Guatemala, Great Britain, and the United States and Guatemala’s Claim to British Honduras (Belize), 1931-1948

Today’s post was written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, retired senior archivist from the National Archives at College Park.

Guatemala, off and on for more than 100 years, claimed all or part of British Honduras (Belize), a British crown colony on the east coast of Central America, south of Mexico and east of Guatemala. Periodically Guatemala attempted to get Great Britain to relinquish its claim to British Honduras. The Guatemalan leader who probably was most vocal in expressing a desire to have the territorial status of British Honduras resolved to the satisfaction of Guatemala was General Jorge Ubico, president from 1931 to 1944.

Map of Guatemala (NAID 175515087)

Ubico, upon becoming president in February 1931, made resolving the status of British Honduras a priority of his administration.  His first opportunity to press Great Britain about British Honduras came about in 1933, when the British requested Guatemala to conduct a survey of the boundary between Guatemala and British Honduras.

Ubico responded by putting forth Guatemala’s claim to British Honduras.  This response led to various exchanges between Great Britain and Guatemala during the next several years.  By 1936, when it appeared to Ubico that the British Foreign Office was not seriously considering Guatemala’s claim, he wrote to both the British King and President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States, in the hope that they would intercede on his behalf.

Although the United States was sympathetic to Guatemala’s claim to British Honduras, the State Department adopted a cautious attitude, not wanting to offend either party by taking sides.  On February 13, 1937, Secretary of State Cordell Hull wrote Guatemala’s acting minister for foreign affairs that the United States would be glad to make available its good offices in the event that Great Britain joined Guatemala in making that request, and offered United States arbitration should both countries desire it.

Later that year, Ubico proposed to the British that President Roosevelt arbitrate the British Honduras matter.  The Foreign Office responded by suggesting that the International Court of Justice at The Hague should settle the matter.  Ubico rejected this, believing the court was dominated by Great Britain and unsympathetic European powers. 

In March 1938, the Foreign Office informed Ubico that if Guatemala did not want the matter settled in the court at The Hague, Great Britain considered the negotiations on British Honduras closed.  An American naval attaché reported of May 5, 1938, “England being in possession of the territory with a boundary set by herself is, of course, content to allow the matter to drag on.  The initiative in the matter, if any, will come from Guatemala.  Just what action that will be can only be found in the future.”

The action Guatemala took was to step up a propaganda campaign throughout Central America in support of its claim to British Honduras.  It was a successful campaign.  An American naval attaché reported on May 24, 1938, that the press of the five Central American countries had bitterly criticized the action of Great Britain in its controversy with Guatemala.

The gist, of the editorial attacks, it was reported, was that the controversy was really between all of Central America and Great Britain, and that the latter only paid lip-service to democracy, being imperialist at heart.  America’s ambassador to Guatemala, Fay Allen Des Portes, in July 1938, reported to the State Department that “Ubico appears to be doing everything in his power to keep the question alive and in the public eye.”

The British ambassador to Guatemala was upset by these press attacks. Throughout the summer of 1938 he frequently visited his American counterpart to complain.  In a memorandum of August 9, 1938, Ambassador Des Portes reported that the British ambassador had requested help in getting Ubico to cease his propaganda campaign, stating that if it continued, Great Britain would never reopen negotiations.

Ubico continued to ask the United States for help.  In May 1938, he suggested to the American ambassador that the best method to force Great Britain to settle the British Honduras matter was a boycott, supported by the United States, of British goods in Central America.  In July, Ubico again asked Ambassador Des Portes for United States support, and offered the United States use of Guatemala as a base of operations in the event of war.

As part of its propaganda campaign, Guatemala produced a compilation of all the documents relating to the British Honduras dispute, published in October 1938, as a “White Book.”  In December Ubico sent a copy to President Roosevelt, with a note asking for his help.  The following month, at a conference at Lima, Peru, Guatemala’s foreign minister, Carlos Salazar, cornered Secretary of State Cordell Hull and urged that the United States support Guatemala in its dispute with Great Britain.

On the first of March 1939, the Guatemalan ambassador to the United States called on Hull to remind him of Guatemala’s desire that the United States informally confer with Great Britain about British Honduras.  Later that month Ambassador Des Portes reported to the State Department that Guatemalan officials had continued to express their desire for the United States to involve itself in the dispute.  On March 15, Des Portes reported that in a recent interview with Ubico, the latter stated that “England would immediately settle the dispute if the United States Government would manifest an interest in the matter.”

Besides courting the United States, Ubico, during the spring of 1939, continued his propaganda campaign throughout Central America.  To demonstrate Guatemala’s resolve in the British Honduras matter, in February Ubico sent a squadron of planes from his air force on a tour of Central America.  And, later that spring, he decided to have issued a stamp indicating that British Honduras belonged to Guatemala.

Prudencio Davila of Guatemala designed a stamp, similar to one that had been issued in 1936, with a map design of Guatemala.  Unlike the 1936 version, which showed British Honduras and Guatemala as separate countries, the 1939 deign indicated British Honduras was part of Guatemala.  This was done by outlining the boundaries of both countries in red, but without placing the name British Honduras on the stamp.  The word “Guatemala” was placed on the map so that no portion of it was on British Honduras territory, but the intent was clear: British Honduras was part of Guatemala.  Two million copies of this 5-centavo stamp were ordered from a Dutch printer on May 18, with delivery scheduled for the summer.

5centavos stamp w/portion of Central America showing red outline of Guatemala encompassing modern day Belize
1939 5 centavo stamp (Danstopicals)

Realizing Ubico was adamant about British Honduras, and was inciting Central America against Great Britain at a time when the democracies needed to be united against the fascists, the State Department finally decided to act.  In June, the British ambassador in Washington and Ubico in Guatemala were given a memorandum from Undersecretary of State Sumner Wells, stating the United States could not take sides, but wished that negotiations would begin again and that a “friendly settlement” be achieved.  “A friendly solution,” Wells stated, “would be a signal example, particularly timely in view of present world conditions, of the value of pacific methods of settlement of international differences.”

Later that month and during July, Ubico let American ambassador Des Ports know that he was serious about resolving the British Honduras matter as soon as he could.  To demonstrate his seriousness, on June 30, he stopped Guatemala’s payments on debts due Great Britain, and a week later asked the United States for free armaments.

Concerned about Ubico’s stand on British Honduras, the new British ambassador to Guatemala, John Leche, met frequently with Ambassador Des Ports during the summer to see if the problem could be worked out.  In a letter to Sumner Wells on July 12, 1939, Des Portes reported telling Leche that Great Britain should settle the British Honduras matter by negotiation, rather than risk arbitration.  Des Portes reported that Leche had agreed, informing the American ambassador that if Great Britain got into a war it would need Latin American help, but that he believed no one in the Foreign Office really appreciated the importance of the British Honduras question to the Central American countries.  Leche stated “that there was nobody in the Foreign Office who knew these countries at all, and that consequently it was difficult for them to realize that the cession  of territory in British Honduras would represent substantially no material loss to Great Britain,” adding “that it was difficult for the Foreign Office to understand the value of a friendly gesture in dealing with Latin America.”

Early in August, the Guatemalan chief of protocol informed Des Portes that Ubico was becoming very impatient with Great Britain’s failure to negotiate, and that he would wait only one more month before taking drastic action if no progress had been made.  This action, the protocol head reported, would be increased propaganda campaign against Great Britain, and that effort failing to bring results, Guatemala would withdraw from the Conferences of American Republics.

Fearful that if Ubico carried out his threats the stability of Latin America would be endangered, Sumner Wells informed Des Ports on August 25, that he must attempt to keep Ubico from getting the other Latin American countries involved in the British Honduras dispute.

Before Des Ports had a chance to comply with these instructions, Guatemalan officials, early in September, informed him that Ubico desired to raise the British Honduras question at the meeting of foreign ministers of the American Republics to be held in Panama between September 23 and October 3.  They also informed him that Ubico wanted the United States to back a resolution they planned to submit on the British Honduras question.  In reporting this to the State Department on September 13, Des Portes observed that if Ubico did not get his way at Panama, he “may rock the Pan American Boat or take other action which would be detrimental to United States interests.”  Ubico, Des Portes reported, is “clearly of the opinion that only by making a rumpus can he express his determination to have the matter settled.” Des Portes recommended that if the State Department decided at Panama to reject backing Guatemala, that “every effort be made to show consideration for Guatemalan susceptibilities,” and that Ubico be rebuffed “very gently.”

While waiting for the United States to decide what it would do, Ubico increased his propaganda campaign against Great Britain.  As Des Portes reported to the State Department on September 20, Ubico was determined to press for an immediate settlement, “and to utilize his nuisance value to the full in attaining his ends.”  As part of his propaganda campaign, Ubico had the stamp he had ordered in May released on September 7.  This stamp, showing British Honduras as part of Guatemala, could easily have an unfortunate effect, though probably not seriously offending Great Britain, Des Portes reported to the State Department on September 27.

Although issuing the stamp in the first week of September to “render strength to its claim against Great Britain,” Guatemala also resumed payment of its debt to Great Britain on the fifth of that month, according to a military attaché report of October 10.  Ubico did this because of his belief that Great Britain, having just entered into a war with Germany, should be paid what was owed.  He also did not want to be condemned for ignoring England in its time of need.  But, by the same token, he did not want the British to use the war as an excuse for not settling the British Honduras matter.

Shortly after learning that Guatemala was going to resume payment of its debt, the British ambassador to Guatemala called on Ubico to thank him personally and to impress on him the difficulty of the Foreign Office’s taking up the British Honduras matter at the present time.  Ubico told the ambassador he would not accept any more excuses and that Great Britain must act in the immediate future, or accept the consequences.

The British ambassador must have made this ultimatum clear to the Foreign Office, as well as apprised it of the fact that the German ambassador had called on Ubico to express his sympathy for Guatemala, for several weeks later the ambassador was informed that the Foreign Office was willing for him to reopen negotiations as soon as the war situation permitted.  Upon receiving this news, on September 22, the British ambassador informed the Guatemalan government that the British would reopen negotiations, but it would be difficult to do so if Guatemala raised the British Honduras question at the foreign ministers’ meeting in Panama.  The British ambassador also told Des Portes that same day that if Guatemala pressed the British Honduras question at the Panama conference or in the Latin American press, it might cause his government to modify its present intention of reopening negotiations.

The following day, at Panama, after having been lobbied by the American diplomats and being informed of the British decision, the Guatemalan foreign minister told Sumner Wells that Guatemala had decided not to bring up the British Honduras question at the conference.

Shortly thereafter, to demonstrate his goodwill, Ubico had the offending map stamp issued only several weeks earlier quietly withdrawn from circulation.  Some 29,900 copies had been sold.  Instead of destroying the remaining 1.9 million copies, Ubico had them stored away in the event they would be needed at some future date.

Des Portes, on October 4, informed the State Department that Ubico had the stamp removed from sale after the British minister had made an informal request that the stamp be withdrawn.  A week later, on the tenth, an American military attaché reported that a highly placed Guatemalan official had informed him that the “re-drawn [1936] map stamp has been quietly withdrawn from circulation and that no official mention will be made of such withdrawal.””Its quiet withdrawal,” he noted, “represents further evidence of President Ubico’s desire not to embarrass Great Britain—at least not for the duration of the war.”  This decision, he concluded, “may be possibly in the hope that at the conclusion of the war Great Britain, in appreciation for Guatemala’s attitude, may settle the question on terms favorable to Guatemala.”

On October 18, Des Portes reported to the State Department that “The Belize [British Honduras] dispute appears to be completely quiescent at the moment, and may be expected to remain so until either the British present their proposals of the President [Ubico] becomes impatient at their failure to do so.”

The British Honduras matter remained dormant for only a few months, as by the winter of 1940, Ubico, believing Great Britain was not sincere about seriously negotiating and that Mexico had its eyes on British Honduras, resumed his propaganda campaign and his demands.  Concerned about this, Des Portes met with Ubico in June, and on the seventeenth of that month reported that Ubico had assured him that he would not seize British Honduras while Great Britain was engaged in war.  Ubico, the ambassador reported, “is quite honestly sympathetic to Great Britain in its present struggle and…he will not undertake any underhanded action against British Honduras as long as Great Britain is confronted by its present peril.”

However, in September 1940, an American military attaché reported that Ubico was thinking about sending a force posing as Nazis into British Honduras, and then under the Havana Conference provisions Ubico would send troops into British Honduras to retrieve the colony from the “Nazis.”  Whether Ubico intended to have his army remain there until Great Britain made some concession, or planned to simply withdraw his army after subduing the “Nazis,” hoping Great Britain would be grateful, is not reported.  But, whatever his plans were in this respect, they were not implemented.

Once the Second World War began in earnest, Ubico turned his attention away from British Honduras, much to the satisfaction of Great Britain, the United States, and British Honduras.  On July 1, 1944, before his term of office was to expire, Ubico was forced to resign and retired to the United States, where he died in 1946.

But the Guatemalan desire for British Honduras did not die with Ubico.  In 1948, the remaining 1,970,000 copies of the 1939 stamp were pulled out of storage, overprinted with “1948,” and reissued for both regular and air mail use.  Subsequently, Guatemala would issue other stamps indicating, directly or indirectly, that British Honduras was part of Guatemala.

During the 1960s, while Guatemala still claimed British Honduras, the citizens of the latter were given greater self-government and on June 1, 1973, the name of British Honduras was changed to Belize in anticipation of independence.  Eventually, on September 21, 1981, Belize became an independent nation.  It would be another decade before Guatemala finally recognized the independent country of Belize.


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