Central American nations struggle over colonial legacy

The deaths of three Guatemalan peasants in a border dispute with Belize raises a persistent problem.

It is an invisible line between Belize and Guatemala that the latter does not even recognize. But a violent dispute that left three people dead has cast new light on a century-old conflict over where, exactly, the border is between the countries.

Late last month, Belizean soldiers shot and killed a Guatemalan peasant and his two sons after they refused to relocate to land clearly within Guatemala's border. While the soldiers are under investigation, and leaders from the two countries are meeting, this is just one of many ongoing disputes over rivers, sea, land, and islands in Central America.

With seven nations sharing a narrow strip of some 200,000 square miles between two oceans, the nations have long found themselves bickering over an unclear colonial inheritance and scantly defined maritime boundaries.

While most disputes present little threat of armed confrontation, they have long hampered integration and cooperation in a region that desperately needs both.

"I don't think Central America has the option of surviving as individual countries. The only viable option is for us to work together as a region," says Eduardo Stein, a former Guatemalan foreign minister.

Guatemala maintains a historic claim to more than half of Belize, which was once under British control. In the past few years, six Guatemalan civilians have died in the conflict.

"If we don't resolve these problems, we are going to continue with more of the same - and probably more loss of life," says Edgar Arana, Guatemala's foreign ministry spokesman. "Guatemala doesn't want more victims."

A dispute over Costa Rica's right to navigate and have a military presence on the San Juan River, which separates it from Nicaragua, has arisen in recent years.

Honduras and Nicaragua have been disputing maritime rights on the Atlantic Coast ever since Honduras ratified a 1999 treaty with Colombia, extending the South American nation's claims in the Caribbean, and cutting Nicaragua out of a wedge of sea it claims for itself. The two nations nearly came to blows over the disputed sea, which is alleged to contain petroleum. And lastly, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador maintain a dispute over maritime boundaries and island territory in the Fonseca Gulf on the Pacific, where there is a lucrative shrimp industry.

Regardless of their causes, many people maintain that the disputes are manipulated by politicians and used at opportune moments to whip up national pride and unity, or even create a smoke screen in times of economic or political crisis.

"A particular case was that of President Alemán in Nicaragua who, on repeated occasions, sought to divert public opinion from domestic issues by highlighting the tensions with Honduras and Costa Rica," says Manuel Orozco of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

The effects of these disputes can be debilitating. When Honduras ratified the treaty with Colombia, Nicaragua responded with a 35 percent tariff on all Honduran imports.

The strain that these border disputes put on neighbors can take its toll on commerce in the region in other ways, says Francisco Villagran Kramer, a trade expert. Where there are border disputes, he says, borders can be barriers to trade. "Guatemala and El Salvador don't have a border dispute, and they have put in place mechanisms so that people and merchandise can move across the border quickly and easily," he says. "But look at the crossings between El Salvador and Honduras, and Honduras and Nicaragua - they take forever, and these countries haven't shown interest in working to make them faster because they have these irritating border disputes."

The border disputes wear down the much-needed trust required for integration efforts, says Mr. Orozco. "Diplomatically and politically, trust among the leaders has deteriorated significantly, to the extent that speculation about arms races or some kind of conspiracy is underway against one country or another."

Mexico has been pushing the region to implement an integration plan for southern Mexico and Central America, known as Plan Puebla Panama. According to Mr. Villagran, there is also pressure coming from the US and Europe to settle these issues so they can better cooperate economically and politically in the region.

Despite the complexity of some of the conflicts, many are positive about the future.

An Organization of American States commission working on the Belize and Guatemala territory dispute is expected to present recommendations for a resolution at a meeting in January. Meanwhile, Honduras and Nicaragua have newly elected presidents, and Costa Rica will in the near future. Some say these new actors could breathe new life into the resolution process, opening the path for closer cooperation in the region.

"If we were all capable of coming together and agreeing on how to end the wars in Central America, I think we can do it to resolve these conflicts," Mr. Stein says.

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