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-
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
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
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
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
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
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
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

Tags: Belize, Guatemala, George Price, independence

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