The dispute moved now to the “court phase.” Guatemala proposed arbitration, and Britain suggested taking the matter to the Hague Court. Guatemala was not in favour of the dispute being examined purely on a legal basis. In July 1939, Guatemala published a White Book on her claims, and in 1940 Britain again offered arbitration in any of three ways: either to the Hague Court, or to a tribunal of international lawyers examining the matter under Chapter 4 of the Hague Convention, or to a tribunal of three international lawyers-one member to be selected by each party and one of them by the President of the United States. Guatemala rejected all three, and in 1940 Guatemala claimed that the Treaty was invalid, and therefore, for the first time, claimed the whole of British Honduras, “She also considers that the non-compliance of the obligations on the part of Great Britain has caused to the Republic, material and intangible damages because of the loss of advantages which the country would have derived from its development and from its foreign trade if the expected highway to the Atlantic Coast had been constructed. The British occupation of British Honduras cut off all maritime communications with the Department of Peten closing it off thereby orographic and political barriers that have prevented its progress and development”. (69)

During the Second World War, President Ubico did not press the matter, but after his downfall in 1944 the new Guatemalan Government promulgated a constitution in 1945, declaring British Honduras to be a part of Guatemalan territory. Britain offered in 1946 to take the dispute to the International Court, but Guatemala refused unless it would be determined ex aequo et bono, acceding to the principle of equity, what is just and good. Another principle Which Guatemala adheres to is the principle of uti possidetis, which is based on the theory that “… the Central American Federation inherited the sovereign rights formerly possessed by Spain and that on its dissolution its member-states inherited the territorial jurisdiction which corresponded to them respectively as administrative divisions of the old Captaincy-General of Guatemala .” Guatemala further argues that during the colonial period, Belize formed a part of Peten or Verapaz during the period of Guatemala’s membership of the Central American Federation and after the Federation had dissolved. This principle, applied by Gautemala and between other Latin American states, is a principle which is not recognized by international law and applies only to those states who have agreed to be bound by it. (70)

During this time Guatemala increased its publicity of her claims on the country, and began sending propaganda material to British Honduras. In March, 18, 1948 Britain suspected that Guatemala would invade the country, and dispatched troops and warships to British Honduras. This provoked wide-spread demonstration in British Honduras against Guatemala. Guatemala enacted her Constitution of 1945 including Belize as part of its territory, taught it in her schools, placed it on her maps and her stamps, and even kept vacant seats in her Assembly for representatives of her “Department.” She would regularly place her claim in speeches before the United Nations, and in 1957, her Ambassador in London even made offers to British Honduran legislators for associateship with Guatemala. (71)

Guatemala’s troop build-up at the border was a conscious shift on Guatemala’s part from the traditional ways of negotiating and using diplomatic channels, to the use of force. The latter was seen as the only solution to acquiring Guatemala’s Ôlost territory’. This attempt failed when the British landed troops in British Honduras to protect it from the invasion.

The borders between Belize and Guatemala were officially closed, but colonel Niederheitmann, from El Peten, concluded that the drawbacks for Guatemala in maintaining the closure would be too many. The colonel gave three logical reasons against such an action: it would be necessary to have at least three battalions patrolling the border and it would be impossible to maintain them financially since they would require supplies, lodging and equipment. Secondly, it was fundamental to consider the number of Belizeans who sought jobs in Peten, and that medium, through which the people in Peten made a living, was in Belize, which was where milk, clothes, tools, beer, ice and even soft drinks were bought and resold. Hence, he concluded that it wouldn’t be worth depriving both Belizeans and Guatemalans alike of their livelihood. Niederheitmann’s third point was that closing the border, would have dire consequences to Peten and be costly for Guatemala which would need to supply Peten with at least 17 daily airlifts. (72)

During the crisis of 1948, Peten remained isolated from the rest of Guatemala and because of its geographical location with Belize became more dependent on Belize in terms of commercial exchange. This situation created the urbanization and colonization of Poptun as a way to protect Peten and help in the claim over Belize. (73) These were the beginnings of extensive trade ties between Belize and Guatemala. The economic interaction which started at the borders has multiplied tenfold and today continue to be of great economic significance to both countries in spite of the political obstacles.

Guatemala at the time, embarked on a regional campaign to gain support for its cause in the dispute. On 17 March 1949, during a meeting of the American Commission of Dependent Territories, Guatemala presented the Commission with their arguments regarding the Belize question. The focus of their argument was based on the fact that Guatemala “will continue to disagree that the dispute be submitted to the International Court of Justice if it will be judged solely on a legal basis, since fundamentally the case of Belize involves more than just the technical legalities, instead, it is a moral issue that involves history, economics and justice”. (74) The signatories of the Central American Republics all supported the declaration of Antigua of 1955- which stated that the territory of Belize is an integral part of Guatemala and consequently of Central America and that the measures taken to claim this territory concerns all the signatories to that declaration. (75)

On the other hand, Mexico maintained its position: if the status of Belize is altered in Guatemala’s favor, then the legal and historical rights of Mexico over a part of that territory cannot be discounted. Of great political significance for Belize, was the British government’s decision to devalue the Belizean dollar. In the teeth of unanimous opposition from the unofficial members of the Legislation, the necessary legislation was enacted and intensely opposed by the mass of the urban population. Devaluation became the immediate occasion for the formation of the Peoples Committee which later became the Peoples United Party (PUP) and this issue, more than any other, fueled the anti-colonialist movement. “Devaluation of the dollar bound the country more closely to Britain, rather than to its traditional market and source of supplyÑthe United States. In the short term at least, devaluation raised the price of imports, and thus the cost of living, at a time of acute economic depression. It also brought into the open the conflict of interest between the business community which was its immediate beneficiary and the working class. Finally, it had a similar effect on the opposing viewpoints of the other Ôsuitable citizens’ who refused to fill the void unless an on official majority was established in the Legislative Council. (76)

The year 1960 marked a very important year for colonies, especially, Belize. “…it was to have the most critical impact on Guatemalan posture and the entire Belize question”. (77) The General Assembly on the 15th December 1960, adopted Resolution 1514 (XV), the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples:

“All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” ( Article 2 of the U.N. Declaration, text )

“The Declaration affirmed that Ôsubjection of people to alien…domination constituted a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation.’ Further, it enjoined Ôimmediate steps be taken in trust and non-self-governing territories or all other territories which have not yet attained independence, to transfer all powers to the peoples in order to enable them to enjoy complete independence and freedom. In this way, the concepts of self-determination, of anti-colonialism, and territorial integrity, gained international legal currency…’ The process would now begin whereby Belize would no longer be treated as merely the passive object of the dispute. In acknowledgment of her inherent right to self-determination of her own destiny, she would eventually be accorded active and equal status in the continuing negotiations over her future.” (78)

This explains clearly that with this United Nations declaration, Belize and other colonies like it now had the security it needed, and which consolidated its right to claim independence and its sovereignty in the face of the territorial claim by Guatemala. It is arguable that the 1960 United Nations Declaration may have facilitated the first modern-day negotiations of the Twentieth Century, the Webster Proposals, in which the mediator allowed for Belize to become an independent nation. Other aspects, as will be seen, failed to be agreeable or acceptable to the Belizean electorate.

The objective of becoming independent was paramount for Belize and the Honourable George Price, the First Minister, on August 5th, 1962, was the Guest Speaker at the anniversary of the Belize Men’s Meeting held at Wesley Church in Belize City. Mr. Price delivered an address entitled, “Appointment With History” in which he made reference to the Anglo-Guatemalan dispute, setting forth his government’s policy on the matter. He stated,

“Let every citizen be assured that we do not intend to be integrated, reincorporated, assimilated or taken over by any country. The whole world knows that our political aims are self-government within the Commonwealth and independence….while we shall not surrender even one square centimeter of our national territory, we do not propose to spew recrimination or insults against our neighbours….because of our steadfastness, our demeanour, our willingness to meet our neighbours at the conference table, we expect in time that they will acknowledge our right to freely exercise the principle of self-determination, guaranteed us by the Charter of the United Nations, self-determination to be a nation”. (79)

Originally shared by Amauri Marconi Leal

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