If the United Democratic Party (UDP) under the leadership of Dean Russell Lindo had won the 1979 general election, as it was widely expected to do, Belize would not have gone on to political independence in 1981. Belize would have remained a British colony indefinitely, like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, and the chances are there would have eventually been some kind of territorial partition or dismemberment. Under UDP Prime Minister Dean Lindo, Belize would have embraced U.S. investors almost unconditionally, and Belize would have become a mini-Guatemala, a classic neoliberal state with a wealthy, powerful capitalist class and masses of poor, struggling natives. As it is, it may well be that in 2017, under four different Prime Ministers, we have ended up as a mini-Guatemala.
It is important for younger generation of Belizeans to understand that our region and the world were substantially different places politically and philosophically in 1979 than is the case today, 38 years later. The region and the world were still in that anti-colonial, anti-racism mode in which we had come out of World War II, a war in which the Europeans had massacred each other fighting for colonies, natural resources, and world hegemony. In 1947, two years after the end of World War II, Great Britain, the “empire on which the sun never set,” had been forced to grant independence to India – the prize of its Asian possessions, and by 1957, Ghana, a colony so rich it had been known as the Gold Coast, became the first African country to free itself from British colonialism. Nigeria followed suit in 1960. Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana and various British Caribbean countries achieved independence from Great Britain in the 1960s.
The United States of America came out of World War II as one of the victors, and in competition for world supremacy with another World War II victor, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Russia), but the United States, because the U.S. itself had been a British colony before 1776, sought to avoid taking on the role of a colonial master. The United States chose to influence the affairs of foreign countries through military bases, such as those in Japan and South Korea, and through the establishment and support of puppet regimes, such as those of the Shah in Iran, Carlos Castillo Armas in Guatemala, and Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. This was during the 1950s.
But in 1979, the very year of that pivotal general election in Belize, the Shah of Iran was overthrown by a fundamentalist Islamic in exile, the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Americans’ puppet Somoza regime in Nicaragua was overthrown by the Sandinistas, and another U.S. puppet, Eric Gairy in Grenada, fell to Maurice Bishop and the New Jewel Movement. Yes indeed, 1979 was a much different year from 2017. The optimism of non-white, anti-colonial peoples all over planet earth was high in 1979.
It is possible to consider the September 1981 independence of Belize as adventurist, because the Guatemalan claim had not been settled and because Belize did not have a defense guarantee for its independence. But, the leaders of the ruling People’s United Party (PUP), who had won seven consecutive national elections in Belize on a basically pro-independence platform, felt that they had no choice but to move on to independence in 1981, even though the people of Belize had been divided by the Heads of Agreement in March of 1981.
In 2017, another, different division amongst the Belizean people has emerged, and it has to do with the stark, geopolitical reality of our proximity to the United States and all the various ties which have developed between Belize and the United States since the U.S. abolished slavery in 1865. Perhaps the most important of the ties between Belizeans and the United States has to do with the fact that Belizeans have been serving in the armed forces of the United States since the Korean War. Belizeans have served in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and all the other theaters where Washington has sent its military. Belizeans even helped to invade Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989. Belizeans have so much security clearance they even work in the Pentagon.
Now, consider the growing, dangerous tension between the United States and North Korea. There is a North Korean side to this dispute, but we Belizeans only know the American side of the argument, because we are directly inside the geopolitical orbit of the United States and our citizens will fight for America against North Korea.
A lot of problems have developed in Belize since independence, and 36 years later, it can be seen that these types of problems, such as massive government corruption, lawlessness, and overall indiscipline do not exist in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. In 1979, when we voted once again for the PUP to take Belize to independence, political independence appeared to be an unqualified good, so much so that we entered it without a defense guarantee.
In the last, frenzied push to independence in 1981, PUP leaders sacrificed Belizeans who had materially assisted the PUP to withstand the UDP’s neoliberal onslaught in 1979. The more militant trade unionists were sacrificed. At this newspaper, because we felt that we also would be sacrificed, we withdrew from the independence march. But, we always understood why Mr. Price, Mr. Rogers, Mr. Shoman, Mr. Courtenay, Mr. Marin, Mr. Musa, et alii, bravely trod on. They believed that they had no choice. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were breathing down Belize’s neck. It was then, or probably never.
As in almost all human endeavors, there was a selfish side to the PUP crusade: the attainment of independence etched the PUP leadership into our history in such a way that their names will never be forgotten. But, it is for sure, the PUP leaders never envisioned that the achievement of independence would begin the downfall of the legendary PUP. In December of 1981, less than three months after independence, the PUP lost national Town Board elections to a shaky UDP led by Dr. Theodore Aranda. Less than two years later, the PUP had become bitterly divided ideologically, and in December of 1983 the PUP lost Belize City for the first time ever. The Belize City Council election of December 1983 was a landslide victory for the Manuel Esquivel-led UDP, and in January of 1984, the PUP forced one of the independence heroes, C. L. B. Rogers, from Cabinet. The once great Deputy Prime Minister and Mesopotamia area representative had become a scapegoat. In December of 1984, the PUP fell.
The course of Belize’s destiny is now being determined by a political party whose leaders were opposed to independence when, and as, it was delivered in 1981. What would Price and Rogers have thought of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) option 36 years after the United Nations declared Belize an independent nation with all our territory intact? We don’t have to ask what Assad Shoman would have thought, because he is right with us and he unconditionally, publicly supports the ICJ option. The present UDP leaders have been defending their ICJ option by declaring that Hon. Philip Goldson, national hero par excellence, had supported the ICJ option at the United Nations in 1967. But, that was then: this is now. Mr. Philip was a man who always moved on the basis of his convictions. This is why he left the PUP in 1956, and why he left the UDP in 1991. Things changed: he moved.
In 1981, the leaders of the then young Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) were among the least militant of Belize’s trade unionists. In 2017, the present leaders of the BNTU have arguably, demonstrably in fact, become the most militant of Belize’s trade unionists. And it is for sure that the ruling UDP wish to sacrifice these BNTU leaders.
What does all this mean? For us at this newspaper, what it means is that we Belizeans, in this time of ICJ crisis, absolutely have to raise our level of discussion and discourse higher than the sound bites of our morning talk shows. We would not want to make a decision on the ICJ and then later be crying that if we had only known, we would have done differently. There is an urgent need of intellectual fora. We are in a serious situation in 2017. In 1981, we were in such a serious situation that we were on the brink of civil war, whether younger Belizeans know it or not.
In the United States, Hon. Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam (NOI) for decades and decades called for separation from white supremacist America. The Nation of Islam wanted its own land to set up its own nation, because NOI leadership believed black people could never achieve their highest potential in America. We Belizeans thought otherwise. We gave up our own nation-state to become Americans. Perspective, we suppose, is everything, or, at least, perspective is a great deal. In 2017, the time is now for us Belizeans to establish a consensus perspective. Let the truth be told. Our nation is at stake.
Power to the people.