The Genesis of Modern Politics, 1931-54

Source: U.S. Library of Congress

The Great Depression shattered the colony's economy, and unemployment increased rapidly. The Colonial Report for 1931 stated that "contracts for the purchase of mahogany and chicle, which form the mainstay of the Colony, practically ceased altogether, thereby throwing a large number of the woodcutters and chicle-gatherers out of work." On top of this economic disaster, the worst hurricane in the country's recent history demolished Belize Town on September 10, 1931, killing more than 1,000 people and destroying at least three-quarters of the housing. The British relief response was tardy and inadequate. The British government seized the opportunity to impose tighter control on the colony and endowed the governor with reserve powers, or the power to enact laws in emergency situations without the consent of the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council resisted but eventually passed a resolution agreeing to give the governor reserve powers in order to obtain disaster aid. Meanwhile, people in the town were making shelters out of the wreckage of their houses. The economy continued to decline in 1932 and 1933. The total value of imports and exports in the latter year was little more than one-fourth of what it had been in 1929.

The Belize Estate and Produce Company survived the depression years because of its special connections in British Honduras and London. Since 1875 various members of the Hoare family had been principal directors and maintained a controlling interest in the company. Sir Samuel Hoare, a shareholder and former director, was a former British cabinet member and a friend of Leo Amery, the British secretary of state for the colonies. In 1931, when the company was suffering from the aftereffects of the hurricane and the depression, family member Oliver V.G. Hoare contacted the Colonial Office to discuss the possibility of selling the company to buyers in the United States. The British government rescued the company by granting it an area of virgin mahogany forest and a loan of US$200,000 to erect a sawmill in Belize Town. When the government almost doubled the land tax, the large landowners refused to pay. The government accepted some virtually worthless land in lieu of taxes and in 1935 capitulated completely, reducing the tax to its former rate and annulling the landowners' arrears by making them retroactive to 1931. But small landowners had paid their taxes, often at a higher rate.

Robert Turton, the Creole millionaire who made his fortune from chicle exports, defeated C.H. Brown, the expatriate manager of the company, in the first elections for some of the Legislative Council seats in 1936. After the elections, the governor promptly appointed Brown to the council, presumably to maintain the influence of what had for so long been the colony's chief business. But Brown's defeat by Turton, one of the company's chief local business rivals, marked the decline of old British enterprises in relation to the rising Creole entrepreneurs with their United States commercial connections.

Meanwhile, the Belize Estate and Produce Company drove Mayan villagers from their homes in San Jose and Yalbac in the northwest and treated workers in mahogany camps almost like slaves. Investigators of labor conditions in the 1930s were appalled to discover that workers received rations of inferior flour and mess pork and tickets to be exchanged at the commissaries, in lieu of cash wages. As a result, workers and their families suffered from malnutrition and were continually in debt to their employers. The law governing labor contracts, the Masters and Servants Act of 1883, made it a criminal offense for a laborer to breach a contract. The offense was punishable by twenty-eight days of imprisonment with hard labor. In 1931 the governor, Sir John Burdon, rejected proposals to legalize trade unions and to introduce a minimum wage and sickness insurance. The conditions, aggravated by rising unemployment and the disastrous hurricane, were responsible for severe hardship among the poor. The poor responded in 1934 with a series of demonstrations, strikes, petitions, and riots that marked the beginning of modern politics and the independence movement.

Riots, strikes, and rebellions had occurred before, during and after the period of slavery, but the events of the 1930s were modern labor disturbances in the sense that they gave rise to organizations with articulate industrial and political goals. In 1894 mahogany workers rioted against a cut in their real wages caused by devaluation. In 1919 demobilized Creole servicemen protested British racism. But British troops soon stopped these spontaneous protests, which were indicative of discontent but had little lasting effect. In contrast, a group calling itself the Unemployed Brigade marched through Belize Town on February 14, 1934, to present demands to the governor and started a broad movement. Poor people, in desperation, turned to the governor, who responded by creating a little relief work--stone-breaking for US$0.10 a day. The governor also offered a daily ration of two kilograms of cooked rice at the prison gates.

The unemployed, demanding a cash dole, turned to Antonio Soberanis Gómez (1897-1975), who denounced the Unemployed Brigade's leaders at a meeting on March 16, 1934, and took over the movement. For the next few weeks, Soberanis and his colleagues of the Labourers and Unemployed Association (LUA) attacked the governor and his officials, the rich merchants, and the Belize Estate and Produce Company at biweekly meetings attended by 600 to 800 people. The workers demanded relief and a minimum wage. They couched their demands in broad moral and political terms that began to define and develop a new nationalistic and democratic political culture.

Soberanis was jailed under a new sedition law in 1935. Still, the labor agitation achieved a great deal. Of most immediate importance was the creation of relief work by a governor who saw it as a way to avoid civil disturbances. Workers built more than 300 kilometers of roads. The governor also pressed for a semirepresentative government. But when the new constitution was passed in April 1935, it included the restrictive franchise demanded by the appointed majority of the Legislative Council, which had no interest in furthering democracy. High voter- eligibility standards for property and income limited the electorate to the wealthiest 2 percent of the population. Poor people, therefore, could not vote; they could only support members of the Creole middle classes that opposed big-business candidates. The Citizens' Political Party and the LUA endorsed Robert Turton and Arthur Balderamos, a Creole lawyer, who formed the chief opposition in the new council of 1936. Working-class agitation continued, and in 1939 all six seats on the Belize Town Board (the voting requirements allowed for a more representative electorate) went to middle-class Creoles who appeared more sympathetic to labor.

The greatest achievements of the agitation of the 1930s were the labor reforms passed between 1941 and 1943. Trade unions were legalized in 1941, but the laws did not require employers to recognize these unions. Furthermore, the penal clauses of the old Masters and Servants Act rendered the new rights ineffectual. Employers among the unofficial members at the Legislative Council defeated a bill to repeal these penal clauses in August 1941, but the Employers and Workers Bill, passed on April 27, 1943, finally removed breach-of-labor-contract from the criminal code and enabled British Honduras's infant trade unions to pursue the struggle for improving labor conditions. The General Workers' Union (GWU), registered in 1943, quickly expanded into a nationwide organization and provided crucial support for the nationalist movement that took off with the formation of the People's United Party (PUP) in 1950. The 1930s were therefore the crucible of modern Belizean politics. It was a decade during which the old phenomena of exploitative labor conditions and authoritarian colonial and industrial relations began to give way to new labor and political processes and institutions.

The same period saw an expansion in voter eligibility. Between 1939 and 1954, less than 2 percent of the population elected six members in the Legislative Council of thirteen members. In 1945 only 822 voters were registered in a population of over 63,000. The proportion of voters increased slightly in 1945, partly because the minimum age for women voters was reduced from thirty to twenty-one years. The devaluation of the British Honduras dollar in 1949 effectively reduced the property and income voter-eligibility standards. Finally, in 1954 British Honduras achieved suffrage for all literate adults as a result of the emerging independence movement. This development was a prelude to the process of constitutional decolonization.

The origins of the independence movement also lay in the 1930s and 1940s. Three groups played important roles in the colony's politics during this period. One group consisted of working-class individuals and emphasized labor issues. This group originated with Soberanis's LUA between 1934 and 1937 and continued through the GWU. The second group, a radical nationalist movement, emerged during World War II. Its leaders came from the LUA and the local branch of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. The group called itself variously the British Honduras Independent Labour Party, the People's Republican Party, and the People's National Committee. The third group consisted of people who engaged in electoral politics within the narrow limits defined by the constitution and whose goals included a "Natives First" campaign and an extension of the franchise to elect a more representative government.

In 1947 a group of graduates of the elite Saint John's College won control of the Belize City Council and started a newspaper, the Belize Billboard. One member of this group, George Cadle Price, topped the polls in the 1947 election when he opposed immigration schemes and import controls and rode a wave of feeling against a British proposal for a federation of its colonies in the Caribbean. Price was an eclectic and pragmatic politician whose ideological position was often obscured under a cloak of religious values and quotations. He has remained the predominant politician in the country since the early 1950s.

The event that precipitated Price's political career and the formation of the PUP, was the devaluation of the British Honduras dollar on December 31, 1949. In September 1949, the British government devalued the British pound sterling. In spite of repeated denials by the governor that the British Honduras dollar would be devalued to maintain the old exchange rate with the British pound, devaluation was nevertheless effected by the governor, using his reserve powers in defiance of the Legislative Council. The governor's action angered the nationalists because it reflected the limits of the legislature and revealed the extent of the colonial administration's power. The devaluation enraged labor because it protected the interests of the big transnationals, such as the Belize Estate and Produce Company, whose trade in British pounds would have suffered without devaluation while it subjected British Honduras's working class, already experiencing widespread unemployment and poverty, to higher prices for goods--especially food--imported from the United States. Devaluation thus united labor, nationalists, and the Creole middle classes in opposition to the colonial administration. On the night that the governor declared the devaluation, the People's Committee was formed and the nascent independence movement suddenly matured.

Between 1950 and 1954, the PUP, formed upon the dissolution of the People's Committee on September 29, 1950, consolidated its organization, established its popular base, and articulated its primary demands. Belize Billboard editors Philip Goldson and Leigh Richardson were prominent members of the PUP. They gave the party their full support through anticolonial editorials. The PUP received the crucial support of the GWU, whose president, Clifford Betson, was one of the original members of the People's Committee. Before the end of January 1950, the GWU and the People's Committee were holding joint public meetings and discussing issues such as devaluation, labor legislation, the proposed West Indies Federation, and constitutional reform. The GWU was the only mass organization of working people, so the early success of the PUP would have been impossible without the support of this union. On April 28, however, the middle-class members of the People's Committee (formerly members of the Christian Social Action Group, to which the founders of the Belize Billboard belonged) took over the leadership of the union and gave Betson the dubious honorific title of "patriarch of the union." A year later, George Price, the secretary of the PUP, became vice president of the union. The political leaders took control of the union to use its strength, but the union movement declined as it became increasingly dependent upon politicians in the 1950s.

The PUP concentrated on agitating for constitutional reforms, including universal adult suffrage without a literacy test, an all- elected Legislative Council, an Executive Council chosen by the leader of the majority party in the legislature, the introduction of a ministerial system, and the abolition of the governor's reserve powers. In short, PUP pushed for representative and responsible government. The colonial administration, alarmed by the growing support for the PUP, retaliated by attacking two of the party's chief public platforms. In July 1951, the governor dissolved the Belize City Council on the pretext that it had shown disloyalty by refusing to display a picture of King George VI. Then, in October, the governor charged Belize Billboard publishers and owners, including Richardson and Goldson, with sedition. The governor jailed them for twelve months with hard labor. Soon after, PUP leader John Smith resigned because the party would not agree to fly the British flag at public meetings. The removal of three of four chief leaders was a blow to the party, but the events left Price in a powerful position. In 1952 he comfortably topped the polls in Belize City Council elections. Within just two years, despite persecution and division, the PUP had become a powerful political force, and George Price had clearly become the party's leader.

The colonial administration and the National Party, which consisted of loyalist members of the Legislative Council, portrayed the PUP as pro-Guatemalan and even communist. The leaders of the PUP, however, perceived British Honduras as belonging to neither Britain nor Guatemala. The governor and the National Party failed in their attempts to discredit the PUP on the issue of its contacts with Guatemala, which was then ruled by the democratic, reformist government of President Jacobo Arbenz. When voters went to the polls on April 28, 1954, in the first election under universal literate adult suffrage, the main issue was clearly colonialism--a vote for the PUP was a vote in favor of self-government. Almost 70 percent of the electorate voted. The PUP gained 66.3 percent of the vote and won eight of the nine elected seats in the new Legislative Assembly. Further constitutional reform was unequivocally on the agenda.



by Adele Ramos for Amandala

Up to 150,000 voters-roughly half the national population-are scheduled to go to the polls on Thursday, February 7, in the 13th national (general) elections. By casting their votes, they will exercise their power to choose which combination of 31 men and women will have control over the people's money in Belmopan for the next five years.

The voter population has grown substantially over the last half-a-century. Official information from the Elections and Boundaries Department indicates that when the first national elections were held in 1954, a total of 20,801 voted in 9 divisions across Belize. The voter turnout was around 70%. Only people who had reached the age of 21 could vote back then.

Things are vastly different today, and youth participation in the process has made it far more dynamic. In the last general elections held in 2003, 100,353 people voted, and voter turnout was registered at 79.51%. Since November 1979, anyone who has reached the age of 18 can vote.

This was one of the revolutions that the United Black Association for Development (UBAD) fought for in the 1960's. UBAD gave rise to Amandala, the nation's leading newspaper, in 1969, and the newspaper's publisher Evan X Hyde ran unsuccessfully in the 1974 elections.

UBAD was one of at least 12 organizations that have emerged on the political scene over the years. While the dominant parties - the People's United Party (PUP) and the United Democratic Party (UDP) - are well known, other lesser known names include: National Party (1954, 1957), Honduran Independence Party (1957), National Independence Party (1961), Christian Democratic Party (1961), CUF - Corozal United Front (1974), Toledo Progressive Party (1979), and National Alliance for Belizean Rights.

This year's elections will see an unprecedented amount of newcomers with at least six new parties entering the race: Vision Inspired by the People (VIP); People's National Party (PNP), We the People Reform Movement (WTP), and Christians Pursuing Reform Party (CPR) forming the National Belizean Alliance (NBA); National Reform Party (NRP), and Truth Reality and Creation Party.

Likewise, there will be far more voters flocking to the polls this time around. EBD data indicate that the voter population has grown almost 19% since 2003. The final list will be settled next week, around Nomination Day, and it may include thousands more voters than the 150,000 registered at the end of last year.

This is the first time that electors will be voting for 31 area reps to fill the House of Representatives, and they will also vote in a national referendum for an elected Senate.

In 2003, there were 29 electoral divisions and 29 area representatives were chosen. As our population has expanded, so too has the size of the legislature. The number of seats was doubled, from 9 to 18, in 1961. Ten more seats were added in 1984 - the first elections after Independence and the first to see a crushing PUP defeat. In 1993, one more seat was added and now in time for the 2008 elections, two new divisions have made the list.

The ruling PUP and the Opposition UDP are the only parties that have announced full slates to contest all 31 electoral divisions this year. In the last elections, the Opposition won only 7 seats, but UDP Cayo South candidate John Saldivar got a second run in the October by-elections for the seat, and he beat Joaquin Cawich, the son of former area rep Agripino Cawich, giving the UDP one more seat in the House of Representatives.
More election history:

To date, there have been 12 national elections. This year, voters will participate in the 13th national elections in the country's history. The gap between elections has spanned three to five years. The People's United Party (PUP) has remained dominant, having won 10 of the 12. The party first tasted defeat in the first elections to come after Independence (1984), and the second came in 1993.

By 1974, the United Democratic Party (UDP), successor to the NIP, was already making significant inroads. The PUP's vise-grip hold on the legislature gradually loosened with the loss of two seats in '65, one seat in '69, and then 6 seats in '74. Ten years later, the UDP wrenched the reins of power out of the hands of the PUP. That year, in 1984, ten new seats were added to the House, and the UDP won 21 of 28. However, the PUP returned to power in the following elections by garnering 15 of the seats, leaving the Opposition with 13. That was in 1989. The PUP then "influenced" the UDP Toledo West area representative to join them, making it 16 blue seats and 12 red. The tide changed in 1993 from blue to red, and the UDP won again-but by not so impressive a margin as it did in '84. It successfully regained four seats in the House.

In the last two elections, 1998 and 2003, the PUP resumed its 1950's trend of landslide victories, having won all but three seats in '98, and 22 of 28 in 2003. Both these administrations have been led by Fort George rep and PUP party leader Said Musa, the current Prime Minister.

Musa first ran in 1974 as standard bearer for the Fort George division. He lost. In the following elections, though, Musa would outrun his opponent, veteran politician Dean Lindo, who had become established in the division under the UDP. Musa would taste defeat yet again in the subsequent 1984 elections - the UDP's first term of office. He returned in 1989 to reclaim Fort George, and he has continued to be successful in that division.

Even while Musa's often controversial administration came under intense scrutiny for corruption and multi-million-dollar "mistakes," he has been one of the most successful PUP candidates, having netted the second highest number of divisional votes for his party - 75.87%, second only to Albert Division's Mark Espat, who won with 82.83% in the last general elections.

The PUP has been the only political party to field entire slates for all national elections since 1954, and even though women have been scarce in electoral politics, the PUP has a record of engaging more women in politics than any other party. In fact, the party had the first woman in Parliament.

When national elections began in the 50's, there were no women contenders. However, Gwendolyn Lizarraga-for whom Gwen Lizarraga High School is named-successfully made a bid for the Pickstock Division in 1961. It was the first year that a woman even ran in the national elections in Belize.

There were five challengers in that division that year, but Lady Lizarraga garnered 69% of the votes. She won again in 69 - this time there was only one contender from the NIP, and Lizarraga continued to net the same percentage of votes in her division. She was the only woman to run in the 1969 elections. She retired after two terms and her son, Adolfo Lizarraga, took her place in the '74 elections but did not perform as well. Then came Jane Usher in the same division in 1979, who won a modest 53% of votes, and repeated her victory in '84 by roughly the same margin.

Other women contenders have been: (1) former Chief Elections Officer, Myrtle Palacio, who ran for PUP in Mesop. in 1984 against Curl Thompson, (2) Lita Krohn, PUP Freetown, '89, against Derek Aikman (the lone woman to run that year), (3) Faith Babb won for UDP in 1993, Collet Division; (4) Juliet Soberanis (Queen Square) and (5) Dorla Bowman (Port), both for PUP, (6) Patty Arceo (Belize Rural South), PUP, 1998, elected to office along with (7) PUP Port Loyola rep, Dolores Balderamos-Garcia. Independent women candidates that year ('98) included Gilda Lewis, Ruth Smith, and Gloria Bowen, but they all lost in the race to Belmopan.

There were five women contenders in the last elections (2003). Balderamos-Garcia and Arceo made another bid for their constituencies, joined by Sylvia Flores, PUP, Dangriga; Diane Haylock, UDP, Pickstock; and Marilyn Williams, UDP, Albert. Only Flores won and she was the first woman parliamentarian to come from outside the Belize District. Six women have been in parliament since 1954, and it took seven years for the first one to get a seat. Five of them were PUP (Lizarraga, Usher, Arceo, Balderamos-Garcia, and Flores) and one was UDP (Babb).

Our count of candidates for this year's elections exceeds 90, well above the 75 who were nominated in the 2003 race. Going into the 2008 elections, however, only four women candidates have been named: Carolyn Trench Sandiford for Collet (PUP), Merlene Spain for Belize Rural South (PUP), Marta Hendrix of Cayo West (VIP), and Danna Myers for Belize Rural Central (VIP).

(Thanks to Mrs. Myrtle Palacio whose research and documentation provided much of the historical data for this article. Sources include Who and What in Belizean Elections and Selecting Our Leaders Past and Present.)

Did you know?

� Gwendolyn Lizarraga was the first woman to be elected to Parliament. She joined the ranks in 1961 - the third national elections and the first to be contested by women.

� 1998 was the year that most women ran and won in general elections. Nine were in the thick of the competition and two were elected, both of the PUP.

� The current Prime Minister Said Musa lost the first time he ran in Fort George in 1974, and again ten years later, in 1984, but he won over 75% of the votes in the last elections.

� Once upon a time, citizens had to meet certain criteria, such as owning property and getting paid a certain salary, to vote. The result was that in a year like 1948, less than 2,000 people (less than 3% of the population) were able to vote. All that changed with Universal Adult Suffrage in 1951.

� Today, roughly half the population is able to vote. Most of those who can't are simply not of age.

� The voting age was only changed from 21 years to 18 years in 1978.

� The first national elections were held in 1954. There were only 9 divisions and just over 20,000 voters.

� The PUP won the first seven elections, and a total of 10 since 1954. The UDP (established in 1973) has only won two of the twelve elections to date, the first in 1984 and the second in 1993.

� The General Workers Union and the People's United Party formed the first national government in 1954 with a coalition against the National Party, which won only one of nine seats.

� In Belize's 54-year election history, an independent candidate has never won a seat in parliament.

� The PUP made clean sweeps in back-to-back elections of 1957 and 1961, winning 100% of the seats. Those were the only elections that no other political entity entered office.

Some parties/organizations that have entered the political fray:
1. People's United Party (since 1954)
2. General Workers Union (GWU) formed coalition with PUP in 1954, 1957
3. National Party (1954, 1957)
4. Honduran Independent Party (1957)
5. National Independence Party (1961) (NP and HIP formed the NIP)
6. NIP-PDM (People's Democratic Movement) (1969)
7. Christian Democratic Party (1961)
8. United Democratic Party (1974) (NIP-PDM coalition formed the UDP)
9. United Black Association for Development (1974)
10. Corozal United Front (1974)
11. Toledo Progressive Party (1979)
12. National Alliance for Belizean Rights

More recent additions:
1. We the People Reform Movement
2. Vision Inspired by the People
3. People's National Party
4. Christians Pursuing Reform Party
5. National Reform Party
6. Truth Reality and Creation Party

Election Victories (1954 to present)
1. 1954 - PUP 8, NP 1 (Charles Westby was the only Opposition man in the House)
2. 1957 - PUP 9 (100% of seats)
3. 1961 - PUP 18 (100% of seats)
4. 1965 - PUP 16, NIP 2 (Here it was Goldson and Edwin Morey, Toledo North rep.)
5. 1969 - PUP 17, NIP-PDM 1 (Goldson was the only Opposition member in the House)
6. 1974 - PUP 12, UDP 6
7. 1979 - PUP 13, UDP 5
8. 1984 - UDP 21, PUP 7
9. 1989 - PUP 15, UDP 13
10. 1993 - UDP 16, UDP 13
11. 1998 - PUP 26, UDP 3
12. 2003 - PUP 22, UDP 7 (reduced by one at subsequent by-elections)

Live and let live