A change of government in Guatemala and Belize is reviving long-simmering fears of war between the Central American neighbors. Media in Belize are reporting that a leaked document written by a senior officer in the Belize Defense Force apparently claims an ongoing campaign of aggression and confrontation from the Guatemalan military along the Sarstoon River, which forms the border between the two nations in the south. The leaked memo, dated Oct. 22, notes incidents as far back as 2003, with tension reaching dangerous point in 2006. The tension eased when the two nations' armed forces agreed on protocols for their border forces along the Sarstoon. But the memo says late 2009 saw another incident, in which a Guatemalan army vessel anchored on the Belizean side near the mouth of the Sarstoon, and raised a Guatemalan flag from a tree-top. BDF troops apparently removed the flag, but that the Guatemalan soldiers defiantly promised to replace it.
The memo came to light in the lead-up to general elections in Belize, in which Prime Minister Dean Barrow of the conservative United Democratic Party (UDP) won a record third term. The Belizean elections closely followed those in Guatemala, where the new president-elect, Jimmy Morales, has revived territorial claims on Belize. Barrow made much of the issue, proclaiming that "Belize will not be bullied."
In a congratulatory note to Morales on his victory Oct. 25, Barrow softened his message—but still touched on the issue. He wrote: "I want to assure you that Belize wishes only to live in peace and harmony with our neighbours… Over the past few years, Belize and Guatemala have engaged in constructive engagement to build bridges of functional cooperation, even as we pursue the path we have already defined to definitively resolve our historic differences at the International Court of Justice should our people so desire." (The Reporter, Belize, Nov. 6)
Barrow also struck a more conciliatory tone in an interview with Reuters on Morales' irredentist campaign-trail rhetoric. "I feel confident that after he is sworn in and has had a chance to consult with the foreign policy establishment and military establishment in Guatemala, and be educated, that the kind of rhetoric that we heard before he actually won will be toned down," Barrow said. While emphasizing he did not intend that "in a pejorative sense," he added: "Our coast guard, our military are on alert." (Reuters, Nov. 5)
But the night of his victory, Morales revisited his expansionist posturing. "And with pain in my heart, Belize," he said. "Belize. How can we forget Belize? Up until a few years ago, the constitution of Guatemala said that Belize is Guatemalan territory… I say that we should not give up even a centimeter of our territory, a centimeter of our sea, a centimeter of that which joins us by history…." (News5, Belize, Oct. 26)
Belize, the former British Honduras, became independent in 1981. Guatemala had agreed to recognize the British colony under an 1859 treaty with the UK—but later claimed that Britain did not live up to treaty obligations, specifically to help build a road lnking Guatemala City to the Caribbean coast. From 1945, Guatemala's constitution claimed Belize as part of the national territory. After Belizean independence, Guatemala's then-military rulers revived the territorial claim, and "Belice es Nuestro" (Belize is Ours) became a popular slogan among Guatemala's elite. As Guatemala prepared to return to democracy in 1985, a new constitution was adopted, dropping an explicit claim to Belize and putting off the matter to a popular referendum—which was never held. (Country Studies, Library of Congress; Belize.com)
Following a wave of protests in response to political scandals under the former administration of Otto Pérez Molina, ex-comedian Morales was elected as an "outsider" who pledged to shake up Guatemala's political establishment. But he angered many in the country's popular classes with his ugly "comedy" routines poking fun in racist manner at indigenous and Afro-descendant Guatemalans. (PRI, Sept. 9)