Features — 09 March 2019
Remembering Derek Aikman between 1984-1992

There was a time in Belize when we thought that the PUP would rule forever. In that time the opposition was just a constitutional requirement; in 1969 we were almost not even that, the opposition NIP gaining just one seat out of the eighteen available in the House of Representatives. There was one radio station in the country back then, Radio Belize, and all they sang all day long were the praises of the Peaceful, Constructive Belizean Revolution under the PUP and their leader, George Price. Radio Belize’s announcers coddled George Price, as if he were a saint, and his ministers, even though a number of them didn’t go to church, were shielded by the glow of the great man’s halo. There were occasions, in one instance an approaching general election, when the opposition was given all of fifteen or so censored minutes to make their play, to state to the Belizean people why a government other than the PUP could lead Belize.

It was no wonder that in this environment many young people were of the belief that if there was to be a regime change in Belize, it would have to come through a bloody revolution. Such was the grip the PUP had on the country. The main opposition party in the 1960s, the NIP, under the leadership of Philip Goldson, felt that “the time to save [our] country was before we [lost] it”, and so they concentrated most of their energies on keeping the invincible PUP from giving up too much in negotiations with Guatemala. Such was the opinion in 1968 when the nation was presented with the Webster’s Proposals. The NIP and the trade unions rallied the nation in defense of our beloved country. From Punta Gorda, Corozal Town, and Benque Viejo the people came to march against the Webster’s Proposals. The energy from this effort should have buoyed the main opposition party when the general election was called in 1969, but there had been a split in the leadership of the NIP, and what hindsight has shown us is that the Belizean people tend to separate local politics from the nagging Guatemalan claim to our country.

In 1974 there were whisperings of change, but that didn’t amount to much more than a lee breeze; however in 1979 there was real talk of a peaceful change of government. We knew then, after another discouraging failure in 1979, that it could never be done. The PUP led the country to glorious independence in 1981, and this alone should have secured them another victory at the polls in the general election that followed a few years later. At the time they still had an iron grip on the only radio station in the country (except for a small one controlled by the British). But there was no carryover from the triumphant march to independence and the people were sick and tired of Radio Belize’s announcers who, it seemed, lived only to serve their political masters.

Politically savvy people knew that time had run out on the PUP machine, the Big Blue, and for them the only worry was the response of the PUP, if they would go into the night peacefully. The masses, the less savvy, people like me, though hopeful of an opposition victory, knew it couldn’t happen, could never happen.  That night in 1984, when the PUP fell for the first time, cemented Belize as a democracy. It is the hardest thing to peacefully remove a political party that has become entrenched in government. The PUP had had a near unchallenged run, through the fifties, through the sixties, and through the seventies. They had never known the bitterness of defeat.

For me, I was convinced that the PUP couldn’t be beaten at the polls. In the 1979 election they had been accused of using invisible ink and all kinds of rotten stuff to get over. They seemed to have all the authorities on their side. They handpicked all the heads of departments, and police top brass, and they had a grip on propaganda with their unchallenged radio station.  The writers of the Western movies say that if you can’t tell a story better than you heard it, leave it alone. The newspaperman in the movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, put it this way: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In the story of Aikman over Price, the fact and the legend are the same. There is no way of embellishing what happened.

I was drinking in my father-in-law’s bar when the election results started coming in. I don’t recall exactly when the result from Freetown was announced. I’m pretty sure it came early, but not before the trend was showing that the PUP was in real trouble.  I’ve told you this story before. My brother-in-law and I jumped up from our stools, absolutely ecstatic when the announcement came that the invincible Price had gone down to defeat. There was some bittersweet in the moment. There were a lot of old folk who adored George Price, and one of them, a legend in his own right, was sharing a drink with us when the result from Freetown was announced. He banged his hand on the table before him and cried out, “That (George Price) was a good man; that was a good man.”

Derek Aikman was a favorite of Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel from the get go. No political party is homogenous; they comprise many bedfellows, factions, and as political parties go, the UDP had more factions than most. There were many different political parties that came together to form the UDP, and Manuel Esquivel’s base was the least formidable of these. It is not a hard study to find out why Derek Aikman landed under Manuel Esquivel’s wing. His five years in government were eventful. Derek Aikman, the first minister of education in Belize who wasn’t appointed by George Price, was an Americanophile. Belizeans were seeing American television for the first time and they had fallen in love with the Chicago Cubs. Derek Aikman was instrumental in bringing Cubs standout left-fielder, Gary Matthews, to meet his adoring fans in Belize.

The PUP had moved to take control of tertiary level education with the formation of BelCAST, (the Belize College of Arts, Science, and Technology). Wikipedia states, “In 1979 the ruling People’s United Party (PUP) government established the (Belcast) with the intention of breaking Belize’s dependence on the outside world for university education. The PUP envisioned Belcast as a government-run institution, with no participation from the church. “Under Derek’s watch, while he was minister of education, the UDP overturned BelCAST and replaced it with the University College of Belize (UCB). According to Wikipedia, “The UDP revoked the Belcast ordinance and invited Ferris State College of Big Rapids, Michigan, to establish and manage a new institution, the University College of Belize (UCB). Control over the UCB program rested not with Belizeans, but with the administration of Ferris State College.”

Under Derek’s watch, while he was Minister of Electricity, Transport and Communication, Manuel Esquivel’s government converted BTA (Belize Telecommunication Authority) to BTL (Belize Telecommunication Limited). Belize Today said, “the Government of Belize retains 51% of the shares…British Telecom has acquired 25%, and the remaining 24% is reserved for Belizean citizens both at home and abroad.” Derek Aikman was out of office (2007) when he called in to the WuB and “told shocked hosts Evan ‘Mose’ Hyde and Kalilah Enriquez, in a voice trembling with emotion, that he had been kidnapped and that his kidnappers, three of them, were threatening to kill him if the BTL Vesting Bill that went to the Senate that very morning, was not passed.” (from story by Keisha Milligan, Amandala).  Derek Aikman had been integral to the transformation of BTA to BTL. What the ruling PUP was doing with the company must have thus been an obscenity to him. Adele Ramos wrote in the Amandala in May, 2007: “If passed, the vesting legislation would permit Ashcroft to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars in assets at BTL to Telemedia, with the Government waiving millions of dollars in revenues it would normally earn on such a transfer. GOB, through this bill, foregoes any taxes, stamp duties, registration fees and other revenues ordinarily payable to the Government of Belize.”   The bill was nonetheless passed. “Today, the bill over which Aikman said the kidnappers threatened him with death, was passed in the Senate by a majority of 6-5,” stated Keisha Milligan in the Amandala.

In 1987 Derek Aikman became chairman of the UDP. If I remember correctly, Dean Lindo had held that position. But Dean had lost a lot of luster because of a major land transaction he had overseen as Minister of Natural Resources.  There was also the case of Rufus X, who was seeking to challenge the Belize Rural North representative for the UDP for the right to represent the party in that area in the next general election, 1989. It was my observation that Dean Lindo wasn’t against Rufus X contesting for the seat, but Manuel Esquivel was 100% against Rufus X’s candidacy. The UDP was not a united party when they contested the elections in 1989, and they lost a squeaker, 15-13, that year. Derek Aikman held on to his seat, but that was the last time the man who engineered the most stunning upset in Belize’s political history, would be victorious at the polls.

In 1992, Derek Aikman broke away from the UDP to form, along with Philip Goldson and other UDP leaders, the NABR (National Alliance for Belizean Rights). The UDP, under Manuel Esquivel (leader) and Dean Barrow (deputy leader) had joined the PUP in support of the Maritime Areas Bill. The NABR believed that the Maritime Areas Bill was very bad for Belize.   In the 1990s, Derek Aikman suffered a major financial loss in the air transport business, and he ended up being declared a bankrupt by the courts. It is believed in some quarters that his enemies conspired against him — the UDP for his breakaway from the party, and the PUP for slaying the political giant, George Price. He was stripped of his seat. Effectively, being declared a bankrupt was the end of the political career of one of the most charismatic Belizeans to ever stroll the political stage in Belize.

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Deshawn Swasey

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