The Mayan civilization spread into the area of Belize between 1500 BC and AD 300 and flourished until about AD 1200. Several major archeological sites--notably Caracol, Lamanai, Lubaantun, Altun Ha, and Xunantunich--reflect the advanced civilization and much denser population of that period. European contact began in 1502 when Christopher Columbus sailed along the coast. The first recorded
European settlement was begun by shipwrecked English seamen in 1638. Over the next 150 years, more English settlements were established. This period also was marked by piracy, indiscriminate logging, and sporadic attacks by Indians and neighboring Spanish settlements.
Great Britain first sent an official representative to the area in the late 18th century, but Belize was not formally termed the "Colony of British Honduras" until 1840. It became a crown colony in 1862. Subsequently, several constitutional changes were enacted to expand representative government. Full internal self-government under a ministerial system was granted in January 1964. The
official name of the territory was changed from British Honduras to Belize in June 1973, and full independence was granted on September 21, 1981.
Belize's principal external concern has been the dispute involving the Guatemalan claim to Belizean territory. This dispute originated in Imperial Spain's claim to all "New World" territories west of the line established in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Nineteenth-century efforts to resolve the problems led to later differences over interpretation and implementation of an 1859 treaty
intended to establish the boundaries between Guatemala and Belize, then named British Honduras. Guatemala contends that the 1859 treaty is void because the British failed to comply with all its economic assistance clauses. Neither Spain nor Guatemala ever exercised effective sovereignty over the area.
Negotiations proceeded for many years, including one period in the 1960s in which the U.S. Government sought unsuccessfully to mediate. A 1981 trilateral (Belize, Guatemala, and the United Kingdom) "Heads of Agreement" was not implemented due to disagreements. Thus, Belize became independent on September 21, 1981, with the territorial dispute unresolved. Significant negotiations between Belize
and Guatemala, with the United Kingdom as an observer, resumed in 1988. Guatemala recognized Belize's independence in 1991, and diplomatic relations were established.
Negotiations between Belize and Guatemala resumed on February 25, 2000, in Miami, Florida, but were suspended due to a February 24, 2000 border incident wherein a four-man Belize border patrol was taken into custody by a larger Guatemalan patrol. Ten days later the men were released, but the incident inflamed nationalistic passions on both sides. Further talks were held March 14, 2000, between
both countries at the Organization of American States in Washington, DC, with the presence of the OAS Secretary General.
Eventually the two parties agreed to respect an "adjacency line" extending one kilometer east and west from the border. Around this time, the Government of Guatemala insisted that the territorial claim was a legal one and that the only possibility for a resolution was to submit the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). However, the Government of Belize felt that taking the case to
the ICJ or to arbitration represented an unnecessary expense of time and money. So the Belizean Government proposed an alternate process, one under the auspices of the Organization of American States. This process required that each country name a facilitator and that both sides present their case to the facilitators so that they could propose a just and durable solution. The facilitation
process, which started in September 2000 with the appointment of the two facilitators at the OAS headquarters, concluded on September 16, 2002, when both facilitators submitted their recommendations for a solution to the Belize-Guatemala border dispute to the OAS, Belize, and Guatemala. The facilitators' proposals have not been submitted to referenda in either country, and the Guatemalan claim
In order to strengthen its potential for economic and political development, Belize has sought to build closer ties with the Spanish-speaking countries of Central America to complement its historical ties to the English-speaking Caribbean states. For instance, Belize has joined the other Central American countries in signing the CONCAUSA agreement on regional sustainable development, and
assumed the presidency of SICA (Central America Integration System) for a 6-month period beginning July 1, 2003.