An American movie called THE GREEN BERETS, starring John Wayne, opened at Belize City’s Eden Theater on North Front Street on New Year’s night in 1969, 55 years ago next Monday. The movie was basically propaganda to extol the United States’ war effort in Vietnam, which is located in what is called Southeast Asia.
U.S. president John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas, in November of 1963, and he was replaced as president by Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson. It is possible that Kennedy had not been warlike enough. Under Kennedy, there were American military “advisers” supporting the right-wing South Vietnamese army against the communist Viet Cong guerrillas who were being backed by Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnam and also, it would appear, by Mao Zedong’s China. But Kennedy had denied American air cover to the Cuban exiles who invaded Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba in April of 1961, and that may have been a huge mistake in the eyes of the American military/industrial complex.
In any case, under Kennedy’s successor, President Johnson, American action began to escalate in Vietnam, and by the time yours truly went to study in the U.S. in August of 1965, the U.S. was becoming an increasingly active participant in what became known as the Vietnam War.
Vietnam had been a French colony, but the Vietnamese won their freedom in 1954 by defeating the French at the epic battle of Dien Bien Phu. The Americans were opposed to a Vietnam united under the communist leadership of Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese kingpin, so that is how they began supporting a separate South Vietnam with “advisers.”
American young people were very hostile to the American war effort in Vietnam, especially on college campuses such as the one where I lived from 1965 to 1968. American casualties mounted steadily in those three years, and young white Americans did their best to avoid the mandatory military draft which existed at the time. To do so, they tried to get into graduate school or they migrated to Canada. Some actually went to jail instead of accepting the draft. In Vietnam, if you didn’t return to America in a body bag, you came back mentally traumatized.
Young Belizeans in America did not know what was really going on in ‘Nam, so they accepted being drafted or voluntarily enlisted and shipped out to Asia, because of all the benefits America offered to military veterans.
Stanley Kubrick made a great movie called FULL METAL JACKET, which did a superb job of giving the real sense of what went on in Vietnam during the war.
The Vietnam War indirectly changed politics in Belize because some young Belizean intellectuals, led by the attorneys Assad Shoman and Said Musa, and including luminaries like Derek Courtenay, Ronald Clarke, and Lionel del Valle, organized a public demonstration for several nights when THE GREEN BERETS was shown at the Eden. The demonstration condemned American involvement in the Vietnam War.
I had returned to Belize a few months before, and was teaching at the Belize Technical College when Shoman and Musa recruited me for the 1969 New Year’s night demonstration. But, while I was carrying my placard and demonstrating that first night, a man named Robert Livingston, who was the general secretary of the small, local chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), limped up to me and said I should “leave those Arabs alone” and start lecturing at the UNIA’s Liberty Hall instead, which I did.
The Vietnam War changed politics in Belize because, for whatever the reason(s), Premier George Price of the ruling People’s United Party (PUP) seemed to be supporting Shoman, Musa, and their group of anti-Vietnam War protesters. Shoman and Musa ran as PUP general election candidates in October of 1974. They ran in the Cayo North and Fort George constituencies respectively, where it seemed that the PUP incumbent area representatives, Hector Silva and the late Alexander “Sandy” Hunter, had been pushed out from the top. Both Shoman and Musa lost in 1974.
But they became senators, and active in Mr. Price’s Cabinet circles. When the PUP won the 1979 general election, Shoman and Musa won their seats. Assad became Minister of Health, and Said became Minister of Education. Less than two years later, Belize became an independent country under the leadership of Mr. Price in September of 1981.
Before the aforementioned January 1969 demonstration, Mr. Price and the PUP had appeared to be unbeatable in local politics. The PUP won 18 out of 18 seats in the 1961 general election, and 16 out of 18 seats in the 1965 general election.
But in the early 1970s, a talking began in circles which had been PUP before the January 1969 demonstration that Shoman and Musa were “communists.” Before that demonstration and the entry of Shoman and Musa into the PUP, almost all Roman Catholics and most merchants/businessmen were supporters of Mr. Price. Because of Shoman and Musa, politics began to change in Belize in the early 1970s.
A right wing party, supported by some powerful Catholics and merchants, was formed in September of 1973. It was called the United Democratic Party (UDP), and it scared the hell out of Mr. Price and the PUP in the October 1974 general election, winning six out of the eighteen seats, and then actually winning the Belize City Council election a couple months later. The PUP had never lost the City Council before. (In fact, in that 1974 general election, the new UDP came within 17 votes of throwing the House into a 9-9 deadlock.)
How the PUP fought off the powerful UDP in the 1979 general election is a story unto itself, and that subject has been discussed a few times in Belizean media circles, but what is almost never discussed is the challenge for PUP chairmanship made by Said Musa, supported by Assad, in 1983. The incumbent PUP chairman was the late Louis Sylvestre, and he was definitely right wing, pro-American, and widely believed to be unashamedly corrupt. Musa was running on a reformist, social justice platform, but Mr. Price, who had encouraged the Shoman/Musa careers and principles from 1969, was forced to back off from supporting Mr. Musa in the chairmanship race. Sylvestre successfully defended his chairmanship. Shoman stopped attending Cabinet meetings in protest. And the PUP lost a national election for the first time ever in December of 1984.
Assad Shoman then left the PUP and worked for years with the left wing Society for the Promotion of Education and Research (SPEAR). Said Musa at some point after 1984 moved to the right along with Glenn Godfrey and Ralph Fonseca as his allies, and Said became successful politically, becoming PUP leader in 1996 and Prime Minister in 1998.
The point of this column is that the “Ad Hoc Committee for the truth about Vietnam,” when it demonstrated on January 1 of 1969 against the Vietnam War, changed politics in this country, because the fact that Mr. Price appeared to support Shoman and Musa caused him to lose support at some very high and powerful levels in the capitalist and Catholic sectors of Belize. The election results of 1974 showed that Mr. Price and the PUP had become vulnerable. This had never happened before. It had been unthinkable.