The Guardian • Issue #2034

The Belize-Guatemala conflict and the role of Cuba

Source: Mapswire (CC BY 4.0)

In September 2022 the Belize Defence Force and Coast Guard encountered five maritime vessels belonging to the Guatemalan Armed Forces, near Sarstoon Island in the south of Belize. Five civilian vessels, operated by the Belize Territorial Volunteers, had placed two Belizean national flags on the Island, which the Guatemalan Armed Forces removed. Guatemala informed the patrol that the area belonged to Guatemala. The Ministry of National Defence and Border Security of Belize said that it would ensure that the “territorial integrity and national sovereignty of Belize” would be maintained.

This territorial conflict has been ongoing since the 1859 Treaty and continues forty years after Belize’s independence from the United Kingdom (UK) in 1981. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands there was a fear that the war in the South Atlantic would deplete the British military presence in Belize.

However, a Guatemalan invasion never materialised. The British Forces in Belize, including the No. 1417 RAF Harriers, protected Belize until the main British force left in 1994, three years after Guatemala recognised Belize’s independence. Today the UK maintains the British Army Training and Support Unit Belize (BATSUB) of tropical training for British troops and its international military partners.

The US Southern Command has a base in Belize and the French Foreign Legion does jungle training in the country. In 2011 I interviewed a former member of the British Special Air Service (SAS), who confirmed that the SAS had been used to defend Belize. Military patrols continue to encounter Guatemalan troops well inside Belize’s territory.

In June 2022 the Prime Minister of Belize, Dr John Briceño, announced the delivery of Belize’s counter-memorial to the Guatemalan claim to the Registrar of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. Guatemala must submit its reply by December 2022. Belize must submit its final response to the ICJ by June 2023 before the oral hearings can begin. The ICJ arbitration had begun in 2018 after a Guatemala referendum voted “yes” to arbitration. In 2019 Belize submitted its territorial dispute with Guatemala to the ICJ. Guatemala initially had claimed all of Belize, but after its independence in 1981, Guatemala recognised the new government and reduced its claim in 2008 to an area of 12,000 sq km, roughly half the country.

This territorial dispute between Guatemala and Belize, formerly British Honduras, goes back 200 years, to when they were Spanish and British colonies, respectively. Britain and Guatemala had signed a Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation in 1849 and then the British-Guatemalan Treaty of 1859. The treaty required that under Article 7, a cart road costing £50,000 be constructed by the British to connect Guatemala City to the Caribbean coast through British Honduras, but it was never built. Under Article 2, Britain was required to survey and mark out the boundary, which was never completed.

In 1946, the Guatemalan government declared the treaty null and void and demanded the return of British Honduras territory. In 1946 Britain took the dispute to the ICJ. When Guatemala threated to invade the colony, Britain sent in two cruisers and a battalion of infantry in 1948. The American Committee on Dependent Territories declared Belize to be an “occupied territory.” In 1955 the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Central America issued unanimously that Belize was Guatemalan territory. With this political support, the 1965 Constitution defined Belize as “part of the territory of Guatemala” and that Belizeans were “natural Guatemalans.”

To complicate the political dispute further is that Belize’s demographics has changed greatly since independence. The emigration of large numbers of English-speaking Afro-Belizeans (Creoles and Garifuna) to the United States and their replacement by Spanish-speaking mestizos and Maya from Guatemala has altered the ethnic composition and spatial distribution. These cultural changes have meant that the Creole population (Black, English speaking and Protestant) has been reduced to thirty per cent, making Belize a multi-ethnic country.

Although not born in Belize, Maya immigrants claim “native” status due to their common cultural heritage of Maya civilisation, which is identified by the presence of numerous great Mayan cities in Belize, such as Caracol. Afro-Caribbean Belizeans are proud of their African heritage and argue that they are the true “indigenous.” Both ethnic groups are divided by history, language (English versus Spanish), music (Reggae vs Salsa), architecture (wood vs adobé) and religion (Protestant vs Catholic), which accentuates the cultural and racial differences.

While travelling through Belize, I often witnessed the Afro-Belizeans accusing the Maya of being “in my black country” and they “should speak English.” The Guatemalans replied that “I am Indian and this is my continent,” a claim of indigenousness by rights of culture and ethnicity. In the past ten years the Courts of Belize have granted land rights to the Maya owing to their collective indigenous past.

The British colony’s descendants were former slaves, who gained emancipation in 1838. British Honduras had its first constitution in 1854. The colony was extremely important to Britain, both economically and geopolitically. Nearly 100 percent of all British imports into Central America went through the colony. After the independence of the five republics, European and US goods were exported through new ports into Central America. Britain still held territories in Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, which led to clashes with the US, which maintained the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, in which no foreign powers were allowed in its backyard. It led to the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, though conflicts between the two great powers flared in 1854 and 1856, which led to the Dallas-Clarendon Treaty of 1856. British Honduras became a Crown Colony in 1871.

Because of hunger, poverty and the harsh working conditions, workers rioted in 1894, 1919 and 1934. In 1939 calls for independence led to the formation of the People’s United Party (PUP) in 1950. With demands for political and economic independence, its leaders were imprisoned. Party leader John Smith told the workers that, “The present evil is British colonialism. That evil the people must fight until it is dissolved.” In 1954 the British Honduras governor warned that PUP was under the influence of international Communism. In 1961 PUP won all eighteen seats, spelling the end of colonialism. British Honduras, a self-governing colony, was renamed Belize in June 1973.

The political situation in Guatemala changed when Jacobo Arbenz became president in 1951, under revolutionary nationalism that gave voice to the dispossessed. Under the reform law of 1952 idle land was expropriated from the rich landlords and foreign corporations, one of which was the US-owned United Fruit Company. Arbenz promised to uplift the standards of living of the poor by expropriating 300,000 hectares of land for redistribution to the peasants.

In 1954, during a game of golf, President Eisenhower promised to assist the CEO of the company. Under US pressure the OAS (Organization of American States) declared that any signs of international Communism would result in “appropriate actions.” The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) organised a “liberation army” trained in Honduras, commanded by Guatemalan Colonel, Carlos Castillo Armas. The coup ousted president Arbenz and installed the brutal dictator, Armas. Che Guevara was in Guatemala City at the time and fled to Mexico where he met Fidel Castro, joining his rebels for the invasion of Cuba. The Guatemala Civil War, 1960 to 1996, led to the death of over 600,000 people, so that the rich retained their wealth and power.

Five years after the coup against President Arbenz, in January 1959, the rebel forces under the Castro brothers and Guevara took control of Cuba, ousting the US-backed Batista government. The US promised the Guatemalan government that if it supported a US invasion of Cuba Guatemala would receive diplomatic support in its claim of British Honduras. President Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes allowed the CIA to train the Cuban exile force in Guatemala. On 17th April 1961, the Brigadistas of Brigade 2506 opposed to the Castro regime, sailed from British Honduras for Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) in Cuba, during Operation Zapata, in an attempt to overthrow the Communist government. It ended in a complete disaster for the US. This was followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. In 1963 President Kennedy approved the coup against Ydígoras, installing Defense Minister Colonel Enrique Peralta Azurdia as the new president.

The Cuban Communist government set out to ensure independence from the imperial powers around the world, at great sacrifice politically, militarily and economically. One such colony was British Honduras. The first Belizean Prime Minister, George Price, visited Cuba to receive the “Orden José Marti” from Fidel Castro.

Cuba became the third player in Belize’s independence and its conflict with Guatemala. In the 1960s, Cuba established close ties with Luis Augusto Turcios Lima, an advocate of communist revolution through guerrilla warfare and organised the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR) in 1962. He supported the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca), URNG-MAIZURNG, an umbrella organisation representing the Guatemalan poor, which became a political party after the Civil War. In retaliation Guatemala severed ties with Cuba until 1996. In 2009, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom gave Fidel Castro the Order of Quetzal, one of the highest honours in Guatemala. Cuban president Raul Castro accepted the award on behalf of his brother.

On the 27th April 2022, Prime Minister of Belize, John Briceño, and the First Secretary of the Communist Party and president of Cuba, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, signed a Joint Communiqué strengthening the bilateral ties between the two Caribbean countries, marking the 27th Anniversary of establishing Cuba and Belize diplomatic relations, deepening their historic bonds of friendship and cooperation. Briceño reiterated Belize’s unwavering support to end the illegal and unjust economic and financial blockade imposed by the US on Cuba.

In 2021 Belize had sent food, sanitation and hygiene products to Cuba, valued at BZ$200,000, a large sum for the poor country. Cuba had earlier sent a medical brigade to help Belize fight against the COVID-19 outbreak. Both countries have Afro-descendants making African cultures a part of their multi-culturalism. Hundreds of Belizeans have graduated in medicine from Cuban universities and thousands of Cuban Doctors have worked in Belize’s hospitals and clinics.

The relations between Belize and Cuba go beyond diplomacy and trade links, as Cuba has always supported unconditionally the independence and sovereignty of Belize.

On the death of Fidel Castro in 2016, the Prime Minister of Belize, Dean Barrow, expressed his condolences through a diplomatic note to Raul Castro:

“This note is penned with a heavy heart. You have lost your brother, the Cuban people have lost their avatar, and humanity has lost a giant for the ages. As a leader, bestriding history, Fidel proved, in unending ways, his love for the Cuban people, and all people, especially those suffering from injustice or neglect […]. On behalf of the government and people of Belize, I, therefore, extend our most profound condolences. But we know that in death Fidel will continue to inspire. Thus, we will take comfort from his enduring legacy, from the triumph represented by his life and the unmatchable work that, together with you, and all the other heroes of the Revolution, he did for Cuba, the region, and the world.”

Between 1966 and 1981, Cuba became a major player in Belize’s struggle for independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. In 1966 British-Guatemalan talks were held in Washington DC. Later President Reagan pressured British Honduras to cede land to Guatemala, but it remained resilient with the vital support of Cuba. By 1983, Fidel’s allies in the George Price Cabinet, Assad Shoman and Said Musa, were defeated by the PUP’s right wing. On 16th January 2019, Prime Minister Barrow visited Cuba on the invitation of President Díaz-Canel, to pay tribute to José Martí, a national hero of pre-revolution Cuba. The official meeting commemorated the little-known history of Cuba’s support for Belize during the height of the Cold War, against UK and US imperialism.

Further Reading: Assad Shoman. Guatemala’s Claim to Belize: The Definitive History. Belize, 2018.
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