There is a growing tension in The Jewel which features the recently elected People’s United Party (PUP) government facing off with the workers’ unions of Belize because government finances are in a desperate state.
There is a historical irony here in that when the PUP first won national elections in colonial British Honduras in 1954 and 1957, it was as the PUP/GWU (General Workers Union).
The PUP busted free of the GWU in time for the 1961 general election, the first under a new Ministerial constitution, but it is generally felt that the support of the unions was critical in the surprise 1979 general election victory of the PUP, the election which essentially catapulted Belize to political independence in 1981.
It is difficult to pinpoint when elections here began to be decided by campaign financiers, or the oligarchy. At a certain point the two major political parties became beholden to big money, which they used to campaign and seduce the majority of the voters. Or, so it seems.
I would say that campaign financiers were very influential in the PUP’s blowout of the incumbent United Democratic Party (UDP) government in the 1998 general election. But, the reason it was a blowout was because the masses of the Belizean people, who I think we may describe as working class, had become hostile to Dr. Manuel Esquivel’s UDP administration.
If we say that the PUP first “bought” a general election in 1998, when was it that the UDP first “bought” a general election? I don’t think we can say 2008, because there was massive anger directed at the incumbent PUP from the union base.
Perhaps we can say that the UDP “bought” the 2015 general election with PetroCaribe money. But, we cannot speak definitively. All we know today, in April of 2021, is that you cannot win a general election any more without big money. This was not the case, I suggest, in the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, or perhaps even the 1980s.
The masses of the Belizean people supported the PUP in the November 2020 general election and in the national municipal elections in March of 2021. But now the workers’ unions are angry at the new government for moving to cut their salaries, and the unions are basically pointing fingers at the big money people behind the politicians and asking serious questions. Belize appears to be in crisis.
In the second part of this column, I want to throw out a few quotations from a paper by the late Peter Ashdown entitled THE PROBLEM OF CREOLE HISTORIOGRAPHY. A British historian who appears to have been a left wing ideologue, Ashdown is an academic I wish were still alive, and I wish I had met him, even though he criticizes my 1969 KNOCKING OUR OWN TING as “unconvincing.”
The quotations are from the pages of the Second Edition of READINGS IN BELIZEAN HISTORY, published in 1987 by St. John’s College’s BELIZEAN STUDIES, and edited by Lita Hunter Krohn.
Following are three quotations from Ashdown’s paper, with the page numbers coming from the aforementioned READINGS IN BELIZEAN HISTORY.
“The inherent illogicality of having two versions of one’s history in Belize is a problem still unresolved. If Colonial governors (however well intentioned), exploiting merchants and Creole aristocrats are still the Belizean heroes, then the exploited class and its spokesmen – Fred Gahne, Samuel Haynes, Tony Soberanis and Luke Kemp – must still be the villains of the piece. These gentlemen will not all fit in the same bed. Such is the problem of Creole historiography and the sooner it is resolved the sooner can Belizean students of the future come to grips with a coherent vision of the reality of their past.” (pg. 147)
“ … since 1954 the power structure has changed and so have ruling attitudes. Part of that change in attitude should have been the replacement of colonial ‘heroes’ (Cran, Slack, Matthews and assorted merchants) with Belizean working-class ones. This is necessary, for the precursors of Price, Pollard, Goldson and Richardson were men who opposed the Establishment in its heyday. They never stood a chance of success, but they fought on. It is the duty of the educational powers to recognize in death contributions these early ‘agitators’ – Haynes, Lahoodie, Soberanis, Adderley and Kemp – made to the nationalist cause, especially as in their own lifetimes they were almost universally reviled and often imprisoned. They did not live to share the fruits of the changes they fought for and the least we can do is to recognize their contribution in a nationalist history.” (pg. 148)
“The record shows quite clearly that Belize entered the twentieth century undeveloped NOT because the Colonial Office and the Colonial Government were indolent or uncaring, but because their plans for development were sabotaged by the unofficial members of the Legislative Council. Those gentlemen, because of their majority, retained the power of the purse and the right to throw out legislation unacceptable to them and, whether expatriate or Creole, consistently opposed any increase in taxation to supplement the general revenue for the implementation of public works or social services. They also to a man defended the archaic and repressive labour law until coerced into its repeal in 1943. Government spending on roads, education, public health and housing remained nominal and static until natural disaster broke the unofficial majority in 1932. That majority in its lifetime (1892-1932) included many men still highly regarded as City Fathers, some of whose names are still preserved in the nomenclature of city streets as well as granite slabs at Lord’s Ridge. It is my contention that Benjamin Fairweather, James Cran, S. G. Woods, Carlos Melhado, Rev. Robert Cleghorn, Sydney Cuthbert, Benjamin Stuart, and several others (including the M.L.C.s of the 1930s and 40s) should not be seen as the ‘people’s representatives’ (which they claimed they were) championing the cause of the masses against the arbitrary rule of Downing Street, but rather viewed as a continuation of the self-seeking elitist oligarchy which was the political power in Belize from its inception as a settlement until it became a Crown Colony proper in 1932.” (pg. 151)