LAUNCH: Time Come – Put People Back in Democracy!

By Dylan Vernon (TIME COME #1-Launch Post, 29 September 2023, Belize City, Belize).

Like today, 29th September 1950 was also a Friday. It was a momentous day in the struggle of the people of Belize to create a new sovereign democratic state of Central America in the Caribbean region. The People’s Committee, which had led the people’s revolt against British colonialism since 31 December 1949, gave way to Belize’s first national people’s political party: the People’s United Party. With John Smith elected as Party Leader, Leigh Richardson as chairman, George Price as secretary and Philip Goldson as assistant secretary, all Belize’s key nationalist leaders were together that historic September day 73 years ago. The people were with them and they with the people.

A People’s Moment

George Price addressing Public Meeting –1950s

From the thousands who flocked to public meetings and joined the new party, to the strong union support and to the popular and progressive calls for independence, freedom and justice, it is clear that, for a moment in their political history, Belizean women and men were united and at the center of making democracy. By 1954, the people won the victory of universal adult suffrage and the right to elect their own leaders under a new Constitution. There was hope in the people that much more could be seized in this ‘50s’ moment.

Unfortunately, the promise of that people’s moment would begin to fade. It took ten years after 1954 for Belize to achieve its self-government Constitution and another 17 long years from 1964 to win independence in 1981 – a total of some 31 years after the launch of the People’s Committee.

Opportunities Lost

Apart from the short-lived ‘60s’ in Belize, when the cañeros movement, the United Black Association for Development (UBAD) and the People’s Action Committee (PAC) challenged the establishment, the militant democracy of the people gradually dissipated. It was, in large part, the victim of both the divide and rule tactics of the British and of the heavy anchor on progress caused by the Guatemalan claim. By independence in 1981, the PUP itself, as well as opposition political parties, had begun to forget what it really meant to have ‘people in democracy’.

As I have argued elsewhere, the challenges of overcoming deep colonial legacies as well as the severe limitations that international political and neoliberal forces can place on nation-building aspirations have often been under-estimated. However, over time, both Belize’s political leadership and ‘the people’ also share part of the blame for Belize not living up to the ideals and promise of the 1950s nor of independence. These colonial, international and local factors were certainly at play in the past processes of constitutional building and reform.

For reasons that I will discuss more in future pieces, the political parties as well as the people of Belize did not fully seize the opportunities to decolonize Belize’s Constitution either in the lead up to independence in 1981 nor in the first comprehensive constitutional review by the Political Reform Commission (PRC) in 1999. Now, in 2023, 73 years after the start of the nationalist movement and the people’s democracy moment it inspired, Belizeans are being told that they have another historic opportunity to create a people’s Constitution. The People’s Constitution Commission is already ten months into its 18-month mandate to lead a people’s review of the Constitution of Belize.

Is this enough time? Can this process really result in a new or reformed people’s Constitution that goes to the Belizean people in a referendum? What are the lessons from history? What kind of Constitution does Belize need to help put people back in democracy? Can Belize learn from other constitutional reform processes such as those happening now in Barbados and Jamaica?

Time Come!

These are the kind of questions and issues I will aim to address in this new blog: TIME COME: Put People back in Democracy. It will be my main forum to contribute to these critically important reform debates in Belize and the region. Independent. Non-partisan. Research-based. No bells and whistles — just straight informed ‘talk’!

On a regular basis, I will post new informational pieces (under the tag Real Story) on past constitutional developments as well as new advocacy pieces (under the tag Time Come) on my own ideas for reform. Now and again, I will post a past article or presentation of mine and, at some point, offer guests to submit a piece for consideration.

The challenges to create a new Constitution are formidable. Other huge issues of development and survival dominate the national agenda. The Belizean people will have to be convinced that constitutional and political reforms can help improve their livelihoods.

In the four years before the Political Reform Commission commenced its work in January 1999, civil society organisations, led by the Society for the Promotion of Education and Research (SPEAR), had conducted a comprehensive education and advocacy campaign for political and constitutional reform. There was therefore a readymade base of public awareness and popular demand for reform. This is not the case with the current People’s Constitution Commission. The Commission and a few other institutions are now attempting to stimulate both within a limited time mandate. As one of the people, I offer this blog as my personal contribution to this critically important endeavour.

There is much unfinished business and lessons from the ‘50s’, ‘60s’ and ’80s’ moments to motivate and inform any project to re-make Belize! Time come to put people back in democracy!

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Note: This is my inaugural and explanatory post for my new blog TIME COME: Put People back in Democracy. This post will appear on the top of my Home page for some time – so my newest posts will be the second in line.

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