them the use of a port facility and roads in the southern part of our country for trade and commerce. If such is granted, the administration of such facility could be done jointly and the cost of administering such facility or facilities will be shared by both countries. This will be beneficial to both countries because jobs and revenues will follow from this good neighbour policy. After all, we have no problems with the people from Guatemala and we should not because most of our people are related to many of them.
They continue to deprive the indigenous Maya people, the rightful owners of all the lands in Guatemala, of any land over the years and have massacred thousands of them when they fight for their basic human fundamental rights. Many of these people continue to leave Guatemala and come to Belize to live in peace and harmony to avoid the Guatemalan military. Today, some of their citizens are squatting on Belizean soil and cross the border at will to exploit the resources from Belizean soil and this will lead to further hostility between the two countries.
The referendum is going to be held and these will be the possible outcomes of it:
1. Both the people of Guatemala and Belize reject having the matter go to the ICJ.
2. One of the countries accepts while the other rejects going to the ICJ.
3. The matter proceeds to the ICJ and they make a ruling favourable to one or both countries
4. The matter proceeds to the ICJ and they make a ruling unfavourable to one or both countries
5. To be on the safe side, Belize and Guatemala should try and work on a bilateral agreement that will be favourable to both countries and could lead to a Belize-Guatemala treaty.
I have pointed out seven reasons why I think that we as Belizeans must not be afraid to say why Belize belongs to us and nobody else. Our governments, both PUP and UDP, have failed in educating our people as to why Belize belongs to us and as such Belizeans do not want to discuss the Guatemalan claim.
Guatemala has been educating their people with "Belice es nuestro" (Belize is ours) for centuries now and most Guatemalans believe it. However, the illiteracy rate in the country of Guatemala is so high that if they tell you "Belice es nuestro" all you have to do is to respond by saying Porque? (Why?) and most of them will laugh.
The government of Belize must now begin to educate all Belizeans in our elementary schools, high schools and universities about their country by formulating a positive social studies curriculum that will help Belize to establish its own national identity and nationalism.