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Battle for the border
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Border and territorial dispute with Belize intensifies as trade talks advance.

Guatemala’s Foreign Minister Jorge Briz has accused Belize of assuming an "intransigent" posture in its effort to resolve a border dispute whose history reaches back beyond the birth of Belize as an independent country in 1981.

Briz challenged the latest Belizean attempt at border security while the two countries were on the verge of finalizing a trade pact between them. Intransigence in this case, however, is a two-way street. Guatemala failed to submit a treaty for ratification by referendum in 2002, which would have ended the dispute.

With that aborted attempt at resolution as justification, Asaad Shoman, Belize’s minister of foreign affairs, in late May sent a letter to Luigi Einaudi, then-acting secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), accusing Guatemala of trying to delay a resolution indefinitely. Shoman wants the border dispute settled, and he also wants his country out from under the cloud of Guatemala’s historic claim to half of Belize.

Briz denied any heel dragging on his country’s part and returned the accusation. "Guatemala has followed a process without affecting the claim. If it has not advanced, it is Belize’s fault," said Briz, adding that he has asked for a meeting with the new OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, to discuss the situation.

Territorial claim

When the 2000-2002 negotiation with Guatemala was well under way, Belize assembled a panel of international law consultants to evaluate the Guatemalan territorial claim. In January 2002 the panel issued a 98-page report, entitled, "Legal Opinion on Guatemala’s Claim to Belize". Part one of the publication begins, "We have been asked to consider whether Guatemala can validly question the sovereignty of Belize over the whole or any part of its territory. We can state our conclusion immediately; the answer is ‘No’".

With the 2002 OAS-brokered solution effectively dead, Belize Prime Minister Said Musa recently took Guatemala to task for rejecting it and said he might take the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) if a round of talks within the next couple of months fails. "We may be forced to go to the international court, and we believe we have a very strong case," Musa said at a May meeting of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in Guyana."

The Guatemalan government is well aware that ownership of half of Belize’s 22,792-sq km (8,800 sq. mile) — territory is deeply embedded in the national psyche. Jorge Serrano (1991-1993), president of Guatemala (1991-1993) before he was booted into exile after a palace coup, faced massive popular protest for even suggesting recognition of Belize’s claims.

Serrano normalized relations between the countries in September 1991. In August of that year, he recognized the right of its people to self-determination and stated his willingness to settle the dispute, but he did not drop Guatemala’s territorial claim.

In return, Musa introduced legislation in Belize allowing Guatemala access to international waters from its Caribbean coast. Musa said then that the concession, much needed by Guatemala for shipping, was an act of good faith to promote settlement of that claim. After Serrano’s ouster, however, President Ramiro de Leon Carpio (1993-1996) withdrew what Serrano bestowed.

Now, Musa is for a second time threatening to go to the ICJ for a final solution, but the Belizean government may have a roadblock to face. Briz countered that, if Guatemala refuses to go to court, Belize would be unable file the case unilaterally.

As Guatemala and Belize continue to stare each other down over the twin issues of their common borders and the legitimacy of Belizean sovereign territory, the trade officials and private sectors of both countries are on the verge of cementing a trade deal. The work on the trade pact puts in perspective the geopolitical tensions that have in times past threatened open warfare.

Partial Range Agreement

Guatemalan producers of animal feeds, iron, steel, and plastic seek to export their wares to Belize without restrictions under a Partial Range Agreement (AAP).

The AAP is not a free trade agreement, but it would lift tariffs on a list of roughly 1,300 goods, whereas the free trade agreement Guatemala negotiated and ratified with the United States does lift these barriers on more than 6,000 products. The Central American Free Trade Agreement, however, has not yet been ratified by the United States and is therefore not in effect.

The terms of the AAP are expected to be favorable to Guatemala, whose central bank, Banco de Guatemala, has reported the country exported US$33 million in goods to Belize and imported $27 million. The Belizean imports were principally petroleum derivatives, electrical appliances, scrap metal, construction iron and steel, chemicals, fertilizers, and other agricultural inputs.

Negotiations for the agreement began in February 2005 in Guatemala, and a second round was held in Belize in March. The rounds were notable for their lack of rancor and the swiftness with which technical obstacles were resolved, even as the territorial dispute turned bitter. Guatemalan Foreign Minister Briz turned from his focus on the conflict to say that it "does not necessarily have to oppose the achievement of the AAP."

Enrique Lacs, told the media that the third round of talks, which ended in late May round had been "successful" as chapters on legal and investment aspects had been agreed upon, and the parties had "reached the objective of closing the texts that contain the accord and beginning the discussion of the products to be included."

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