In 1992, on the front page of The Belize Times, the headline read, “National Interests Must Override Party Politics, Forward with the Maritime Act” (Sunday, January 19, 1992).
The Amandala headline ran “UDP Collapse; PSU strike.” (February 17, 1992).
The People’s United Party under George Price had a few weeks before it proposed a Maritime Areas Act (MAA/MAB) with a specific intent for Belize to show Guatemala that we were willing to discuss a mutually beneficial maritime boundary for them to further acknowledge our land boundary and drop its claim over Belize.
In 1991, Guatemala had for the first time recognized Belize as an Independent State. This was seen as a sign of change by Belize and the international community. The motto was “Give peace a chance”.
At the time, our territorial sea was considered 3 miles. A new international law of the sea had come into place which said that countries are entitled to 12 miles of territorial sea.
The MAA proposed that we should not claim the full 12 miles of territorial sea in what would be the southern maritime boundary area with Guatemala and Honduras. This left the other 9 miles open to possible negotiations and agreement with Guatemala for them to end their claim over Belize.
This proposal from the PUP was publicly supported by the UDP leaders Manuel Esquivel and Dean Barrow, who went on a countrywide consultation to get support for the proposal.
Leaders within the UDP were not supportive of Esquivel’s and Barrow’s position and mobilized support against it. Philip Goldson, unable to convince the UDP leaders that the bill was a betrayal of our sovereignty, broke away and sided with leaders Derek Aikman and Hubert Elrington, who formed a separate organization.
Esquivel and Barrow had indicated public support for the bill; however, they felt compelled by the internal political struggle and pressure to not support the bill at the end of the day.
George Price was firm in his mind that the bill should pass. In his address, he said, “In all this work, the sovereignty of Belize must be preserved and its territorial integrity must be maintained. We must not be afraid to go forward. The claim is the lingering obstacle to the open road to progress and prosperity.” (January 19, 1992).
The MAA was revised, due to the intervention of SPEAR and others, to state that the 3-mile declaration was dependent on reaching an agreement with Guatemala and that if this is not done, we would continue to enjoy our full 12 miles territorial sea rights under international law.
In other words, if negotiations did not succeed, Belize is entitled to its full 12 miles of territorial sea. It also said that any proposed settlement had to be put to Belize by referendum.
Negotiations did not succeed; by 1999, Guatemala declared that all of Belize below the Sibun River and all cayes except St. George’s Caye was their territory. This is why some people suggest that Guatemala is only claiming half of Belize.
However, Guatemala also indicated that they were not rejecting the possibility of claiming other parts of Belize in the future if they so desired.
For similar reasons, when the Organization of American States (OAS) proposed a solution to the dispute in 2002, Guatemala again backed away from a political and negotiated solution. A section of Guatemala’s population enjoys the idea that they can possibly gain territory to settle the dispute, but that idea is not based on the principle of law.
After these attempts failed, Belize and Guatemala,and many nations, began recognizing that the International Court of Justice should be considered.
I want to point out a few lessons this part of our history demonstrates.
1. Guatemala recognized Belize as an Independent State in 1991. This means that we are in a better position today than in the past.
2. Belize has continued to have the support of the international community for its bold steps to negotiate a peaceful settlement.
3. Guatemala has never dropped its claim over Belize.
4. There are serious consequences in the internal politics of Guatemala which makes it difficult for their leaders to carry out a negotiated solution.
5. Belize continues to fall into the trap of partisan politics because they are unable to have a unified front against the Guatemalan claim. This, in my view, has always been due to political leaders seeking to gain popular support versus sitting down with each other and offering their solutions in a serious and selfless way.
With kind regards,