The dawn of the 20th century sowed seeds of change that slowly but surely brought about the sovereignty of Belize, a young nation that finally gained full independence only 30 years ago. In general, the island colonies of Great Britain were liberated later than those of Spain and France (who lost most of their Caribbean possessions in the early 19th century), and Belize was the last in the region to shake off the colonial mantle.
Belize’s struggle towards self-government was one of the most peaceful in history. Despite territorial disputes that resulted in a back-and-forth clash between Guatemala and the former “British Honduras,” Belize’s independence movement is notable for its lack of bloodshed.
That said, the following episode from Belize history will show that it was no cakewalk for the Belizean people, whose strength and determination was called upon time and again in the pursuit of new nationhood.
The Early Stirrings of Belize’s Independence Movement
The idea of Belizean independence dawned in an atmosphere of dire political and economic straits. Main contributing factors were colonial politics, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and devastating natural disasters such as the massive hurricane that demolished the former capital of Belize City in1931. (A new capital, Belmopan, was built further inland about 50 miles west of Belize City, which remains the country’s commercial and cultural center and its most populous city.)
A shattered economy, widespread unemployment, exploitative labor conditions, and hardline industrial relations created the perfect storm that spawned a tide of change. Riots and demonstrations began to spring up around Belize. While there were no bloody revolutions or assassinations, unrest was decidedly afoot.
Labor activist Antonio Soberanis Gómez (now regarded as the father of the labor movement in Belize) and his colleagues at the Labourers and Unemployed Association (LUA) began to cry out for a new nationalistic and democratic approach to labor and political processes. Simultaneously, an emerging elite class of Creole merchants tilted the balance of trade in favor of the United States and away from Great Britain, thus weakening the colonial grip on its politics and economy.
Immediate successes of the nascent uprising resulted in the labor relief initiatives and reforms of 1941-1943. Legalized trade unions like the General Workers’ Union (GWU) grew quickly in number and influence, providing crucial support for the nationalist movement. It was at this time, in the aftermath of the second World War, that the most catalytic moment in the history of Belizean independence was about to occur.
The Economic Blunder Heard Round the World
The disparate voices of the movement towards nationhood coalesced abruptly into one cohesive chorus upon the heels of an unthinking, short-sighted act:
In December 1949, against the admonitions of the Legislative Council and without concern for the repercussions, the governor devalued the British Honduras dollar. His rash decision embodies the single defining moment that catapulted the nascent nationalist movement by a quantum leap. The nationalists were enraged at this evidence of the limited powers of the legislature and the blatant, choking powers of the colonial administration. The labor unions were infuriated by this protectionism of the interests of the big transnational companies, at the expense of the working classes.
Devaluation thus united labor, nationalists, and the Creole middle classes into one solid mass as never before against the colonial administration. On that very night the People’s Committee was formed.
With the People’s Committee and its successor, the People’s United Party (PUP), the political aspects suddenly matured. The organization strengthened its foundations, achieved a popular mandate, and stated its primary demands in uncompromising terms.
Universal adult suffrage, an elected Legislative Council, and an Executive Council chosen by the leader of the majority party became the pillars of the agitation. The introduction of a ministerial system and the abolition of the governor’s reserve powers were also critical factors. In effect, PUP was demanding truly representative, responsible government.
Bowing to these irresistible pressures, Britain enacted constitutional changes to implement representative government in stages. Self-government under a ministerial system was granted in January 1964. The official name changed from British Honduras to Belize in June 1973, and full independence was granted on September 21, 1981.
The Bottom Line
If you’re not a history buff… then frankly, I’m surprised you’re still reading this! So what does all this mean for Belize travelers? Well, the patience and perseverance displayed by the Belizean people throughout their journey to independence are ingrained in the national character. Belizeans are renowned for their easygoing nature, their friendliness, hospitality, and national pride. Even today, this collective identity makes the country a safe and rewarding destination for visitors and expats.