The road to Belize Independence followed the course taken by other British colonies in the Caribbean up to the early 1960’s, but since then was colored by peculiar circumstances, a claim on the part of Guatemala to the territory of Belize, and firm opposition by the United Democratic Party that ironically today heads the government of Belize – a position it could not have achieved without independence.
With Independence, a serious task faced the Belizean people – not only to transform a society marked by centuries of brutal slavery and colonial domination and exploitation, but really to build unity shattered by decades of divisiveness and posturing by pro-colonial forces. These included the curiously named National Independence Party, the Honduras Independence Party, the Liberal Party and other spin-offs – all which eventually coalesced into the opposition United Democratic Party that resisted the call to independence to the bitter end.
For many years, the Belizean Government largely left matters up to the British, who were constitutionally responsible for the foreign affairs and defense of Belize. In 1975, after 14 years of negotiations, the Guatemalan Government demanded the cession of a large area of Belizean territory as the price for withdrawing its claim.
The Struggle For Belize Independence
The Government under the stewardship of Premier George Price, leader of the Peoples United Party, decided that it would wage a campaign for Independence, this time on the international front, to gain support for its claim to full Independence with its territory intact and secure.
There followed six years of intensive diplomatic activity on the part of the Belize Government in an exercise that became known as “the internationalization effort” which was spearheaded by two young Belize attorneys that would later play important roles in Belize’s modern history – Said Musa and Assad Shoman – the former became Prime Minister of Belize and the latter Foreign Minister.
Immediate support was received from the countries of the Caribbean Community and the British Commonwealth of Nations. In 1975, the first United Nations resolution on Belize was passed by the General Assembly by a vote of 110 in favor, 9 against and 16 abstentions.
This large initial support was made possible thanks to the undertaking by the Non-Aligned Movement, at its Foreign Minister’s Conference in Peru that year, to commit its total support to Belize. Although the United Nations support was substantial, it showed up a serious weakness – none of the mainland Spanish speaking Latin American countries had voted for Belize and the U.S.A. continued to support Guatemala by abstaining.
It became the number one priority to win the support of these countries, and special efforts were made to gain the solidarity of the people and government of Latin America and especially of Central America, whose countries were particularly bound by economic and other historical ties with Guatemala.
Breakthrough For Belize Independence – Help From Panama
The crack in the Latin American support for Guatemala first appeared in another continent – at the Summit Meeting of the Non- Aligned Countries held in Colombo, Sri Lanka in August 1976. Belize had been invited as a special guest, and was given special status in the Movement. Present there to lobby support for the struggle to regain sovereignty over the Panama Canal for his people was General Omar Torrijos. Although Panama had been previously committed in a signed declaration of Central American countries to support Guatemala’s claim, General Torrijos became convinced of the justice of the Belizean struggle for Independence, and at the next United Nation’s (UN) General Assembly session, Panama voted in favor of the Belizean resolution.
General Torrijos became a formidable campaigner for Belize in Latin America, and was instrumental in securing the support of many other countries. General Torrijos became a constant source of sound advice and inspiration; he will live forever in the hearts of Belizeans who can never forget his significant contribution to our struggle for Independence. After Panama, many other Latin American countries voted for Belize in subsequent UN resolutions including Venezuela under charismatic President Carlos Andres Perez who was one of the first heads of state from South America to visit Belize. Another break in the Central American wall did not occur until the victory of the Popular Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, which not only brought an important new vote for Belize at the UN, but also a committed ally.
Another event that considerably improved the international position of the country was the ascension of Jose Lopez Portillo as President of Mexico. Although Mexico had supported Belize in the past, President Portillo’s principled and very firm stand greatly strengthened Belize’s hand. By November 1980, international support for Belize was virtually unanimous. A UN resolution called for Independence for Belize without strings attached, and with security, by the end of 1981.
This time the United States of America, which had previously abstained on all the Belize resolutions since 1975, and in fact had once favoured Guatemalan control over Belize in its sponsorship of the infamous Webster Proposals, finally caved in to international pressure and voted in favour, and no country voted against.
The last bulwark of Guatemalan support to fall was the Organization of American States, traditionally controlled by and influenced by Washington, which had traditionally taken Guatemala’s side in the controversy. With the emerging importance of the Caribbean states in the Organization, and with the gradually increasing Latin American support at the UN, Belize’s cause won acceptance. In November 1980, the OAS by an overwhelming majority endorsed the UN resolution calling for a secure Independence in 1981.
The solid mounting support for Belize did not, however, deter the government from continuing its efforts to find a peaceful negotiated settlement to the controversy, but meetings held in 1981 proved that the Guatemalan Government, by insisting on terms that would amount to land cession, was still demanding too high a price for dropping its unfounded claim to Belize.
Negotiations Leading To Belize Independence – Recollection From Lead Negotiator Assad Shoman
During much of 1981, the UK pressed Belize in negotiations with Guatemala to make concessions on territory and sovereignty. At the final round of negotiations in London in March, the Belize negotiators (Price, Harry Courtenay and myself) were subjected to intense pressures from the British to concede the cession of cayes and waters, but we resisted them all. British Minister Nicholas Ridley then proposed that we sign the “Heads of Agreement,” a series of points which we were to negotiate in the coming months. The Heads were so vaguely worded that each side could put whatever interpretation on them that it chose.
One crucial paragraph, for example, said that “Guatemala shall have the use and enjoyment of the Ranguana and Sapodilla cayes, and rights in those areas of the sea adjacent to the cayes, as may be agreed”. We intended to agree to the use for normal tourist purposes and no more, while Guatemala tried to get virtual sovereignty, including the right to have military installations in those areas. Clearly it was inconceivable that any agreement could be reached, although we were committed to negotiate, both by the UN resolutions and the need to maintain British military support. We certainly never intended to make any concessions that would violate the UN resolutions, and therefore from the beginning we were sure that the negotiations of the Heads would fail and that we would move to independence without any agreement with Guatemala.
Negotiations on the Heads proceeded, and we resisted all the many pressures by the British to get us to make concessions. At the final day of talks on 6 July 1981 the British at last became convinced that no agreement was possible, and a Joint Communique made it clear that Belize would nonetheless proceed to independence and that Guatemala would not seek to prevent Belize’s independence by force or the threat thereof.
And so it was that on 21 September 1981, Belize became an independent State with all its territory, with full sovereignty, and with British troops stationed here to defend Belize against any possible attack from Guatemala. And our calculated risk proved correct: although the British had told us they would only stay for 9 months, and in fact continued to make real preparations after independence to remove their military forces within that time, they in fact remained for 13 years, and left only after Guatemala had recognized Belize as an independent State and signed a non – aggression pact with Belize. But of course the Guatemalan claim still remained, and it would have to be resolved. – Assad Shoman, September 2013 presentation Bliss Institute, Belize City.
Decision Taken To Proceed With Belize Independence
The momentous decision was therefore taken, with the consent of a decaying British Empire undergoing the failed Thatcher macroeconomic adventurism of 1979-81, and the blessing of the international community, to proceed with Independence and to continue its efforts thereafter to develop peaceful and friendly relations with the government and people of Guatemala.
In an interview with Manolo Romero, Hon. Hector Silva recounted that at a meeting of the inner cabinet at Mr. Price’s home on Pickstock Street in Belize City, the right wing of the party, namely Mr. Louis Sylvestre and Mr, Fred Hunter voted No to independence. The center-left wing, namely Mr. Said Musa and Assad Shoman voted Yes. Mr. Price voted Yes, setting in motion the march to independence.
Pubic Announcement Of Belize Independence At The Belize City Center
In his book: “George Price-Man of the People” Rudolph Castillo records that it was on July 26th, 1981 at the Belize City Centre before a gathering of some 6000 people that then Premier George Price broke the news that Belize would become an Independent nation on Monday, September 21, 1981.
Castillo reports on the people’s reaction:
“Ladies rushed unto the platform and kissed their leader. Men hugged him in joy. Soon he was lifted off his feet and showered with love and adoration by those gathered at the City Centre. In one corner people hugged and kissed one another; spontaneous dancing broke out; some just screamed; some broke into hysterical laughter. Some older people transfixed by happiness, sat and just cried their hearts out as joy and happiness excited the crowd at the announcement of the long awaited day. George Price had to be rescued from the unbridled love of a people for their great leader”
Fifteen days later on Thursday, September 10, 1981, just 11 days before Independence, George Price addressed thousands of Belizeans gathered at historic Court House Plaza for national Day celebrations.
He reminded those present that: “31 National day Celebrations have helped to build the new nation of Belize with all its territory intact and to ensure its Independence.”
Interestingly, Mr. Price and his Peoples United Party had to wage a battle on several fronts – including an unexpected battle at home. The United Democratic Party which today heads the government of Belize, waged a vicious campaign against Independence – including protests that culminated with the burning of several homes and business houses in Belize city and riots that led to a state of emergency imposed by the British Governor at the time James Patrick Ivan Hennessy.
The U.D.P. at that time was headed by Theodore Aranda, Manuel Esquivel and Dean Lindo. Aranda was quoted on BBC television at the time as saying “We want nothing to do with independence.” The U.D.P. boycotted the Belize Independence Ceremony at Government House where the Union Jack was lowered, then replaced by the Belize Flag to the joy of hundreds of Belizeans who had gathered for this historic event. The current Prime Minister of Belize Mr. Dean Barrow (nephew of Mr. Dean Lindo) had left Belize for the U.S.A. at the time and did not return to the country to participate in Independence Day Ceremonies for the new nation-state.
Belize independence carnival celebrations
Belize became an independent nation on September 21st, 1981. Independence Day in Belize is a day that honors our struggles for a better life, a day that celebrates our triumph that has led our country and its people to freedom and a new and improved way of life. Picture: Carnival dancers celebrating Belize Independence Day.
The Father of Belize, Rt. Hon. George Price at 91, on 18 September 2010, gave an interview. Excerpts:
“We are going through difficult times, a transition if you will.
“In the end if we trust in our religion and persevere – good will triumph over evil.
“Look at our National Prayer and follow and protect our Constitution and we will overcome.”
Mr. Price also praised the late General Omar Torrijos of Panama with being pivotal in helping Belize gain its independence. He recalled when most of the world starting with the U.S.A. opposed Belize’s Independence – culminating with its sponsorship of the Webster Proposals. This opposition cracked with the stand taken by General Torrijos, followed by support from Nicaragua and Mexico.
Belize Independence Day Events 1981
In his well researched and written book: “George Price-A Life Revealed”, Godfrey P. Smith recounts the birth of our nation:
“About a minute before midnight, the lights at the Governor’s residence were switched off. As the seconds ticked by, a drum roll began. The Union Jack was slowly lowered in the darkness of the night and the Belizean flag hoisted in its place. On the stroke of midnight, lights in the compound were switched back on and spotlights illuminated the Belizean flag fluttering in the light September breeze. The 1st Gordon Highlanders played, Land of the Free, the National Anthem of the newly Independent Belize as Price, dressed in his white, long-sleeved guayabera, and the guests, stood to attention. Across the harbor, clearly visible from the grounds of the Government House, the HMS Ariande discharged a 21 Gun Salute as Price proposed a toast to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.”
Later that day the official handing over of the Instruments of the Independence Constitution took place in Belmopan and the following day Price flew to New York to be present when the UN Security Council and the General Assembly voted to approve and formerly admit Belize as the 136th Member of the United Nations.
By M.A. Romero – Communications Advisor To The Government of Belize – © Copyright 2011 All Rights Reserved.