The Minister in Guatemala ( Des Portes ) to the Secretary of State

No. 1003

Sir: With reference to my telegram No. 39 of September 21, 4 p.m.21 I have the honor to enclose herewith a copy of the note regarding the Belize dispute handed by the British Minister to the Guatemalan Foreign Office on September 20, 1939.22 As reported in my telegram under reference, the Minister gave me a copy of this note the following day. The Department will observe that the note declares it to be the British Government’s intention to reopen negotiations regarding the Belize question as soon as the war situation permits.

The British Minister was obviously pleased at having received the instructions to hand in this note. He said that his cabled instructions had arrived two days before, but that they had been so badly garbled that he had been able to deliver the note only on September 20. He wished to inform the local press immediately of the intention of the British Government to resume negotiations, but I pointed out to him that this was the President’s pet problem of the moment, and that, being out of town, he might be irritated at having a major development in this matter known to the public before he had heard of it. The British Minister then intimated that, before saying anything to the press, he would make certain that this would be agreeable to the President.

The Minister also mentioned to me that agitation by the Guatemalan Government, either at the Panama Conference, or in the Latin American press, might cause his Government to modify its present intention to reopen negotiations with regard to the question.

The Secretary of the British Legation on the evening of September 21 intimated in a private conversation that prior to the delivery of this note, but evidently subsequent to the first instructions regarding the reopening of the negotiations received by his Minister (See Despatch No. 1002 of September 20, 1939), the Minister’s recommendation to his Government that the question be submitted to the arbitration of President Roosevelt, as once proposed by Guatemala, had been rejected [Page 185] by the British Foreign Office. The Secretary said that the Foreign Office considered one man arbitration out of date. The Secretary also stated that it had been very difficult even to persuade the British Foreign Office to authorize the sending of the note under reference. This of course may have been said for effect, but there are other indications that the Foreign Office is as unenthusiastic about endeavoring to settle this question as President Ubico is zealous to secure a handsome settlement quickly.

This morning the Chief of Protocol personally delivered to me a confidential covering note enclosing a copy of the British note and a copy of the Guatemalan reply thereto. A copy and translation of the Guatemalan reply is enclosed with this despatch.23 This exchange of notes was published by the Foreign Office this evening. The Department will observe that the Guatemalan note receives the British statement cordially, although its generally friendly tone may perhaps be said to be slightly marred by the reference to the “lapsed Convention of 1859.”

I took the occasion afforded by the delivery of this note to mention to the Chief of Protocol that it would be dangerous to the success of the negotiations if an effort was made by Guatemala at the present time to secure the open backing of the other American Republics in this dispute. The Chief of Protocol has now informed me that instructions have been sent to Foreign Minister Salazar, who is now in Panama, informing him of the British note, and directing him to await the arrival of further air mail instructions before taking any action on his earlier instructions. The Chief of Protocol stated in our second conversation that after my talks with him, he had no doubt that the President would cease his efforts to obtain the declaration of continental solidarity in support of Guatemala’s claims envisaged by the Guatemalan Memorandum of September 12, 1939.24

The generally cordial tone of the two notes, particularly the British, in conjunction with the sympathetic action of President Ubico in ordering the resumption of service on the Guatemalan sterling debt, should create an atmosphere favorable to the initiation of the negotiations. At the same time, even the British Minister’s ideas of generosity in the problem seem to fall far short of the minimum which President Ubico would accept as a direct settlement. There seems unfortunately to be an equal disagreement regarding arbitration. Moreover, it must again be emphasized that President Ubico is impatient for a settlement of this question, and that the more favorable atmosphere which has apparently been created may well be dissipated, so far as the [Page 186] Guatemalan Government is concerned, if the British note is not soon followed up by some concrete proposal.

The British Minister has thus handed the Guatemalan Foreign Office a note stating that the British Government intends to reopen negotiations regarding the Belize question, as soon as the war situation permits, on the basis of proposals already under consideration by the British Foreign Office before the outbreak of the war. This note, and likewise the Guatemalan acknowledgement thereof, were couched in generally cordial terms. President Ubico has evidently been persuaded to desist from his plan to secure a declaration of continental solidarity by the American Republics in support of the Guatemalan claims. The British Foreign Office seems to have rejected the British Minister’s recommendation that the question be submitted to the arbitration of President Roosevelt, as earlier proposed by Guatemala. While the atmosphere thus seems to be much improved for starting negotiations, it must not be assumed that it will be easy or even necessarily possible to find a solution which will be satisfactory to both Guatemala and Great Britain.

Very respectfully,

Fay Allen Des Portes
  1. Not printed.
  2. For text, see Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Republic of Guatemala, Continuation of the White Book … Belize Question, III (Guatemala, April, 1941), p. 131.
  3. For text, see Guatemala, Continuation, of the White Book, III, p. 132.
  4. Not printed; see despatch No. 994, September 13, p. 180.