Commentary: It is now time for Garifuna people in Belize to seek an alternative party

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Born in Dangriga Town, the cultural capital of Belize, Wellington Ramos has BAs in Political Science and History from Hunter College, NY, and an MA in Urban Studies from Long Island University. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science and History

By Wellington C. Ramos

When the British conquered and demolished our nation in “Yurumein”, now known as St Vincent and the Grenadines, in 1796, we were independent, self-reliant and controlling our own destinies. This was after fighting several wars against the French and the British for many years to avoid slavery, subjugation and control over us.

From the time the Europeans came into this part of the world, namely, the Spanish, French and British, we were always their number one target. Why? Because we knew that the Europeans were coming into this region to take away our lands, enslave us and colonize the entire Western Hemisphere.

In 1796, after the British captured our nation, they imprisoned about 5,000 of our people: men, women and children on the desolate island of Balliceaux off the coast of the St Vincent mainland. On that island they continued their torturing and killings of our people, which resulted in about half of the total amount dying and were buried on the island where their remains are left up to this day. It is said that only about 2,500 of our people survived that genocidal act.

The British king at the time, George III (1760-1801), then gave orders for our people who survived to be removed from Baliceaux to their distant colonized Bay Island, Roatan, Honduras, on 11 ships. Upon our people’s arrival there, their names were changed from their original names to Spanish names to conceal their identities and also to make it difficult for us to reconnect with our families in our motherland St Vincent and the Grenadines.

Our ancestors did not like the living conditions on the island of Roatan in Honduras and appealed to the British to allow them to leave to a better place. In 1801, the British granted their request and allowed about 165 of them to sail to British Honduras, now known as Belize. They landed on the south side of Belize City, in an area now known as “Yabra”.

The British at the time had some people from the continent of Africa as slaves known as “Creoles”. The British did not want the Garifuna people to intermingle with the Creoles for fear that they were going to encourage them to revolt against the British for their freedom.

Also, the British knew that the Garifuna people had a history of taking away slaves from the European slave masters to make them free people when they had controlled their nation St Vincent and they did not want them to do the same thing in Belize. The Spanish in Honduras also began to allow more of our Garifuna people to move to the mainland along the coast because they wanted us to fight with them against the British for disputed territories and later on the Nationalistas who were demanding their independence from Spain.

British and Spanish rivalry over the Americas was constant and they were both competing to control the entire region. When the British and the Spanish granted us permission to stay in the areas where we lived, there were some restrictions not to move away from the south of Belize but to stay confined in that region. They did not want the Creole people who they had as slaves to know that there were free black people living in Belize. It seems as if the Creoles found out afterwards and questioned them about our free status.

They then started to tell them that we the Garifuna people are cannibals and that we eat people and all other sorts of lies to justify their actions against both of us. The southern part of Belize was not for Britain, so they had no right to grant us permission to stay there. In 1801, that part of Belize was not considered British territory but Spanish territory until Britain and Guatemala signed the 1859 Treaty.

If there was a war between the British and the Spanish over that region at the time, we the Garifuna people were going to suffer the consequences of the war. We were left by the British to find ways and means to survive on our own without any assistance from them.

In the southern part of Belize we found the ways and means to survive as villages on our own by engaging in farming to plant our food items and to fish and hunt for our meat. Between 1801 and 1832 the villages of Stann Creek, Hopkins, Punta Gorda, Seine Beight and Barranco were all experiencing growth in their populations and were self-sustaining communities.

When slavery was abolished in Belize in 1833, the Creoles became free people but had to go through the Emancipation era to get educated and learn trades to be able to take care of themselves. We began to intermingle among ourselves but because of the brainwashing that the British did to some of our fellow Creole brothers and sisters, the relationship was strained and is still difficult to heal up to today.

Before Belize became a crown colony in 1862, the British sent an Evaluator from the British Commonwealth Office to tour the entire country of Belize and provide them with an economic, social, cultural and political report. His findings revealed that the Garifuna people were the only people in Belize that were self-sufficient.

From 1832 until 1954, when our country received adult suffrage, we were taking care of our villages and ourselves without much assistance from the British or Spanish crowns in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize. We also communicated back and forth with all of our relatives in these countries.

When the People’s United Party (PUP) came to power, like most other Belizean people, we joined their party in the hope that they will assist us socially, economically and politically.

Most of the families I knew that were related to me growing up in Dangriga were PUPs. Yet, all of the members of our families went to their farms, worked in Pomona, Middlesex, Cave Branch, Commerce Bight Jettie Pier and did other types of work to support their families and themselves. Some Garifuna people even left the country to Honduras, Panama and the United States to seek employment.

The PUP had little impact on improving the social, economic and political life of our Garinagu people in the south. If they wanted to help our people, they could have made the citrus, banana and other crops that they grew huge farm owners because all Garifuna families in the south owned farms and homes for their families. Instead, without any bias, that opportunity was given to the people in the northern part of our country to grow sugarcane.

The citrus industry has been in the south for a while now and the PUP gave us no opportunity to become large scale citrus farmers. The farmers in the north were the wealthiest farmers in the country of Belize for a long period of time. When the banana industry was introduced in the south, we were planting banana, plantain, starch and many other food crops.

The PUP had another opportunity to give our Garifuna people the option again but failed. Our people kept remaining in their party with false promises, hopes and dreams. The PUP governed Belize from 1954 up until 1984 with little significant improvements in the lives of our Garifuna people.

Hurricane Hattie struck Belize in 1961 and after this terrible experience, many Belizeans started to migrate to the United States. This migration affected all the households in Belize and especially the Garifuna and Creole families. The family members of the Garifuna and Creoles then started to assist their families back home to reduce the burden on the Belize governments.

The UDP came to power for the first time in 1984 and they promised change from the status quo from PUP. But since they came to power and in all of their administrations, they have failed to bring employment to the south and to give the Garifuna people the opportunity to own their own businesses to remain independent people. This has led to an increase state of dependency and poverty.

Many people in the south have lands but they need the finance to work their lands and both the UDP and PUP have failed to provide it to them. When elections are coming up they make several unfulfilled promises, pay our people to vote for them, get elected, reelected and it goes on and on with no end in sight. Still, many of our people remained loyal UDP and PUP supporters like my family and myself.

The purpose of a political party when they become the government is to assist their citizens with the resources to possess the means to take care of their families and themselves and two of these political parties the UDPPUP have failed miserably with this task. There are many of our Garifuna people who still hold on to this lingering belief, that things will get better. Some are even blaming their own people for being lazy and worthless as the main cause for this dilemma.

I believe that if we make the finance and equipment available for our people to work on their farmlands, the situation will get better. I am not recommending the old slash and burn farming because our people tried that for many years and it did not work.

I am talking about the government establishing a program to provide the equipment for our people to clear their lands, give them the seeds to grow the crops and the money to pay the people for their labor. Too many years have passed by and the UDPPUP had no established program for us but more unfulfilled promises like reopening Jettie Pier.

I am now appealing to my people to give a new political party an opportunity to govern us. There are several other opposition parties in Belize that I know of but the one that I am recommending is the Belize People’s Front (BPF). I have looked at the party’s constitution and their goals and objectives. I have also spoken to their leader Ms Nancy Marin.

What they are committing to do will be completely different from the UDPUP. They are also willing to include us in the decision making of their party along with all the other ethnic groups in Belize. After all, we have not gained much from these old parties so we are not losing anything by leaving them.

If nothing can scare us, the decision to take the Guatemalan dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for final resolution should. Prior to 1859, the British did not care if Spain or Guatemala took over the whole south with us living there. Now, with 2019 coming up, the UDP and the PUP have agreed to let the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decide if that part of the country where we mostly live belongs to Guatemala or us.

If the court rules that the area belongs to Guatemala, what are we going to do? We will not be able to do nothing but to abide by the ruling of the court because there is no appeal anywhere else.

Many of our ancestors left Guatemala and Honduras because of the oppressive military governments that they still have. Guatemala is already acting as if Belize belongs to them in the Sarstoon area. In addition, they have created a map with their new Belize taking the whole south for themselves. If they get a ruling in their favor, Guatemala will order their troops to cross over the border and take what the court say is theirs.

The government of Belize has decided to take this chance with us who are the original occupants of the southern part of Belize and the people whom they claim they love.

This action on their part makes me believe that they do not care about us. The next election in the south might not even have one Garifuna person in either of these two major parties representing us and for them that is not a big deal. When the PUP did their first electoral representation reforms, they gave us two representatives for Toledo and Stann Creek Districts. They did subsequent reforms and increased the amount of seats in all the other districts except Toledo and Stann Creek.

This is despite the fact that our population has grown over the years. The Belize People’s Front (BPF) will find our people to represent us in all the constituencies where we live and we will continue to have a good working relationship with all the other ethnic groups in the south.

Let us show them how much we care about ourselves by rejecting them as of now. They will come with new promises and money but we must end their disrespect by voting them out of office when the next election is called soon. We are a people that possess high intelligence and they know that very well. We are being taken for fools and now is the time for us to let them respect us.

We need Garifuna representatives that will stand up for us when they go to Belmopan and demand our share of our national resources.

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