Belize independence set despite Guatemala threat

With this country's embattled independence day less than two weeks away, Prime Minister George C. Price told a National Day crowd here Sept. 10, "There is no need to fear freedom.

"Indeed, Belize can only be safe and secure by being born as an independent nation, with full opportunities for all people to develop and grow."

But many in this tiny, impoverished British colony feel that Mr. Price and the government have clearly failed to defuse an immediate threat to Belize's very survival: invasion by Guatemala, its militaristic next-door neighbor.

The Belizeans and British had sought to produce a nonaggression pact with Guatemala -- under which the Guatemalans would drop their claim to Belize in return for access to its Caribbean ports and offshore islands -- before the Sept. 21 independence date.

But treaty talks broke down last month, and hopes for an accord before independence went out the window after Guatemala gave Belize some ominous signals.

Guatemala closed its border with Belize and ordered its consulates there shut down Sept. 4. The government also revoked diplomatic recognition of British consulates in Guatemala and expelled 55 Belizean scholarship students "for their own safety."

A spokesman for Guatemalan President Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia said, "All traffic to or from Belize is prohibited.

"Guatemala will not recognized the independence of Belize, inasmuch as . . . this territory . . . is the object of a territorial controversy with Great Britain that has not been resolved."

Prime Minister Price made no mention of Guatemalan actions in his state of the nation address Sept. 8 and has declined comment since.

The British Foreign Office said Sept. 8 it regretted the move but still would go ahead with independence Sept. 21.

The Guatemalans' actions have fueled opposition to independence in Belize. Critics say the 400-man Belize defense force would be unable to defend the country against Guatemala's 12,000-man Army.

Guatemala claims that it inherited sovereignty over the 8,000-square-mile territory, with a sparse population of 150,000, from the Spanish a century ago. The Guatemalans have repeatedly voiced their intentions to take control of Belize in the past two decades, and British garrisons stationed here to protect the Belizeans have twice been reinforced, in 1975 and 1977, because of theats and Guatemalan troop movements at the border.

The British will keep 1,600 soldiers and Harrier jet fighters here until the Belizeans can defend themselves.

A spokesman for the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) which has announced a boycott against celebrations of what it called "premature independence," said the latest developments underscored the "grave differences" between the Guatemalan and Belizeans governments' interpretations of the agreement signed by Britain, Guatemala, and Belize March 16.

Mr. Price said the pact, a list of 16 points to be negotiated at a later date by Belize and Guatemala, was a landmark for his country in that the Guatemalans for the first time agreed to recognize Belize as an independent nation, with all of its territories intact. The signing precipitated four days of violent protest in Belize City this spring, as critics assailed the Belizean concession a "giveaway."

The government appears to have the lid tightly clamped on radical opposition forces at home.

In a recent series of predawn raids, police swept down on members of the Belizean Action Movement (BAM) and other suspected opponents, arresting several and claiming to have seized weapons and ammunition.

But the UDP promises only peaceful protests.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.