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Our road to independence

EditorialOur road to independence

The second Great War, which ended in Europe in 1945, exacted a massive toll on the British Empire, so much so that had it wanted to, it would not have been able to defend its hold on its greatest foreign prize, India. In respect to Britain’s colonies, India, with its vast natural resources and large population to exploit, was the Crown’s greatest jewel, but shortly after the war, in 1947, India, which had agitated for freedom from British rule for decades, became an independent nation. Soon, many of the colonies of the British around the world, in Africa and the Americas, would be on the path to freedom.

In 1960 the United Nations, in resolution 1514 (XV), called the Declaration on Decolonization, “proclaimed the necessity of bringing colonialism in all its forms and manifestations to a speedy and unconditional end, and in this context, declared, inter alia, that all people had a right to self-determination.” Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago were the first two English-speaking Caribbean countries to gain independence, in 1962. Barbados and British Guiana (Guyana) got their independence in 1966.

Belize became a self-governing country in 1964, and there it would remain for some time, not by its choice, or because the British insisted it remain a colony. Belize’s independence was delayed because its neighbor to the west and south, Guatemala, the country with by far the largest military in Central America, maintained a claim on the territory. Since the late 1930s, Guatemala had stoked an argument long held by some of its leaders that the British had reneged on a clause, Article 7, in the 1859 Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty, and that for that fault Guatemala had a claim on Belize. Prior to 1859, Guatemala, even though it never had any presence in Belize, had claimed that it inherited rights over our country from Spain.

The official independence movement in Belize began on September 29, 1950, when the People’s Committee, which had been formed in response to the devaluation of the dollar in December 1949, dissolved and became the People’s United Party (PUP). The British had identified two main undertakings that would be necessary for Belize to survive. Intensive research had been carried out to identify the crops that would do well in Belize, and the research station at Central Farm had been fully established in the 1950s. The British called for Belize to join the British West Indies Federation, which came into being in 1958. That latter proposal, Federation, would lead to a split in the PUP, with the faction led by George Price, which rejected Federation, gaining control of the party.

In 1964, when our country became self-governing, George Price, the leader of the PUP, became premier. Price and the PUP called for immediate independence. Philip Goldson, who had split from the PUP and later formed the National Independence Party (NIP), insisted that independence be delayed until the British settled Guatemala’s claim, without our territory forming any part of their discussion. The road to independence would feature a battle between the two men, who at the birth of the PUP were together on the path to attain the glory.

Because of his years studying for the priesthood, Price had access to counsel from the American Jesuits, which meant he had a conduit to the highest seats of power in Washington. Robert S. Turton, his former boss, and presumably his sponsor when he entered politics, greatly preferred the Americans to the British, and PUP followers had marched under the American flag and sung God Bless America at their gatherings. At the height of the Cold War, the Americans felt very safe with Price. He was pro-American, and with his words he condemned “communism.” But his economic vision for developing Belize was not entirely the American model. During self-government Price oversaw the acquisition and redistribution of land to the landless, and his mixed economy aimed to produce a Belize where social justice reigned, a country where the rich wouldn’t have less but the “poor would have more.”

Belize was very much an Afro country when the road to independence began, but that didn’t play to the advantage of Goldson, because there was no visible “Caucasian” in him and the majority of Belize’s Afro population was mixed, and impressed by the European ideal. While Goldson always won his seat, his party never defeated Price and the PUP in a general election. A labor leader and newspaper publisher, Goldson had a vision for the economic development of Belize, but as leader of the NIP he was consumed with the Anglo-Guatemalan dispute. While Price felt that delaying our independence would weaken our position, Goldson held the position that the British, because of our historical connection, were morally obligated to guide us to a secure independence, and, as stated, that until then we should remain a colony.

By the 1960s the British, who in the 1950s had appeared to be unsure of Belize’s capacity to survive in the big bad world, were ready for the independent Belize. The Americans, who had become the number one military force in the world after WWII, were content with their number one ally, the British, being in control here. They wished to preserve their relationship with the British, and had rebuffed Guatemala’s overtures for assistance with their claim. In 1965, the year after we attained self-government, the US government, at the behest of the UK and Guatemala, gave Bethuel Webster, an American lawyer, the task to develop proposals that would lead to the end of the dispute. In 1968 he concluded his mission with the Webster Proposals, which were roundly rejected in Belize. While the proposals didn’t give up a square centimeter of our physical space, a number of them eroded our sovereignty.

While the Americans kept a low profile in Belize, behind the scenes they were the force. Goldson did not enamor them with him when he led the revolt against the Webster Proposals, and a charge that he was getting close to Communist Cuba in 1967, even if that outreach pertained solely to Castro’s leadership in the Nonaligned Movement in this hemisphere, must have displeased the Americans.

Goldson’s NIP would be absorbed when a group of smaller political parties came together in 1973 to form the United Democratic Party (UDP), under the leadership of Dean Lindo, who was more pro-USA and vocally more anti-communist than Price had ever been. Indeed, by this time Price, who had seen the negotiated road to independence thwarted, had turned to lobbying the nations of the world for support. And that had brought him closer to countries that didn’t endorse the American-British hegemony.

In the 1970s our independence team, led by Lindbergh Rogers and the left-leaning Assad Shoman, would achieve great victories at the United Nations (UN). Another attempt for a negotiated settlement, the Heads of Agreement of 1981, would fail for the same reasons the Webster Proposals had, but support for us at the UN had grown year after year, climaxing with UNGA Resolution 35/20 of 1980, which, among other declarations, stated that the people of Belize had an inalienable right to self-determination, independence and territorial integrity, and called on parties concerned to respect the principle that the threat or the use of force should not be used to block our emerging from our colonial cocoon to take our place in the world.

Along the road to independence Belize also won support from the greatest prize, the US, under President Jimmy Carter. Thus, on September 21, 1981, 42 years ago, a Belize government, under Father of the Nation, George Price, took full control over all of our affairs, and our flag rode up the pole at the United Nations for the first time.

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