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Independence Day - September 21, 1981

The music has stopped, the banners taken down and the streets cleared of the debris accumulated over a week of frenetic celebration. October’s rains have began to dull September’s duty-free paint jobs and spawned gaping new potholes in Belize city’s only recently paved streets. The old capital’s few hotels are once again near empty as all but the stragglers in a virtual army of foreign journalist have departed in search of bigger stories and fresher news.

In many ways it could be reported that Belize has returned to normal, that with independence nothing has changed. To do so, however, would be a mistake.

There are of course, the cosmetic changes. The red, white and blue Belizean flag (or blue, white and red if you prefer) now flies over independence hill as well as many places where no flag flew previously. It is hailed as both a political and artistic success. Her Excellency dr. minita Gordon maintains a busy schedule of official functions and waits for the day when Belize house will be ready for her historic occupancy. On bird’s isle the delegates to a UDP convention stands proudly for the playing of the national anthem. At price barracks, minister of defense Rogers review the freshly trained troops under his command. Some changer, it seems, are less cosmetic than others.

Belize, as one U.S. newspaper put it, has “joined the real world”: a world of worsening terms of trade, east-west confrontation and high interest deficit finance. It is a place. Unlike the Hollywood version on video. Where bullets cost money and bodies they penetrate shed real blood.

If one lasting impression remains of the independent celebrations it is that Belize has many friends. Delegations from 63 countries came to wish the new nation well and a more mixed bag of dignitaries would be difficult to assemble. The region’s principal players were here in the form of head of government Edward seaga of Jamaica, Rodrigo Carazo of Costa Rica and Grenada’s Maurice bishop. Panama’s Omar torrijos, we were assured by Mr. Price, was with us in spirit. Sergio Ramirez headed a high-level Nicaraguan delegation which included Miguel D’escoto, Ernesto Cardenal and a pair of FSLN commandants. A large Cuban delegation covered a lot of ground while the ten-person U.S. contingent also made its presence felt. The greatest concentration of visitors came, natural, from the Caribbean while every country of Central America put in an appearance except Guatemala which has pulled out its consul two weeks earlier. In all every continent, with the exception of Antarctica, was represented.

The task of housing, feeding and entertaining such as large number of visiting v.i.p.s, coupled with the events local components, was perhaps a formidable and undertaking as the winning of independence in the first place. Minister of state V.H. Courtenay, whose contributions were vital to both efforts, was in overall charge of the celebrations and that they came off so well is due in large part to his considerable skill under pressure.

However smoothly the events were organized independence was not without its moment of humor.

The bodyguards. Certain delegations were more security conscious than others. Maurice Bishop, for example, rarely took a step without “assistants” moving right along with him. Man of the hour George price, supposedly the target of innumerable conspiracy, moved around like he hadn’t care in the world.

At many official functions the army of bodyguards resembles a united nation peacekeeping force. The British, dressed like tourist, were everywhere. The Caribbean crime-stoppers, less uptight, could usually pistoleros resemble scruffy journalist. One result of the massive show of hardware was that the usual heavy hand of U.S. secret service could hardly be detected. Their security chief, a genial bear of a man named Fred, seemed to enjoy the party more than the dignitaries he was assigned to protect.

Seating problems. At the Saturday luncheon anti-communist (pro-greenback) minister of energy Louis sylvestre somehow got seated next to Nicaraguan foreign minister Fr. Miguel D’escoto. Rather than discuss the finer points of U.S. imperialism cous chose to engage in a monologue with his toothpick.

In contrast to Louis sylvestre, Mrs. Sylvestre, who at the time filled in as de facto first lady for the bachelor prime minister, was radiant. As chairwoman of the catering committee Maude had one of the country’s toughest jobs and performed it to near perfection. The food and service at the function was excellent.

Protocol. On Independence Day in Belmopan the U.S. delegates foreshadowing President Reagan’s performance at Cancun – arrived 15 minutes late at the ceremony and were ushered to the general admission seats so as not to disrupt the speeches. Prime Minister Price, ever ready to please, apparently spied the towering frame of U.S. diplomat Thomas Enders and mentioned for the V.I.P.s to take prominent seats on the reviewing stands with their more punctual colleagues. In the minor commotion that followed minister mckoy lost his seat minister Courtenay caught an elbow in the ribs.

The head of the U.S. delegation was Representative Dan mica, a Florida democrat. The handsome young legislator was often overshadowed however, by assistant secretary for inter-America affairs Thomas Enders, a man more well-known to most of the other guest. At one point the congressman was introduced to the wife of a prominent Belizean who was heard to reply: “so nice to meet you Mr. Formica.”

At government house the night of the 20th the rains came and people scramble for shelter. Some made for the restaurants tents; others ducked beneath the house while many people just got soaked. If you were British, however, you simple claimed the stairs and were ushered into the mansion where the crowned heads of Kent were holding forth. If your skin lacked the necessary paleness and you attempted to stund you were politely sent packing into the downpour. One British security guard was lately heard to boast that he had just turned away half the government of Nicaragua. “Couldn’t very well let those commies get their guns near the prince.”

Only one person got to heave-ho that night. Austrian journalist Leo Gabriel apparently was a bit too zealous in chasing a story up those same steps and was unceremoniously dumped out on Regent Street. No hard feeling though, as Leo was out working the very next day.

Speeches. At a luncheon following the handing-over ceremony in Belmopan a number of honored guests were invited to offer some remarks. Costa Rica president Carazo spoke warmly of Belize and was given an appropriate standing ovation. Nicaraguan junta member Ramirez fallowed with a polite speech which at the same time included some less than laudatory word about capitalism (these comments were said to be toned down in Rudy Castillo’s running translation). Sergio was similarly applauded, particularly by his fellow ideologues on the left. Last to speak was charismatic Mr. Seaga who was greeted by a standing ovation before he spoke. Spurred on by the adulation of the crowed the Jamaicans declared his distaste for “so-called people’s democracies” and announced his singular faith in the system of”one-man, one-vote”. When he was finished the fans went and for 20 minutes seaga signed autographs. The Cubans Nicaraguan and Grenadians managed to contain their enthusiasm and sat stoically puffing cigars.

Most painful quote of the day (from Nicholas ridley’s September 21 address): “you inherit the dispute with Guatemala”.

Most painful quote: “you also inherit the democratic process which is beyond price.”

The negotiations. Politicians and lawyers may debate whether or not Belize does in theory inherit the anglo-guatemalan dispute but in fact it is a problem which we must recognize. Te Guatemalans have closed the border and refuse to acknowledge the existence of an independent Belize. The presence of British troops here prevents the Guatemala’s anger from turning into something more belligerent.

Prime Minister George price maintains that the heads of agreement still holds and that he’s anxious to resume negotiations, as are the British. The Guatemalans say nothing – although unofficially they are said to favor early resumption of negotiations.

Looking at the situation realistically there is no little to suggest that progress will be made in the near future. As much as the Guatemalans may wish to negotiate, to enter into talks now would be a distinct disadvantage to the current election campaign of general anibal Guevara, the hand-picked candidates of President Lucas. In Guatemalans politics looking soft on the Belize issue endears you to no one – except Washington’s power in Central America isn’t what it used to be.

Although Britain would very much like to push a negotiated settlement the timing may not be quite right. Having just parted with its most nettlesome colony aimed promise of continued support, both military and financial; it would appear rather obscene to now start acting like a nasty old colonial power again. Beside, there’s always the option of turning the whole mess over to the yanks.

Back here in Belize George price is in the enviable position of having his cake and eating it too. He got independence, got the British to stay here and defend it, and is now trying with some success to round up the finance to make good*******promises of economic prosperities. Belize currently enjoys a wealth of inter-national support – membership in the UN, commonwealth and non-aligned along with a fighting chance for entry into the OAS – and our bargaining position has never been stronger.

Mr. Price may ***** service to the heads of agreement **** that document, in the light of independence, will be given a very strict interpretation by any future Belizean negotiators. Thus we’ll hear no more whining about military bases, perpetual rights of ownership or cession of large chunks of seabed. Although publicly most government leaders express a great desire to return to the bargaining table (this keeps Washington and London happy) the private attitude of the majority of Belizeans is to let Guatemala stuff it: they had their chance and blew it.

How long Belize will be permitted the luxury of unquestioned British military muscle is the $64,000 question. For now the Thatcher government seems content to abide by it commitment; a year from now, depending on the course of any negotiations, she may not be so accommodating, looking forward to that possibility it is not surprising to see the prime minister so assiduously courting the Americans, Canadians, Mexicans and any other country with a few ideologically acceptable soldiers to spare.

Which brings us to the question raised more than once by journalist during the festivities? That is, if Belize must constantly depend on a foreign power to protect its sovereignty is it really an independent nation?

The answer, of course, is that sovereignty in practice is not a yes-or-no proposition. Even the most powerful countries have some limitations on their freedom to act. The united states of America, for instance, as much as it might want to send marines to topple the pro-Cuban government of Maurice bishop. The Soviet Union, likewise, refrains from invading Yugoslavia although it certainly has the ability to do so. In both cases the superpower exercise a measure of self control because to do so otherwise would be to violate accepted norms of international behavior as well as work against other more important interest that they both share _ namely the preservation of a certain amount of stability in the international system.

Yet nobody accuse the U.S.A or U.S.S.R. of not being independent countries. Nor do they similarly identify Great Britain because she relies a great extent on the deterrent of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Every nation, it seems, has some chinks in its armor.

While it is true that Belize may not seem very independent in respect of its need for defense against Guatemala threats, once that threat is taken away – by negotiations or perhaps by revolution – Belize may appear very independent indeed. We then may look at other nominally independent countries and question how independent they really are. Jamaica, for example, has mortgaged its independence heavily to the IMF. Costa Rica, with its multi-billion debt, lives by the largesse of the international banks. Even Cuba, titular head of the non-aligned, is enormously reliant on the aid it receives from the Soviet Union.

For the moment Belize militarily on Britain, but let us not assume that such will always be the case. Every nation works under certain constraint; those presently confining Belize need not be terrible onerous. Many, in fact, exist only in the mind.

How independent is the new Belize? We are more independent than on September 20; less independent than one day ought to be.



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