I’m writing this early Sunday morning, just a couple hours before the cane farmers of the Corozal and Orange Walk Districts meet in general assembly to decide whether to sign an agreement with BSI/ASR which is on the table, or to embark on some other course of action.
As things are, the commencement of the new sugar crop, with respect to the grinding of the sugar cane which is in the fields, has already been delayed for a month because of extended negotiations between the cane farmers, who own the sugar cane fields, and BSI/ASR, the company which owns the factory which grinds the cane, to decide some fundamental issues of power, control, and money.
Over the weeks and months of the negotiations, our editorial position at this newspaper has been consistently in support of the cañeros. The reason for that support is because that is who we are at this newspaper: we support the principle of power to the people. It is the cane farmers who are the Belizean people.
BSI/ASR represents international investment capital. This international investment capital is what many educated Belizeans say is what is necessary for Belize to achieve economic development. That is a big joke to some troublesome minority people like me, because the history of international investment capital has always been a predatory one, not only here in Belize but all over planet earth. But, these “many educated Belizeans” are the leaders of the two major political parties here – the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) and the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP), and these two parties absolutely dominate Belize’s political landscape. International investment capital is one of the few things they always agree on: they both crave it and love it. So.
Belize was traditionally different from the rest of the Caribbean in that our economy was not sugar-based, as was the case in Trinidad, Barbados, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba, and so on. The Belizean economy was forestry-based until well into the twentieth century.
A bloody civil war began in the Yucatán, immediately north of Belize, in 1847, and refugees from both sides in that war began to settle in the Corozal and Orange Walk Districts in the second half of the nineteenth century. Most scholars feel that the so-called Caste War lasted until 1903. For many years, scholars considered the Caste War to have been basically a race war between the oppressed Maya and their ladino bosses, but in the last couple decades some scholars have been considering this war from perspectives other than race.
Ladino is a term used to describe people who are more Spanish in their ancestry. The ladino capital in the Yucatán would have been Mérida, in the northeast of the peninsula. The first city sacked by the Maya rebels, Valladolid, would have been a ladino stronghold in central Yucatán. Most ladinos would have been Roman Catholic, and they would have controlled the politics, business, trade, industry and landholding in Yucatán. The once glorious Maya, many of whom retained their ancestral religious practices, had become like serfs or indentured laborers who had been pushed around from the time of the Spanish Conquest in the sixteenth century. The Maya in the Yucatán were divided between the Santa Cruz Maya, who became concentrated in the southeast, and the Icaiche Maya, who were dominant in the southwest.
For purposes of this column, the main thing is that both ladino and Maya Yucatecans took refuge from the Caste War in Belize, which became a full-fledged British colony in 1862. One has to suspect that one of the reasons the white and near-white settlers/Baymen/mahogany contractors of Belize gave up their de facto sovereignty to become a British colony was because they needed military help from the British Empire to deal with the Santa Cruz and Icaiche Maya. The official story has always been that the settlers/Baymen/contractors needed British money, and the critical matter of British West India Regiment soldiers is very much downplayed.
I have to speed up this narrative. To the best of my knowledge, it was the Caste War refugees who began sugar cane growing in Belize. As refugees, they kept to themselves in the villages of Corozal and Orange Walk, which were remote until the nationalist revolution of 1950. The center of everything was the capital, now known as Belize City. The Maya and Mestizo refugees stayed out of the city and worked hard to survive in their villages.
When Mr. Price became Maximum Leader in the then dominant PUP in 1956, he began to integrate the hard-working Maya and Mestizos of the North into the mainstream life of Belize. Probably the most important thing Mr. Price did was acquire land for distribution to the Maya and the Mestizos, and along with that he negotiated with the British to have their sugar giant, Tate and Lyle, build a modern sugar factory in Belize, at Tower Hill in the Orange Walk District. This was around 1963, I would say. Previous to Tower Hill, Belize’s only sugar factory, now defunct, was at Libertad, in the Corozal District.
The Belizean sugar industry is in stark contrast to the banana industry of South Stann Creek, which is owned by a few “plantocrats” who hire seasonal labor from the neighboring republics. The Belizean sugar industry features thousands of Belizeans who own their own land and cane fields. The cane farmers of Belize are not peons or peasants.
But, the cane farmers of Belize have always kept to themselves and fought their own battles. This attitude is a relic of the colonial days. The trade unions of Belize, who represent Belizean workers in our major industries nationwide, have publicly identified with the cañeros in the present struggle with BSI/ASR. As far as I know, this is the first time this has ever occurred. This means that the cane farmers, at least theoretically, are now much stronger than they have ever been. The implications for the UDP and PUP politicians are very interesting.
Power to the people. Power in the struggle.