Scenes of Independence Day September 21, 1981
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New York Times, September 22, 1981
BELIZE CELEBRATES ITS INDEPENDENCE
Amid fireworks, champagne and reggae music, the tiny Central American nation of Belize became independent at midnight last night, bringing to an end more than 300 years of British colonial presence on the American mainland.
But because of a longstanding claim to this territory by neighboring Guatamala, British troops are to remain stationed here indefinitely to protect the country, which is still widely known by its former name of British Honduras.
By becoming independent, Belize will also now unavoidably enter the politics of the convulsed region of Central America. Although Belize is a peaceful and stable democracy, it has already received refugees from the political violence in Guatamala and El Salvador and may now be forced to take sides on the issues dividing the region.
Last night at midnight, in the presence of Prince Michael of Kent, Queen Elizabeth's cousin and her personal representative at the independence celebrations, the Union Jack was lowered for the last time and Belize's new red-white-blue flag was raised above the gardens of Government House, a dazzling white 167-year-old mansion where British governors have long resided. Prince at Ceremony
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This morning in Belmopan, the country's tiny new capital 50 miles inland, Prince Michael handed the instruments of independence to George Price, who has fought for Belizean independence for almost 30 years and has served as Prime Minister since the territory achieved self-government in 1964. Mr. Price will remain Prime Minister while Dr. Minita Gordon, a Belizean sociologist, was appointed Governor General by the Queen today.
Throughout the country, the last week has been marked by parades, parties, dances and concerts. Musical groups have come from the United States, Trinidad, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Mexico and Panama. Even during heavy rainstorms last night and this morning, young Belizeans wearing T-shirts announcing that ''independence is beginning'' kept on dancing to reggae rhythm.
Some of the excitement, though, has been tempered by Guatamala's refusal to recognize Belize's independence. Guatamala, which has a population of six million compared with Belize's 145,000, came close to accepting Belizean independence in March in negotiations with Britain. But the talks broke down and Britain decided to go ahead with independ ence. Earlier this month, Guatamala suspended consular relations with Britain and closed its border with Belize.
At a news conference yesterday, Mr. Price offered ''a hand of friendship'' to Guatamala and said it remained his Government's priority to seek an agreement to normalize ties with its neighbor. Diplomatic sources said an accord was unlikely until after Guatamala's presidential elections next March. Defense Force Retained
Belize's independence was long delayed because of Britain's reluctance to assume an open-ended commitment to protect the country. But it has now agreed to maintain a defense force, currently made up of some 1,600 troops and a squadron of Hawker Harrier fighters, ''for an appropriate time''.
Belize is also seeking the protection of the international community, specifically by joining the United Nations later this week and applying for membership of the so-called nonaligned nations movement. Guatamala, however, may be able to block Belize's membership of the Organization of American States until their territorial dispute is settled.
Among those present in Belmopan today were Sergio Ramirez Mercado, a member of the Nicaraguan junta; Prime Minister Maurice Bishop of Grenada; President Rodrigo Carazo Odio of Costa Rica and Prime Minister Edward P.G. Seaga of Jamaica. The United States delegation was led by Representative Daniel A. Mica, Democat of Florida, and included Thomas O. Enders, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs. Cuba also sent a delegation, but Belize has no plans to establish diplomatic ties with Havana.
Notably absent from the independence celebration, however, were the leaders of Belize's main opposition party, who have criticized Prime Minister Price's decision to go ahead with independ ence as ''precipitous .'' Anti-independence riots broke out here in March after an agre ement with Guatamala seemed possible, but no disturbances or protests have taken place this week.
The most serious threat to last night's ceremonies, in fact, was posed by a sudden rainstorm that sent guests at Government House scurrying for cover less than an hour before midnight. But just as the band of the Gordon Highlanders was ready to begin the ceremony, the rain stopped. And, at the crucial hour, red, white and blue fireworks lit up the sky and a 21-gun salute to the new nation was heard from a British frigate, H.M.S. Ariadne, anchored off shore.
Although tradition has it that the independence of former British colonies is marked by a flag-lowering ceremony, Prime Minister Price chose to call last night's program the flag-raising ceremony, apparently wishing to avoid emphasizing Britain's departure at a time of continuing uncertainty with Guatamala. As a result, all lights were dimmed while the Union Jack was lowered, and the lights were switched on again only when the Belizean flag was atop the pole.
Time Magazine, Monday, Oct. 5, 1981
All week long, it was a time for celebration and the infectious beat of "brukdown" music. Then it was a time for ceremony. There was a skirl of bagpipes and the boom of a 21-gun salute.
The Union Jack was lowered and in its place rose the red, white and blue flag of Belize. The former colony once known as British Honduras became the world's newest nation and, with a population of 150,000, one of its smallest.
The transfer of power ended more than 300 years of British colonial rule on the North American mainland, dating from 1607, when the first permanent English settlement was founded at Jamestown, Va. On hand for the festivities in Belize were Queen Elizabeth IPs personal emissary, Prince Michael of Kent, who turned over the reins of government to Prime Minister George Price and the new Governor General, Dr. Minita Gordon.
Also present were delegations from some 63 other countries, including a 15-member contingent from the U.S. headed by Thomas Enders, the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs.
The show of support was designed, in part, to forestall any chance that Belize, nestled between Mexico's Yucatan peninsula and Guatemala, might run into serious trouble even before it got a chance to enjoy its new status. Guatemala's hostile military regime has reasserted claims to the area dating back to an 1859 boundary treaty with Britain. In talks with Guatemalan officials earlier this year, Britain agreed to give Guatemala access to the Caribbean through Belize, but the negotiations subsequently broke down. Guatemala closed its borders with Belize and severed consular relations with Britain.
Last week Britain issued a stern warning that it would not tolerate aggression against Belize, which is now a member of the 45-nation Commonwealth with Queen Elizabeth as its titular head of state. Britain—and perhaps Canada as well—was prepared to intervene militarily if Belize was attacked. In the mean time, since Belize has only a 700-man defense force, Britain will leave 1,600 troops in the country "for an appropriate period," which will be at least long enough to train additional local troops.
Some Belizeans— who are an ethnic mix of African, Mayan, Caribbean and European descendants — were still nervous that their little country had been left vulnerable by independence. Opposition politicians went so far as to protest the new status and boycott the independence ceremonies. But Prime Minister Price, 62, carried his country along, just as he has dominated it since Britain granted Belize self-rule in 1964. Says one diplomat: "He certainly knows how to use the levers of power." A onetime Roman Catholic seminarian, Price led the struggle for independence after his political party was founded in 1950. In 1958 he was tried for sedition by the British and found innocent. Despite the doubters, Price is convinced that his country can go it alone.
Price and Belize will have their problems. The substandard economy depends on exports of sugar cane, bananas and citrus fruits, but only 15% of the arable land is cultivated. There is little industry. Per capita income is only $1,038 a year, and Belize stands to lose the $8 million in aid it received last year from Britain. To help get Belize on its feet, London did make a parting grant of $22 million. In addition, Belize's independent status will make it eligible for aid from the United Nations (it became a member last week by a vote of 144 to 1, with only Guatemala opposing) and the International Monetary Fund.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, indicated that aid from the U.S. may also be forthcoming. Assistant Secretary of State Enders told TIME Mexico Bureau Chief James Willwerth in Belize City last week that it is in American interests to have "this independent democratic government succeed." Enders added that the U.S. had already had talks with the Guatemalan government about giving up any idea of taking away the freedom that the citizens of Belize were celebrating so warmly.