In his September 28, 2018, column, the Publisher of Amandala called for more reflection and conversation surrounding the events which happened 37 years ago during the civil uproar that came with the pronouncement of the Heads of Agreement in March of 1981. Indeed, it is important to ask what is the stigma surrounding this momentous period and why it has resulted in a seeming avoidance of any serious public discussion on the subject for the last thirty seven years.
There are some similarities in the current UDP’s government’s attempt to gain popular approval for the “YES” vote to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the past PUP government’s attempt to gain popular support for the Heads of Agreement back in 1981. One striking similarity, then and now, is the persistent air of suspicion surrounding both governments’ true motive. Both have insisted that their motives have been misinterpreted and therefore misunderstood.
The government is insisting that the campaign to reach a “YES” vote is an “educational one”, but opponents are saying it is an attempt to stifle debate, because some Belizean leaders have already committed to a yes vote to appease outside forces and therefore are compelled to engineer a “YES” vote from the Belizean people. But while there have been no concrete facts to substantiate a conspiracy, like during the Heads in 1981, the same air of suspicion now surrounds the Special Agreement signed by Belize and Guatemala in December of 2008.
Thirty-seven years ago the PUP government agreed to a set of provisions called the Heads of Agreement, which in their view, was a necessary step to settle the Guatemalan claim and clear the way for Belize’s independence. The then government insisted that while other interpretations were being given to the Heads, that in fact, they were only negotiating points from which an independent Belize would negotiate with Guatemala for the future relations between the two countries.
Opponents to the Heads, however, saw them as evidence of a “sellout” to Guatemala by the British and Americans, for which the then PUP government was agreeing, all in the name of achieving independence.
The government insisted that its intentions were honorable, and despite the inclusion of provisions like “use and enjoyment of the Ranguana and Sapodilla cayes”, that the Heads were not an attempt to “hand over” Belize to Guatemala. They insisted that the wrong interpretation was being given to the provisions and that “use and enjoyment” was not land cession, and did not relinquish Belizean sovereignty and territorial integrity.
There was a significant backlash from the people which resulted in civil disobedience throughout the country and riots in Belize City that eventually caused the British governor, James Hennessy, to declare a state of emergency. The Heads were eventually withdrawn.
But not everybody rioted or disagreed with the government’s position. There were those who were constrained by their loyalty to the PUP and its quest for independence and were therefore willing to trust that the government’s intentions were honorable.
Like today’s debate over the ICJ, the question of who is more patriotic was also raging during the Heads. Those who supported the Heads felt themselves patriotic, if not pragmatic Belizeans, who were realistically attempting to get pass the stalemate of the Guatemalan claim to pave the way for independence. So as compromising as the Heads may have appeared on the surface, they insisted, it was only a necessary step to the noble objective of independence.
The same claim is being made today by supporters of the “YES” to the ICJ. They say this is the best route to finally get a judicial proclamation from the ICJ on the unfounded claim of Guatemala, and once and for all, Guatemala must drop their claim to Belize. They insist that after decades of trying other attempts to resolve this claim, that going to the ICJ is the “only” way.
But during the months of March and April of 1981, opponents of the Heads also saw themselves as patriots who were sounding the clarion call to save Belize from being swallowed up by Guatemala with the compliance of the PUP government and the devilish machinations of the British and Americans.
The PUP felt it had to agree to the Heads as a necessary way to achieve its goal of independence. The UDP, while on record as rejecting independence at the time, was absent, as a political party, during the Heads, and played no significant role in opposition to the Heads; with the exception of Mr. Philip Goldson, who appeared to be an independent leader in opposition to the Heads during that period.
So opposition to the Heads was galvanized around the Public Service Union (PSU) and a spontaneous youth movement called the Belize Action Movement (BAM) led by Kenworth Tillett, Leroy Panting and Rodwell Pinks. Also in the ranks of BAM were radical activists like the late Odinga Lumumba and Michael Card and a firebrand female student from Belize Technical College, named Socorro Bobadilla. The divide ran deep and created a schism that split the Belizean people. This divide, where both sides were calling the other unpatriotic, has left a stigma surrounding the Heads of Agreement and has resulted in an avoidance of any serious public discussion of the subject for the last thirty-seven years. One can only wonder if we are not looking at the beginning of another great divide among the Belizean people as April 10, 2019 draws near.
My own personal remembrance of the time was, that, in 1981 I was the Imam of the Muslim Community of Belize. At the time the community had taken a very activist role in the whole debate surrounding whether Belize was ready for independence; a conversation that was raging at least a year before the Heads surfaced. The Muslims, through a group called the Islamic Adult Education Committee, had sponsored several public consultations on burning issues of the day. One of the biggest Town Hall Meetings was held at the St. Mary’s Hall and featured Manual Esquivel of the UDP and Harry Courtenay of the PUP debating the question: “Is Belize ready for Independence?” We also had other forums on education and challenges to economic development. They were all well attended.
During that time I was also employed as the Executive Secretary of the Belize Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber was expanding the definition of its role as a civic partner in development at the time and so enabled a subcommittee which held a series of meetings looking at challenges facing Belize’s socio-economic development. In attendance at those meetings were persons like Sandra Coye, Philip Zuniga, the late Ismail Shabazz, along with Chamber President, the late Santos Diaz, and Councilors Santi Gomez and John Sosa.
While the Belize Chamber of Commerce officially opposed the Heads of Agreement, that stance created such a rift in the business community that two businessmen, Billy Musa and Yasin Shoman, split from the Chamber and formed their own separate business association called the Private Sector Organization, who then gave their support to the government and therefore the Heads. On the day of the General Strike, however, most businesses were closed.
My experience with the Heads became even more personal and eventful on the day of the General Strike called by the PSU and BAM. This is the day that Radio Belize was forced to go off the air because of the demands of the demonstrators who had gathered in the thousands at the foot of the Albert Cattouse Building, preparing to launch an attack on the station, demanding that it close down.
The crowd was becoming increasing aggressive as they advanced to the entrance of the downstairs lobby. Guarding the entrance to the station were some very nervous BDF solders with SLR rifles and Thomson submachine guns. The commanding officer was one Lieutenant Gillett. The atmosphere was tense as the crowd kept advancing, led by Odinga, Tillett and Panting, demanding the station be closed down immediately.
After arguments back and forth it was agreed that a delegation from the protestors would be allowed access to the station to speak to the authorities and present the demands of the protestors. The protestors selected Sandra Coye, Godwin Hulse, Abdus Salaam and myself to represent them.
We went upstairs to Radio Belize and met the Acting Chief Broadcasting Officer, Hipolito Bautista. We demanded that Bautista close the station down and avoid the confrontation that was brewing at the foot of the stairs. He said, while he agreed with the concerns of the protestors, his hands were tied and that he had no authority to comply with our demands. He said only the Permanent Secretary, Michael Hulse, could give that order. We then demanded that we talk with the PS. He called PS Hulse at his Belmopan office for us to convey the message to him directly. At the time the Hon. CLB Rogers was the Minister of Broadcasting and Hulse was his PS.
It was clear from that conversation with Mr. Hulse that there would be no giving in to the demands of the protestors. I’ll never forget the words of PS Hulse to us:” Why don’t you people go home, and leave the government to govern?” We warned Mr. Hulse that we had no control over the riotous crowd filling the streets outside of the Albert Cattouse Building, and that lives would be lost if the crowd attacked the building. Just then a British expatriate who was a technician working at the station burst into the room and announced, “We are off the air”. This was verified by shouts from the crowd downstairs that the radio had indeed gone silent. There was jubilance from the crowd who viewed closing down Radio Belize as a major victory against the monolithic PUP.
Soon after the crowd gathered at the Court House Wharf for an impromptu meeting where Sandra, Godwin and I were asked to addressed the jubilant crowd. A victory had been won and we were swept in as heroes even though the four of us were just people at the right place at the right time.
It was a short time after that someone announced that the radio was back on the air, but by then it didn’t seem to matter to the protestors because a symbolic victory had been won. Radio Belize had gone off the air for the first time in history.
Moments later the Riot Squad launched an attack on the protestors to break up the gathering. Tear gas canisters were launched into the crowd and in return some of the protestors covered their faces with wet cloth, picked up the canisters and threw it back at the Squad. This threw them into disarray. In the melee several more tear gas canisters were launched by the Squad, one of which struck Mr. Barney Mahler, the Auditor General, in the head and knocked him unconscious. It was fortunate that my pickup truck was nearby and we were able to put Mr. Mahler in the back of the truck and rush him to the hospital for emergency treatment which perhaps saved his life.
These are some of my recollections from that infamous day. I am sure that those who remember that day can add to the story. Besides the historical value of what occurred that day, it also serves as a reminder, during this period of controversy surrounding the road to the ICJ, of how fragile is our social cohesion and how easily it can disintegrate.