In the annals of political parties in Belize, the People’s United Party enjoys pre-eminent recognition. It was Belize’s first nationalist party. It is the most successful political party in Belize’s history having won over 80% of general elections held since 1957 and 70% of the municipal elections since Self-Government in 1963. The peaceful, constructive, Belizean revolution launched by the P.U.P. and supported by the people gave Belize nationhood: Independence, the name “Belize”, the flag, the anthem, the Belizean prayer and a modern constitution.
Only on two occasions has the P.U.P. not formed the government: 1984-89 and 1993-98. This fact and the blurring of distinction between a party in government and its party machine make the history of the P.U.P., as a party, seamlessly interwoven with the history of the P.U.P. Government’s struggles and achievements in building the nation of Belize.
The history begins in 1950. Several factors converged to stoke the political crucible that sparked the formation of the P.U.P. Under British colonialism the living and working conditions of the people of British Honduras, as it was then known, were deplorable. They were denied any effective say in the decision-making process of the colony. Other issues that agitated Belizeans included Universal Adult Suffrage, West Indian Federation, import controls and immigration and the renewed depression in the chicle and mahogany industries.
Several groups were politically active at this time, including the “Natives First” Group, the Christian Social Action Group and the Open Forum. It was from the ranks of the Christian Social Action Group that the first leaders of the P.U.P. were to emerge. They were young alumni of St. John’s College who in study circles had been exposed to the principles of social justice.
The British Colonial Governor, using the reserve power at clause 6 of the colonial constitution, devalued the currency (the B.H. dollar) against the will of the elected and nominated members of the Legislative Council on December 31, 1949.
That same night a protest meeting was held on theprotest and defend the rights of the people. The guest speakers were John Smith and George Price. Two days later, on January 2, some citizens met at 3 Pickstock Street, Belize City to form the People’s Committee (P.C.).
On January 6, 1950, there was a large public meeting on the Battlefield that became the battleground of the P.U.P. until the Colonial Governor turned it into a park. Within a month the P.C. and the General Workers Union (G.W.U.) were holding joint meetings, discussing issues ranging from devaluation to labour legislation and from federation to constitutional reform.
The perception of Belizeans today as a laid-back, accepting people was certainly not true of that period in history. In the wake of the P.C.’s formation there followed strikes, demonstrations and the declaration of a state of emergency. The P.C. took the message of resistance and opposition to colonial rule across the colony. It utilized the support base of the G.W.U. that already had a national following throughout the colony.
When the P.C. felt it had gathered sufficient strength and support, it dissolved itself on September 29, 1950 and formed the People’s United Party. Its first leaders were: John Smith – Leader; Leigh Richardson – Chairman; George Price – Secretary and Philip Goldson – Assistant Secretary. John Smith later resigned from the P.U.P. in 1951.
The colonial rulers realized that the P.U.P. was rapidly gaining the support of the people and therefore supported the National Party (N.P.) as an option to the P.U.P. in the growing eventuality of Self-Government. The N.P. was comprised of the middle/civil servant class, loyal to the British. The N.P. did not have any bona fide political platform but rather existed simply as an alternative to the P.U.P.
The test of the maturity and stability of the P.U.P. came when it experienced its first and perhaps only significant internal upheaval six years after its formation, in 1956. Philip Goldson, Leigh Richardson and several other party officials were expelled from the P.U.P. because of a fundamental difference on West Indian Federation. Mr. Price favored a more hard-line, all-or-nothing approach vis-à-vis Self-Government while the others were prepared to be more accommodating to the British and the idea of federation.
That same year, Mr. Goldson and Mr. Richardson formed the Honduras Independence Party (H.I.P.). But neither the H.I.P, nor the N.P., which eventually merged into the National Independence Party (N.I.P.) in 1955, ever achieved any serious electoral success against the P.U.P.
In September 1956, at the P.U.P.’s annual convention, George Price was elected leader. From that time until he stepped aside on October 16,1996, he was the unchallenged leader of the P.U.P.
Many persons and many factors have, over the years, contributed to the P.U.P. as it is today. But there can be no doubt that the single most influential figure in the history of the P.U.P. is George Price. His influence on the party was attributable to several factors. Paramount among these were his leadership ability and his leadership style.
George Price possessed certain qualities critical for a political leader: passion, a sense of responsibility and vision. He had an instinctive feel for the historical role he was poised to play in the making of Belize, a role he fully and unhesitatingly embraced. His leadership style was characterized by a personal approach. He travelled to virtually every village in the country and kept in close and regular contact with the people.
He developed a reputation for an ascetic lifestyle and incorruptibility. His was a single-minded commitment to building Belize and the P.U.P. In a political system in which elected leaders are oftentimes ill-prepared for their mature and heavy responsibility, Mr. Price met the challenge.
Under George Price, the P.U.P. consolidated its role as the party of the people of Belize. The years 1950 to 1964 were perhaps the most vibrant period in the P.U.P.’s history as a party. These years were characterized by intensive membership drives throughout the country, dramatic and tense political trials and direct and frequent contact with the people, educating and sensitizing them to the issues of the day through meetings and the party newspaper, the Belize Times which was established in 1956. The party enjoyed growing electoral success in the municipal and legislative assembly elections.
When Self-Government was attained in 1964, Mr. Price became Premier leading a Cabinet of local ministers. The British, through the colonial governor, retained control of defence and foreign affairs.
With Self-Government achieved, the emphasis of the P.U.P. naturally shifted from protest politics and mass mobilization to the weighty business of governing. Its two broad, fundamental objectives were nation-building and eventual independence from Britain.
During the seventeen-year struggle for independence, the P.U.P. continued to win election after election. This meant that as a party it was more organized and better able to capture the imagination and support of the people than the other political parties. But there was no real reform in the corpus of the party per se until 1975.
On its twenty-fifth anniversary the Party introduced a new Constitution which sought to give a greater and more organized voice to its membership. It had been drafted after consultations with members and officials in every constituency. Units like the Belize Youth Movement, the United Women’s Group and the Marshalls that continue to play a crucial role in the success of the party today were the product of the 1975 Party Constitution.
Much that we take for granted today was achieved through painstaking, hard work of the P.U.P. From the outset, the P.U.P. was clear in its objectives. Forging the nation of Belize (the name was changed from British Honduras in 1973) would require national unity. This meant integrating the various ethnic groups into all aspects of Belizean life. It meant pursuing a path of economic development that would provide opportunities for Belizeans and improve their quality of life. It meant integrating Belize into the region as well as into the community of nations of the world.
While the emphasis internally was on developing agricultural industries, building roads, homes, bridges, schools and hospitals, pursuing land reform and literacy campaigns, providing electricity and communications, the emphasis externally was on getting the nations of the world to support Belize’s quest for independence.
The struggle for independence was unduly long because of Guatemala’s unfounded claim to Belize and because local politicians in the Opposition party used the issue as a political football, confusing and dividing the people on the issue. Riots, demonstrations and the declaration of a state of emergency marked the months leading up to independence in 1981. Despite all of these obstacles, Belize was able to obtain the support of the United Nations and proceeded to independence on September 21, 1981.
Three years after securing independence for Belize the P.U.P. suffered its first general election defeat in December 1984 holding on to seven of the twenty-eight seats in the House of Representatives. This terrible defeat was due to a combination of factors that included a down-turn in the world economy that affected the domestic economy, internal divisions within the P.U.P. itself and the fact Belizeans themselves desired a change after thirty unbroken years of P.U.P. rule.
The 1984 election defeat prompted certain internal adjustments within the P.U.P. These included further amendments to the Party Constitution to provide more autonomy to constituency executive committees as well as changes in the individuals directing the party at high levels within the structure.
The most notable change in the party hierarchy was perhaps the election of Said Musa as Chairman of the P.U.P., a position that gave him responsibility for the management and administration of the party. Mr. Musa’s genuine commitment to “open up the party and bring in fresh and new blood, people who are not tarnished by the stain of the past ” in order to reform the party has played a significant role, especially over the past decade, in re-energizing the P.U.P. and raising the level of sophistication of its operations.
The P.U.P. won the general elections of 1989 only to lose again after it called early elections in June 1993, a year and a half before it was constitutionally due.
The years 1993 to 1998 that the P.U.P. spent in opposition must be regarded as among the most momentous in the party’s history. Several factors combined to test the unity, strength and capacity of the party to withstand severe adversity. Following the 1993 defeat, there was the natural post-election tendency for competing cliques within the party to pull in different directions. This was substantially resolved at a 1994 convention where Said Musa was elected Deputy Leader of the party.
From the outside, the ruling United Democratic Party Government unleashed wave after wave of trumped up political prosecutions targeting some of the highest ranking P.U.P. leaders for the entire duration of their term of office. Notwithstanding all of this, the P.U.P. displayed remarkable focus and resilience. It met head-on the formidable force of the Government which utilized all available institutions within its domain to bring the P.U.P. o its knees. At the same time, it embarked on internal reforms that would prove critical in preparing it to lead Belize into the twenty-first century.
But the singular highpoint during those opposition years was the quiet, low-key decision of the party’s leader George Price to step aside after 40 historic years of leadership to make way for a new leader.
At the party’s convention in November 1996, the second during those troubled times, Said Musa and Florencio Marin ran for leadership of the party. This caused much concern among the membership since it was felt that the magnitude of such an internal contest would weaken the party less than two years before general elections were due.
Said Musa emerged as leader. His leadership unleashed the new blood that was surging through the veins of the party, largely nurtured by him.
Mr. Musa moved quickly to define his leadership. He kept his word to “bring in fresh and new blood” and as a result the P.U.P. fielded the largest number of educated young professionals ever to contest a general election in the history of Belize. He re-tooled the Party Secretariat, the main administrative unit of the party, computerizing electoral registers, appointing professional staff and decentralizing power and responsibility to separate committees, notably the public relations and the logistics committees.
Within five months, Mr. Musa’s leadership was tested when he led the new P.U.P. into the March town board elections. The result was a crushing defeat for the U.D.P. who lost all seven town boards, including that in San Ignacio and Santa Elena which they had not lost in twenty-odd years.
The end of that town board campaign marked the beginning of what was to be the longest, most strident and intense general election campaign in the country’s history.
The U.D.P. pulled out all the stops. They immediately reshuffled their Cabinet to give it a more political bent. They re-partitioned electoral divisions to gain an advantage. They jettisoned the entire voters’ list forcing all voters to re-register, hoping to strain the resources of the P.U.P. And they levied a rancorous, bitter and sustained personal campaign against Party Leader Musa that included trumped up political charges in a failed attempt to shake his leadership and distract from the issues.
But none of it worked. Nor did the P.U.P. sit idly by. While the Party Leader statesmanly and methodically unveiled the P.U.P.’s eleven policy papers month after month at the innovative and highly popular People’s Assemblies across the country, his young team unleashed a creative media assault of political ads keeping the U.D.P. always on the defensive. The campaign was well and truly joined in the streets, at the public meetings, in the media and even in the courts where the P.U.P.’s legal counsel challenged every irregularity used by the U.D.P. to one-up the P.U.P.
The P.U.P.’s new leader, new candidates, new image and sophisticated new party machine completely overwhelmed and smothered the U.D.P.’s efforts for whom it was a case of too little too late. The P.U.P. had captured the confidence as well as the hearts and minds of the people.
On August 27, 1998 the nation listened as constituency after constituency fell to the P.U.P. The onslaught had been unstoppable. At the stroke of midnight on August 27, the new Prime Minister, elected with an overwhelming majority of 26 seats to 3, delivered his victory speech from the balcony of the Party’s Headquarters to the overflowing crowd of jubilant and ecstatic supporters on Queen Street. He called for national unity and healing and pledged that the new government would be a government for all the people.
Mr. Musa has been able to attract Belizeans of all ages and sectors into the P.U.P. family. He has firmly consolidated his leadership, winning every single election he has faced since becoming leader, including the Belize City Council election of 1999 and the Town Councils election of 2000.
The P.U.P. has led Belize into the new millennium. It is a Party with a proud record of achievements. It is the Party that developed the major residential communities like Bella Vista, Vista del Mar, Hattieville and the most palpable legacy of Mr. Price’s vision: Belmopan. It is the Party that established the Belize Defence Force, introduced the Inter-American Development Bank, the National Development Foundation of Belize, Social Security, the Central Bank and the Small Farmers and Business Bank. It is the Party that introduced the Belize Tourism Board and the Offshore Services Industry. And it is the Party of Centres for Employment Training, semi-professional sports and political reform.
But the P.U.P. recognizes that none of its accomplishments, no matter how impressive, is enough to guarantee it success and longevity as a party. The P.U.P. of the 21st century is determined to remain relevant and to continue to perform its role as a positive change agent for the country and people of Belize. It is therefore committed to reform, modernization and to continually rejuvenating its membership and outlook in tandem with the new demographics and hyper-changing needs of generation next.
In an address at one of the People’s Assemblies in 1998, Party Leader Said Musa said: “I believe there can be no greater undertaking in politics than that of uplifting the downtrodden, creating opportunity for the disadvantaged, offering hope for a better world for the children.” With God’s blessings and the people’s support, the P.U.P. will meet this challenge.
This struggle has been fought through the democratic process. Constitutional advancement was obtained without destructive violence or bloodshed. Our Party’s philosophy nourished by the religious principle of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man has never advocated a violent revolution. Our way is by the ballot and not the bullet. By firm, honest, and dedicated leadership of a people mobilised for hard work and action acting together in concert, we have made and continue to make the peaceful revolution.
Our revolution is not imported from abroad. It is truly Belizean with roots in our country’s history. The movement benefitted from the use of universal principles but made sure that these principles had their correct local application. It is neither Adam Smith nor Karl Marx but is rooted in the character and the will of the Belizean people who evolved from a unique blend of the indigenous and the immigrant from Africa, Asia and Europe.
(excerpt from the Philosophy of the Peaceful, Constructive, Belizean Revolution, 1970’s P.U.P. publication)