Maybe more to Britain’s Belize return than meets the eye

Taken at face value, the British Army reopening its Central American training base in Belize makes sense. There are thousands of soldiers returning from active duty in Afghanistan and they need somewhere to go.

The jungle, easily accessed from Price Barracks, provides a testing training ground in some of the harshest, most inhospitable environments anywhere on the planet. The ideal place to hone survival skills and keep units in peak physical condition.

After all, the army has a long standing relationship with the tiny country on the Caribbean coast sandwiched between Guatamala to the south and west and Mexico to the north.

Formally British Honduras, Belize declared independence in 1980, but the UK retained a large military garrison there throughout the eighties to safeguard its borders, including a flight of RAF Hawker Harrier jets.

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The reason, a historical border dispute with neighbouring Guatemala that threatened to boil over into open conflict. At its core, in Guatemalan eyes, was the failure of the United Nations General Assembly to reach a satisfactory solution to an unresolved territorial claim against the then colonial power, Britain, before Belize achieved independence.

Historically, this runs back to the Spanish Empire in the 19th century and is mired in legal obfuscation, claim and counter claim.

But it tied down up to 4000 RAF and Army personnel at its peak, deterring any potential invasion which, at the time, was felt locally as a real possibility.

In 1982 the Guatemalan government had just been overthrown by a military junta led by General Efraín Ríos Montt who was keen to galvanise national pride and what better way than to reopen a festering territorial argument with a weak defenceless neighbour.

Throughout the decade post independence there was constant incursions by Guatemalan army patrols and several fatal incidents, although the British presence prevented any serious escalation.

This protection force force reduced significantly after Guatamala recognised Belizean sovereignty in 1992, but the army continued to run a jungle training school until it was largely mothballed as part of Ministry of Defence cuts in 2010.

Only now it is reopening. Next year will see 2000 British army personnel deployed over the course of the next 12 months.

Announced in the strategic Defence and Security Review, the decision happened to coincide with the reigniting of the historic dispute by new Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales. He has been quoted in Belize’s Amandala newspaper as calling for the redrawing of borders, just one of a number of sabre rattling public comments that have been made since becoming President elect back in August.

A former comedian, Mr Morales’ rhetoric has left the Belizean government less than amused and the tiny Belize Defence Force (BDF) looking around for friends.

Of whom one of them has come in the shape of head of UK land forces, Lieutenant General James Everard, he announced the base’s reopening during a visit, in which, he also tellingly held high level discussions with the country’s Prime Minister, Dean Barrow.

Lieutenant General Everard said that the larger deployment would likely include the reinstatement of an air support element which was withdrawn in 2011.

A bonus that will also transform Belize’s fight against drug trafficking. It is seen as a key stop off point on the smuggling routes between South and North America it is also a major marijuana grower in its own right. No doubt increased British Army presence and airborne capability will be a welcome addition to the BDF’s ability to police its borders.

When 25 flight Army Air Corp left in 2011 with them went any access to helicopter support either for emergency medical situations, for surveillance or the transport of security personnel. A capability that is crucial in a mountainous country with dense jungles and few roads.

Part of long standing plans or an expression of support for a Caribbean friend, whatever the reason, the decision to bolster British forces has been warmly welcomed by Prime Minister Barrow.

Whether this is for the jobs and revenue he says the base will create locally, the joint training opportunities it will bring the BDF, or something else more subtle, the announcement has not have gone unnoticed across the border.

In a softening of approach in recent days President Moralles has now invited his counterpart to his inauguration ceremony and promised to work harder to enhance cooperation and understanding.