As Belize headed into the critical general election of 1979, the ruling People’s United Party (PUP), under the leadership of Premier George Cadle Price, was calling for political independence as soon as possible, and publicly lamenting that independence had been so long delayed, for more than a decade in fact.
On the other hand, the Opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), under the leadership of the attorney Dean Russell Lindo, was saying that Belize should wait ten years before entering independence, because the country was not sufficiently developed economically.
It appeared that the Guatemalan oligarchy and military preferred the UDP’s position on independence to the PUP one, because all the indications were that they preferred for the UDP to come to power.
During his recent book tour in connection with his “definitive history” of the Guatemalan claim, Havana-based Assad Shoman said repeatedly that the guerrillas in Guatemala had been in support of Belize’s independence, and that, had the guerrillas won the civil war in Guatemala, which lasted from 1960 to 1996, Belize would not have had to worry about a Guatemalan claim to our territory, as we now do.
As Belize headed into the 1979 general election, it was thought, both at home and regionally, that PUP Senators Assad Shoman and Said Musa, PUP standard bearers in the Cayo North and Fort George constituencies, respectively, were sympathetic to the guerrilla movements in Guatemala.
In order to allay the fears of communism in the PUP, Premier Price specifically brought in the one Emory King, an American turned Belizean who was known to be 100 percent pro-business, to edit the PUP newspaper, The Belize Times.
It is not clear when Mr. Price had begun to lose the support of powerful business elements in Belize’s then fundamentally Mestizo and Roman Catholic merchant community, such as Santiago Castillo, Sr., and Ismael Gomez. There was a time in the late 1950s and early 1960s when it seemed that almost all Mestizos were PUP supporters. And these were precisely the years when the predominantly Creole civil servants were leading a campaign against Mr. Price which accused him of “Latinizing” Belize.
As Belize headed into the 1979 general election, there had beentwo historic, game changing alliances, we submit, since the country’s modern politics began in 1950. The attorney W.H. Courtenay had been a leader of the original opposition to the PUP, which was the National Party, organized in 1951. He was considered such a deadly enemy that PUP thugs attacked his home. Things changed when he decided to defend Mr. Price on a sedition charge brought by the British colonial government in 1958. Since that time, the Courtenay family, powerhouses in the Southside Anglican Church, have been integrated into the PUP, W.H. Courtenay becoming the first Speaker of the House in 1961 under the new Ministerial constitution; his son, V.H. “Harry” Courtenay serving in the House of Representatives and PUP Cabinets from 1969 to 1984, and V.H.’s son, Eamon, becoming a highly placed PUP official and serving in PUP Cabinets from time to time.
The second historic, game changing alliance occurred when Hon. Philip Goldson’s Opposition National Independence Party (NIP), Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, was being absorbed into the new UDP in 1973. The aforementioned Mr. Castillo and Mr. Gomez had financed a so-called Liberal Party in 1972, which was also absorbed into the UDP. In the early 1970s, significant elements in Belize’s business sector had begun to worry about the socialist influence of Assad Shoman and Said Musa on Mr. Price’s policies. These business elements, primarily Mestizo and Roman Catholic, to repeat, abandoned the PUP and joined the UDP. Their families are still UDP, 45 years later. (Incidentally, the first UDP Prime Minister (1984-1989; 1993-1998), Dr. Manuel Esquivel, was a Liberal Party original.)
Although the UDP was widely expected to win the 1979 general election, it was the PUP which triumphed, and Mr. Price succeeded in leading Belize to independence with all our territory intact in September of 1981. Belize has changed a lot since independence, and many Belizeans believe the changes have been for the worse. There is no record, however, of the leaders of the UDP, a party which first came to power in 1984 and which has formed four more governments since that time, ever lamenting the fact of Belize’s having achieved independence in 1981.
With all the pressure which has been coming down on Belize since 2008 to submit the Guatemalan claim to International Court of Justice (ICJ) arbitration, arbitration which theoretically could alter Belize’s present borders, it is difficult not to reach the conclusion that the PUP’s achievement of independence for Belize with all our territory intact was a very remarkable achievement indeed.
At the time, Guatemala was a pariah state in the region because of the murderous violence its armed forces were unleashing against Indigenous Guatemalans. Except for Israel, support for Belize’s self-determination and territorial integrity was absolute in 1981.
Since the end of the civil war in 1996, however, Guatemala has done a successful job of refurbishing its image. We would say that since 1996, on the other hand, Belize has become a lawless country, one devoid of social justice, and a country in which only the strong and connected survive, and flourish. While Guatemala has been indicting and incarcerating presidents and other high officials, Belize has apparently become a place where the Chief Justice’s rulings are ignored.
In a society where injustice prevails, where the rich routinely trample on the poor, it is impossible to create a seamless national unity to fight an external threat. On the matter of the ICJ referendum scheduled for April next year, there is confusion in Belize, and there is tension in Belize.
In times like these, Belizeans perforce look to the two dominant political parties for leadership. The UDP had been waffling a bit where its position on the ICJ referendum vote was concerned, but their Foreign Minister recently blurted that they were all for the “yes” vote, and that he himself considered that a “no” vote would be “crazy.” The PUP had also been waffling, with only their Leader, Hon. John Briceño, firmly in favor of “yes” to the ICJ. The time has come for the PUP to put up or shut up. April 10, 2019, is right around the corner.
If the PUP continues to waffle, a vacuum will grow and will be available for the Belize Progressive Party (BPP) and other interested parties to fill. It is important to note that when the Heads of Agreement arrived in Belize in mid-March of 1981, the then Opposition UDP was in major disarray, badly damaged by their general election defeat in 1979. The Belize Action Movement (BAM) and the students of Belize City essentially filled the vacuum.
We repeat, there is confusion in Belize today, and there is tension.
Power to the people.