Ethnicity, Party Politics & the Constitution in Belize

By Dylan Vernon, Real Story #8, 12 June 2024.

In my Fifteen Proposals for a People’s Constitution, I argue that, although Belizean political culture will have some influence on constitutional reform decisions, not everything about it deserves preservation or adaptation. Yet it is important to build on the bits that do. As Belizeans, we generally value free elections, peaceful changes of government, open political expression, political tolerance and ethnically inclusive party politics. In this REAL STORY post, I focus on the latter. In the nationalist and post-independence politics of Belize, there were moments when our multi-ethnic demography seemed to be a potent brew for the development of ethnic-based parties. But Belize has been successful in avoiding these – unlike Caribbean states such as Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago. So, how has Belize managed this and how do we keep it so?

Ethnic Politics & the Nationalist Movement

There were potential opportunities for ethnic-based parties to spring up in Belize in the 1950s and 60s as the Belize’s nationalist leaders jostled for power and formed political parties. Although not as overt, as say between Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese groups, there were pre-existing tensions among some of Belize’s ethnic groups – due, in part, to the divide and rule tactics of the British. At the macro-political level, the potential for partisan ethnic tensions was highest between groups identifying as Creole and Mestizo – Belize’s two largest ethnic groups.

Between the 1950’s and 1970s, Creoles made up just around 50 per cent of the population and was the majority in former capital, Belize City. It was from the ranks of the educated Creole elite in Belize City that most of the original nationalist leaders emerged: John Smith and Leigh Richardson, Philip Goldson and George Price.  In Belizean context, Price, the leader of the PUP from 1956 to 1996 and Belize’s father of the nation, could be described as ‘Mestizo/Creole’, and Goldson the leader of the National Independence Party (NIP) from 1961 to 1973, as an ‘Afro/Creole’.

By the end of the 1960’s, when the original PUP leadership had split (1956) and the NIP had been formed (1958), a narrative was bubbling of the PUP being more Latino-oriented and the NIP being more Afro/Creole-oriented. Importantly, Price, from quite early, had been espousing a Central American and continental economic destiny for Belize, and opposed the West Indian Federation. Price argued, for example, that Federation could lead to Belize being swamped by poor Caribbean immigrants. On the other hand, Goldson, Smith and Richardson (who all left the PUP during the 1956 split), eventually changed their positions to support the West Indian Federation and openly attacked Price’s Central American vision. As did the then anti-PUP British establishment, the trio also accused Price of being too friendly towards Guatemala.

Looking back, in the decade between the PUP split and the first post self-government election in 1965 one or more of the nationalist leaders could have taken their party deep down the ethnic route in pursuit of political advantage.  Indeed, as Godfrey Smith wrote in his acclaimed  biography of Price “the issue of race bubbled to the surface’’ after 1956 as Richardson and Goldson “introduced race” into their political dispute with Price. They contended, for example, that “certain people felt that the logical leaders ought to be the Latins among us” and were not comfortable with Creole leadership. They suggested that Latinos were planning to “uproot the Creole leaders.”

Not surprisingly, the British colonial establishment preferred the less-militant NIP and sought actively to destabilize the PUP and discredit Price. In this context, the deviously  divisive British tactics could have helped to trigger overt racial and ethnic party politics – were it not for other more powerful mitigating factors.

Mitigating Factors

By the time of the unfortunate 1956 split, Price and the PUP had successfully built a truly national political party on the broad back of the national labour movement. By 1950, the General Workers Union had established branches in all the districts and consolidated a multi-ethnic membership. As such, all ethnic groups were being integrated in the PUP and in national politics well before the NIP formed in 1958. Importantly, the PUP was winning local and national elections by large margins and dispensing resources and favours to citizens and supporters of all ethnic groups across the nation.

Over the next decade, the PUP strategically selected candidates so that, in terms of ethnicity and race, its core leadership and Price’s cabinets began to look like multi-ethnic Belize. This inclusive PUP approach to appeal to voters across race and ethnicity in all constituencies was one that Goldson and the NIP and, after 1973, the United Democratic Party (UDP) emulated to become electorally competitive.

Perhaps, the most critical mitigating factors can be found in the personal values and integrative leadership styles of Price and Goldson themselves. For his part, Price sought primarily to implement his goal “to achieve and preserve for the people of Belize national unity and political and economic independence.” This translated into seeking support across geographic, gender, class, race and ethnic lines. In time, this inclusive approach to winning elections became politically dominant. For his part, Goldson, who was also an early union leader and a founder of the PUP, had long embraced this approach. Goldson, who was so long in lonely opposition, deserves much credit for not pursuing an ethnic or racial political party approach to seeking power – when, hypothetically, he and the NIP could have.

There are other interesting mitigating variables for curious historians to explore. One is to what extent did ethnic clustering in separate geographical spaces limit intense competition among ethnic groups for resources and power – and disincentivized ethnic based political centers? Another is what role did class play? While the NIP had taken almost all the original elite Creole leaders from the PUP during the 1956 split, the PUP was able to attract other Creole leaders while maintaining the support of the working-class Creole. Did this temper allegations that the PUP was Latino leaning?

In short, by the last pre-independence election in 1979, a multi-ethnic political party strategy was evolving into a key feature of Belize’s political culture.

Post-Independence Tests

The post-1981 challenges to this aspect of Belize’s political culture have been related largely to demographic developments. In short, emigration of mostly Creoles to the US and the influx of mostly Latino migrants from other Central America states in the 1980s and 1990s, have contributed to a proportional decrease of Belizeans identifying as Creole alongside concurrent increases of those identifying as Mestizo. The Table shows the population share by the five major ethnic groups from censuses 1946 – 2022. (Figures rounded off except for 2022).

While Belize has avoided civil unrest around ethnic issues, it has not all been smooth sailing, especially in the 1980s and first half of the 1990s. Apart from the scapegoating of the new, and mostly poor, Latino migrants, there were concerns that the black population was being marginalized. Before the 1984 elections, the opposition UDP repeatedly criticised the PUP government’s refugee and immigration policies as too liberal and aimed at latinising the electorate to its advantage. There was even talk in some circles of a brewing ‘ethnic war’.

A Brukdown Magazine cover, 1982.

In 1981, the PUP government agreed with the ‘dangers of the alien situation’, while at the same time implementing Belize’s first immigrant amnesty. Interestingly, one Creole PUP minister (C.L.B Rogers) floated the idea of bringing immigrants from Haiti – ostensibly to ‘balance things out.’ After the UDP won its first election later in 1984, an immigration committee recommended importing Caribbean contract labour. This was not implemented.

Indeed, the UDP government’s immigration policies from 1984-1989 were, in practice, very similar to those of the PUP government it replaced.  It also dispensed state programmes and clientelist resources without overt discrimination of migrants and, it too, began to facilitate their transition to citizens and electors.

Consolidation of a Multi-ethnic Approach

Belize successfully emerged from these and later demographic shifts without a drift to ethnic-based political parties. By the 1980s, the political practice of both major parties seeking votes across ethnic lines in all constituencies had solidified sufficiently.  Importantly, the first UDP victory in 1984 saw it win seats from geographical constituencies with majorities of every ethnic group – with Manuel Esquivel, a ‘Mestizo’ Belizean at the helm (prime minister from 1984-89 and 1993-98). Then as both parties traded turns in power in later years, it was clear that neither the PUP nor UDP overtly targeted one ethnic group over another. Such concerns almost evaporated in 2008 when the UDP swept seven of eight Mestizo-majority constituencies in northern Belize at the same time the first black prime minister was elected.

Indeed, the lack of visible political (and clientelist) discrimination based on ethnicity, or at least the perception thereof, has contributed to the perpetuation of political parties that are ethnically integrated. Former UDP prime minister Dean Barrow (2008-2020)—who was in London on an official visit—gave an interview to Sky News (UK) in June 2013 and pinpointed this aspect of Belize’s political culture. He noted:

“[How] seamlessly Belize has managed tectonic demographic shifts since the time of the civil wars in Central America [and the] huge in-migration of Central Americans. [N]ow, the largest segment of the ethnic population would be Hispanic or Mestizo. Notwithstanding that, here it is that a black person is able to be elected prime minister. So, I think we assimilated very well…and we are very proud of it.”

John Briceño, Belize’s current prime minister, and the first from a predominantly Mestizo district, would likely express similar Belizean pride related to his own electoral successes.

The Next Chapter

It is important not to equate the avoidance of ethnic-based political parties with the total absence of an ethnic dimension to Belize’s politics and wider societal relations. Ethnicity often plays a role in who is elected as candidates at the constituency level and in how cabinet posts and senior appointments are distributed. It can also facilitate the distribution of clientelist inducements and rewards based on geographic clustering by ethnicity and/or through existing ethnic networks. Also, each of the major ethnic groups now have ethnic councils that lobby politically on their behalf.

However, the key takeaway is that a Belizean political culture has consolidated in which winning elections, in the context of Belize’s Westminster model, is best ensured by appealing to all ethnic groups, including recent migrants. Sadly, the content and nature of ‘the appealing’ has been wanting – not the least because of short-term fixes and handout politics. It has been unfortunate too that most of Belize’s post-independence political leaders have avoided ethnically sensitive but important public policy decisions related to issues such as immigration, population, language and land rights. Also, the national record is weak of people working collectively across ethnic lines to mitigate national challenges that are commonly held by all Belizeans — such as citizen insecurity, racism, persistent poverty, deepening political tribalism and entrenched clientelism.

While I envision a Belize where there is always a place for ethnic difference, I also want to see stronger social and class bonds and collective development actions across ethnicities. We are not there yet. I close off by restating my proposals (so far) that directly relate to ethnicity in my Fifteen Proposals for constitutional reform. These include a new Preamble that acknowledges Belize’s identity as multi-ethnic and multi-lingual state in which all ethnicities and languages are respected without discrimination. And they include a call for new sections in the chapter Fundamental Rights and Freedoms to guarantee (a) that every person in Belize is entitled to all rights and freedoms whatever their ethnic identification, (b) the right of indigenous Maya Belizeans to communal lands, and (c) the right of every citizen to be given the opportunity to learn any of Belize’s language(s), while providing for every Belizean to be taught to speak English and Spanish fluently. These set the stage for strengthening the language of those constitutional provisions and laws that mandate practices based on racial and ethnic inclusivity for all groups, including political parties.

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