Belize’s Independence 33 years after
As Belize prepares to celebrate its Independence, a little reflection and retrospection might be in order. This Sunday September 21st, we celebrate as a nation, the 33rd anniversary of this momentous milestone. There were many who believed, and probably some who still do, that Belize was not ready for Independence in 1981. Many were the predictions and forebodings of dark days and doom as a result of the bold step into self determination. The visionary statesman who we acknowledge as the Father of our Nation was not deterred however, and 33 years later Belize is still standing. Quite a few left because they were sure that we would not make it, but Guatemala has not invaded, the sky has not fallen and we remain free with all territories sovereign and intact.
For many of us older heads, 1981 seems but a few short years ago. For the majority of Belizeans (census figures suggest that a majority of the population is under 30 years of age), Belize has always been independent. For those of us who can recall early Belize, the development and expansion has truly been amazing. The buildings have changed from wood to concrete, technology has us connected around the clock and aggressive tourism marketing has bared our secrets to the world. If Mother Nature still has well-kept secrets, certainly Belize would no longer be counted among them.
Since Independence Belize has changed governments six times with our two main political parties sharing terms of office. The UDP is currently midway through their fourth term, having joined the PUP in winning consequence terms of office. Despite blaming the PUP for everything that has gone wrong in Belize, the figures now show that since Independence, the UDP has been as many years in office as the PUP. Obviously they have to share in the blame for the things that they continue to complain has not gone right for Belize.
All things being equal, we can readily look back at Belize’s progress and regressions and figure out which party has been productive and which has been mainly talk. After seven years of consecutive governing, many are beginning to realize that the UDP makes a much more efficient opposition than it does a government. While in Opposition, the UDP seemed able to manipulate the media, infiltrate the Unions and NGO’s and were quite effective at holding the PUP to task. The PUP apparently makes a less effective opposition since they have not been able to stir the people to “civil unrest” despite unprecedented corruption and the vast number of things having gone wrong. In government, the PUP seems more masterful and efficient in stimulating the economy, creating jobs and putting bread on people’s tables. Under the UDP, despite tremendous spending, unemployment figures are staggering and the poverty rate has more than doubled. There are those of course, who enjoy lavish lifestyles but most are close to or related to government officials. Something is just not right.
For those Belizeans who remember pre-Independence Belize, the transformation from colony to nationhood has involved much more than just a change in name and flag color. We have come from one lane dirt roads to an intricate system of decent roadways crisscrossing our nation. We can point to the Boom Cutoff, the Hummingbird and Southern Highways, a by-pass in Orange Walk, the Belize River Valley Road and the Placencia Road as just some of the areas in which improvement has been marked and notably apparent. Many villages have received light, water and basic commodities that were at one time, mainly the objects of dreams and political promises. Much of this progress occurred under the PUP and many Belizeans will readily admit that they enjoy a much better quality of life under the People’s United Party. Yes, there have been challenges under both parties but somehow, the PUP’s seem more adept at jumping into the trenches and digging out of holes. The UDP is better at casting blame, creating timely distractions and making false promises. One party is of substance while the other is of pure glitter. It does not take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out which is which.
The hard cold fact is that looking back, we can see where the visionaries of the PUPs have pushed us forward progressively while the more conservative and pessimistic UDPs have retarded our growth. The PUPs have taken charge and taken chances, bucked the odds and withstood the criticism while the UDPs have continually looked backwards, pointed fingers and complained. We attained Independence in spite of the skepticisms of those very ones who are now busy reaping the benefits and feathering their proverbial nests.
Now, while in a secular sense, Belize has evidence to show much progress, spiritually we are practically brain-dead. Morality is out the window, adherence to rules is rare and respect for authority was left behind with colonialism. Our per capita murder-rate is among the highest in the world, corruption is more the rule than the exception and love of country is low and seem to last only for as long as the celebrations of September. We are ruled by despots whose main ambition is to enrich themselves and their families while the people’s business goes untended.
This September, we have seen the usual influx of friends and family from the abroad. Of course, the number is not nearly what it used to be, given that many are now firmly entrenched in the U.S. system and many have young children who must return to school. The topic of Diaspora is once again on the front burner and I do believe it is time for us to reach out to those who have left and time for them to think more in terms of ways to help us. I am still strongly opposed to any with duo-citizenship being allowed to run for office but there are many other ways in which those who still love Belize can help. There is more that Belize can do to entice those who have gone away to come back and lend their expertise and experiences. Instead of sharing out public land to only family and friends of the party in office, our Lands Department could make land available to those who wish to repatriate. We all love Belize and we are duty-bound to help her grow.
Yes Belize, we are independent and we have come a long way, physically. We all have phones but we do very little communicating. We have better roads but we all seem headed to nowhere and getting there pretty fast. You might say that we are headed to hell in a wheel-Barrow! Happy Independence Belize!
By G. Michael Reid for The Belize Times
HAPPY BIRTHDAY BELIZE: 33 YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE
Thirty three years after that magic day on September 21st, 1981, this year’s theme, “Industrious Hands, Intelligent Minds, Together for Belize,” resonates throughout the country. For over three decades hard working, industrious hands directed by clever minds have created a nation that the world respects and Belizeans can be proud of.
For such a small country Belize has a very big history. Let’s take a brief look:
A couple of thousand years before the birth of Christ the early Maya began to settle in what today is Belize. You wouldn’t think a dense jungle would be the setting for such a complex civilisation to grow, but with rich soil, navigable rivers and the seas supplying abundant marine life and coastal trade routes, the Maya prospered and became one of the most advanced civilisations of the ancient world.
But by the time the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, the mighty Maya civilisation was in decline, perhaps the victim of a combination of overpopulation, centralisation, and a series of crushing droughts.
The Spanish Conquest soon put an end to this fascinating, enigmatic civilisation, and the Conquistador’s religious zeal in wiping out all records of Maya thought, science and cosmology left us with only a vague outline of the Maya’s prodigious achievements.
The dense forests and the hard-to-navigate Belize Barrier Reef kept Spanish colonists away from the area, and the Conquistadors concentrated their activities to the north and south while leaving what is now Belize more or less alone.
But what repelled the Spanish attracted the English, who saw in the dense forests a rich source of timber for their ship building and textiles industries. And English privateers, buccaneers or pirates, as they were variously known, saw great opportunities in the tricky barrier reef. Here was the perfect place from which to strike out at shipping carrying new world riches back to the continent, while the dangerous passes in and out of the reef discouraged pursuit and created great places to hide loot.
At the same time an export industry in timber was growing. The Baymen, as the early settlers were known, and their slaves exploited the rich variety of hardwoods found along the coast and rivers. Logwood, from which a valuable blue dye was extracted for use in England’s burgeoning textile industry was abundant and in high demand.
As they exhausted the timber along the coast and rivers the Baymen increasingly moved into the interior, further opening up Belize and paving the way for the chicle harvesting that was to come later.
Soon Belize City was a riotous, colourful frontier town that developed its own unique society with its own rules. Baymen and slaves coexisted in an environment where the main tools of the woodcutting trade could easily become weapons, and relations between them were more congenial than in other colonies, resulting in the formation of the vibrant Creole culture we see today.
A common law system was developed by the settlement, formally set down as Burnaby’s Code around 1765. England and Spain signed the Convention of London in 1786, which allowed the Baymen to cut and export timber from the Rio Hondo River in the north to the Sibun River to the south, but banned any fortifications or any form of government, thus satisfying Spain that they retained some control over the area.
The Battle of St George’s Caye on September 10, 1798 put paid to that notion when the Baymen and slaves fought side-by-side to defeat a Spanish invasion from Mexico, thwarting Spanish ambitions in British Honduras and putting the settlement well and truly on the path towards statehood.
Along the way another defining moment in Belizean history occurred in 1832 when the Garifuna, descents of escaped African slaves and the Arawak people of St Vincent’s Island, were exiled to the Miskito Coast, as the strip of coastline south of Belize along Honduras and Nicaragua was known. After defeating the Garifuna in St Vincent’s, the British hoped that the harsh conditions of the inhospitable coastline would mean the end of these proud fighters, but the Garifuna prospered in small villages up and down the coast. Since their arrival they’ve been essential in the formation of present day Belize.
After the Battle of St George’s Caye, England’s presence in the area was now official, and by 1840 the settlement was known as the Colony of British Honduras, finally becoming an official crown colony in 1862.
The rest of Belize’s history is equally fascinating and full of complexities too intricate to go into here. In brief, the colony was at first run by an oligarchy that controlled the economy and politics by setting prices and electing officials of their choice.
This system, passed down through families and marriage, remained in place for generations.
However by the 1930s, workers were organising themselves into a stronger, unified force, using protests, strikes and industrial actions to make their voices heard. The formation of the Labourers and Unemployed Association (LUA) led to the legalisation of trade unions in 1941. That watershed resulted in the creation of the General Workers Union (GWU) and then the formation of the People’s United party (PUP) in 1950. Universal suffrage for all literate adults became law in 1954.
But there was still a way to go before Belize became independent.
England resisted Belizean self-rule until the 1960s, and as Belizeans agitated for independence, Guatemala continued to prosecute a longstanding Spanish claim to the land. This arcane claim, dating back to the 1700s, is full of complexities still being debated today. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s it strained relations between Britain and Guatemala and helped frustrate Belize’s desire for true independence.
But Belizeans, led by George Price, now known as the Father of an Independent Belize, pressed on, and in 1973 British Honduras formally became Belize. England still controlled defence, foreign affairs and internal and external security, with a contingent of British Forces in country for training and to deter Guatemala’s ambitions, but Belize’s drive towards independence continued to gather momentum.
World opinion was on Belize’s side, and after riots in both Guatemala and Belize over a proposed Heads of Agreement, the United Nations passed a November 1980 resolution supporting Belizean independence.
Things moved quickly after that, and Belize finally achieved the dream of complete independence on September 21, 1981.
We hope that this thumbnail history gives enough background for readers to understand why Belizean Independence Day is so enthusiastically celebrated each year. It’s the culmination of a long journey and the realisation of an entire peoples’ dreams and ambitions.
Thirty-three years later Belizeans, with “Industrious Hands and Intelligent Minds” have raised their standard of living immensely, moving from an agrarian based economy to one driven by sustainable eco-tourism that has become a model for the world. A vibrant arts and music scene is attracting international attention, with groups such as the Garifuna Collective on the world stage, and events like the Belize International Film Festival growing in stature each year.
The National Institute of Culture and History (NICH), working with the private sector, continues to preserve Belize’s rich cultural history, maintaining ancient Maya archaeological sites such as Xunantunich and the ancient metropolis of Caracol and making them accessible for hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world. Festivals and events held throughout the year celebrate Creole and Mestizo culture, as well as the contributions of the other ethnic groups making up Belize’s famously multicultural society.
Belize’s careful approach to sustainable tourism development has increased the national standard of living while giving thousands of people from around the world unique opportunities to explore remnants of the ancient Maya civilisation and an unspoiled Caribbean seacoast with the world’s second largest barrier reef dotted with over a hundred small islands, or cayes. Much of the country is under environmental protection with pristine rainforests and inland habitats supporting a huge range of of exotic flora and fauna.
It’s been a lot of history for such a small nation, and September 21 will see another exuberant national celebration that reflects the pride, determination and aspirations that made Belize what it is today.
And, at thirty-three years young, this is just the beginning.
Happy Birthday Belize and Belizeans everywhere!
Chaa Creek blog
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