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Belize - on the rim of the cauldron.

Most accounts of Central America neglect to even mention Belize. However, policy-makers in Washington have quickly become aware of the strategic importance of this small country.

Belize (formerly British Honduras) is the newest country in Central America, having gained its independence on September 21, 1981. It borders Mexico on the north, Guatemala on the west and south, and faces the Caribbean to the east. It is the most sparsely populated country in Central America. The land area, at 8,867 square miles, is slightly larger than that of El Salvador, but holds a population of only 160,000 (compared to Salvador's 5 million).

Seen against the background of the present intensifying crisis in central America, the key question about Belize is whether it can be turned into a U.S. stronghold against the emerging national liberation and socialist movements of the region, or will be drawn into and become a part of these movements. The facts and analysis presented in what follows should help to answer this question.

The Belizean government boasts that the country stands at the crossroads between Central America and the Caribbean, and a look at the racial and ethnic make-up of the population tends to support this assertion. The majority of the population consists of Creole (black), Garifuna (Black-Carib), Maya Indian and Mestizo (Indian/Spanish) people. There are also smaller groups of Chinese, Lebanese, East Indian, and European descent.

The official language of Belize is English, but Spanish is increasingly widely spoken. Moreover, the various ethnic groups continue to use their own language in daily conversation.

Seedy Beginnings

Although Belize was for a century prior to independence a British colony, the territory was always a backwater of the colonial world. Belize was at the center of Maya civilization, which began its decline after 900 A.D. But neither the Spanish nor the British had much interest in this jungle-covered, swampy strip of land.

In the middle 1600s, Belize became a favored hideout of British pirates who navigated the channels off Belizehs Caribbean reef. From these seedy beginnings the Baymen (as the European settlers were called) turned to the production of logwood and mahogany for the British market.

The British, although helping the Baymen to repel Spanish attacks from time to time, seemed content to maintain an informal colonial relationship with Belize. However, with growing U.S. expansionism in the 1800s, Britain moved to consolidate control over its western Caribbean dependencies, and Belize was formally colonized in 1862.

Land and Labor

Although a colonial backwater, Belize was subject to the same historical processes of land monopolization and labor control as other underdeveloped areas. Nigel Bolland describes this history as follows:

From the beginning land ownership in Belize has been highly concentrated and, since the middle of the nineteenth century, has been nin the hands of metropolitan companies, particularly the Belize Estate and Produce Co. which owns just under a million acres or almost a half of all the freeheld land. Labour, initially slaves imported from Africa and the West Indian colonies, were tied to the enterprises of these landowners. (O. Nigel Bolland, "Labour Control in Post Abolition Belize," Journal of Belizean Affairs, December 1979, p. 22)

Slavery was formally abolished in 1838, only to be replaced by systems of labor control which promoted wage-slavery.

Among the techniques of labour control used in Belize were the monopolization of land ownership, a system of labor contracts, a combination of advance and truck systems to induce indebtedness, and the use of magistrates as agents of labour discipline....

The transition was not from slavery to freedom but, rather, from one system of labor control to another, and the old struggle between former masters and slaves continued, although in new forms. (Ibid., pp. 25, 34)

Belize then, like other underdeveloped societies, produced the familiar latifundia/plantation social structure. But because Belize had a lumber economy rather than an agricultural economy, it developed its own peculiar problems. Chief among these was "the absence of agricultural development, particularly of peasant agriculture which, with such a potentially favourable man/land ratio, could have emerged after emancipation." (Ibid., p. 33)

The landowners were, in fact, doubly interested in preventing the development of agriculture. For even though the mahogany trade steadily declined after 1850, they still required a land monopoly in order to maintain a reserve of low-wage labor. Moreover, some landowners were also merchants who jealously guarded their market for imported foodstuffs.

Today, exports of sugar and citrus have outstripped the mahogany trade, but many food items are still imported from Europe and North America. And there remains a large amount of unemployment and underemployment, especially among the black population which comprises part of a transnational labor force that drifts back and forth between the United States and Belize. Recent estimates place the Belizean population in the United States at upwards of 50,000 with smaller numbers in Canada and Europe.

Anticolonial Struggles

As with residents of other parts of the third world, Belizeans have not remained passive against the oppression of colonial powers. There were various instances when the Maya rebelled against Spanish and British land usurpation and acts of atrocity. And while the descendants of the Baymen would like to perpetuate the myth of harmony between the white elite and black laborers, historical evidence reveals that slavers in Belize were no more benevolent than slavers in other colonies. Belizean history is rife with stories of beatings, runaway slaves, and slave rebellions.

Post-abolition rebellions in Belize had both racial and working-class characteristics. Three periods of struggle are typical. "They were [all] violent reactions to a system of political, economic and racial oppression which had come to characterize the colony's way of life." (Brukdown 4, nos. 6 and 7, 1979, p. 50) The "Labourers' Riot of 1894" broke out when workers from the logging camps rebelled because their wages had been cut by a currency devaluation. Although British troops put down the rebellion and leaders fled to Mexico, the action did force a wage increase.

In the "Ex-servicemen's Riot of 1919" black soldiers returning from Europe protested continuing racial discrimination by attacking white-owned business establishments and demanding that "British Honduras should be a black man's country." This rebellion too was put down by British troops.

By the 1930s labor struggles had matured to the point where workers were able to stage a series of strikes and demonstrations to demand employment and relief from the conditions of economic depression. These events planted the seeds of an organized labor movement and produced one of Belize's most famous labor leaders, Antonio Soberanis.

The common all three of these disturbances was class conflict aggravated inn 1894 by currency devaluation, in 1919 by racial discrimination and in 1934 by unemployment--all different manifestations of the same problem. (Ibid., p. 51)

Recognizing the strength of the labor movement, the colonial administration saw the need to control its growth by institutionalization, and in 1939 the Labour Department was created as a quasi-governmental body to deal with labor disturbances. The government's use of labor legislation served to effectively prevent the use of strikes and collective bargaining by labor, and trade unions were not legalized until 1941.

Ascendant Nationalism

In the late 1940s and early 1950s the labor movement joined with petty bourgeois interests to form a strong nationalist movement. A devaluation of the Belize dollar in December 1949, combined with growing opposition to the colonial administration, led to the formation of the People's Committee. Through months of protest marches and meetings and organizational sessions, the People's Committee evolved into the People's United Party (PUP), Belize's first real political party. However, the rise of the PUP brought on the decline of the labor movement.

PUP leaders took over the leadership of the General Workers Union (GWU), supposedly to revitalize the union executive, but actually to provide the party with a mass base. And while the old GWU leaders were both trade unionists and socialists, the PUP leaders possessed no coherent ideology; their concern was simply to get rid of the British by any means possible. While politically radical, their Caholic middle-class background ... made them suspicious of the power of organized labour under the left wing [leaders]. (Peter Ashdown, "Control or Concern: the Motive for Government's Nurture of Organized Labour," Journal of Belizean Affairs, December 1979, p. 41)

Hence, as the PUP continued to grow, the labor movement suffered a series of divisions and declined.

Throughout the 1950s the PUP waged a successful campaign for independence. The colonical government, having first tried to smash the nationalist movement, as it had tried to smash the labor movement, was eventually forced to follow the postwar trend and seek a neocolonical accommodation with the PUP.

After steady electoral gains, the PUP led Belize to self-government in 1964. However, because of a century-old Guatemalan claim on Belizean territory, Belize did not become independent until 1981.

Current Contradictions

While the Belizean economy remains rather stagnant and lacking in infrastructure, the PUP government has managed to provide many social services to improve the lives of most Belizeans. Especially when compared to neighboring countries, Belizean achievements in education, health care, and living standards are impressive. But the economy has depended upon grants from Britain and has made no impressive gains in terms of either export earnings or import substitution. As noted above, land ownership remains highly concentrated and the earnings of middle-sized sugar and citrus producers are restricted by control of markets by transnational corporations. Meanwhile, the country continues to import foodstuffs and export workers.

With independence the PUP leaders realized that they must move to implement the party's long-awaited development program. But national, regional, and international conditions favor neither quick nor easy solutions to Belize's development problems. As Prime Minister George Price admits in his budget speech for 1983-84, the world crisis limits Belize's chances of greatly expanding earnings from export of sugar, citrus, and bananas. Exports increased over the last year but earnings decreased, and the country experienced a trade deficit of (U.S.) $40.5 million in 1982.

Regionally the situation deteriorates economically, and political struggles are becoming more acute. El Salvador and Guatemala are embroiled in civil ward; Nicaragua suffers from U.S. attempts to destroy the Sandinista revolution; and Honduras is being armed as the regional gendarme. With the Central American/Caribbean region as center field for the Reagan policy of East-West confrontation, regional politics become daily more polarized.

In Belize itself the levels of unemployment and underemployment remain high, the cost of living steadily increases, and foreign debt stands at (U.S.) $61.5 million. And as U.S. influence in Belize grows, local politics follow the regional left-right polarization.

The PUP solution to these problem is "working the mixed economy." As the Belize Sunday Times (February 13, 1983) explains:

In working the mixed economy, which is enshrined in the [PUP] Manifesto for the New and Progressive Revolution, government cooperates with the private sector and encourages the private sector to do what it is best able to do.

How will the government finance this program? With loans from Reagan's Caribbean Basin Initiative, USAID, the World Bank, and other international capitalist lenders.

It seems that petty bourgeois nationalist movements are destined to continue re-inventing the wheel. For nowhere in the third world has encouraging "the private sector to do what it is best able to do" and relying on U.S. "aid" produced development. Such a program may have produced economic "growth" in cases such as that of Brazil. But this has meant growth for local and foreign capital and hardship and repression for the masses. The net result is not development but increased dependency.

In a recent issue of the Belize government newspaper there appeared an editorial entitled "For Belize, Not Communism or Capitalism." The editorial seems to suggest that the PUP can follow a course somewhat akin to the "African socialism" which failed so miserably for many African nationalist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But with the ever-quickening pace of change in the modern world, and especially in Central America, the Belizean people cannot afford the luxury of experimenting with obsolete solutions to their problems.

Which Way for Belize?

As foreign "aid" and investment filter in, the economic and social inequalities in Belize will increase. The hardships of the masses can only multiply as the Reagan solution is applied to the political turmoil in the region.

The UN estimates that there are between 5,000 and 7,000 Salvadoran refugees in Belize. Although not officially recognized as refugees, there are estimates of up to 10,000 Guatemalans in that country. And with the increasing repression by right-wing regimes in Guatemala, the flow of Guatemalans into Belize will rapidly increase. To complicate matters further, part of the Reagan solution to regional upheaval is to relieve his loyal puppet dictator in Haiti (Baby Doc Duvalier) of some "excess population" by settling a few thousand Haitian refugees in Belize.

So far the government has responded to the refugee influx by providing land grants in an effort to encourage agriculture in the sparsely populated areas. But these areas lakc transport and marketing facilities. There is little doubt that Belize is underpopulated and must develop basic agriculture, but a rapid influx of refugees with insufficient infrastructure to support them may compound the problem rather than helping to solve it, as many policy-makers realize. (Brukdown 6, no. 1, 1982)

The most likely scenario is one of more social dislocation and political conflict. The Reagan administration must sense this, for it is increasing embassy personnel and Peace Corps volunteers in Belize and training officers of the Belize Defense Force (BDF) at the U.S. Army's Southern Command School in Panama (ostensibly for defense from external attack).

Is the PUP government likely to hold together in the face of this increasing sociopolitical upheaval? This is doubtful. PUP leaders have spent the last three decades trying to coopt not only the labor movement but all political opposition. The result is one party enveloping three political tendencies--left, right, and center. This petty bourgeoisie idea of democracy and balance has succeeded in some countries, but in a country as small as Belize it is a highly unstable political configuration, especially within the context of regional political crisis. The left-ring struggle will eventually lead to the ascendance of one tendency or the other. And one Belizean observer suggests that right-wing dominance has already been consolidated:

That faction of the PUP which projects an ideological profile in sympathy with the "progressive" forces of the region, is out in the cold. In keeping with the political orthodoxy demanded in return for U.S. friendship, a tainted Assad Shoman has been denied the foreign ministry, and the ascendancy he enjoyed in former times is no more. The Prime Minister himself, that ultra-nationalist of the pre-independence period, has now shucked his accutomed persona, as he prepared to toe the Washington line. Our much vaunted non-alignment in foreign affairs will never materialize. The decision not to establish diplomatic relations with, or officially accept scholarships from, the Cuban government--who was as committed a supporter of our early UN efforts as the U.S. was not--is telling evidence. It is clear that we may now do nothing to upset the ideologues at the State Department. (Dean Barrow, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," Brukdown 6, no. 1, 1982, p. 24)

However, this post-mortem on the left within the PUP may be premature. For Prime Minister Price, continuing his quarter-century balancing act, joined progressive ministers Said Musa and Assad Shoman in hosting an October 1982 meeting of representatives of the Socialist International in Belize City (much to the consternation of the right wing of the PUP). Present at the meeting were representatives of Nicaragua's Sandinista government and El Salvador's Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR). And while Price's May 12, 1983, visit to Washington saw him toadying to Reagan, the prime minister reassumed his centrist position at the PUP convention later that same month. The convention itself was controlled by the party's right wing, but by garnering over a third of the vote for the post of party chairman the left demonstrated its significance.

Given that Belize's opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) also has a mixed configuration, though more right-wing than that of the PUP, and given that U.S. imperialism lends support to the rightists of both parties, it is quite possible that the Reagan solution for Belize will be a union of the two right-wing groupings. One thing is certain, the losers in any such outcome would be the masses of Belizean workers and peasants.

Unfortunately, there is presently no unifying mass organization which canoppose a right-wing takeover. There is a radical working-class trend in the United General Workers' Union, but the workers' movement is neither large nor strong, and the UGWU leadership has recently come under attack. And while many sugar and citrus workers are unionized, there is no peasant movement in the country as a whole. Moreover, the lack of a good communication system and relative "backwardness" in much of the countryside have left the rural population atomized and isolated.

On the other hand, there is a constant flow of Guatemalan and Salvadoran peasanta who work for the sugar and citrus growers in the north. These illegal immigrants have served as low-wage labor and as a deterrent to strong unions in the past. But one might hope these immigrants, coming from highly politicized settings, may yet serve as a catalyst to radicalize the local peasant movement. As a result of the Central American crisis Belizean politics is being thrust onto the world scene with a bang. Guatemalan forces have already raided Guatemalan refugee settlements in Belize, and American moves are aggravating the politico-military situation in both countries.

There is as yet no mass movement in Belize to counter reactionary trends. But the progressive tendencies in both labor and party politics now have the opportunity to meld with the regional revolutionary process to radicalize the whole of Belizean politics.
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Author:Broad, Dave
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Feb 1, 1984
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