George Price, 62, the premier of the Britsh colony of Belize and almost certain to be its first prime minister when it becomes a sovereign nation, is known as an educated, piously Catholic, politially astute and sensitive man with a fierce dream: independence.

Talking at a recent rally about his plans to make that dream a reality this year, he cut loose on his opposition -- those Belizeans who are at least reluctant to leave Britain's protective shadow.

These opponents of Price talk about the security risk from hostile Guatemala, about economic uncertainties, about all that can go wrong for a small land colonized by British sailors that sets out on its own in the tough world of the 1980s.

"These are the things," said Price, laying it on the line about such doubts to a hundred people in the muddy bus depot called Cinderella Plaza, "that the devils are putting in the way."

"We ready, man," shouted an enthusiastic supporter. "We ready long time, daddy."

His supporters don't hesitate to think of him as the father of his country. His opponents are profoundly suspicious.

"You might have noticed his religious aura," Manuel Esquivel, an articulate and acerbic senator for the opposition United Democratic Party, said of Price the next morning. "He's straight out of the inquisition and believes in the maxim that error has no rights. Since we oppose him we are in error and must be in league with the Devil."

Price's People United Party has brought forth a draft constitution, known as the White Paper, for an independent Belize. "To my mind," said Esquivel, "it lays the groundwork for a dictatorship."

Harsh words are common on all sides these days in this near-nation beset by a plague of what one long-time American resident calls "village politics, the pettiness where everybody knows everybody and their foibles."

From the beginnings of serious local polictics in 1950, Price was what one of his colleagues called "a silent partner at the top: the man behind the throne." But employed as the secretary of Belize's only millionaire, he preferred to keep a low profile, this colleague said.

He suffered a political set back later in the decade when he was accused of making secret initiatives to Guatemala, but by 1961 he was back publicly and firmly in charge of his party. With the start of internal self-rule in 1964, Price became Belize's first and thus far the only premier.

Even his detractors concede some of Price's accomplishments. Literacy is virtually universal because of a system of church-state schools that Price helped create. No one goes hungry.

In the last colony-wide election in 1979 his party won 13 of the 18 seats in the National Assembly. The opposition charges that the electoral machinery is in the hands of Price's party and, without proof, that the elections are fraudulent.

Price's control is already solid, but the opposition argues that it would be even stronger under the proposed constitution.

The opposition has refused to participate in what was supposed to be a joint committee canvassing the nation for comment on the White Paper, and some opposition leaders suggest they will not attend the constitutional conference in London expected this spring.

Frustrated and defeated, the United Democratic Party is increasingly on the outside of government and the substantial minority it represents is left with less voice.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding ambitious plans, much of the colony languishes.

Price has constructed a new capital in the interior, Belmopan, which has a population of about 4,000 and looks more like a modern American junior college than a seat of govoernment, but which is clean and quiet and has helped open up the middle reaches of Belize.

The poverty and dilapidation of Belize City -- with a third of the colony's 145,000 population and its principal port -- are apparent to any visitor.

Seven years after a sewer system was begun, it has yet to be completed. Most people get their water from rain barrels, and when the sea breeze dies the stench from the gutters is stunning. Power cuts are recurrent.

With its small population and limited resources, Belize has virtually no infrastructure for any kind of commercial activity. Its potential farmlands are vast. The Price government talks of making Belize the breadbasket of the Caribbean, but for now 25 percent of its imports are foodstuffs.

Despite extensive land reform in a country with about 15 people per square mile and half the population living in towns, there is no effective food marketing or distribution system. Lumbering, despite an abundance of valuable trees, has died away.

Refugees from the political strife in El Salvador have begun to take the initiative in agriculture and the primarily Hispanic northern sector of the country has developed a thriving sugar-cane industry. But as the current majority of black creoles and native Caribs -- already beset by their own cultural frictions -- begin to sense themselves economically displaced, serious problems could arise.

Foreign exchange is helped by remittances from 30,000 Belizeans who live outside the country, mainly in the United States.