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close this bookThe Courier N 152 - July - August 1995 - Dossier: NGO's - Country Reports: Belize, Malawi (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
close this folderCountry reports
close this folderBelize
View the documentSurprising Belize
View the documentA history against the tide
View the documentGender language for black Amerindians
View the documentInterview with Prime Minister, Manuel Esquivel
View the documentInterview with opposition leader, George Price
View the document'The Queen's man'
View the documentStill images
View the documentEU-Belize cooperation - An end to isolation

A history against the tide

Although Belize's history is similar to that of several countries in Central America and the Caribbean, it is also full of the unexpected. The country gained its independence on 21 September 1981, remaining a member of the Commonwealth with the Queen as Head of State. It has a bicameral Parliament. The Senate's members are appointed by the government or co-opted by MPs with a guarantee that the opposition will be represented. The lower house is dominated by two parties which have traditionally alternated in power. This democratic interplay began well before independence. British forces remained in Belize until September last year, when the last units finally left the country. This withdrawal was accompanied by a promise that forces would be redeployed in the event of a threat to the sovereignty of Belize. Their presence had constituted a guarantee in this troubled area, particularly vis -is Guatemala which has always held that it had been deprived of territory in order to create the state of Belize. The British presence was also a source of income estimated at approximately 4% of GDP.

Independent in a colonial world

Let us go back in time. Between 2000 and 1000 BC, two million Mayas lived in Yucatan. At the beginning of the first millennium, the population of what now constitutes Belize was 750 000. Wheat plantations stretched as far as the eye could see. Extended towns and enormous religious centres appeared throughout the empire.

A thousand years ago, the Maya world collapsed. The arrival of the Spanish was followed by the disappearance of virtually all the indigenous population which fell victim to massacres and disease from outside. The survivors were concentrated in Guatemala. Campeachy wood (logwood) and mahogany invaded the land and took firm root in the vaults of ceremonial sites. For various reasons, the Spanish lost interest in Belize and the territory was abandoned. The English arrived at the end of the seventeenth century to exploit the Campeachy wood and, somewhat later, in the eighteenth century, the mahogany which had become an important commodity in Europe. This reawakened Spanish interest-the old reflex of the toy abandoned by the capricious child. They made five attempts to dislodge their adversaries, but all were unsuccessful. A treaty was signed, giving the British permission to exploit the forests, with the exceptions of commercial agricultural production and military construction in an area between the Hondo River (the Belize/Mexico border) and the Belize River which flows through Belize City. The British loggers became known as the 'Baymen, and they appear in an engraving which forms part of the Belize coat of arms. Shortly before the agreement was signed, the Baymen called upon the British government to come to their aid in the face of a Spanish threat but peace was restored shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, a British admiral sent to Belize overstepped the limits imposed in the agreement and, in 1765, promulgated an embryo constitution for the territory which had been allocated to the Baymen. This pseudo-independence lasted until 1862 when the population voted to become a colony. This period saw several reversals of fortune for the British. There was the loss of the American colonies in which Spain and France supported the American revolutionaries, while Spain went on to dismantle a number of British settlements, sending most of their occupants to Mexico or Cuba.

The 1847 Mexican revolution, begun by the Maya population, saw the first great flood of Mayan refugees arrive in Belize, alongside mestizo and even some Spanish refugees. The Belizean population doubled in a short space of time. This was also the period when sugar cane was introduced. Backed by popular demand, Belize approached London to ask for the status of a colony, and the request was duly granted in 1862. The colony was given the name British Honduras.

It was only after the Second World War that a big change in attitudes occurred. Many Belizeans had been recruited into the Allied armies and they resumed to the country with new ideas. The UK Government's unwise decision to devalue the Belize dollar in 1949 set the powder keg alight and the word 'independence' began to be heard.

An incongruous colony

From 1961 onwards, the British authorities acknowledged that the count down to the colony's independence had begun. Administrative autonomy was granted in 1964 although the tide of decolonisation taking place at that time did not reach this corner of the Caribbean. Belize had to wait until 1981 for full independence. The main reason for this was the fact that the British had no intention of handing the territory to Guatemala, which was threatening to invade.

In 1823, the United Provinces of Central America proclaimed their independence. Fifteen years later, the federation broke up into five states. One of these was Guatemala, which took the view that Belize ought to be returned to it since it had been recognised by the Spanish administration as forming part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala. Many historians believe, however, that under Spain, Belize had been linked to Yucatan. In any case, the Spanish were not in Belize before the independence of the Central American countries and had never occupied the territory. In 1860, influenced by the United States, a treaty between Britain and Guatemala was signed, recognising the current frontiers between the two territories. By way of compensation to Guatemala, a road and/or river route,

linking the Guatemalan capital to the Atlantic near Belize, was to be built by the two parties. Because this route was never constructed, Guatemala repudiated the treaty in 1940, 80 years after it was signed. According to their interpretation, the Treaty had not been a ratification of frontiers but an exchange or contract which had not been fulfilled. Thereafter, Guatemala regularly threatened its neighbour although, over time, its territorial claims became more modest. Ultimately, their demands came to be restricted to just a quarter of the territory but the dispute left Belize isolated for many years. The advent of civilian government in Guatemala did not solve the problem but at least it opened the way for progress. Jorge Serrano, Guatemala's second civilian President, recognised Belize in 1991 and established diplomatic relations. Only then was it possible for Belize to become a full member of the Organisation of American States (OAS). The country was now out of quarantine. Despite this, Guatemalan diplomats still occasionally demand the expulsion of Belize's delegates at international meetings. Guatemala has opened an embassy in Belize and there is a consulate in the zone where new Guatemalan immigrants live, but Belize's diplomatic mission in Tegucigalpa had to wait three years before it could open its doors. In 1993, the threat of a military takeover in Guatemala, just as the British were announcing the forthcoming departure of their troops, rekindled old fears. Fortunately, the new Guatemalan president, Ramiro de Leon Carpio, is a staunch defender of human rights. His government continues to demand land concessions, but the risk of an invasion has greatly diminished and, although the Belizeans still purport to be fearful of conquest by their neighbour, this is probably a continuing historical reflex rather than something founded on any realistic threat.

Central America has once again found the road to peace and attempts to play on national sentiment to conceal domestic difficulties are less likely nowadays. In any case, it is difficult to see how a country such as Belize, where American interests are so extensive, could fall victim to a show of force in the current climate. Moves are under way to find a diplomatic solution. Belize's long isolation made its participation in the Caribbean Common Market (CARICOM) very important even though, in economic terms, such membership has not always been to its advantage. It had, for example, to lower import duties to come into line with its partners, without the advantage of increased exports. Such was the price of diplomatic status.