Belizean history has often been influenced by forces beyond the control of its people; by the British, the Spanish and later the Guatemalans. However, by their decision to stay and defend their homes against a large Spanish invasion force in 1798, Belizeans showed that they are not mere pawns in the games of more powerful players. The resulting Battle of St. George’s Caye was the last attempt by the Spanish to take the territory of what is now Belize by force. The unfounded Guatemalan claim to all or part of Belize delayed our attainment of independence by twenty years and continues to depress our economic potential. Several parties have an interest in resolving the issue but all past attempts at negotiation, and there have been many, have failed and there is no reason to think that new negotiations would be any more successful.
The Guatemalan claim has also played a significant role within the internal political landscape of Belize. Philip Goldson’s decision to leave the People’s United Party, of which he was a founding member, was precipitated by his belief that George Price, in his quest to attain independence from Britain, was negotiating a secret deal with Guatemala. Goldson opposed any solution that recognised in part or in total the validity of Guatemala’s claim.
The Webster Proposals of 1968 proved to be a disaster. The United States Government, with the backing of Britain, Guatemala and the PUP Government led by George Price, had appointed Mr. Bethuel M. Webster as a mediator. His terms of reference are unclear but his report in the form of a draft Treaty placed the defence, foreign affairs and, to a certain extent, the economy of Belize under Guatemalan control after independence. Its publication unleashed a groundswell of public opposition that forced its sponsors to back down.
After this fiasco a team of Belizeans, including some who lived in the United States, began working to internationalise the issue and successfully brought it to the attention of the United Nations. The UN general assembly voted in successive years from 1975 to 1981 to affirm the sovereignty of Belize and called on Britain and Guatemala to reach a compromise and grant Belize independence before its next session in 1981.
In keeping with this directive, Britain gained PUP backing to submit a document called the Heads of Agreement as the basis for negotiations between Britain, Belize and Guatemala. The document’s proposals were rejected by Belizeans in a massive show of dissent; demonstrations and strike action by civil servants and students led to the proclamation of a State of Emergency.
When new negotiations in May and June of 1981 in New York, which I attended as the UDP representative, were unsuccessful Britain resolved to grant Belize independence without a settlement. The PUP accepted this proposal even though Britain did not offer a formal defence treaty, only a promise to defend the territory for an undefined “appropriate” period. Guatemala refused to acknowledge Belize as an independent country when Belize joined the UN on September 21, 1981.
A decade later, international pressure to ratify the International Law of the Sea led to new negotiations to set maritime boundaries in an area where the interests of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras overlapped. Dean Barrow and I were part of a Belizean delegation led by George Price and we all recognised that the welfare of Belize should override any partisan political interests. The resulting agreement did not modify the land boundaries of the 1859 Treaty on which we base our land borders but rather recognised Belize’s right as an independent country to stake its legitimate maritime claim. In 1991 the UDP supported a PUP bill to provide for the territorial sea, internal waters and exclusive economic zone of Belize. The bill allowed Guatemala access to the high seas through its own territorial waters and President Jorge Serrano Elías of Guatemala, considering this a sign of good faith on the part of Belize, recognized the right of the Belizean people to self-determination and agreed to continue negotiations by all legal and proper procedures.
Even though my decision to support the Maritime Areas Act had the majority support of the UDP, a faction led by Philip Goldson disagreed and broke away from the Party. This caused great distress to all concerned and weakened opposition to the PUP, but fortunately an electoral alliance with this disaffected minority permitted the UDP to win the 1993 General Election. I recognise that the decision to support the Maritime Areas Act had negative implications for my political party, but I am still convinced that it was the right decision to put country before party.
After so much fruitless efforts to negotiate a resolution of the core issue, many people, including George Price and Philip Goldson, became convinced that adjudication by the judicial arm of the United Nations — the International Court of Justice or ICJ, was required. Britain supported this idea but Guatemala steadfastly refused to become a party to the process.
Had Guatemala elected another President as enlightened as President Jorge Serrano Elías, I believe that the decision to take the case to the ICJ would have been made much earlier. However, it was not to be, and it took several more decades for Guatemala to agree, provided that both countries hold a referendum to support this step. A PUP government, supported by the then UDP Opposition, recognised that, as a matter of grave national interest, the referendum in Belize should remain beyond the bounds of partisan politics.
I applaud the serious scholarship and research undertaken to support the education campaign. Having studied the legal arguments of experts and listened to various points of view, I remain convinced that Belize has nothing to fear from the ICJ. Naturally many people are suspicious of Guatemala and wonder why it has reversed its previous rejection of a legal ruling.
Personally, I believe that the Guatemalan Government understands that no negotiated agreement in their favour is possible. However, since it would be politically disastrous to unilaterally drop their unfounded claim, going to the ICJ is a face-saving measure that absolves them from responsibility. I am convinced that finally putting this claim to rest will open economic and development doors of great benefit to Belize, doors that we cannot allow to remain shut indefinitely.
I acknowledge that the “No” Vote has many sincere proponents, but unfortunately a significant number are mere opportunists seeking only to improve their own political fortunes. I am deeply disappointed that John Briceño has buckled in the face of internal political plotting against his leadership and is now supporting a “No” vote in the Referendum – against his own convictions and those of senior members of his Party. A true patriot should NEVER put his own political career ahead of the best interests of his country.
Just as in 1798, the upcoming referendum gives the people of Belize the opportunity to take control of our own destiny. Like those patriots who voted to defend Belize at the Battle of St. George’s Caye I say YES to Belize and YES to the ICJ.
Contributed by Sir Rt. Hon. Manuel A. Esquivel co-founder of Belize’s United Democratic Party and two time Prime Minister of Belize. Like former Prime Minister Rt. Hon. George Price, Sir Manuel rose from a humble background. He lives in the same wood clapboard house where he was raised.