BELIZE CITY, Mon. Jan. 18, 2016–The installation of a new political regime in Guatemala last Thursday—a new congress, president and cabinet—marks a new era in Belize-Guatemala relations, but it remains to be seen whether the 4-year term of newly installed president, Jimmy Morales, will see a definitive end to—or at least significant inroads in resolving—the age-old territorial differendum between the two neighboring countries.
Sixteen years ago, Belize and Guatemala entered talks under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS), and just over seven years ago, the parties signed an agreement proposing to submit the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for final resolution, pending approval via referendum by voters in both countries.
In the run-up to the 2015 presidential elections, Morales was asked what he considered the “most deplorable” event in Guatemala’s history. His answer: the loss of Belize. Morales said “…we are about to lose Belize,” and added that Guatemala should fight for that territory or at least a part of it.
Belize Foreign Affairs officials have told our newspaper that in meeting and speaking with Belizean officials, Morales has since not pursued that same line.
Speaking in an interview in Guatemala City last week, Prime Minister Dean Barrow told Amandala that he was pleased to hear Guatemala’s new president speak of improving bilateral relations with Belize on the occasion of his inaugural speech.
“You can’t get more public attention than that. I thought it very encouraging, extremely positive that he made clear that he wants good relations with Belize and he wants a solution [to the territorial differendum],” Barrow said.
Barrow said that it is important “that we keep things on a completely even keel, as we try to work our way, towards the holding of a referendum in Guatemala and in Belize.”
Tensions between Belize and Guatemala were agitated in 2015 over plans by the Belize Coast Guard to build a forward operating base on Sarstoon Island, which lies north of the Belize-Guatemala border, well inside Belizean territory, amid challenges by Guatemala over the ownership of the mangrove island.
“We’re moving on and that’s the way it ought to be…” Barrow said, adding that the Guatemalans have accepted that it is within Belize’s right to do what it has done.
In December, Belize broke ground to construct the forward operating base at the mouth of the Sarstoon River.
According to Barrow, the Guatemalans have said that they are not going to be quarreling with Belize security forces over their movement in the Sarstoon, “on the side Belize considers to be its territory.”
Barrow said that while both he and Guatemala’s new president would like to see the ICJ referendum happen, Guatemala’s political directorate must work with their congress to get certain things approved, such as the date on which the referendum would be held.
“The internal dynamics in Guatemala are extremely problematic and extremely complex, so what I am most concerned with is that as this thing is making its way forward—even if it’s just a matter of inching its way forward—that we maintain excellent day-to-day operational relations between the two countries. That is my preoccupation; that is my focus and I believe that the auguries are very favorable for us to do that…” Barrow said.
The Prime Minister noted that the president’s party is not by any means the majority in Congress, but, he said, Guatemala’s Foreign Minister, Carlos Raul Morales, had indicated that he had already reached out to the president of congress, and is hoping that whatever they need to get passed will be passed.
(Interview by: Marisol Amaya, KREM TV news editor, for Amandala.)