In the introduction to his quite remarkable new book on the long-running Guatemalan claim to Belize, the author, Assad Shoman, makes the riveting comment that “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.”
He is right to make this statement because protagonists in territorial claims, particularly the ones with the least facts to support their case, propagate much propaganda to suit themselves. Guatemala’s claim to Belize, and Venezuela’s claim to two-thirds of Guyana are telling examples of reliance more on opinion and territorial ambition and less on facts.
But, there can be little doubt about the facts that are set-out in Shoman’s latest book, “Guatemala’s Claim to Belize: The Definitive History. He has meticulously provided impeccable sources and references for each of his statements, especially the more controversial ones.
Shoman holds a law degree from the University of Hull and a PhD in history from the University of London. While those certificates qualify him as a scholar, it is his practical experience as a diplomat, minister of foreign affairs and seasoned negotiator for Belize over decades of its relationship with Guatemala that most validates his knowledge and his credibility.
No one can argue that the book is written by a Belizean patriot, for Assad Shoman is certainly that. But he is no jingoistic nationalist, and few could contend, with any basis, that his book is not replete with facts substantiated by primary sources, gathered over decades at the coal-face of Belizean struggle in the international community to establish its sovereignty and in its negotiations with Guatemala to assert its territorial integrity.
The book tells the tale of a small country’s quest to resist annexation by a larger neighbouring state which possesses greater military capacity that it has not been reluctant to deploy. In 1945, the Guatemalans produced a new constitution, declaring Belize to be part of Guatemala. As the Venezuelans have taught their schoolchildren that the Essequibo region of Guyana belongs to them, so do the Guatemalans train their children that “Belize is ours”.
Incursions into Belize by the Guatemalan military, particularly control of the Sarstoon river restricting movement of Belizeans, continue to remind the international community that Belizeans have lived for 73 years since 1945 with the threat of Guatemalan seizure of their country.
Shoman recounts attempts by the British and US governments to force Belize into territorial concessions. He says: “The USA saw Guatemala as its greatest ally in the region against the threat of “Castro-Communism,” and was keen to placate it by pressing Belize to surrender territory or sovereignty to Guatemala, while Britain was so anxious to get out of the picture and to please the USA that it too did all in its power to persuade Belize to comply with those demands.” His documentation of British betrayal and US concern only with its own interests are powerfully established in the book.
For diplomats of small states, journalists and academics concerned with small countries and their survival in the global community, Shoman’s well-documented account of why Belize – a tiny player on a giant stage – was able to overcome external pressures and achieve independence with territorial integrity, is revealing and encouraging. He sums-up the struggle with the observation: “The story of Belize’s struggle for independence is the story of a tiny state that out-manoeuvred two major powers and a regional power by opting for the strategy of internationalization, using skilled negotiation, diplomacy and coalition building and taking advantage of a fortunate opportune moment in the international environment”.
The elements in the Belizean struggle of skilled negotiation, diplomacy and building coalitions remain the best tools available to all small states. Small countries ignore them to their peril. Belize itself, at this juncture of the continued claim by Guatemala that chokes its capacity for investment, economic growth and social development, needs to re-employ these tools with greater intensity.
Immediately before Belize is the opportunity for a final settlement of the spurious Guatemalan claim by referring the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Shoman documents the decades of unproductive negotiations with the Guatemalans, who like the Venezuelans with Guyana, believe that their superior military strength is the fear factor that can be used to push Belize into ceding territory. Therefore, the façade of negotiations suits Guatemala.
Nonetheless, the Guatemala and Belize governments agreed to hold a referendum in each of their countries on the question of referring their matter to the ICJ. In April 2018, Guatemala voted to do so, and the Belize referendum is set for April 2019.
The ICJ option, which many countries have taken to secure justice, is Belize’s best course. But, within Belize, naysayers are encouraging a ‘no’ vote. If the naysayers succeed, Belize will be left only with the option of bargaining with Guatemala. It would be a one-sided bargain. For having rejected the legal option, Belize would have no leverage with a determined Guatemala that has demonstrated its willingness to enforce its will through its military. In its own interest, Belizeans should vote to place their just cause before the ICJ.
Shoman is conscious of the divided opinion in Belize and he documents the arguments carefully. Having done so, he adds a vital chapter to his book in which he sets out “the facts and the law” that the ICJ will have to consider. This chapter should be extracted and widely circulated within Belize. It is a magisterial presentation of the strengths of the Belize case and the reality that Guatemala has no case – and knows it.
At this juncture, Guatemala’s greatest ally is Belizean fear of referring their just cause to the ICJ. With scrupulous fairness and substantiated argument, Assad Shoman has written a definitive story of tiny Belize’s gigantic fight to achieve independence and of its struggle to exist peacefully within secure borders recognized by all.
The book: Guatemala’s Claim to Belize. The Definitive History is published by: Image Factory Art Foundation, Belize City, Belize and is available on Kindle.
(The author is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own.)
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