Guatemalans vote on generations-old land dispute with Belize

April 15, 2018

Voters wait for information about their voting center during a plebiscite on a border dispute with Belize, in Guatemala City, Sunday, April 15, 2018. Guatemalans are deciding whether their government should request the International Court of Justice to resolve the dispute that dates back to 1821 when Guatemala won independence from Spain and its border with the United Kingdom's territory was being decided. Guatemala recognized Belize's independence in 1992 but did not recognize its border. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Guatemalans voted Sunday in a referendum that could take the country a step closer to resolving a longstanding territorial dispute with neighboring Belize.

The ballot asked whether voters agree to send the issue to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, for a binding ruling.

However, Belize has yet to hold its own referendum as stipulated under a 2008 agreement with Guatemala, under which both countries would ask the court to take up the matter.

Guatemala claims some 4,200 square miles (11,000 square kilometers) of terrain administered by Belize — essentially the country’s entire southern half.

The area is home to a number of nature reserves and is sparsely populated for the most part, with scattered farming villages, fishing towns and some Caribbean beach tourism destinations.

The origin of the dispute dates back over 200 years to when Guatemala and Belize were Spanish and British colonies, respectively.

Guatemala became independent in 1821 and argues that it inherited Spain’s original claim on the territory.

Belize considers Guatemala’s claim unfounded and says the borders were defined by an 1859 boundary convention between the United Kingdom and Guatemala, according to the website of the governmental Belize Referendum Commission.

Amid violence and crime by Guatemalan country dwellers in the disputed region, at least 10 of them have been killed by Belizean civilians or soldiers on patrol.

Diplomatic relations and even air travel between the two countries have also suffered at times as a result of the dispute.

Casting his vote Sunday, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales said his country and Belize currently have cordial relations and the aim of the referendum is to ultimately resolve the conflict.

“It is a good step. After so many years fighting, I think it is right that we have a frontier,” said Fernando Chajon, a masonry worker who showed off a finger dyed with indelible ink after voting in the town of San Pedro Sacatepequez.

However, chief prosecutor Thelma Aldana said Saturday night that she would not vote.

“The interests of the country have not been handled in the best way by endorsing a process whose signature should have been ratified in the moment,” Aldana said. “Belize has an advantage by submitting the referendum to its people at a later date.”

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