Safeguarding Belize

Belize is not a name on the tip of most people's tongues. But that is no excuse for not joining in the spirit of celebration over that nation's newly won independence. The British have given up their rule, marking the end of the last vestige of colonialism in Central America. That the people of Belize want to be independent -- however small their numbers or however tiny their land -- shows again how universal is the yearning for freedom.

To assure that freedom will now be one of the paramount concerns of the 45th member of the British Commonwealth. For as long as neighboring Guatemala lays claim to Belize, the latter's independence will be in jeopardy. It is reassuring to hear the Guatemalan regime now say (after many noises to the contrary) that it will not invade Belize, but until agreement is reached on Guatemalan access through Belize to the Caribbean and until Guatemala recognizes the fledgling nation, an air of uncertainly will remain.

Here the United States could help ease tensions by making quietly but unmistakably clear to Guatemala that it would not countenance an invasion. It can do so on the moral grounds of respect for territorial integrity and on economic grounds of protecting US investments in Belize. The fact that the people of Belize, largely blacks, would fiercely resist incorporation into Guatemala and that Guatemala itself has one of the worst human rights records in Latin America lend support for such a US warning.

Is Belize, a nation of only 145,000 people and the size of Massachusetts, viable? At the moment it clearly will have to continue depending on the presence of British troops for its security and on outside economic help. But there is good potential -- for tourism, agriculture, and perhaps oil. The task for the international community will be to provide such help as will enable Belize to stand on its own feet. Certainly Belizians desire now to demonstrate that independence is more than a word.

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