We have two octogenarian Belizean friends of African descent who were deeply disturbed by events in British Honduras involving the extremely popular People’s United Party (PUP) in the early years of the anti-colonial movement in the 1950s, and they decided to leave the colony. One left in 1953, and ended up in Canada. The other left in 1957 for the United States. Conversing separately with both these senior citizens, we are convinced they remain deeply Belizean in their emotions and perspectives.
In a recent editorial, we spoke perhaps too lightly of the issue of speaking Spanish instead of English (had 1798 turned out differently). With respect to exactly what it was that concerned these two black Belizeans so much in the early and middle 1950s about the direction of their native land, we can submit it had to do with the unease they felt about their individual futures and functions in a Belize which would be Guatemalan instead of British. Certainly their race was a consideration, and so would language have been. In a Guatemalan Belize, one would be at a disadvantage if one was black, and one would be at a disadvantage if one was not facile in the Spanish language. There was also the sub-surface matter of religion, we would surmise. Roman Catholicism was absolutely dominant in Guatemala six decades ago, whereas British Honduras was substantially more Anglican/Methodist back then than today, when Roman Catholicism is the leading religion in independent Belize.
Where are we going with this? Well, the man who was at the center of the Guatemalan controversy in Belize, especially after 1956 when he took over leadership of the PUP, was the Right Hon. George Cadle Price. The same man who was thought of in 1953 and in 1957 by his critics as being someone who would gladly take us into the Guatemalan orbit, became the man who led Belize into political, sovereign independence with all our territory intact. It may be said that Mr. Price, and the political party he led at the time, thus gave us a real fighting chance at Belizean nationhood.
In 1953 and 1957, there were two ethnic groups in British Honduras who were being trampled on by the British colonial government. These were the Maya/Mestizo people and the Garifuna people (who were known as “Caribs” at the time). Both my octogenarian friends are basically what we would call Creoles, one with a Mestizo mixture. We feel confident in saying that the Creole people would not have realized the advantages Creoles enjoyed over the Maya/Mestizo and the Garinagu. (This is not say that the masses of the Creole people were not oppressed in 1953 and 1957.) The key to Creole hegemony among native Belizeans was Creole dominance in the civil service apparatus which the British used to administer the colony. Another key was in Belize City, which was very much Creole in population texture, and where all the government services and basic institutions were located. In 1953 and 1957, there was no Belmopan, and outside of Belize City was like “bush,” as we would say.
One thing was for sure: the Belize City Creoles did not want to go to the land, and the land six decades ago was where Belize had a massive competitive advantage. We owned it all, theoretically, and all we had to do was grow food on it, and we were on our way to nationhood. That was more easily said than done, of course, but we’re trying to give you a sense of what the scenario was when our two beloved brothers decided to move northwards and seek their fortunes, in 1953 in Canada and in 1957 in the United States, respectively. Both young black men became successful citizens of their new homes. Both still love Belize immensely. But, what happened back here in the meantime? Belize at 36: how did we get here?
In 1953 and in 1957, both our friends were convinced that Mr. Price had Guatemala on his mind, and they wanted no part of it. The present position of PUP leaders is to pooh-pooh the Guatemalan connections of the party back then and to insist that Mr. Price’s national loyalty was totally vindicated on September 21, 1981. That is a legitimate position on the 2017 PUP’s part, we would say, but in 1953 and 1957 there was a completely different ball game being played.
Mr. Price was trying to integrate Belize’s Maya/Mestizo (and Garifuna) people into our economy and public life, but he had to try to preserve the loyalty of his Creole base in Belize City at the same time. Remember, it was in Belize City that he represented the Freetown constituency, and the election records indicate that the PUP essentially held on to its Creole base long enough to achieve independence in 1981. But, the fact of the matter is that the PUP, which began as an urban, Creole movement in Belize City in 1950, lost a measure of its Creole support, especially after 1956. And the crux of the matter was that some Creoles were seeing things in terms of the PUP’s Guatemala connections, and they became alarmed. It may be fair to say that Mr. Price was seeing nationhood from the standpoint of integrating the Maya/Mestizo (and Garinagu) into the mix, instead of trying to hand us over to Guatemala. Today, the Maya/Mestizo are the productive powerhouse segment of the Belizean population, and the Garifuna people have surely climbed high in stature, higher than anyone would have foreseen in the 1950s.
Belize at 36: how did we get here? More important, where are we headed from here? The same Guatemalan question which spooked our two senior friends in 1953 and 1957, is back and haunting Belizeans. The Guatemalan threat may be more dangerous than ever before in its new, corporate clothes. This is the challenge for Belize’s younger generations. Mr. Price got us to independence and territorial integrity. The Guatemalans have returned with their aggressive ways. This 2017 is not like 1953 and 1957. Someone has to stay here and fight. This is serious business.
It does seem that we have made strides forward where the fusion of our core native ethnicities (Creole, Maya/Mestizo, and Garifuna) is concerned. The influx of desperate Central Americans over the last four decades has added a new twist to the basic tensions which pushed our two senior friends to migrate in 1953 and 1957. But, someone had to work the cane fields, the orange and grapefruit orchards, and the banana plantations, and that someone, tell it like it is, was not the urbanized Creole. As a corollary to that thought, one contribution we would offer for your analysis is that it does appear to us that Belize’s 2017 tourism economy is more palatable to urbanized Creoles than agricultural field work was.
So then, where is the Belizean economy headed, and who is making the relevant decisions? It does appear to knowledgeable Belizeans that the multilateral financial institutions tell Belize’s political leaders what they will make loan funds available for, and the 2017 Belizean economy is mostly about borrowing. If you study the design of the original University College of Belize (UCB) in the 1980s, it was clear that someone or some people had decided that tourism and business were where the Belizean economy, in the sense of its tertiary education focus, should go. The University of Belize (UB) amalgamation in 2000 was a move in a more nationalistic direction where development priorities in education were concerned, but UB was and is still a long way indeed from the self-reliant approach of the Cubans, say.
In 2017, it is likely that the supreme challenge for Belize is no longer ethnicity, as it may have been in 1953 and 1957: the challenge is ideology. And, at this newspaper we always refer you to 1973, when the neoliberal United Democratic Party (UDP) was formed to replace the National Independence Party (NIP) as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. The UDP’s mantra was no more “No Guatemala”: the UDP mantra was “economic development.” This suited Washington immensely, and it was precisely what the corporate Guatemalan claimants to Belize were seeking: an economic system based on exploitation, as opposed to liberation, of the masses, a Belizean economic system which would dovetail with the Guatemalan oligarchical system of elitist neo-European exploitation of their indigenous masses.
This is why it now appears that the ruling UDP is so comfortable with Washington’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) solution to the claim. The UDP is comfortable because ideology has trumped ethnicity in the new Belize, or, at least, that is how the UDP was designed to operate 44 solid years ago. The UDP did the job Washington designed it to do. Belize is on the cusp of a frightening partition solution to an ancient, racist, imperialist claim because the Belizean economy has become a mirror image of Guatemala’s. The strong survive; the poor perish. Just make sure they have a Christian burial. This is 2017 Belize.