Belize and Guatemala: The Weaponisation of Imperial Inheritance Claims in Latin America
On June 18, 2019, the Central American nations of Belize and Guatemala asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to mediate a border dispute which has lingered between the two since the 1800s. The ICJ will assess Guatemala’s claim to be the rightful sovereign of half the territory which makes up Belize, with both countries hoping that the proceedings will end in a satisfying legal conclusion, in their favour.
However, the case between Belize and Guatemala is rooted in more than just a simple misunderstanding. It is part of a wider trend seen in Central and Southern America: the use of historical regional empires to justify modern-day territorial claims. Analysing several border disputes within the region, it can be observed that nations across Central and South America have begun to weaponise their histories of colonisation to their potential benefit. This is done in the hope of gaining additional territory, by claiming to be the inheritor of a preceding empire.
The Belize-Guatemala Border
The Belize-Guatemala border dispute has its roots in the colonisation of the Americas. By the 1600s, societies of European settlers had begun to take control of Caribbean and coastal Central American territories in order to cement cross-continental commerce between Europe and the ‘new world’.
The Baymen, a loose term for British sailors who settled in modern-day Belize, emerged as a community that operated much-like a state, with elected local magistrates and functional economic relationships. Although these settlers were still considered to be British subjects, the community of the area was not officially a colony. This meant the Baymen acted with a high degree of autonomy, throwing their society into uncertain legal standing, later leading to conflict with the expanding Spanish Empire.
Emboldened by the famous Treaty of Tordesillas, which proclaimed to split the Americas between Portugal and Spain, the latter’s imperial project felt that the land of the Baymen’s community rightfully belonged to their Empire. Although attempts were made to establish peace between them, the communities of the region came into conflict several times, including the 1798 Battle of St George’s Caye, in which the Baymen fought off the Spanish army, an event which is still celebrated annually on September 10 as Belize’s national holiday.
The Spanish Empire would collapse in the 1820s with new states, such as Guatemala, emerging. While it was an independent nation, distinct from its colonial predecessor, the new Republic of Guatemala did not abandon Spain’s claim to the land of the Baymen’s society, arguing that the new state had inherited the Spanish Empire’s sovereignty over the area.
Negotiations would eventually take place between Guatemala and Britain, on behalf of the Baymen, and in 1859 the Wyke-Aycinena Treaty was signed. The document outlined Guatemala’s recognition of Britain’s sovereignty over the Baymen’s territory in exchange for a road to be constructed from Guatemala City to the coast of the British territory, to help the Republic access the Atlantic.
This road, however, was never constructed, and as such the Guatemalan government has long maintained that the agreement, including the articles regarding the Baymen’s territorial integrity, is subsequently null and void. The land of the late Baymen’s society would eventually become a Crown Colony of the British Empire in 1862 as ‘British Honduras’, and later gain independence as Belize in 1981.
Guatemala has remained consistent in its assertion that a significant section of Belize rightfully belongs to their nation, although it has changed its claim from the entirety of the country to its southern half. This hardline attitude prompted the British Armed Forces to maintain a presence in the country to protect the UN recognised border, an operation that is continuing to this day.
With the border between the two nations, and the issue of sovereignty still up in the air, both countries agreed in 2008 to hold respective referendums as to whether the dispute should be referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for a definitive legal ruling. Guatemala held their referendum in 2018 and Belize in 2019, both of which passed, allowing for the countries to bring their cases to the ICJ. It is these events that have created the current climate of anticipation, as the case remains in its early days.
Imperial Legacies across the Region
Like most matters stemming from imperialism, the Belize-Guatemala dispute is a complicated case study when considered as a result of colonisation, the establishment of settler colonies and tribal lands. But the most striking part of the dispute is arguably the foundation of Guatemala’s claim to Belize’s Southern half: that, as the successor state of the Spanish Empire, Guatemala has a right to the territory regardless of what society may currently be occupying it.
Belize takes issue with this claim of course, maintaining that their land has never been under the authority of any Guatemalan state. In this, Guatemala’s claim is that it inherited Spain’s right to colonise the land of Belize, and still retains that right into the modern day.
This is a strikingly similar argument that lies at the heart of the infamous Falkland Islands dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina. The islands, which are currently a British Overseas Territory, are claimed by Argentina on the basis that the nation inherited them from Spain’s colonial claims, despite the islands having been entirely uninhabited before the arrival of British and French vessels.
Likewise, a third ongoing border dispute between Suriname and Guyana remains at a standstill, but also finds its roots in competing colonial assertions about whether the Dutch or British, the two states’ former colonisers, had asserted sovereignty over the New River Triangle and how these claims should reflect South American borders in the modern day.
It is well known that imperial borders were often drawn up recklessly and without much care for cultural and social boundaries. Yet, these poorly thought-out lines are still given a significant amount of legitimacy when modern states assert their right to carry forward an Empire’s imperial legacy.
Ultimately, the history of these countries and how they choose to deal with its impacts is a choice entirely for them to embrace. However, the ongoing usage of colonial history to justify territorial claims reflects a continuation of a concerning mindset – one that asserted taking land was a right of states that had the military and economic means to do so.
Belize and Guatemala’s decision to refer the debate around their border to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is a tremendous step in a peaceful direction. It signifies that both countries, and their populations, are willing to let the rule of international law peacefully determine the outcome of their dispute. However, previous court rulings with comparable conditions that have been unfavourable to some nations have led to an increase in hostilities. An example of this is China’s denial of a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that concerned the illegitimacy of the dotted line in its maritime claims to parts of the South China Sea. This example raises the question of whether Belize and Guatemala’s border dispute will truly end with the ICJ’s ruling.
The borders of Central and South America are a complicated affair, shaped by careless colonisers and imperial claims to sovereignty. The survival of some of these sentiments into the modern day reflects how imperialist thought has been resurrected as nationalism in the region. The nostalgia for long-dead empires is being used to the benefit of modern nations that are hoping to expand their reach and access to resources in order to hold a stronger position within an increasingly unsure global dynamic. But these claims also run the risk of creating continual dissent between nations in Central and South America, and could very well create conflicts reminiscent of those that determined regions’ unresolved borders in the first place.
Lachlan Forster is a young writer studying at the University of Melbourne, majoring in International Relations and History. Lachlan is a New Colombo Plan Scholar, studying in Singapore and Malaysia. He has been published in the Herald Sun, the Chariot Journal of History and Farrago Student Magazine.