Blast from the past:

By ALAN RIDING, Special to the New York Times
Published: October 4, 1981


For over 30 years, the tiny British colony of Belize slowly gathered the recognized attributes of nationhood, including its own government, army, flag, currency and national anthem.

Amid the toasts that followed its independence on Sept. 21, a lingering doubt floated among the foreign delegations who had travelled here for the occasion: Belize had become an independent state, but was it viable as a nation?

The question was perhaps not original. Over the past quarter century, dozens of colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean have become independent and then struggled for survival.

But, in the case of Belize, concern has been sharpened by the fact that the new nation is part of Central America and Belize's failure to stand on its own could become a new factor of instability.

One immediate problem is that neigboring Guatemala claims Belize as part of its own territory. And, with a population of 6.5 million compared to Belize's 145,000 inhabitants and an army infinitely superior to the 700-member Belize Defense Force, Guatemala could swallow up the new nation.

Britain has agreed to protect Belize ''for an appropriate period,'' but, facing an annual cost of $50 million, the British have also indicated that they cannot do so indefinitely. And, in the absence of a settlement with Guatemala, Britain hopes that some force drawn from Commonwealth nations, headed perhaps by Canada, will take over its responsibility.

The Reagan Administration, on the other hand, fears that without British troops patrolling the jungles near Belize's border with Guatemala, this country could become a conduit for illegal arms shipments from Cuba to leftist guerrillas elsewhere in Central America. Washington has therefore offered military training and weapons credits to improve Belize's security apparatus.

Its Own Democratic Tradition

Politically, however, Central America's revolutionary fever seems unlikely to prove contagious here. Belize not only has a predominately black, English-speaking population strongly identified with the Caribbean and with few links to Central America, but it has also established its own democratic tradition in its 17 years as a self-governing colony.

Further, the principal opposit ion to Prime Minister George Price's People's United Party, which has long dominat ed domestic politics, comes from the more conservative United Democ ratic Party, while neither leftist nor militant black nationalis t groups have much o f a following.

In contrast to most of Central America, social conditions are relatively good. Belize City, where 30 percent of Belizeans reside, suffers from a severe housing shortage that forces many people to live in dilapidated wooden shacks. But most children - half the population is under 15 years of age - attend school, 90 percent of adults are literate and health standards are considered adequate.

The question marks about Belize's future, however, revolve around the country's economic viability. Prime Minister Price believes that independence will open the way for the country's ''economic liberation'' and he looks forward to a significant amount of foreign aid. But many foreign analysts argue that it will be difficult for Belize to generate its own wealth.
Few Resources and No Industry

Belize shares the economic profile of many former colonies: its principal natural resource, timber, was depleted by two centuries of exploitation and minimal reforestation by British companies, while its sugar industry, which accounts for 70 percent of foreign exchange earnings, is controlled by Britain's Tate and Lyle Ltd.

A sparsely-populated territory about the size of Massachusetts, only about 15 percent of Belize's cultivable land is being farmed. While sugar, citrus and timber are exported, one-third of the country's total imports consist of food.

With a miniscule domestic consumer market, Belize has virtually no industry. Belize is trying to woo United States companies to establish assembly plants here, but competition is stiff from other small countries of the region and, so far, only a small textile operation has opened here. Employment opportunities in Belize City therefore remain scarse.

One symptom is that tens of thousands of Belizeans have migrated to the United States in search of better-paid jobs. ''Anyone with any skills can earn five times as much in the states,'' said the manager of one large company. ''There is a brain drain and a skills drain that leaves Belize without its most talented.''

Considerable Tourist Potential

As with much of the Caribbean basin, Belize does have considerable tourist potential, above all in the tiny deserted keys that run beside the world's second largest barrier reef, a mere 15 miles offshore. Last year tourism brought in only $9 million.

But Prime Minister Price has shown little interest in major foreign-financed tourist development, arguing that it would turn Belize into a nation of ''tray-carriers'' and would, on balance, bring more cultural problems than economic benefits.
The country is anticipating an economic boom in the coming two or three years, but this will be the result of increased foreign aid and low-interest credits from governments and international organizations to which Belize now has access, rather than because of increased production. ''It will be artificial in the sense that it will expand the country's infrastructure but won't really strengthen the economy,'' one foreign economist noted.

The one variable that could dramatically change Belize's economic outlook as a nation is oil. At present, the country imports all its oil, yet Guatemala to the west and Mexico to the north have both discovered important oil fields and local geologists are confident that this territory forms part of the same hydrocarbon basin. So far, though, all exploratory wells have been dry.

New York TImes