It is possible to look back now and believe that the Americans decided that Belize should become independent because the territory had become an area of political disturbance. In late 1980, an American official by the name of Bushnell came to Belize to tell the PUP government of then Premier George Price that Washington had decided to support Belize’s independence.
Belize had become a self-governing British colony in 1964, and the only thing standing in the way of independence was the Guatemalan dispute with Great Britain over the territory. The Guatemalans were the Americans’ most important allies in this region, but Guatemala itself had become a country which was violently divided politically.
At the beginning of 1959, the workers and peasants in Cuba had overthrown the business and big landowner sectors and declared a communist revolution. This was a troubling, traumatic development for both Washington and Guatemala City. The relationship between the two political capitals immediately became even closer. And this became a time when Belizeans felt most threatened by the Guatemala claim, because the then Guatemalan president, Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, was a real fire-breather. One has to believe that he was a real fire-breather on the Belize question because he knew just how much Washington “had his back.”
Washington had decided to finance and train some Cuban exiles to invade Cuba. Most of that training began in Guatemala in 1960, but the Nicaraguan government of Tacho Somoza, a right-wing military dictatorship, was also involved in the staging ground aspect. Nationalist elements in the Guatemalan army rejected the role that Fuentes had Guatemala playing as an outright enemy of the Cuban Revolution, and they tried to overthrow him in November of 1960. Some scholars mark this as the beginning of the civil war in Guatemala, which did not officially end until 1996.
The invasion of the Cuban exiles failed miserably at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Fuentes was overthrown in 1963. The Guatemalan civil war was growing worse. The guerrillas in Guatemala were influenced by communist Cuba, and Washington began to see that Belize represented a territorial conduit for Cuban military equipment and propaganda material to reach the Guatemalan guerrillas in and through the Petén. The United States decided to make a serious effort to solve the dispute between Guatemala and Britain. They wanted Belize to become a satellite state of Guatemala, so that Guatemala City could itself stop Cuban infiltration through Belize.
You will ask, what about the British, who had an army garrison in Ladyville? Well, although the Americans and the British were and are allies, the British did not participate in the trade embargo which the Americans imposed in order to cripple Cuba. The sovereign British were certainly no communists, but they continued to trade with Cuba. British business people were making money.
Assad Shoman and Said Musa, British-trained attorneys of Palestinian ancestry, returned to Belize in 1967 and were appointed travelling magistrates. Travelling regularly to the Districts gave the two an opportunity to establish cells in each of the Districts. The District I knew the best back then was the Stann Creek District, where people like the late Chiste Garcia and Roy Cayetano had been recruited by Shoman/Musa. In the Corozal District, their most important ally was Jesus Ken.
The question of whether these cells were communist is not for me to decide. Shoman and Musa became allies of mine in late 1968, when they sought me out to participate in the Ad Hoc Committee for a demonstration against the Vietnam War. I was teaching at the Belize Technical College at the time, and had become known for black-conscious lectures.
Earlier that year of 1968, the Wall Street attorney, Bethuel Webster, had officially released Washington’s proposals for a solution to the Anglo-Guatemalan dispute. These were the Seventeen Proposals, which sparked uprisings in the streets of Belize City. Previously released in a rough, unofficial form by Philip Goldson in 1966 as the Thirteen Proposals, Washington’s ideas had similarly angered the people of Belize to the point where they took to the streets.
There are a couple people who have suggested to me that Assad Shoman was a British agent. I am not sure what this really means. I do know that he was working with an understanding between himself and PUP Premier George Price. My evidence for this is as follows. When I became president of UBAD in late March or early April of 1969, following the sudden migration of the first UBAD president, Lionel Clarke, to New York City, my first big move was a weekend journey to Stann Creek Town and Punta Gorda Town along with Charles X “Justice” Eagan and Robert “Rasta” Livingston. We three held public meetings in both towns.
After we returned to Belize City, Assad Shoman came calling by my Kelly Street home early one morning shortly after. He was in a car with his first wife, Jo, an English lady. I sat in the back seat as they drove over by the Barracks seafront area. Those of you who know Assad know he is quite dramatic in his behavior. He showed me a letter signed by Premier George C. Price, which referred to statements made by the UBAD officers on our trip to the South, and ended, “Such an attitude is not conducive to cooperation.”
Myself, for sure, had no idea I was supposed to be cooperating with Mr. Price and the PUP. Shortly after, Shoman and Musa formed the People’s Action Movement (PAC), which held its first public meeting in a Corozal village in late May/early June of 1969. Silky Stuart spoke at that meeting and waved a Cuban flag and showed pictures of Che Guevara. Under an agreement previously negotiated between PAC and UBAD, UBAD officials could speak at PAC meetings, and UBAD’s flamboyant Charles X Eagan had addressed that meeting.
The Belize Billboard, presumably still Belize’s leading newspaper at the time, immediately headlined the meeting as a “UBAD meeting” and featured the matter of the Cuban flag and Guevara pictures, which demonstrated communist sympathies. Hell soon broke loose.
Did Mr. Price support Shoman and Musa in order to agitate for independence, which was being delayed? By 1974, both these gentlemen were PUP general election candidates, opposed by a new Opposition party called the UDP, established in 1973 and unabashedly anti-communist and pro-American capitalism. By the 1979 general elections, the PUP represented a clear left wing, while the UDP was like Eddie Seaga’s right wing JLP in Jamaica.
The “political disturbance” I referred to in the first paragraph has to do with how militant and radical Belize’s trade unions had become under the PUP in the 1970’s. A black Rhodesian communist by the name of Misheck Mawema had been “dropped” in Corozal in 1970, and soon found his way to Stann Creek. (While in Corozal Town, Mawema had famously slapped a Jesuit priest, William Messmer.) All over Belize, trade unions were sending their leaders to be trained in Cuba, Bulgaria, and other communist countries.
Once the PUP won a clear victory in the 1979 general elections, the Americans decided they would allow Belize’s independence, then do the job themselves which they had wanted the Guatemalans to do in 1968. Washington took over Belize in 1982. This is what Leroy Taegar taught me. That is the reason for all the changes we have experienced here in the last thirty years – the destruction of the way of life we had known before.