Independence Day, September 21, falls in between Belize’s three basically ethnic holidays – September 10 (Creole), October 12 (Mestizo), and November 19 (Garifuna). Independence Day should be the great unifier, the great national and nationalistic statement, and Belizeans have been working towards that goal for 32 years. We still have some ways to go.
There are at least two striking things about how Belize moved to Independence on September 21, 1981.
One is that the British refused to give Belize the defence guarantee which would have eased the tension amongst Belizeans and healed some of the Heads of Agreement wounds which had been opened in March and April of that year. If you think strictly and technically, the British were right. Belize was asking for the political status of independence, which would have been, in a sense, compromised by a defence guarantee from our longstanding colonial masters. But, the Belizean situation was an exceptional one. The British could have made an exception. British Honduras had been claimed by Guatemala since the latter part of the nineteenth century, and the Guatemalans, 40 times more numerous than the Belizeans, were making threatening noises about an independence to which Belizeans felt entitled.
By 1981, Belize’s political leaders knew that the British were playing games with Belize, and seeking to appease Guatemala and Guatemala’s patrons, the United States, by having Belize cede a portion of her territory to Guatemala. The Belizean people had adopted a hard line position on the issue: Belizeans declared flatly – no land cession, independence now! The Belizeans who were hardliners were PUP Belizeans, but the PUP had won every single general election held since universal adult suffrage in 1954. Theirs was the majority position in Belize.
Locked in the self-government limbo since 1964, Mr. Price and the PUP wanted to enter independence heaven. They believed that the March 1981 Heads of Agreement created the opportunity for Belize to become independent by providing a theoretical framework for subsequent negotiations, and presumably settlement, with Guatemala. But the Heads of Agreement were too similar to the 1968 Seventeen Proposals, and they spooked a large amount of Belizeans, including this newspaper.
To prevent violence in Belize rising to civil war levels, the British Governor declared a state of emergency on the afternoon of Thursday, April 2, 1981. That state of emergency was still in effect when Belize became independent on September 21 of that year. It may be said that the celebration was a partisan one. For that original celebration to have been bipartisan, and truly national, the British would have had to step up to the plate. It would not have cost them that much, but imperialists do what they do for motives of profit. Imperialists are not humanitarians, and the British, at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, are imperialists.
The other striking thing about how Belize moved to independence in 1981 was the extraordinary pressure on Premier George Price and his Cabinet, which included the young leftist militants – Assad Shoman and Said Musa, and featured Deputy Premier C. L. B. Rogers and Attorney General V. H. Courtenay. The October 1974 general election had seen the PUP seriously challenged for the first time in history, and following that the surging UDP won Belize City Council elections in both December 1974 and December 1977, the latter one by a landslide. Belize City being the old capital and the country’s population, education, and financial center, the CitCo result of 1977 convinced many people that the UDP would win the general election scheduled for 1979.
Were that to have been the case, it would have meant that the PUP had wasted 29 years seeking the Holy Grail of independence. The UDP was a conservative, business-dominated party which was pro-United States, pro-Israel, and desirous of downplaying the Guatemalan claim to Belize. The UDP were not interested in any risky independence for Belize. That was for sure.
Having won the 1979 general election in very much of a surprise result, and having welcomed U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s decision in late 1980 to agree to Belize’s independence, the PUP in 1981 were, finally, so close to independence they could taste it. The British, however, refused to provide any comfort for the last few miles of the journey, and the PUP made mistakes on that final march, the most serious, having the longest lasting effects, being the refusal to introduce Belizean artists into the national symbols process.
Under the pressure, Mr. Price’s PUP insisted, until the last few weeks, on the blue-and-white flag for independence. The strips of red above and below the core were a last minute concession. In its blue-and-white format, the national flag would have looked just like the PUP flag (and some Central American republic flags). At this newspaper, we felt then, and we feel now, that the design of a national flag should have been done through a competition amongst Belizean artists. It was still the PUP government which would have had the final say.
In the case of the national anthem, Mr. Price had chosen Samuel Haynes’ “Land of the Gods” from the 1960s, when he was trying to build national consciousness amongst Belizeans. As the years went by, this apparently personal choice became etched in stone, and many non-PUP Belizeans have had the impression that the national anthem choice was imposed: it did not rise from a national consensus.
Where our national consciousness is concerned, Belizeans have come a long way since September 21, 1981. In this essay, we have tried to explain to you how extraordinary were the socio-political circumstances back then, and show you some of the real problems surrounding Belize’s birth. Independence Day, no matter the circumstances 32 years ago, is Belize’s most important and substantial holiday. The imperialists who were skeptical about our national aspirations 32 years ago, are still skeptical today. The imperialists are a prominent part of a dominant international philosophy which considers us Belizeans to be inferior beings. Every day of our Belizean lives, is a battle to prove our Belizean worth. Ya da fu we, Belize! Belize forever more!
Power to the people. Power in the struggle.