Economic Co-operation and Trade: An Architect or Danger to the Belize-Guatemala Territorial Dispute
By Elroy Johnson
Economic co-operation and trade between Belize and Guatemala is hard to manage, risky in the undertaking, and doubtful of success in making Guatemala relinquish its claim over Belize. The difficulties are even multiplied when we look at a state as Belize, which is culturally and politically different from the Republic of Guatemala. Perhaps even more important is Guatemala’s reluctance to make possible the kind of legislative measures to recognize Belize as a sovereign entity. Public speeches by Guatemala’s Foreign Minister, Carlos Raul Morales, are great, but they are only partial viewpoints that are subject to expansion and revision. In fact, they do nothing but to satisfy Guatemala’s constitutional obligation to integrate Belize. Guatemala, no doubt, is very clever in its approach to use economics, namely bilateral trade and commerce, as a scheme for ensuring the political integration of Belize within a Central American framework. Once conquered economically, Belize would be easy picking for Guatemala to hold politically.
For a long time I have thought carefully and seriously about these matters, and with so much talk going around these days about the Belize-Guatemala issue, I have decided to condense my views on the subject. Setting aside the historical circumstances that formed the Belize-Guatemala dispute, about which others have spoken or written elsewhere, I shall concern myself more with the major point of making economics the wisdom of settling the dispute and less so with the legal issues surrounding the Anglo-Guatemalan claim.
Let me begin by saying that this Guatemala claim over Belize is nothing new. It has been around for the last 150 years with the dispute going back and forth, at times intensifying to the point where Guatemala, in 1948, reinforced its troop build-up in the Peten, just near our western border. Over the years, Guatemala has made repeated threats and has been very aggressive towards Belize. Contrary to both Foreign Ministers’ statements, uttered at a joint public forum held on July 2015 between Guatemala’s and Belize’s Foreign Ministers at the Bliss Center For the Performing Arts in Belize City, I find it hard to stomach the words that Guatemala will not resort to force and heightened threats, if necessary, to reinforce its objective. Threats don’t just go away. They are only postponed to someone’s advantage. This fact has been demonstrated in the case of Guatemala, who has made several threats and plenty of resolutions to take back what it strongly believes is rightfully its own. Even before the most recent Paco incident or the confrontation at the Island of Sarstoon, or the Eily case in the mid-70s (Herbert Eiley was a Belizean tugboat captain who was imprisoned in Guatemala for allegedly spilling diesel in Guatemalan waters), Guatemala, in 1948, staged a troop build-up in Peten, just across Belize’s western border. The Guatemalan forces were just about to march into Belize, but the invasion was quickly called off when the British landed its troops and warships in Belize.
Once again, in January 1962, a contingent of about twenty armed Guatemalans, headed by Francisco Sagastume, invaded Belize, formerly British Honduras. In 1958, Sagastume had staged his first invasion of Belize through Benque Viejo in the Cayo District, but it was unsuccessful. The second time, he decided to invade Belize by way of Pueblo Viejo, a village in the Toledo District, just five miles from the western border. Once the contingent arrived at Pueblo Viejo, Sagastume lowered and burnt the Union Jack, and then hoisted the flag of the Organization of Central American States (ODECA) in its place. He also burnt pictures of Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh. Sagastume and his men then proceeded on foot to the village of San Antonio, some twelve miles away. In his book, “Trespass Forgiven Memoirs of Imperial Service in an Age of Imperial Service,” C. H. Godden wrote that Sagastume addressed a crowd of villagers at San Antonio in both English and Spanish, declaring to his companions that “they were now on a mission to liberate Belice” (p. 217). The policeman on duty, who had already received word of the invasion, was instructed not to put up any resistance. He complied and even furnished Sagastume and his men with a vehicle to transport them to Punta Gorda. Three miles short of reaching Punta Gorda, the men stopped the vehicle and then fled into the bushes.
Sagastume and his men were later caught. A platoon of the Royal Hampshire Regiment was sent to Punta Gorda, which at that point was placed under a state of emergency. Everyone was cautioned to be off the streets after dark. The British soldiers tracked down and captured Sagastume, who was sent to Belize City. Sagastume spent some time in the Belize City prison. Later, he was granted an administrative pardon and was sent back to Guatemala.
The Sagastume incident never made it into our history books. Nor did our leaders talk about it. The incident remained “hush-hush,” and as the years lapsed, the subject of an invasion of Belize by Guatemalans faded away. The invasion was by no means a full-fledge military action other than a cause to provoke civil alarm, but the significance of the incident must be referenced to Guatemala’s claim and its blustering on the borders of Belize. I must say once again that threats just don’t go away. They are only postponed.
The Belize-Guatemala issue remained dormant for the next seven years. In 1969, Great Britain, the Republic of Guatemala, and Belize renewed their attempt at negotiations after the rejection of the Webster proposal. This time, the main focus was to establish a mechanism for economic cooperation between Belize and Guatemala. Such fresh initiative, put forward by Great Britain and agreed to by Belize, would possibly be the formula to put an end to the aged dispute between Belize and Guatemala. The formula, however, though written with noble intentions, was flawed because, among other things, it failed to recognize the importance of Belize to shape its own institutions with an eye to moving towards its own identity. Belize is culturally and politically distinct from the Republic of Guatemala. Moreover, the economic incompatibility between the two countries inhibited talks for economic integration. Belize, according to Guatemala, was making waves in pursuing its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Guatemala, on the other hand, felt that since it was not progressing much on the economic front, which would be the compensatory device for relinquishing its claim over the territory of Belize, broke off talks. Like a “bad pickney weh no get weh yi want” (a bad child who doesn’t get what he wants), Guatemala resorted to force and decided to invade Belize via Peten, just across the western border. The invasion plans were called off, but the threat didn’t just go away. Guatemala only postponed it to its advantage.
Fast forward to 2015, forty-six years hence, and we are facing the same “Amagidian” with the same problem, and the same utterance of a formula for economic cooperation and bi- lateral trade between Belize and Guatemala. Hello! Sounds familiar? It seems that the passage of time has done very little to change the situation other than to forget, at least partially, the recourses of the past. What’s different, though, between now and then is that the British have long gone to help in Belize’s defense. Secondly, and perhaps more important, Belize is now a sovereign and independent state. My concern here is that if the formula for economic cooperation didn’t work before, what make us think that it will work this time for Guatemala to relinquish its claim over Belize? Guatemala’s strategy is to promote an economic agenda for Belize within a Central American framework, which would eventually lead to political integration between the two countries. Once conquered economically, Belize would be easy to hold politically.
I see nothing wrong with any arrangement for bilateral trade and commerce. Such a measure fosters peace and harmony between two sovereign states. However, any attempt to settle this Anglo-Guatemala dispute must ensure Guatemala’s recognition of Belize as an independent and sovereign state. Using economics to solve a political problem is playing right in the hands of Guatemala. Belize, which is culturally and politically different, needs to tread softly and wisely.
Belize’s position rests on two giant pillars. One, it has a legally defined border, established by the Treaty of 1859. Two, it is an independent and sovereign state. Of course, Guatemala will be less willing to pursue the legal route to stake its claim. Rather, it prefers the economic route by enticing Belize into talks of trade and commerce as a way of attaining political integration. This strategy reminds me of Mary Howitt’s poem “The Spider and the Fly.”
“Will you walk into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly;
“’Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy.
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many pretty things to show when you are there.”
These words are simple and amusing to read, but much thought must be given, especially when one realizes that Guatemala’s “prettiest little parlor” is always adorned with talks of trade and commerce and less so on its recognition of Belize’s sovereignty. The reason is simple. Once conquered economically, Belize, the fly, will be easy to hold politically.