Dr Sabletodo – April

Does Belize belong to Guatemala?

Dear Dr. Sabelotodo,
I heard there’s going to be a referendum on April 15 about the territorial dispute between Guatemala and Belize. What? There’s a territorial dispute between Guatemala and Belize?
Keegan Caye

That’s right, Keegan. On April 15th, millions of mostly apathetic Guatemalan voters will decide whether or not they want Guatemala’s claim over southern Belize to go before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). So, why might southern Belize be a part of Guatemala, and what will come of this vote?

Let’s start with the territory issue. It began in 1648 when British pirates took northern Belize from the Spanish and used it to harvest lumber — you know, for pirate ships, peglegs, gangplanks, etc.

A century later in 1783, Spain formally ceded northern Belize to Britain as part of everyone’s favorite Treaty of Versailles, and the lumber pirates became British subjects. But that means southern Belize was still part of Spain when Central America declared independence in 1821, and this is what Guatemalan politicians are still going on about.

But here’s where it gets tricky. In 1856, Guatemala and Britain signed a treaty in which Guatemala would give up southern Belize if Britain built a road from Guatemala City to the Belizean Coast. Guatemala ceded the territory, but as anyone who has traveled from Antigua to Caye Caulker knows, Britain never built the road. And so, Guatemala claimed the treaty void. The Guatemalan Constitutions of 1945, 1956, and 1965 all claimed Belize (then British Honduras) as a department of Guatemala. And 20th century Guatemalan strongmen routinely threatened to attack the British Empire and take back Belize, mostly to divert attention away from their much bigger domestic problems.

Eventually things calmed down. Belize gained its independence from Britain in 1981, and Guatemala recognized that independence in 1991. But some Guatemalan politicians just can’t let it go. They can’t stop dreaming about that sweet Atlantic coastline, those tourism dollars, and the oil reserves that are supposedly in southern Belize. So, in 2008 the two countries agreed to hold referendums to bring the issue before the ICJ and settle it once and for all.

What happens if the referendum passes?

The issue will go before the ICJ, and Belize will almost definitely win. Britain, not Belize, signed the 1856 treaty, and precedent dictates that Belize is Belize.

What’s important is that they finally settle the issue. There are still military altercations at the border, including one that killed a Guatemalan civilian two years ago, and the border is so precarious that many Guatemalan tourism agencies have cancelled their Belize packages.

What happens if the referendum doesn’t pass?

Both countries have agreed that the only way to settle this is in the ICJ, so they’ll keep holding referendums every six months until it passes. As much as I’d like to resubmit this article again in six months and collect another paycheck, let’s just get this over with and move on to more important things.

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