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The Cane Farmers Association and the Northern Cane Workers Union

FeaturesThe Cane Farmers Association and the Northern Cane Workers Union

(- pgs. 232-235, 13 Chapters of a History of Belize, Angelus Press, 1994)

With the passing of the Sugar Industry (Control) Ordinance in 1959, the government created the Sugar Board, through which it controlled delivery licenses and quotas. The law also authorized Plantations Limited to deliver such cane as was required for up to one-third of sugar production. A companion law created the Cane Farmers Association (CFA) with powers to negotiate on behalf of farmers, organize cane deliveries and make loans to members. The law gave a privileged position to the large producers and was open in several places to diverse interpretations.

During the 1960s most Corozal rural men became members of the CFA, and not surprisingly it became characterized by confusion and internal conflict, as opposing factions tried to interpret the laws and use the CFA to suit their interests. There were three major factions: two groups of small farmers led respectively by Mateo Ayuso and Jesus Ken and a small but powerful group of large producers. Plantations Limited was not directly involved in the faction fights, and was often the target of all three.

Mateo Ayuso was a Mestizo who attended St. John’s College and St. John’s Teachers College, both in Belize City. He then taught in various schools in three districts and later joined the Department of Cooperatives, helping small cane farmers and winning their confidence. He became the first accountant/secretary, and later manager, of the CFA; his stormy tenure from 1960 to 1966 was punctuated with significant gains in favour of small farmers and allegations of the use of CFA facilities (delivery schedules, loans, lobbying for land, etc.) to further his own goals. In 1966 he was forced to resign by the management committee amid allegations of impropriety. (In 1993 Mr. Ayuso was completely exonerated of any wrongdoing and compensated by the Association for its breach of his employment contract.)

Jesus Ken was a Maya living in Xaibe whose great grandfather had been a leader of the Santa Cruz Maya in the Caste War. Ken had never been to college, but he had a deep sense of history and was widely read on socialist theory. As a boy he had become acquainted with Soberanis’ campaign in rural Corozal for workers’ and peasants’ rights. He had spent some time in Mexico as a mahogany cutter and then returned to work as a cane cutter in Corozal. He regularly walked the area, speaking to villagers of the need to struggle for a more dignified existence. His objective was to make the peasants, whether milperos or cane cutters, owners of land and independent producers of cane.

Ken erupted on the public scene on the occasion of the Governor’s speech in Libertad in 1957, leading a group of about 50 demonstrators with placards depicting Plantations Limited as an octopus grabbing everything within reach. He went on to form a loose organization, registered in 1961 as the Northern Cane Workers Union (NCWU), which became responsible for much of the agitation of rural workers and small farmers in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.

Ken went for help wherever he could get it; some of his advisors included such pillars of the colonial Establishment as Vernon Leslie, Gilbert Rodwell Hulse and W. H. Courtenay, whose son, V. H. Courtenay, drafted the NCWU’s by-laws and first collective agreement. Being against colonialism and in favour of independence, Ken was naturally drawn to the PUP. In 1961 Ken became a candidate for the PUP and won a seat in the Legislative Assembly, but far from tempering his radical views and actions this served only to embolden him.

The PUP was central to the sugar politics of Corozal. Its candidate for the 1954 elections was a GWU organizer, and in 1957 it championed the cause of the peasants in the face of plans for foreign owned plantations. By 1960, however, the party had endorsed the capitalist development strategy which included foreign control of significant sectors of the economy. At the same time, it could not afford to lose peasant votes. This resulted in its simultaneous promotion of both plantation and peasant systems, which frequently led to confusion and conflict.

And although Ken was with the PUP, he kept the NCWU free from the party’s influence. Indeed, the PUP-controlled Christian Democratic Union (CDU) competed with the NCWU for representation of cane cutters. In 1961 a poll of employers of field workers was carried out by the Labour Department to determine which union would represent the workers, but Ken refused to be a part of that farce and stepped up his membership drive. Before the end of the 1961 season, the CDU withdrew, having lost most of its membership, and the CFA recognized the NCWU.

The presence of a large number of Mexican labourers, however, made it difficult for the NCWU to bargain from a position of strength. Using his influence as a legislator of the governing party, Ken had most of the illegal immigrants deported, then called a strike of cane cutters on 3 February, 1962. The night before the strike, several of the Company’s fields went up in flames. (Ken recalls that this was done by workers placing a lighted candle protected by rubbish in the middle of a cane field when leaving work. The candle would burn down by nightfall, and the fields would blaze without the police being able to find anyone on the scene.) This put pressure on the Company, since burnt cane must be delivered within twenty four hours or it loses its sucrose content. The strike lasted until 12 February and the NCWU gained a substantial wage increase for cane cutters with Plantations Limited and several large producers.

Ayuso, meanwhile, was consolidating his position within the CFA. In late 1961 he became the Manager, and soon attracted the enmity of the large producers by campaigning to change the CFA’s constitution in favour of small producers. His efforts bore fruit in 1963, with the legalization of general meetings of the CFA and the removal of government appointees on its Committee of Management and of the legal privileges of large producers. He also successfully negotiated on behalf of producers with Plantations Limited. Ayuso considers that “by the end of 1963 he was unquestionably, although extra-legally, the strongest leader within the Association. He combined an air of professional efficiency with a sense of personalismo and was one of the first Mestizos to treat the Maya peasants with neither aloofness nor disrespect.”

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