There are two conclusions we may reach from the results of the ICJ referendum recently held in Guatemala. Firstly, despite the expensive inducement campaign undertaken by their government, only about 25% of Guatemala’s 7.5 million eligible voters took part in the process. We may therefore conclude that the overwhelming silent majority of Guatemalans are not really interested in having a slice of the Jewel. Secondly, of those who voted, 95% are resolved to take the issue to the ICJ pursuant to the will of a Guatemalan oligarchy who are hell-bent on acquiring at least a significant portion of Belize.
Even more significant is the fact that some Guatemalans challenged the April 15th referendum because their country’s constitution mandates that the people go to a referendum after the ICJ has made a ruling in the case and not before. This implies that should the ICJ rule in favor of Belize there may need to be another referendum before Guatemalans can accept the ICJ’s ruling. Plainly speaking, despite the wording of the Special Agreement to the contrary, Guatemala may still be at liberty to reject the ICJ’s decision, since their constitution is the supreme law of the land.
Under the terms of the Special Agreement of May 2015 endorsed by our leaders, the ball is now in our court and Belizeans must now decide in the upcoming referendum. I believe this to be the most significant decision, indeed one of existential implications, that the Belizean electorate has ever been asked to make. It therefore behooves us to reflect on what has brought us to this perilous juncture and the ramifications of a yes or no vote to go to the ICJ.
It all started with Pope Alexander the VI of Rome who in 1494 signed the Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal, giving Spain full ownership of all the land in the Americas and the Caribbean except for the area of land that is now the country of Brazil. Needless to say, the rights of the indigenous people, mainly the Maya in Belize’s case, who had dwelt in what is presently Belize for thousands of years before, were totally ignored. Other European countries such as Great Britain, France and Holland felt that the Catholic Pope had abused his authority and British pirates, along with Dutch and French ships, then roamed the entire region to challenge Spain’s dominion.
In 1530, a Spanish conquistador by the name of Davila made an attempt to conquer the land that is now Belize for Spain. He and his men, however, were defeated by the Maya king Nachankan. Belize has been settled by British pirates since 1638. Spain subsequently granted the settlers the rights to cut logwood and mahogany in Belize by way of several treaties with Great Britain. Since logging was a very labor- intensive occupation the British soon began importing slaves to do the work and the settlement became predominantly of African ancestry. Many attempts were made by the Spanish to dislodge the settlers, the last being the 1798 Battle of St. George’s Caye.
On September 15, 1821, a meeting was convened by the Captaincy General of Guatemala at which independence was declared for its provinces of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, San Salvador and Chiapas. Later they also gained their independence from Mexico in the year 1823. In the year 1840, the United Provinces of Central America, which included the countries of Honduras, San Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, broke away from Guatemala and demanded their independence. They then became independent countries in Central America.
Mexico and Guatemala later went to war over the province of Chiapas, which Mexico won, taking the province from Guatemala. Our northern border and the small portion of our western border we share with Mexico results from a 1893 treaty between Mexico and Great Britain in which Mexico gave up all their rights over Belize inherited by Spain under the Vice-Royalty of New Spain from the Rio Hondo up to the Sibun River. Of great significance at this time is Mexico’s statement that they reserve their right to re-claim Belize if Guatemala is given any part of the territory of Belize in the future.
Several treaties between Great Britain and Spain , the Godolphin Treaty of 1670, the 1763 Treaty of Paris, gave the British the right to cut logwood and mahogany in the country of Belize. The settlers, however, began cutting increasingly south of the Sibun until they reached the Sarstoon, which posed a deterrent to further expansion, as it was found difficult to get the logs across the river. Since Guatemala had gained its independence since the 1820’s, by 1859 the British, in order to establish clearly defined borders with Guatemala, signed the 1859 border Treaty with Guatemala, in which the western and southern borders of Belize with Guatemala were clearly defined and were subsequently confirmed in the 1931 Exchange of Notes, at which time the western border was surveyed and marked by surveyors from both countries. Two years later in 1862 Belize became a British crown colony, achieved self-government 102 years later and finally independence on September 21, 1981.
According to present and past Guatemalan leaders they were induced to sign the 1859 treaty by false promises of economic assistance from Great Britain contained in clause seven of the treaty. Their argument is that they had ceded their rightful territory to the British and had not been paid. In 1940 while the British were engaged with Hitler in the Second World War they found the intestinal fortitude to declare the 1859 treaty null and void due to non-fulfillment of clause seven. Subsequently in 1945 the new Guatemalan government enacted an amended constitution, declaring British Honduras to be a part of Guatemalan territory. This acquisition was taught in schools, placed on official maps and stamps. In March of 1948 the British, thinking that Guatemala was about to invade Belize, dispatched troops and warships in defense of her colony. This and other more recent incidents have made most Belizeans ever fearful of a hostile attempt by Guatemala to invade and seize Belize by force.
To be continued in the next issue of the Amandala