Years ago, I remarked to a Gibraltarian, ‘Spain lays claim to Gibraltar, Argentina the Falkland Islands, Guatemala Belize, what is it with Spanish-speaking countries?’ to which he replied, ‘I think you mean: “What is it with fascists?”’ I wouldn’t brand them as ‘fascists’, but rather as ‘Hispano-irredentists’, all hankering after long lost territory, if it were theirs to lose. 


Unlike Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, Belize, formerly British Honduras, has the advantage of being an independent state, although Guatemala’s threats delayed its independence until 1981, with 1500 British troops remaining there until 1994. Guatemala established diplomatic relations with Belize, but its embassy is in Belize City, not the capital, Belmopan.

Why? Because Belmopan, a purpose-built mini-Canberra or Brasilia is a bit on the dull side? No, because it is located just inside a part of Belize to which Guatemala lays claim, covering the centre and south of the country. And so too are the embassies of Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, in solidarity with Guatemala and its claim to sovereignty.

If you thought that Spain’s bickering over the isthmus was bad, imagine what it would be like if Madrid were happy to let Gibraltar gain independence, but only after it had taken back more than half of its territory. That is much the position of Guatemala City, although increasingly it goes the whole hog and claims the whole of Belize as its ‘twenty-third department’.

However, unlike Spain and Argentina, both of whose narratives are about ‘seized territories’ and ‘planted populations’, Guatemala’s gripe over Belize is more commercial. It accuses the UK of reneging on an 1859 agreement to build a road between Belize City and Guatemala City in exchange for Guatemala recognising the borders of the then British Honduras.


Still, there is the same nationalist mythology, with maps of Guatemala featuring part or all of Belize as part of its national territory, and seats reserved in its Congress for it, all of which remain empty. Belizeans much prefer their own National Assembly, a mini-Westminster with a Governor-General still representing the Queen as head of state, despite the odd republican murmuring.

In addition, Guatemala’s leaders have long engaged in sabre-rattling, with one declaring in 1972 that ‘Guatemala will not accept the independence of Belize even if it costs Guatemalan lives’, though nothing more came of it. And with good reason, given that at the time, the UK had deployed Harrier jets to fly along the border, which continued to after independence.

Just as joint sovereignty with Spain over Gibraltar was proposed in 2002, and a condominium with Argentina over the Falkland Islands was back in the 1970s, in 1968, Belize faced the ‘Webster Proposals’, which would have made it nominally independent, but effectively a protectorate of Guatemala, economic and cultural as well as military and diplomatic.

Named after Bethuel Webster, the American lawyer who drafted them, they were an attempt by the US to broker an agreement. (Seeing the hemisphere as its turf, Washington was lukewarm about the continued presence of a pro-British enclave.) However, when they were leaked to the public in Belize, they provoked anger and rioting, prompting the UK to reject them.

Yet while Spain and Argentina still receive support from other Hispanic countries over Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, Guatemala received far less from them over Belize. In 1981, a UN General Assembly resolution on Belize’s admission was passed by 144 states, including all those in Latin America, as well as the US, with only Guatemala opposed.


Well, that should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t, as recently, Guatemala and Belize agreed to take their dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. This was approved by voters in a referendum in Guatemala last year, albeit one with a very low turnout, and is due to be put to a one in Belize next month on 10 April.

Being an independent state, Belize will have the advantage of being to plead its case before the Court, which only hears cases between independent states, not individuals. Nor even territories like Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, as Spain and Argentina refuse to appear before it, and the UK, and make the case for their respective territorial claims.

Even if Belize votes ‘yes’, and the dispute then goes to the Court, it would take a year for Guatemala to present the evidence of its case, and another for Belize to contradict it. However, it could be another four years before the Court delivers its verdict, which means that it might not be until 2025 at the earliest before the outcome is finally known.


Incidentally, this is not the only case of ‘Hispano-irridentism’ in the region, as Venezuela lays claim to two-thirds of Guyana, which it calls la Zona en Reclamación. Will that be the next English-speaking country in line for dismemberment, if not annexation? We can only hope that Belize’s decision will not be the next national act of Russian roulette after Brexit.

When a presenter on BFBS Radio in Gibraltar told her listeners how she was looking forward to her next posting in Belize, one acquaintance sneered: ‘Has she been there? It’s a toilet!’ Well, I’m sure that it has many shortcomings, but the 398, 000 people living there don’t deserve to have it wiped off the map and made foreigners in their own country.

And I think that Gibraltarians (and Falkland Islanders) would agree with me on that.