Written by Assad Shoman
(Extracted from a Facebook post published by Dylan Vernon on the Belize National Historical Society page)
I. We didn’t Create our Constitution
Belize became an independent nation state in 1981 with a constitution first passed in the parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, its former colonizer.
That constitution was agreed in a Constitutional Conference in London in April 1981 between the British government and a Belize delegation from which both the Premier and the Opposition were absent.
Those unprecedented absences were caused by the fact that the country was then under a State of Emergency, which had been declared by the colonial Governor at the request of the Premier, and ultimately backed by British armed forces in the territory.
The country was deeply divided about independence itself, and in the end the Opposition demanded that Belize should NOT become independent until a negotiated settlement was signed with Guatemala, and it boycotted the constitutional conference.
That was no way to say hello to the independent Belize.
At independence, British troops remained in Belize at our request to defend against a Guatemalan invasion. And we depended on the USA to restrain its client state, Guatemala. This meant that we could not adopt any policy or take any action that would upset those countries. Soon not just our foreign relations but our social and economic policies were being dictated by the USA. Belize, underdeveloped by colonialism, began life as an independent country becoming ever more dependent on global capitalism and its current extreme form, neoliberalism.
Belizeans had no real say in the making of the Belize Constitution. True, there were meetings held in all district towns by a committee of the National Assembly, but these were mechanical actions attended by a very few who were given no information, and most of the comments were about national symbols and other cosmetics. In truth, that “consultation” was just a formality, as people were never given the power to change the colonial constitutional framework. Belizeans had fought against colonialism because they did not want to be governed by Britain, yet they felt they had to swallow the colonial structures wholesale, including having the Queen as Head of State, or lose the protection of the British soldiers.
In fact, the Queen had no say on that issue (or anything else). What changed the decades-old insistence of the British that it could never have its soldiers defend an independent country? Two things: Belize’s hard bargaining and its gaining international support, and the insistence of the USA that the soldiers remain—not to defend us against Guatemala but to defend Guatemala against supposed Cuban infiltration, a thing that terrified the USA when all of Central America was in war. Indeed, UK Prime Minister Thatcher lamented in her autobiography that “this has now become a virtually permanent commitment,” when President Reagan told her in 1982 to keep the troops in Belize longer (they were set to leave that year).
The Belize Constitution shaped by the colonizer was basically a revised self-government (colonial) constitution, maintaining the same legislative, executive and judicial systems and with no changes in the vital social relations of property, labour, communal rights, or economic and social rights. Over the years several amendments have been made to the constitution, some of which expanded citizens’ rights or oversight of government, but the substance of the colonial constitution has remained the same. The most substantive citizen participation took place during 1999 with the Political Reform Commission, but its limiting structure produced limited proposals. There is no sense in repeating the same mistake today.
II. The Power of the Colonial Mind-set
British colonialism was especially good at getting colonized people to swallow their propaganda and believe that the British Empire was a benign, civilizing force, despite the overwhelming evidence of Britain’s leading role in the slave trade and slavery, and in the terrorism, mass murder and ruthless exploitation it inflicted on the peoples of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. And so every year we witness the sorry spectacle of peoples in their former colonies dribbling over their “honours” like MBE, which means member of the British EMPIRE! They were especially good at confounding people in Belize, as we were taught that slavery was “not as bad” here, and that slaves fought shoulder to shoulder alongside their masters, preferring slavery under the British. I know of no other former slave society (and Belize began life as a slave society) that actually celebrates a day when the slave masters won the right to continue enslaving the people for forty more years.
And it was forty years, until 1838, although in theory slavery was abolished four years earlier, in 1834. The enslaved people were forced to work 45 hours each week for their masters under a so-called “apprenticeship system”. This had a dual purpose: to serve as compensation to the slave-owners, allowing the British state to pay only half of the compensation that was agreed, and, more importantly, to acclimatize the “emancipated” people to the move from chattel slavery to wage slavery under a new capitalist order. The “stipendiary magistrates” that were created to oversee the apprenticeship system and in theory protect the apprentices became in fact the enforcers of the new labour laws that were passed to keep the workers as virtual slaves to their employers.
And I am sure it was not planned, but it also took us forty years after independence before we officially gave recognition to the commemoration of Emancipation Day. Have we been in apprenticeship all these years?
Our independence so far could indeed be likened to apprenticeship. We were told that we were free, independent, emancipated, and given a Constitution that maintained all the colonial concepts about how to organize a capitalist society. And we were trained to continue with the same institutions and the same societal codes, the same racism and sexism and classism that were shaped by the colonial master. And, by and large, we have been faithful to our masters’ bidding. We have not really been independent; we have not been free.
III. What is Needed for a People’s Constitution
The news that the government has formed a People’s Constitution Commission, and that it has heeded the voices of those clamouring to be in it, is heartening. It sounds good, “People’s Constitution”, but it is left to be seen whether this is just a pretty slogan or whether the people will be given a real chance to make the Constitution theirs. This could be a real moment of emancipation for a people kept powerless for centuries, or it could be just another road show.
We may now have the opportunity, if the constitutional consultations are carried out in accordance with the principle that it is the fully informed and consulted people who will define the shape and content of the People’s Constitution. Not some twenty-odd people appointed on a commission by government, not the Cabinet or the leaders of political parties or other organizations, but the people. This means that before a draft constitution is put to a referendum the people must be given a complete draft text and allowed to make specific suggestions on whether to keep or change every single article in it. This is the “by the people” part of democracy that is almost always missing. It is not good enough to say that you are doing this for the good of the people. It must in fact be done by the people. The people must be agents of change, not merely the objects.
For such an exercise to be successful, people must be given all the relevant information and allowed every chance to question and comment. We must be informed about how our Constitution works and what limitations it has had on our achieving the goals of freedom, justice and equality. We must be informed about other possibilities, other constitutions and structures designed to achieve greater justice.
We must learn what it is a Constitution can accomplish and what must be left for more detailed negotiations. For example, our present Constitution has a very good Preamble (that part was inserted by us Belizeans and is unique in the former British Caribbean colonies). It demands respect for social justice and for an equitable distribution of wealth, calls for an adequate means of livelihood for all, equal access to health and education for all, and for the elimination of social privilege, and even demands policies that “prohibit the exploitation of man by man or by the state”. Wow! If all that were in fact abided by, what a wonderful world this would be. But the meat of the Constitution, the articles about how the state and the society is structured, do not provide for the attainment of these worthy goals, because the meat of it was written by the colonial masters.
That is why the consultation process must allow for people to study and opine on all these matters, to hear different views and make up their own minds. This is hard work, both for the Commissioners and others who will be conducting the consultations and for the people who will be deciding. But we must be prepared to work hard if we want a better Belize for all. We were lucky that we did not have to engage in armed struggle, like many peoples did, to win independence. But the manner in which we achieved it means that it was a very imperfect and incomplete emancipation. We are still in apprenticeship. At independence there were two slogans that resonated: Independence is the Beginning, and Today Independence, Tomorrow Liberation. Liberation and Emancipation Now! We can’t wait for tomorrow’s noon.
Assad Shoman, 21 September 2022.