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Belize Table of Contents




Mayan god of the North Star

GUYANA AND BELIZE belie their geographic location. Although both are located on the mainland of the Americas, they more closely resemble the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean than they do their Latin American neighbors. Christopher Columbus passed near the coasts of both countries, but later Spanish explorers and settlers ignored the areas because they lacked the mineral riches that brought the Spanish to the New World. The wealth of both areas would prove to be not gold but agriculture. By the end of the eighteenth century, the indigenous populations of both regions had been greatly reduced or driven to remote areas, and the coastal lands held growing populations of British or Dutch plantation owners. Plantation work was labor intensive, and initially African slaves, then other ethnic groups, were imported to work the land. As the colonies expanded economically, Britain claimed formal sovereignty, but title to each colony remained contested.

The twentieth century saw a shift in political power from the old plantocracy to a new nonwhite middle class, a rising self- consciousness among the various ethnic groups, and a slow evolution toward independence. Formal ties to Britain eventually were broken, but, like their anglophone Caribbean neighbors, Guyana and Belize today still strongly bear the mark of their colonial heritage. They retain their British institutions, their use of the English language, their economies based on agriculture, and their societies composed of a complex ethnic mix often divided along racial lines.

Unlike the great civilizations of Middle America that left monuments and records for archaeologists to decipher, the early societies in Guyana were relatively simple, nomadic cultures that left few traces. Early Spanish records and linguistic studies of the Caribbean reveal only a broad outline of pre-Columbian events. We do know that several centuries before the arrival of the Europeans, the Arawak moved north from Brazil to settle and farm the area along the northeast coast of South America before expanding farther north onto the Caribbean islands. Shortly before the arrival of the Europeans, the aggressive, warlike Carib pushed into the area and largely destroyed Arawak society.

Because of the warlike Carib and the region's apparent lack of gold or silver, the Spanish ignored the northeastern coast of South America. Settlement by Europeans would wait until 1616, when a group of Dutch arrived to establish a trading post. The Dutch soon realized the agricultural potential of the swampy coastal land and aggressively set out to drain the coast using a vast system of seawalls, dikes and canals. What had been swampy wasteland decades before, soon turned into thriving sugar plantations.

The development of agriculture brought rapid change to the colony. Because the plantation economy needed labor, the Dutch imported African slaves for the task. The growing economy also attracted the attention of the British, and British settlers from neighboring Caribbean islands poured into the three Dutch colonies established along the coast. By the late 1700s, the new British settlers effectively controlled the colonies. Formal control by Britain would come in 1814, when most Dutch colonies were ceded to Britain after the Napoleonic wars.

In 1838 Britain completed the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire, and the problem of obtaining cheap and plentiful labor arose anew. The planters first sought to attract Portuguese, then Chinese, workers, but both groups soon left plantation work. Concerned that the decline in labor would ruin the sugar-based economy, the planters finally contracted laborers from India to work the sugar fields. Large numbers of indentured workers poured into British Guiana in the late 1800s. Although theoretically free to return after their contract period had expired, most East Indians remained, adding a new ethnic group to the colony's mélange of Africans, Europeans, and Amerindians.

The twentieth century saw a rising consciousness among the country's ethnic groups and a struggle for political power between the new, disenfranchised, nonwhite middle class and the old plantocracy. Economic changes gave momentum to the growing call for political changes. The country saw rice production, dominated by the Indo-Guyanese (descendants of East Indians), and bauxite mining, dominated by the Afro-Guyanese (descendants of Africans), grow in importance, whereas sugar growing, controlled by the European plantation owners, declined. The British colonial administration responded to demands for reform by establishing universal suffrage in 1950 and allowing the formation of political parties.

The People's Progressive Party (PPP), the country's first political party, quickly became a formidable force. The PPP was formed by two men who would dominate Guyanese politics for decades to come: Cheddi Jagan, a Marxist Indo-Guyanese, and Linden Forbes Burnham, an Afro-Guyanese with leftist political ideas. A new constitution allowing considerable self-rule was promulgated in 1953; in elections that year the PPP, headed by Jagan, won a majority of seats in the new legislature. The new administration immediately sought legislation giving the labor unions expanded power. This legislation and the administration's leftist rhetoric frightened the British colonial authorities, who suspended the new government after only four months.

Conflict with the British was not the only problem facing the PPP. Personal rivalries between Jagan and Burnham and growing conflict between the Indo-Guyanese and the Afro-Guyanese widened into an open split. In 1957 Burnham and most of the Afro-Guyanese left the PPP and formed the rival People's National Congress (PNC). The two parties shared left-wing ideologies; the differences between them were largely based on ethnicity.

The British promulgated a new constitution in 1957. Elections in that year and in 1961 resulted in more PPP victories. Under the new constitution, considerable power resided in the hands of the governor, who was appointed by the British. The PPP administration headed by Jagan was therefore unable to implement most of its radical policy initiatives. The Marxist rhetoric, however, intensified.

Convinced that independence under a PPP administration would result in a communist takeover, the British authorities permitted and even encouraged a destabilization campaign by the opposition PNC. Antigovernment demonstrations and riots increased and in 1963 mobs destroyed parts of Georgetown, the capital. When labor unrest paralyzed the economy, British troops were called in to restore order. In the midst of the unrest the government scheduled new elections in 1964.

Voting along ethnic lines again gave the PPP the largest number of seats in the legislature. But the rival PNC, by allying itself with a small business-oriented party, was able to form a coalition government. Jagan had to be forcibly removed as prime minister, and in December 1964 Burnham assumed the post. Under the new administration, events stabilized, and independence was set for May 26, 1966.

The independent Guyana inherited by the PNC was one of the least-populated and least-developed countries in South America. Located on the northeast coast of the continent just north of the equator, the Idaho-sized country is wedged among Venezuela, Brazil, and Suriname (former Dutch Guiana). More than 90 percent of the population lives within five or six kilometers of the sea. This coastal plain, constituting only 5 percent of the country's total area, was originally low swampland but was transformed by the Dutch into the country's most productive agricultural land. Inland from the coastal plain lies the white-sand belt, site of most of Guyana's mineral wealth of bauxite, gold, and diamonds. Farther inland are the interior highlands, consisting of largely uninhabited mountains and savannahs.

Guyana's ethnic mix at independence, still the same in 1993, consisted primarily of Indo-Guyanese--about half the population-- and Afro-Guyanese--slightly more than 40 percent of the total. Smaller numbers of Amerindians, Asians, and Europeans completed Guyana's ethnic mélange. More than two-thirds of the population was Christian, with significant Hindu and Muslim minorities. Established by the British, the school system has resulted in high literacy rates (more than 90 percent).

The small military, the Guyana Defence Force, existed primarily as a deterrent to Venezuela's territorial claim. Venezuela's claim to the western three-fifths of Guyana, a dispute that dated from the colonial era, was thought to have been settled by arbitration in 1899. When later evidence showed that one of the judges had been influenced to vote against Venezuela, that country declared the arbitration settlement invalid and in the 1960s aggressively pursued its territorial claim on western Guyana. This border dispute was to flare periodically after Guyana's independence.

The first years of PNC administration after independence saw Prime Minister Burnham vigorously establishing control over Guyana's political and economic life. The 1968 elections were won by the PNC, despite charges of widespread fraud and coercion of voters. As the government's control over the country's political institutions increased, Burnham began nationalizing industries and financial institutions. In 1970 Guyana was declared a "cooperative republic," and government control of all economic activity increased. The 1973 elections were considered the most undemocratic in Guyana's history, and by 1974 all organs of the state had become agencies of the ruling PNC.

In the late 1970s, a number of events increased opposition to the Burnham regime. The economy, which had grown immediately after independence, began to contract because of nationalization. In addition, in 1978 negative international attention was focused on Guyana when more than 900 members of the People's Temple of Christ led by Jim Jones committed mass murder and suicide at their community in western Guyana. As opposition to the government increased, the government responded by violence against opposition members and meetings. The authoritarian nature of the Burnham government caused the loss of both foreign and domestic supporters.

A new constitution was promulgated in 1980, shifting power from the prime minister to the new post of executive president, but the political and economic situation continued to decline. Government programs had been financed by increasing the foreign debt, but in the early 1980s, most foreign banks and lending organizations refused further loans. The quality of life deteriorated: blackouts were frequent, and shortages of rice and sugar, Guyana's two largest crops, appeared. In 1985 in the midst of this turbulence, Burnham died while undergoing throat surgery.

Vice President Hugh Desmond Hoyte became the country's new executive president. He had two stated goals: to secure political power and revitalize the economy. Establishing political control was easy. The PNC chose Hoyte as its new leader, and in the 1985 elections the PNC claimed more than 79 percent of the vote. Economic growth, however, would require concessions to foreign lenders. Hoyte therefore began to restructure the economy. An economic recovery plan was negotiated with the International Monetary Fund (see Glossary) and the World Bank (see Glossary) allowing for new loans in exchange for free-market reforms and reversal of the Burnham administration's nationalization policies. To win favor with Western governments and financial institutions, Hoyte also moderated the previous administration's leftist tilt in international relations.

The results of economic reform were slow to appear, but by 1990 the economy began to grow again. The last legitimate date for new elections was December 1990. Sensing, however, that the PNC might be able to win a fair election (and thus regain a measure of international respect) if the economy continued to improve, the government invoked a clause in the constitution allowing elections to be postponed a year. Seeing a chance for an honest election, a group of Guyanese civic leaders created the Elections Assistance Board (EAB) to monitor the upcoming elections. The EAB appealed to the Carter Center in Atlanta for international support in its effort.

Despite threats and intimidation, in July 1991 the EAB conducted a door-to-door survey to verify voter lists. When the lists were shown to be grossly inaccurate, the Hoyte administration, under pressure from the EAB and the international community, declared a state of emergency and agreed to postpone the elections until October 1992 and implement a series of reforms suggested by the Carter Center. The reforms included appointment of a new election commissioner and agreement that the ballots be counted at polling centers in view of poll watchers instead of being taken to government centers and army bases for tallying.

The election date was finally set for October 5, 1992. Hoyte based the PNC campaign on the improving economy, which he credited to his free-market reforms. The PPP, still headed by Jagan after forty-two years, renounced its past Marxist policies and embraced elements of a free-market economy. In a reversal of decades of racial politics, Jagan attempted to downplay the country's ethnic polarization by naming an Afro-Guyanese, Sam Hinds, as his running mate.

Monitored by an international team of observers headed by United States former President Jimmy Carter, election results gave an alliance of the PPP, the smaller Working People's Alliance (WPA), and the United Force (UF) 54 percent of the vote, and the PNC, 45 percent. These results translated into thirty-two seats in the National Assembly for the PPP, thirty-one seats for the PNC, and one apiece for the WPA and the UF. Foreign observers certified the elections as "free, fair, and transparent." The PNC conceded defeat on October 7 and, after twenty-eight years, stepped down from power. Following brief consultations, the PPP formed a coalition government with the WPA and the UF (named the PPP-Civic coalition) and named Jagan executive president.

Two days of rioting and looting in Georgetown and Linden in eastern Guyana followed announcement of the election results. By the time the army and police restored order, 2 demonstrators had been killed and more than 200 injured. Many analysts attributed the violence to the fear that a PPP government would mean fewer economic benefits for the Afro-Guyanese population. Former President Carter, however, stated that the violence was localized and the looting unrelated to the voting.

In a radio broadcast on October 13, Jagan outlined the direction of the new government. He stated his intention to build a political consensus that cut across ethnic lines and to continue the privatization policies of his predecessor. Analysts speculated that the new administration would have difficulty in getting measures approved by the National Assembly and would face strong opposition from the PNC-dominated military and civil service. Election observers noted also the need to lower racial tension in a society that some characterized as one of the most racially divided they had witnessed. The motto on the Guyanese coat of arms proudly proclaims "one people, one nation, one destiny." In 1993, however, this motto remained a distant goal.

The history of preindependence Belize parallels in many ways the history of Guyana. Unlike the pre-Columbian inhabitants of Guyana, however, the Maya in Belize left majestic ruins of their civilization. Remains of the earliest settlers of the area date back at least to 2500 B.C. By 250 A.D. the classic period of Maya culture had begun; this period of city-building lasted for more than 700 years. During this time, the Maya built big ceremonial centers, practiced large-scale agriculture using irrigation, and developed writing and a sophisticated calendar. Around the tenth century, evidence suggests that the great cities were abandoned, perhaps because of increased warfare among the city-states, revolt of the peasants against the priestly class, overexploitation of the environment, or a combination of these and other factors. Even though the great ceremonial centers were left to decay, the Maya continued to inhabit the region until the arrival of the Europeans.

The first European settlers in the area were not Spanish but English. Although Christopher Columbus passed through the area on his fourth voyage to the Americas in 1502, Spanish explorers and settlers ignored the region because it lacked gold. English pirates roaming the Caribbean in the seventeenth century began establishing small camps near the Belize River to cut logwood, from which a black dye was extracted. Logwood extraction proved more profitable than piracy, and the English settlements on the Caribbean coast grew.

The Spanish sent expeditions throughout the eighteenth century to dislodge the British settlers. The British were repeatedly forced to evacuate but returned shortly after each attack. Several treaties in the late 1700s recognized the British settlers' right to extract logwood but confirmed Spanish sovereignty over the region, a concession that later would lead to a territorial dispute.

The colony continued to grow throughout the nineteenth century. Logwood extraction was replaced by mahogany cutting as the settlement's principal economic activity, and slaves were introduced to increase production. By the time emancipation was completed in 1838, the settlement had evolved into a plantation society with a small number of European landowners and a large population of slaves from Africa.

In the nineteenth century, the colony was also a magnet for dispossessed groups throughout the region. The Garifuna (see Glossary), an Afro-indigenous people descended from the Carib Indians and slaves of the Eastern Caribbean, found refuge in the area in the early 1800s. In the mid- and late 1800s, large numbers of Maya, many of whom had intermarried with or become culturally assimilated to the Spanish-speaking population of Central America, fled fighting in the Yucatán or forced labor in Guatemala and settled in the colony.

The nineteenth century also saw the development of formal government. As early as 1765, a common law system for the settlers was formalized, and a superintendent was named in 1794. A rudimentary legislature began meeting in the early 1800s, and in 1854 the British produced a constitution and formally established the colony of British Honduras in 1862. Political power in the colony remained firmly in the hands of the old settler elite, however; blacks working the plantations were disenfranchised, and smaller populations of smallholder Garifuna and Maya lived on the periphery of society.

The early 1900s were a period of political and social change. Nonwhite groups, particularly an emerging black middle class, began to agitate for the vote and political power. Mahogany production slowed, and the colony began to depend on sugar for revenue. Additional immigrants from neighboring Spanish-speaking countries drifted in and settled among the rural Maya. Creoles (see Glossary), as the English-speaking blacks called themselves, began to participate in colonial politics.

The Great Depression of the 1930s greatly accelerated the pace of change. Mahogany exports virtually collapsed, and the colonial officials responded with measures designed primarily to protect the interests of the plantation owners. As a result, widespread labor disturbances broke out. Pressured by persistent labor unrest, the government eventually legalized trade unions in 1941. The unions soon broadened their demands to include political reform, and in 1950 the first and most durable political party, the People's United Party (PUP), was formed with strong backing from the labor movement. Universal suffrage was granted to literate adults in 1954, and by the 1960s the colony was being prepared for independence.

The final obstacle to independence proved to be not internal problems or resistance from the colonial power, but an unresolved territorial claim over all of Belize by neighboring Guatemala. The dispute dated to treaties signed in the 1700s, in which Britain agreed to Spanish sovereignty over the region. Guatemala later claimed it had inherited Spanish sovereignty over Belize. Although negotiations over the issue had occurred periodically for more than a century, the matter of sovereignty became a particularly important issue for Guatemala in the 1960s and 1970s, when it realized Britain might grant independence to Belize.

Guatemala's demand for annexation of Belize was largely fought in the international area. Realizing that Belize's small defense force of 700 was no match for Guatemala's army, the British stationed a garrison force to deter any aggression. Belize sought support for sovereignty from the United Nations, the Nonaligned Movement, the Commonwealth of Nations, and the Organization of American States. First, individual states and then the international organizations themselves came to support Belize's cause. By 1980 Guatemala was completely without international support for its territorial claim, and the British granted Belize independence in 1981.

Belize at independence was a small country whose economy depended on one crop. Unlike many other newly emerging nations, however, Belize was underpopulated in the early 1990s. The country, approximately the size of Massachusetts, consists largely of tropical forest, flat in the north and with a low range of mountains in the south. Belize has traditionally depended on one crop (forest products in the 1700s and 1800s; sugar in the mid- 1900s) for its economic livelihood. A collapse in the price of sugar in the 1980s forced the government to diversify the economy. The growth of tourism and increased citrus and banana production in the 1990s made the economy less vulnerable to the price swings of a single commodity.

Ethnic diversity characterized Belizean society. The two largest groups were the Creoles, an English-speaking group either partly or wholly of African descent, and the Hispanic descendants of immigrants from neighboring Spanish-speaking countries or Hispanicized indigenous groups called Mestizos (see Glossary). Smaller groups included the Garifuna and the various Maya peoples. The 1980 census showed the population to be about 40 percent Creole and 33 percent Mestizo. A considerable of influx of people from Central America shifted these percentages, however, so that the 1991 census showed the Mestizos to be the larger group, a change that distanced the country from the anglophone Caribbean and made it increasingly resemble its Hispanic neighbors on the isthmus of Central America.

The British legacy included a parliamentary democracy based on the British model, a government headed by the British monarch but governed by a prime minister named by the lower house of the bicameral legislature, and an independent judiciary. The constitutional safeguards for citizens' rights were respected, and the two elections since independence had seen power alternate between the country's two political parties with an absence of irregularities or political violence. The last election in 1989 saw George Cadle Price, leader of the PUP, regain the position of prime minister, a post he had held at the time of independence.

In 1993 Belize faced a number of challenges. The nation endeavored to meet the needs of a growing population with only limited resources. The makeup of the population itself was changing as Belizeans became more like their Central American neighbors and less like the English-speaking Caribbean. Most analysts agreed, however, that as the twentieth century drew to a close, Belize seemed well-positioned to deal successfully with the economic and social changes confronting it.

March 3, 1993

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In the months following completion of research and writing of this book, significant political developments occurred in Belize. On May 13, 1993, the British government, saying that it felt its military presence in Belize was no longer necessary because resolution of Guatemala's long-standing territorial claim seemed imminent, announced that it would remove most of its troops from Belize within a year. On June 1, buoyed by overwhelming victories in by-elections for the Belize City Council and for a vacated parliamentary seat, Prime Minister George Price called for the governor general to dissolve the National Assembly on June 30 and hold general elections the following day, fifteen months before the mandate of his People's United Party (PUP) was due to expire. The main opposition party, the United Democratic Party (UDP) headed by Manuel Esquivel, and the newly formed National Alliance for Belizean Rights headed by veteran UDP politician Philip Goldson announced they would participate in the election. The PUP was confident of victory because the economy was growing and the opposition appeared disorganized. The PUP also claimed that recently passed legislation giving Guatemala access to the Caribbean through Belizean territorial waters had finally settled the dispute with Guatemala.

Events in neighboring Guatemala, however, came to dominate the issues in the Belizean election. On June 2, the Guatemalan military removed President Jorge Serrano Elías, who had earlier accepted Belize's right to exist and established diplomatic relations with Belize. Later in June, the Guatemalan military announced plans to impeach Serrano in absentia for his accord with Belize.

In its election campaign, the UDP seized on many Belizeans' fears of renewed Guatemalan territorial claims, the consequence of the British troop withdrawal, and resentment by Creoles over the growing hispanicization of the country. Esquivel accused Price's administration of making too many concessions to Guatemala to obtain a settlement to the dispute and promised to suspend the legislation granting Guatemala access to the Caribbean. The UDP also charged that the PUP had not fought hard enough to keep the British garrison in Belize and promised to reopen talks to maintain a British presence if it were brought to power. In addition, the UDP accused the PUP of having allowed too many Spanish-speaking refugees into Belize (the 1991 census revealed that for the first time there were more Mestizos than Creoles in the country) and then catering to the Spanish-speaking vote.

These campaign charges, along with attacks on the PUP as being corrupt and secretly planning to devalue the Belizean dollar, resulted in a surprise victory for the UDP on July 1. Although the PUP won a slim majority of the total votes cast, the UDP won sixteen of the twenty-nine seats in the National Assembly. The UDP victory for several seats was razor-thin (six of the seats were won with a majority of five or fewer votes) and several recounts were held. Results of the sixteen-seat victory for the UDP were confirmed, however, and on July 5, Manuel Esquivel was sworn in as Belize's new prime minister.

July 12, 1993
Tim L. Merrill

Data as of January 1992

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