(Address to the annual general meeting of the Christian Workers Union on Saturday afternoon, February 25, 2017 at the UWI Open Campus)
The settlement of Belize, which became the colony of British Honduras in 1862, and then achieved political independence as Belize in 1981, was developed by slave labor, in the first instance, and then by non-unionized labor after slaves were technically freed in 1838.
When Antonio Soberanis led unemployed workers in desperate agitation in depressed Belize Town in 1934, there were no trade or labor unions in Belize. As far as I am aware, the first labor union of consequence in British Honduras was the General Workers Union, which began around 1944.
The General Workers Union, led by Clifford Betson and Henry Middleton, was a great union, and it was the roots foundation upon which the People’s United Party was founded in 1950. Soon, the executives of the GWU and the PUP became similar in personnel, and when the PUP won national elections in British Honduras in 1954 and 1957, it was in coalition with the GWU. The nationalist, anti-colonial politicians of Belize ran under the banner of PUP/GWU.
As older Belizeans know, there was a historic power struggle in the PUP around August/September of 1956, and it resulted in Hon. George Price replacing Mr. Leigh Richardson as PUP Leader, while Hon. Philip Goldson, a PUP official, was also overthrown. The substantive issue involved here was disagreement over the West Indian Federation, and this issue was complicated by the reality of ethnic discrimination in the colony.
Now slavery was self-defining: it involved men and women using force to compel other men and women to work in order to enrich their owners. Slaves were given the worst food, worst clothing, and worst housing you can imagine. Slaves were chattel, slaves were property, pure and simple. To be a slave was to be less than human.
Immediately north of Belize in the Yucatan, the system of oppression and exploitation was considered to be more peonage than chattel slavery, but it was brutal, degrading, and dehumanizing, none the less. The masses of the Mayans, and a growing Mestizo class, were under the rule of great estates, typically owned by Spanish hidalgo-types, and the Roman Catholic priests in the Yucatan were partners with the hidalgos in every respect.
The Caste War which broke out in the Yucatan in 1847, was considered a race war by scholars for more than a century. The Caste War was seen as a war of the rebellious Mayans against the Spanish grandees, but in the last few decades American scholars, who became fascinated with the war after Nelson Reed published his classic history of it in 1964, have been considering the bloody conflict in the Yucatan, which lasted more than fifty years, from other angles besides race. Whatever the case, refugees from both the warring sides, both the so-called ladino and the Mayan sides, were accepted in British Honduras, and they soon comprised the bulk of the population of the Corozal and Orange Walk Districts. After Mr. Price took over leadership of the PUP in 1956, the matter of the manifest discrimination against the Maya/Mestizo became a major socio-political issue here.
I have raised this matter in order to give you a sense of the turmoil around the PUP, and inside the colony, after 1956. I have never understood the details of how it happened, but insofar as nationalist politics and the PUP were concerned, the GWU faded in importance and was replaced by the Christian Workers Union (CWU), whose leadership was not directly involved in the election business of the PUP, as the GWU had been. So that, when the PUP won 18 out of 18 seats in 1961 in the first general election held under a new Ministerial constitution, there was no mention of the GWU or the CWU.
The PUP, however, did continue to respect unionism, and it was the trade and labor unions of Belize which saved the PUP electorally in the 1979 general election, in effect and at last, enabling Belize’s political independence in 1981. At the time of the 1979 general election, the PUP was under severe attack from a pro-business, pro-capitalist party called the United Democratic Party (UDP), which had been formed in 1973.
I have given you this labor background so far, not for the purpose of entering any PUP or UDP business as such, but in order to stress how important unionized labor has been in the nationhood scheme of things here, and to emphasize how critical you, as unionized workers, are and will be as we Belizeans fight to preserve our special identity and as we move on to our national destiny.
Capitalism is more profitable for the capitalist class when there are no regulations, no controls, and no unions of workers. In the United States presently, the stock market is surging higher and higher because the new American president, Donald Trump, is committed to removing various taxes and regulations on the corporations. The reason unionized workers supported Trump in last November’s election was because he has promised to bring home American jobs which corporations had outsourced to foreign countries in the free trade/globalization era. So then, Trump somehow appealed to both American capital and American labor at the same time. He did not campaign on a non-regulatory platform, but he must have spoken along these lines behind closed doors.
Ordinarily, it is a difficult trick to appeal to both capital and labor simultaneously, because capital and labor are always in a tense relationship with each other, when they are not in outright conflict. Both the major political parties of Belize have said to us that Belize needs foreign direct investment capital in order for our country to develop. The problem is that capital, especially foreign capital, is voracious where profits are concerned, so that in the case of foreign capital, what these corporations do is roam the region and the world in search of the cheapest labor available and the economies where working conditions are least monitored and regulated. This is how Belize lost the sewing factory. This is how Belize lost the papaya industry. Foreign corporations found cheaper labor costs elsewhere.
For Belizeans to make the best political and economic decisions about our future, we first have to know exactly what is the case west and south of us. Do we want to become like Guatemala and Honduras insofar as the violent struggles between capital and labor are concerned? In Guatemala, the country which claims half of Belize and of which the American-sponsored Seventeen Proposals of 1968 wanted Belize to become a satellite state, the corporations, both Guatemalan and foreign, enjoy a political climate which has been pro-capital and anti-labor ever since Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in 1954. A similar situation prevails in Honduras.
Before I proceed, let me speak as an elder. 48 years ago, a group of us young university graduates expressed dissatisfaction with respect to various aspects of the government of the ruling PUP, a government which no doubt considered itself revolutionary, after beginning the fight against British colonialism in 1950, achieving self-government in 1964, and nationalizing the sugar industry, to an extent, in the middle 1960s. We young graduates, however, had seen the outside world: we were impatient, and we were critical. The three most prominent of those graduates were Assad Shoman, Said Musa, and myself.
I led my own organization from 1969 until 1973, whereupon half of our executive went against my leadership to support the same pro-business UDP I mentioned earlier. I ended up working along with the PUP, beginning early in 1975. This was a case of self-preservation: the UDP was after my head. I ran in the streets from 1975 to 1979 with Ray Lightburn, the first president of this same Christian Workers Union. He taught me a lot. By the time he and I ran together, Ray Lightburn had been replaced at the CWU by Desmond Vaughn and Mike Rosado: he edited the PUP newspaper and worked directly for Premier George Price and Deputy Premier C. L. B. Rogers.
To make a long story short, at the end of 1977 I decided to become a businessman and create jobs instead of making revolution. West of Pound Yard, Kremandala is the largest roots-controlled business on the Southside. Every single one of our businesses – newspaper, radio and television, began in a severely undercapitalized situation. In fact, in the case of Amandala, Belize’s leading newspaper for the last 35 years, we started out by asking our members and supporters for donations in the summer of 1969. We raised $250 from local direct investment, can you dig it, and now here we are.
My point is that, strictly speaking, I am a businessman, but I paid my dues in the streets among the lumpenproletariat. As businesses, the Kremandala group has problems with workers from time to time, I’m not going to be a hypocrite. I don’t see, however, how you can place me and Michael Ashcroft in the same category. If he is a Belizean businessman, then I must be something else. And if I am a Belizean businessman, then Ashcroft is nothing else but an enemy of the Belizean people.
The labor of our ancestors, both African and Indigenous American, enriched Europe from the time Christopher Columbus arrived. The Europeans, British in the case of Belize and Spaniards in the case of the Yucatan, came with violence and they left with wealth. Our ancestors provided slave and peon labor, and then we provided non-union labor. We were under the whip during slavery, and we were under repressive laws during colonialism. The labor unions all over planet earth constituted the first consistent blows our people struck against international white supremacy, and the unions were supported by the Pope, Leo XIII, with a famous encyclical, Rerum Novarum. Pope Leo XIII supported trade and labor unions in the late nineteenth century, more than a century ago, because the alternative was communism.
The twentieth century may be described as the century of communism, because two great world powers emerged out of communist revolutions in the last century: Russia in 1917 and China in 1949. Two significant Third World success stories emerged out of communist revolutions in the last century – Cuba in 1959 and Vietnam in 1975.
Belize’s economy is a capitalist economy which is heavily influenced socio-politically by various Christian denominations which control the educational system. There is 45 percent poverty in Belize. Half of our children never reach high school. Our illiteracy rate is at an all-time high. Our nation is on the brink of bankruptcy. Our farmers’ food crops rot in the fields. Our import costs are much higher than our export revenues: this has been so for the duration of my lifetime. With huge tracts of arable land and many waterways, we Belizeans do not grow enough food crops to feed ourselves. The long and short of it is that Belize is in bad shape economically, and there is no reason to believe any change of political parties will solve any of our problems. In Belize, we have been changing political parties since 1984, and it’s always eeny meeny miny mo.
In Belize, communism, a system wherein workers control the means of production instead of greedy capitalists, is not an option, because Belize is a heavily religious society, and communism is an atheistic philosophy which places the material needs of human beings ahead of their spiritual longings.
There is no reason to be optimistic about Belize’s future. The only light of hope recently has come from a labor union – the Belize National Teachers Union. The capitalist power structure of Belize, which, along with the churches, controls the two major political parties here, saw no need for the political demands which the teachers of Belize considered so critical as to have them go on strike and risk their daily bread.
You have no doubt heard it said before, but it must be repeated in this important forum today: there is a growing, visible gap between Belize’s super rich and the masses of the poor, a gap which has existed in Guatemala and Honduras for many decades, and a gap we should have had no desire to recreate in Belize.
In my presentation so far, I have given you a brief history of capital and labor, of imperialism and international white supremacy. I have discussed my personal history. And I have tried to give you a sense of Belize’s union and political history in our lifetime. I also sought to paint you a picture of what our present socio-economic situation is on the ground in Belize.
In light of all this, my message to you this afternoon, February 25, 2017, is this: the Christian Workers Union should have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Belize National Teachers Union in October of 2016. My understanding is that the teachers of the BNTU are stronger financially than the workers of the CWU. If this is so, then it will be the responsibility of the new executive you will choose later today, to build the financial strength of the CWU.
The BNTU has achieved stunning successes in the last few months, but the BNTU cannot continue to stand alone for an indefinite period. In bringing the corrupt Government of Belize under manners in several key areas, the teachers stood for all of us who consider ourselves honest, hard-working Belizeans. There was an absolute need to protect us from the abuse of our arrogant, corrupt politicians.
There are major flaws in Belize’s political system, and time has exposed these flaws for all of us to see. Neither of the two major political parties has any real incentives to address these flaws and correct them. As it stands, the UDP are now enjoying the sweets, as we would say, and the PUP are impatiently awaiting their turn. As we have said before, the clowns change, but the circus remains.
As a people, we have to accept the blame for the national value system which has produced the kind of corruption, selfishness, and greed we have seen in both of our major political parties. It is from us, the Belizean people, that our politicians came, and before we can change them, we ourselves have to change.
The question of honesty is fundamental. As our judicial-political system stands, we punish dishonesty amongst the poor with cruelty. But, our system coddles those at the top when they embezzle our taxpayers’ funds and abuse our patrimony in different ways for their personal enrichment. No one big ever goes to jail in Belize. And yet, if you think about it, the rich should be more honest than the poor. The rich are not hungry, as the poor are. The rich, as the one Chef Ramon used to say, are not needy: they are simply greedy. They have become Belize’s new colonizers: they are gods, and the rest of us must worship them.
The societal contradiction in Belize lies in the fact that no people on planet earth proclaim how Christian they are as much as we Belizeans do, yet we adore those who are wealthy, no matter the source of that wealth, and we long with all our hearts to join the ranks of the rich. Nowhere in the New Testament do I see such thinking as being representative of Jesus Christ in any way, manner, shape, or form. I will now declare this categorically: This Belize is not a Christian nation; Belizeans are worshippers of the golden calf. We are hypocrites in The Jewel. We talk a lot about Jesus, but our god is mammon. Our politicians merely reflect what is our national ethos – me first, me second, and me third. It is not only our political leaders who are corrupt: it is the whole nation of Belize which is corrupt. We proclaim our Christianity only as a front: we Belizeans are liars, we are thieves, and now our children have become murderers. This is real.
I had a purpose integral to my message in inviting two elders here as our guests. Captain Nicolas Sanchez and Sydney Lightburn left here in the early 1950s and the early 1960s, respectively, and they both were unionized workers in Canada for decades. One of the negative things that happened to us in Belize was that we lost the guidance and wisdom of our older generations when our workers migrated. Our young people had to grow up on their own, and they have made many mistakes. Things have happened in Belize which I do not believe can be reversed. Many of those things have happened right before our eyes. We have Belizeans, like Captain Sanchez and Stretch Lightburn, who did not see these things happen, but they have returned home often, and they have seen the effects of the various phenomena. I believe that these two men, who have spent most of their adult lives in a foreign country, love Belize still: they love Belize as much as you and I.
In closing then, I want to look outside our borders to our Belizeans abroad. Fighting for our sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the economic development of our country, we need all the help we can get. We will need to integrate our diaspora Belizeans back into our domestic consciousness. There is much they have to offer, and in many cases it is not much that they seek, or require. For me, a key reality is that our returned and returning Belizeans bring love: a love for this country, a love for our struggle, and a love for us as a people.
When we began losing these Belizeans five and six decades ago, we began losing what we could not replace. Many strangers have come from abroad, in the interim, and we have welcomed them and given them love. Now the time has come for us to welcome back our own, our roots own.
When I returned from America in 1968, I believed that some things in Belize had to change. In 2017, we can see that there are things which have changed for the worse. I could not come here and tell you pretty stories. There is blood on our streets. Our children are locked up in jail. Our mothers grieve.
You, the working salt of the Belizean earth, you, the unionized workers of the Christian Workers Union, represent struggle in Belize. Even when you feel you are weak, you must remember that you are what we have left. The strength of any nation lies in the skill and productivity of its workers.
I give you respect on this day, the day of your annual general meeting and elections. These are dark days in our struggle as a people, but your efforts as unionized Belizean workers represent the backbone of our cause. Before you, there was slavery, there was peonage, there was non-unionized labor. Ahead of you, in the Belize we pray for in our future, there lies real nationhood, true brotherhood and sisterhood, and the prosperity we all deserve. We need each other. We must love one another.
Power to the people.