You Need Yesterday to Make Revolution Today

By Assad Shoman, Guest Post #2, 19 May, 2024.

Dr. Assad Shoman, well-known Belizean activist and historian, agreed to pen a response to my recent post Talking About a Revolution? Fifteen Proposals for a People’s Constitution (TIME COME #6, 3 April, 2024).

One of Shoman’s several books.

“We cannot seriously talk about decolonization if we don’t come to terms with colonialism. Belize has a singular and debilitating experience that seriously impedes it from engaging in a real decolonization process, one that seeks to destroy colonialism and all it stands for. First because our independence movement, with help from the colonizers, divided in 1956, and second because the Guatemalan threat blinded us to the realities of colonialism.”

At the outset, Dylan is right to lament the appalling fact that the Constitution is not taught to Belizeans anywhere: in no home, school, trade union, political party, Cabinet or even legislature. Belizeans are just expected to know by some process of miraculous ingestion what the document that rules and shapes their lives has to say about their rights and responsibilities, about how they are governed, ruled, reigned over.

To clear the decks and get to what I want to comment on in his very insightful treatise, let me say that I agree with the substance and in many cases the details of his first 14 proposals, but I have a problem with the 15th. He proposes such strict thresholds for amending the Constitution that if those existed now we would probably not be able to create a new constitution or even make minor changes to it. A constitution must reflect the will of the people at the time, and after 40 years we have a duty to change what needs changing, and 10 or 20 years from now the same or different problems may require different solutions. Nothing should be considered sacred except freedom and justice.

Vernon says early on that “Belize’s constitution must also reflect on-going decolonisation”, and I agree, but would remove the “also”. It must be all about decolonisation, about freeing Belize from the shackles imposed on it by the colonial power. Belizeans tend to shrug away their past, preferring not to process the fact that colonialism and slavery shaped our society—indeed that there was nothing like a society here (after the British invasion) until slavery came along. Slavery and Christianity, the religion of the colonizer, were the instruments used by the British to calm the rebellious nature of all who came under the colonial thumb, from the indigenous peoples to the enslaved Africans, indentured Indians, refugees and others who entered the territory and therefore came under the sway of colonialism and capitalism.

First Constitutions

By the middle of the 19th century British capitalism was alive and well in Central America, and desirous of exploiting Belize, and it required going beyond the rudimentary “Public Meeting” governance and establishing systems to protect British capital. Two things were essential: a “rules-based order” and secure land tenure.

In 1853 the British parliament passed “An Act to amend the system of government of British Honduras”. This short Act, in effect the first constitution, mostly dealt with how to get elected to the Legislative Assembly (of 18 elected and three appointed members) and how the Assembly was to function. The Superintendent was given authority to make laws with the advice and consent of the Assembly, all subject to the British monarch’s will. This gave a greater formality to the governing of the place and international recognition to the laws it passed.

In 1861 the Honduras Land Titles Act was passed. It satisfied the need for British capitalists to purchase land with a secure title, which was very difficult beforehand, given the haphazard methods of claiming land dating back to 1765. Indeed, as the Attorney General made clear then, the object of the Act was “to give a perfect title to persons whose estates are registered,” so that they could be bought readily by those “who have been accustomed to invest their money on property only to which there is an absolute and indefeasible title”. The AG further revealed that “this Bill was introduced . . . to forward the views of a proposed European Land Company”.

That Company was the British Honduras Land Company, which in 1875 became the Belize Estate and Produce Company (BEC), which came to own over a million acres of land in Belize, and which was as powerful an actor in Belize’s political economy as the Governor. The 1861 law was the first, but by no means the last law the BEC effectively wrote for Belize. The law ensured that foreign companies could take away the wealth created by the labour of Belizean workers, who were left impoverished. The BEC became a major antagonist to the nationalist movement in the 1950s. [In modern times, Lord Ashcroft’s men have also written laws that likewise impoverish the working class.]

In 1871 Belize became a Crown Colony, getting rid of elected members who in no sense represented the people of Belize, and elected legislators were again introduced in 1935 elections (with high property qualifications), but with little power and totally unrepresentative of the working class.

Available at libraries in Belize

It was not until 1954 that universal adult suffrage (persons over 21 could vote) was introduced, and a quasi-ministerial system instituted in 1955, with so-called “self-government” in 1964. A quick perusal of the British Honduras Constitution Ordinance (no. 33 of 1963) reveals its remarkable similarity to that enacted eighteen years later at independence. Apart from the fact that the 1981 Constitution was of the new state of Belize, and therefore had sections on the state and citizenship (before that we were citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies), and except for the Preamble and the section on fundamental rights and freedoms, the two constitutions relate to the same issues.

There is the section on the Legislature (Part II in 1963, Part VI in 1981), which in 1981 as in 1963 comprises of a House of representatives and a Senate; the Judiciary (Part III and Part VII), the Public Service (Part IV and Part VIII); Finance (Part V and Part IX); and Miscellaneous and Transitional Provisions (Part VI and Parts X and XI).

All the constitutions Belize has had so far were largely written and approved by the colonial masters. Since 1950, it is true, after the nationalist movement took wing, the Constitution has been changed under pressure from the people demanding the right to govern themselves, and there were new laws passed to give rights to workers, but the fundamental architecture of the constitutions remain firmly attached to the British model.

And so to 1981, and it is understandable that Belizeans felt that the closer they kept to the colonial house, including its constitutional framework,  the safer they would be. It is hard to recreate the feeling today, over four decades later, of the real fear, terror almost, that Belizeans had about a Guatemalan invasion. It was no imaginary threat, with the Guatemalan army armed to the teeth and trained to kill by Israelis, and Belizeans had an absolute dependency on the idea of the Empire troops defending them against the big bad wolf.

The Persistence of the British Model of Dominion

That was then. In the now, the threat has considerably diminished, not to say disappeared. Certainly most Belizeans (and over 30% were not yet born in 1981, and many are post-1981 immigrants or their children) hardly give the Guatemalan claim or threat a thought. They have far more pressing problems to think about. So why haven’t we done anything to overthrow the colonial yoke?

Dylan maintains that our Constitution is “crucially important for our enjoyment of human rights, for better governance and for the public issues that affect our daily livelihoods – jobs, taxes, education, roads, security, housing, healthcare etc.”. So why does he have to lament that “the basic structure of the 1981 Constitution remains intact. Constitutionally, the structural and cultural political influences that dominate are still anglophile – as inherited from the British colonizers”?

We cannot seriously talk about decolonization if we don’t come to terms with colonialism. Belize has a singular and debilitating experience that seriously impedes it from engaging in a real decolonization process, one that seeks to destroy colonialism and all it stands for. First because our independence movement, with help from the colonizers, divided in 1956, and second because the Guatemalan threat blinded us to the realities of colonialism.

In 1950, the majorities in Belize understood the horrors of colonialism and were prepared to struggle against it. There were good reasons for this. In 1950, even a British newspaper reported that “The Colony has always been run exclusively for what could be got out of it … the most shockingly depressed spot in the whole British West Indies – perhaps in the Commonwealth. Hunger, poverty, the filthy conditions under which the people exist are incredible”. And the rage against colonialism expressed by the nationalist leaders was real and powerful and reflected the mood of the people.

Ten years later, however, the tone had changed to one of cooperating with the British to get a few crumbs back from what they had stolen from the land, and ten years after that we were begging the British to keep their soldiers here to prevent a possible Guatemalan invasion. People began to see our colonizers as our saviours. The cost of that is being reaped today. If you don’t understand colonialism you can’t decolonize.

And so we have maintained the same model of government imposed by the colonizers, known as the Westminster system after the district in central London that has been the seat of the English government since 1200. After that the English colonized Wales and then Scotland to become Great Britain, then Ireland to become the United Kingdom, and then much of the world, to add “and Colonies” to the empire’s description.

Do you seriously believe that the English created that system of government to benefit Ireland or India or Ghana or Belize? So why do you think that the instrument they created to colonize, exploit and dominate us is perfectly suitable, with perhaps a few minor tweaks, to rule ourselves for the benefit of ourselves?

Two Examples of Continued Domination

Available at bookstores in Belize

Consider just two examples of what we have become because of maintaining the instruments and systems imposed on us by our colonizers, including most importantly capitalism. The first is land ownership. In 1880, two foreign companies alone, BEC and Young, Toledo & Co. owned between them about two million acres of land. The colonial power owned most of the remaining acres, known as Crown land—land belonging to the Crown of the United Kingdom and Colonies. A few Belizeans owned bits of land here and there, but few small farmers owned land, because when slavery was abolished the Crown deliberately raised the price of land to prevent the freed people from owning land and so force them to continue working for the mahogany lords.

Things did improve just a bit in the two decades before independence, when the so-called self-government regime carried out a land redistribution process, granting Crown land and land gotten from the BEC and others in lieu of taxes under a new Land Utilization law. This was especially dramatic in the north, where a new class of land-owning small farmers revolutionised the sugar industry. Also in the 1970s the government passed an Alien Landholding Ordinance, against criticisms that it was a communist measure, placing restrictions on the right of foreigners to purchase land. But that law did not last long.

Shortly after independence, when governments of the new nation, under substantially the same constitution as before, succumbed to the pressures of the United States of America and its international financial organs like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and adopted the neoliberal model of unfettered free enterprise, free trade, reduction of social services and of support to small farmers and so on. One of the casualties of this trend was the Alien Landholding Act. And so today you visit the village of Hopkins and see land that in 1981 was owned by Garifuna people or by the State in trust for them, in the   hands of white “americans” who lord it over the natives. This is replicated in Toledo, in the cayes, in Cayo.

I am not aware of any recent studies on the matter, but if I was a betting man I’d wager that more foreigners own more land in Belize today than in 1981. Is that what we aspired to when we fought for and won independence? Dylan’s spear is on target when he recommends that a new constitution should “Limit the quantity of private lands that can be owned by non-Belizeans and by single landowners and allow for land re-distribution”.

I have exceeded the word count allotted me for this paper, so I must simply mention the second example and leave Dylan and others to spell out the reasons for and the results of the two examples. The second example relates to a crucial question in any society: who owns it? Belizeans have never owned much of Belize, nor have the workers and farmers benefitted from the fruits of their labours. That is because the nation state of Belize had its genesis in slavery, and that mode of production was succeeded by capitalism, and neither mode allows for a just distribution of wealth. But the big question for us, as we consider whether we need to create our own constitution rather than continue using the one handed to us by the colonizer is: is there greater fairness in Belize today than there was in 1981? Is there a more just distribution of wealth and resources? What about opportunities? Is a Belizean child born in poverty today more likely than her counterpart in 1981 to grow and prosper?

What do the poverty studies over the years tell us? Does the percentage of poor and very poor people keep going down or up? And what about the litmus test of fairness in a society, the levels of inequality? Is Belize more unequal now than in 1981? A recent world study[1] shows that Belize is the most unequal country in Central America after Costa Rica. That’s right, more unequal than Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where most of our recent immigrants come from.

Is that the country we wanted to have 43 years after independence? And how much of what we have become is the result of our not having created our own constitution and social and economic systems to suit our needs and aspirations? How much because we have never really decolonized?


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