BELIZE Still Struggling for Independence

September 25, 2007

Belizean politics have been dominated by one man and one issue for over 20 years. The man is Prime Minister George C. Price, founder of the ruling People's United Party (PUP) and the issue has been independence from Great Britain. Price skillfully led the nation to independence in 1981, but now he is faced with a much greater challenge: redefining Belize's new relationship A Mayan pyramid provides a picturesque backdrop for a British military PR photo. Peter Griffiths/United Kingdom Land Forces with the United States within the vola- tile Central American context. Belize, formerly British Honduras, has a population of only 150,000 in an area the size of Massachusetts-or El Salvador, which accommodates 5 mil- lion. With such a small population, politics takes on a personalistic nature. The New York Times reported in 1981 that Prime Minister Price "has come to know almost all local adults by name." "It's a bit of an exaggeration," he told me in late 1983 when I asked if this were true. "I know all the family names and I know who belongs to each family." Price, who once studied for the priest- hood, is respected by most Belizeans and admired even by many of his politi- cal opponents. In his early 60s, the prime minister is said to be a private man, living alone in a spartan one-room house. By his own account, he's at the center of a Left-Right split within the PUP. The so-called Left, which is more accurately described as center-Left or social democratic, is led by V.H. Cour- tenay, minister of home and foreign affairs and attorney general; Assad Shoman, minister of health, housing and cooperatives; and Said Musa, min- ister of education and economic devel- opment. This faction favors a more non-aligned position internationally. The Right, which favors closer ties with the United States, is led by Fred- erick Hunter, minister of works, and Louis Sylvester, minister of local gov- ernment. During my interview with Price he leaned across his desk and drew a box which he divided into three equal parts labeled Left, center and Right. "Pro- fessor, what do you do when you have a left and a right wing of your party that are of equal strength and are irreconcil- ably opposed? That is my problem." On January 9, less than three weeks later, Price announced a reshuffling of his cabinet with the Left ascending and the Right descending. It appears that once again Price has been able to breathe REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 8Steve Benbow/lCamera Press London A billboard on the Guatemala-Belize border, "Belize Is OursY new life into the PUP when it appeared to be inflexible and complacent. But the PUP, still perceived by many Belizeans as unconcerned or unable to grapple with crucial issues facing the country, will face a serious challenge trom the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) in the next general elec- tions. According to the British-style constitution, the contest must be held before February 1985. In December 1983, the UDP swept the Belize City Council elections. However, in 1979 the PUP won an impressive victory in the national elections after a similar sweep of the Belize City elections by the UDP. Price is notorious for keeping election plans a secret-even from fel- low party members--until 30 days be- fore the match. The UDP, which has never won a national election, is an amalgam of political parties to the right of the PUP. It has traditionally found a great deal of support from the Creole, or Afro- Belizean middle class centered in Be- lize City. The new leader of the UDP is Manuel Esquivel, who like Price is noted for his honesty. This should serve to limit somewhat personal attacks in the next campaign. Belizean politics are known for acrimonious mud-slinging. There are dynamic factions in both the UDP and PUP that are attempting to redefine Belizean politics, leaving in- dependence and personal issues behind. This is difficult in a country where gos- sip and rumor are major sources of information-and misinformation. And as long as George Price is around, his personalistic style is likely to dominate the political scene. Discussions with Price and leading members of the PUP and UDP in late 1983 revealed several major issues of concern, all of which are interrelated: the economy; Guatemala's claim to Belizean territory; providing for defense after the British leave; and future rela- tions with the United States. Textbook Colonialism Settled by the British in 1638, the territory became a provider of logwoods (used as a dye) and mahogany, and a consumer of British commodities. Be- cause the logging season overlapped with the harvest, slaves and settlers were not permitted to work their own plots, thereby freeing them up to work in the logging industry. This also created a shortage of basic foodstuffs which were filled by imports. The British thus gained from both ends. Synthetic dyes long ago ruined the market for logwood and the mahogany supply has been de- pleted. Requiring 100 years to reach maturity, reforestation of mahogany is not feasible. This legacy of not working the land lives on among a significant portion of the Belizean population and today food- stuffs represent 25% of all imports. Land is Belize's most important resource and its economic future lies in agricul- ture. Yet only 15% of the arable land is cultivated and much of this is foreign owned. Today's economy is based on tour- ism and exports of sugar, citrus fruits, bananas, beef and seafood. Sugar rep- resents 60% of the current export earn- ings, but this percentage is likely to decline as expansion in citrus, bananas and other non-traditional agricultural crops-such as melons-increases, and sugar production levels off. Even though there is more than 14% unemployment nationwide, during the sugar harvest alone some 5,000 seasonal workers are brought in from Mexico. Harvesting eUoir ic rcnnidered Ilnlttractive to many Belizeans. Perhaps the country's most impor- tant export crop is marijuana. Some estimates place the crop's value at $100 million yearly-an amount almost equal to all legal export earnings in 1982. The marijuana issue recently hit the front pages when some farmers report- edly fired on U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) helicopters that were spraying paraquat on the marijuana fields. In 1982 the spraying was done by DEA planes based in Mexico. Ru- mors that the government had agreed to let the DEA set up spraying operations in Belize created such a stir that it ap- pears at press time that there will be no further spraying this year. There is much concern that the poi- sonous defoiliant is landing in the sugar cane fields. But perhaps more impor- tant is the fact that much of the mari- juana is grown by small farmers whc depend on the revenue for survival. These farmers are upset with the gov- ernment for allowing the spraying, anc it is likely that this will become ar important issue for the PUP in the northern districts in the upcoming elec tions. But the large marijuana earnings have no impact on Belize's sizeable balance of payments deficit. Much o the government's budget comes in the form of grants from Great Britain and concessional loans, or loans at reduce interest rates, from Great Britain, th MAY/JUNE 1984 9 iUnited States, Canada and the European Economic Community. The Belizean government encourages foreign invest- ment, but potential investors are leery because of the long-standing claim to the country by neighboring Guatemala. "Belice es Nuestro" In a park near downtown Guatemala City there is a huge relief map--more than half an acre in size-of Guate- mala. Like other maps of Guatemala printed by the government, Belize is included as any other administrative unit. There used to be a ceremony once a year during which a government offi- cial would walk onto the map and place the Guatemalan flag in the area occu- pied by Belize. Thus far this has been the only invasion of Belize by Guate- mala, although the potential for the real thing remains very much alive. Great Britain and Guatemala have been embroiled in a dispute over Belize since the mid-19th century. In reality, the conflict dates back much further. Although the Spanish never settled the area which is now Belize, they did lay legal claim to the territory. Guatemala's claim is based upon the earlier Spanish one. The agreement which is the basis of discussion of the Guatemalan claim today is the Anglo-Guatemala Treaty of 1859. The British viewed this as a boundary treaty setting the limits to an area to which British title was already established. The Guatemalans, how- ever, saw it as a treaty of cession which was conditional upon Great Britain helping the Guatemalans build a road to the Caribbean. Since the road was not built, the Guatemalans claim that the treaty lapsed, and that Britain has no sovereignty over Belize. In Guatemala the Belize issue is highly charged, and often used to whip up nationalist sentiment. Guatemala has massed troops along the border and threatened to invade Belize on several occasions in recent years. These shows of force were usually to divert Guate- malans' attention from domestic issues, or to respond to turns in Guatemala's negotiations with Britain which might lead to Belizean independence. Belice es nuestro--Belize is ours-- can be seen from time to time on bumper stickers or in flashing neon signs. But more important, it is an idea that is implanted in Guatemalans at an early age and reinforced throughout their lives. Although Guatemala City houses an Office of Belizean Affairs, there is very little understanding for their Caribbean neighbor in Guatemala. Few Guatemalans know how many people live in Belize, where they are from or what they do. They just know that it is theirs. Likewise, Belizeans are not terribly well informed about Guatemala. They do know that they do not want to be- come Guatemala's 23rd department. On that there is almost unanimous con- sensus. In the late 1970s when Guate- malan President Kjell Laugerud Garcia stated that since Belize is part of Gua- temala, Belizeans should be given the same treatment as other Guatemalans, the Belizean magazine Brukdown com- mented: "Since such treatment includes discrimination, intimidation and depri- vation of basic rights (not to mention murder) we are not exactly thrilled with the President's offer." Yet a Guatemalan invasion of Belize remains unlikely. As Dean Barrow, a UDP leader, explained in a 1982 arti- cle, "The last thing the U.S. desires is a Guatemalan military adventure in Belize that would divert Guatemalan resources." But in its public statements the government of General Oscar Mejia Victores has taken a decidedly aggres- sive stance toward the former colony, and this pressure keeps alive the possi- bility of a cession of part of Belize's territory. Sunburn, Syphilis and Mosquitos In response to Guatemalan bellicos- ity, the British rushed in troops in 1972, 1975 and 1977 and now have a regular force of some 2,000 soldiers plus four Harrier fighter jets. This manifestation of British might is estimated to cost $50 million annually. British forces are rotated on a six-month basis, many coming directly from Northern Ireland. But apart from an occasional training accident, the soldiers face little danger. In 1975 a British military spokesperson explained to me that the major difficul- ties facing soldiers in Belize were sun- burn, syphilis and mosquitos. The British were not anxious to main- tain a colony in Belize, and the main delay to independence was the lack of agreement with Guatemala. Although an observer was sometimes present, Belize did not participate in the nego- tiations leading to independence. The Belizeans launched a worldwide cam- paign to explain their position, and in November 1980 the UN General As- sembly voted 139 to zero for a resolu- tion calling for the secure independence of Belize, with all its territory, before the next UN session. For the first time, the United States voted with Belize. Since no accord could be worked out, the British decided to grant indepen- dence anyway, and on September 21, 1981, Belize became an independent nation. Great Britain agreed to provide for the new country's defense for "an ap- propriate period' '-deliberately left ill- defined. The Thatcher government has made it known that it would like to end this arrangement in the near future, probably by February 1985. Although Price has had discussions with Mexico, Canada and several former British colo- nies in the West Indies, he has not been able to find a suitable replacement. This seems to open the door to some sort of defense agreement with the United States. Belizeans are very concerned about a Guatemalan takeover and if given a choice between what is perceived as a real threat from Guatemala and the sta- tioning of U.S. troops to provide for their defense, there seems little doubt that a majority of Belizeans would wel- come the U.S. presence. Belizeans danced in the streets on that 1981 night when the Union Jack was lowered for the last time and the flag of free Belize was raised over Government House. That enthusiasm for the new Belize is still there, but seriously dampened by the realities of charting a viable and independent path amid an economic downturn and re- gional conflict. Having waited so long for nation status, what Belize needed most was the time and space to test out that new status. Instead, the young country has found itself inundated with political refugees, courted by a United States eager to step up its regional military presence and, increasingly, unable to steer clear of nearby warfare. Our second article will consider these pressures.

Tags: Belize, Guatemala, George Price, independence

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