During your travels, you might be surprised to find the neighboring country of Belize  included as part of Guatemala on many maps produced in-country. It would seem that Belize is just another Guatemalan departamento despite its status as an independent nation since 1981.
Guatemala did not in fact recognize its neighbor’s independence until 10 years later in a highly criticized and unconstitutional move by then-president Jorge Serrano Elías. Guatemala’s constitution clearly states that any decision regarding the independence or territorial integrity of Belize must be submitted to a public referendum. And so the debate continues over the “Belize question.” It seems to be one of those issues that just won’t go away, with succeeding governments always promising a final solution to this centuries-old problem.
Several governments have used the issue as a diversionary tactic during times of civil unrest, particularly during the military regimes of the 1970s. Matters came to a head in 1977 when Great Britain sent 6,000 troops to the border in anticipation of an invasion by Guatemalan troops during the presidency of military strongman Romeo Lucas García.
Today, there are occasional reports of incidents along the northern Petén  region’s eastern border with Belize when Guatemalan peasants are forcefully evicted from the “no-man’s land” along the border in clashes with Belizean security forces. Guatemalan newspapers love to publicize these incidents of supposed injustice against unarmed peasants, calling for a final solution to the long-standing problem.
The dispute dates to colonial times, when Spain officially claimed all of the Central American coast but was unable in practice to enforce its claim. English privateers and traders established a beachhead along the southern coast of Belize and extracted valuable timber products, including mahogany. The English presence was officially recognized by Spain in 1763, granting the British the right to extract forest products but refusing them the right of permanent settlement. The first permanent settlements came soon after Central American independence from Spain, the British clearly taking advantage of the power vacuum created in the aftermath of Spanish rule.
The weakness of Guatemala’s early governments was evident in an 1859 treaty, which officially recognized the British presence and “lent” the Belize territory to them for further resource extraction in exchange for a payment of £50,000 and the construction of a road from Belize to Guatemala City .
Great Britain never held up its end of the bargain on either point and so the treaty was rendered null and void. British occupation of the lands continued, however, and the land eventually became known as the colony of British Honduras, which was granted its independence from England in 1981.
In recent years, Guatemala has limited its claims to the southern half of Belize, from the Río Sibún to the Río Sarstún, arguing that historical documents support its claims and include this territory as part of the region of Las Verapaces . Some Guatemalan analysts believe there might be a case here, though the reasons for Guatemala’s insistence in this matter remain a mystery.
The current government has expressed its interest in getting its case settled once and for all by international arbitration, which would mean bringing it to the International Court in The Hague if all other avenues fail. Belize has tried to get the matter resolved in the Organization of American States (OAS), so far unsuccessfully, and has repeatedly stated that it will not cede “a single inch of its territory.”
It’s doubtful Guatemala will ever be able to recover its full claim, though the possibility for comanagement of the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Park (also claimed by Honduras) as a trinational park might be the most realistic outcome of any internationally mediated settlement on this matter. It would give Guatemala the one thing its geography and tourist offerings lack: white-sand Caribbean beaches with clear, turquoise waters.