Editorial — 10 November 2018
Belizean unionism

Slavery was a straightforward evil. Some human beings forced other human beings to work for them, thus enriching them. The enslavers provided subhuman housing for those they enslaved, a minimum of clothing, barely enough food to survive, and they paid them nothing for their labor.

Colonialism was a little more subtle. In the case of British Honduras/Belize, the masses of the people did not have chains on their feet after Emancipation in 1838. But they did not own any land, or any means of production. In order to survive, they generally had to ask the same people who had enslaved them, for jobs. The employers, who had been slavemasters, paid very low wages during colonialism, because the masses were desperate for work.

All over the British Caribbean, beginning with Antonio Soberanis in Belize in 1934, labor agitation began in the 1930s because of unemployment and brutal working conditions. The British, a European imperial power, were those who had been enslavers and then became colonial masters. In Belize and the British Caribbean, the bulk of the slaves, who later became exploited under colonialism, had been Africans who were violently kidnapped from their West African homes, shackled, and transported in the bowels of ships to this region of the world.

In British Caribbean possessions like Trinidad and Guyana, large amounts of East Indians were also brought into the system as indentured workers from Asia in the nineteenth century. So these two former British colonies are basically half African, half East Indian. The rest of the Caribbean, including Belize, was majority African labor.

Guatemala, the republic to the west and south of us, was a case where invaders from Catholic Spain in the sixteenth century conquered the Indigenous peoples who lived in the territory, seized their lands, and essentially forced them to work on their farms, their ranches, and later in their factories, for subhuman wages and in subhuman working conditions. When Guatemala became independent of Spain in 1821, there was a ruling class of Spanish descendants, so-called ladinos, and an oppressed majority of Indigenous peoples.

Guatemala experienced a kind of revolution between 1944 and 1954 wherein teachers and workers of various kinds became organized, and there were land reform initiatives. After President Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in 1954, however, unionism and land reform became anathema, as they had been under the dictator Jorge Ubico prior to 1944, and unionism and land reform have remained anathema in Guatemala ever since 1954.

Unionism began to grow in Belize in the 1940s, and the most powerful union to emerge was the General Workers Union (GWU), which became the foundation of the anti-colonial People’s United Party (PUP) in 1950. By 1957, the politicians of the PUP had become more powerful than the original leaders of the GWU, who were pushed aside, but the PUP remained more pro-union than the political parties which opposed them.

The original opposition to the PUP was the pro-British National Party (NP), organized in 1951. The NP was supported by the Belize Estate and Produce Company (BEC), the largest employer and landowner in the colony at the time. When the anti-union NP entered a coalition with the Honduran Independence Party (HIP), which had been organized in late 1956 by Leigh Richardson and Philip Goldson, in 1958, the ideological contradiction there was that Goldson (and Richardson) had been leaders of the PUP between 1950 and 1956 who had also been officials of the GWU. The 1958 coalition party was named the National Independence Party (NIP).

Leigh Richardson left Belize and went into exile in early 1958, but Philip Goldson remained in the new NIP under the leadership of Herbert Fuller. It is very interesting that when the NIP competed against the PUP in 1961 in the first general election held under the new Ministerial constitution, Philip Goldson was not a candidate for a seat in the House of Representatives. Goldson was the majority owner and editor of The Belize Billboard, which was absolutely the leading newspaper in British Honduras at the time. According to Lawrence Vernon in his essay, A History of Political Parties in Belize: “Philip Goldson was one of the five members nominated to the Assembly by the Governor.”

Mr. Goldson became NIP Leader after Herbert Fuller’s death in late 1961. Under Mr. Goldson’s leadership, the NIP focused on fighting the Guatemalan claim to Belize, which had become very aggressive during the Guatemalan presidency of Ydigoras Fuentes (1958-1963). Philip Goldson had been jailed by the British in 1951 for his union and political activities in Belize, this after he had visited Arbenz’s revolutionary Guatemala and publicly described his week there as “seven days of freedom.” BEC and other business interests supported the NIP during the 1960s, but Mr. Goldson had a unionist past. Wealthy business people in the British Honduras Chamber of Commerce in 1967 established their own newspaper, The Chamber Reporter, to compete with The Billboard, just months after Mr. Goldson had sensationally exposed the Thirteen Proposals.

We are saying that when Mr. Goldson’s NIP was absorbed by the new United Democratic Party (UDP) in 1973, and Mr. Goldson was replaced as Leader of the Opposition, of the two other parties which formed the UDP, none was pro-union. The Liberal Party was out of the Chamber of Commerce, and Dean Lindo’s People’s Development Movement (PDM) was neoliberal capitalist, even though Lindo was supporting Cyril Davis’ Democratic Independent Union (DIU) for political reasons.

Of the two Prime Ministers during the five terms of UDP administration since 1984, Dr. Manuel Esquivel was from the Liberal Party and Dean Barrow came out of Uncle Dean’s PDM. Mr. Goldson’s NIP agenda, influenced by his unionist past, has been removed from the UDP conversation.

Our point today is that the show of militant unionism which took place in Belmopan this week Wednesday, represents the type of worker solidarity which has been violently rejected by the business/industrial oligarchy and the military in Guatemala since the overthrow of Arbenz in 1954. Such a display of militant unionism is one of the reasons the Guatemalans, backed by Washington, insist on controlling Belize, so that they can suppress unionism in The Jewel and prevent its spread west and south.

According to Belize Prime Minister Barrow in his press conference last week Monday, the Belizean economy, led by tourism is going great guns. On Partridge Street, we don’t see it down here on the Southside. But, if it is indeed the case that his economy is going great guns, why would Mr. Barrow allow his administration to run afoul of the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) because of reasonable union demands?

There is a system in place internationally which we have often referred to as white supremacy. The relationship of white supremacy to neoliberal capitalism, and how Eurocentric Christianity is mixed up in all this, requires serious study and analysis. Belize’s two party system of parliamentary democracy does not address the sub-surface ideological issues which are responsible for the injustices and inequalities in our daily lives as Belizeans. It is only when organized workers become active militantly that the structure of Belize’s oppressive socio-economic system is exposed.

Approaching retirement as he is, Mr. Barrow may not consider it necessary to remember how instrumental the unions of Belize were where his coming to power in 2008 was concerned. But the nakedly ambitious Minister of Education, Hon. Patrick Faber, would do well to remember how dangerous the unions of Belize can be to electoral politicians whom they have reason(s) to consider disrespectful and/or corrupt.

Power to the people.

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Deshawn Swasey

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