The riots and strikes that greeted the recent agreement on independence for this British colony last week are an unwelcome sign that Belize may not be able to avoid being drawn into the Central American political hurricane.
The disorders that left three dead ended last Thursday after the British governor, James Hennessy, declared a state of emergency and a curfew. Antigovernment demonstrators who had looted stores and set government buildings on fire suspended their marches and rallies, and the governor, who usually remains aloff from politics, began talks with the civil service union -- the country's largest -- in hopes of getting its members back to work by Tuesday.
But the violence over an accord negotiated last month by the government of Premier George Price with Britain and Guatemala has worsened political divisions within Belize that could lead to further trouble.
The agreement worked out in London provided for Guatemala to give up its longstanding claim on Belize, thus making it possible for the colony, located between northeastern Guatemala and the Caribbean, to become independent. In the past, Belize has been reluctant to accept independence for fear that Guatemala would invade once the 1,700 British troops stationed here are withdrawn.
But last year British pressure, and the increasing isolation of the right-wing Guatemalan government, forced that country to modify its claim. In November a U.N. resolution favoring independence for Belize passed with an overwhelming majority in favor -- including, for the first time, the United States.
Last month, "after 150 years of fruitless negotiations," as Guatemalan Foreign Minister Rafael Castillo Valdez pointedly said, the three parties signed the agreement, a list of 16 points that can be the basis of a permanent treaty. The main points are Guatemala's right to "use and enjoyment" of two Belizean cays, a sea corridor through Belize's territorial waters -- giving Guatemala an outlet for its only Caribbean seaport, Puerto Barrios -- and the right to construct two oil pipelines through to Belize's own seaports.
These were the terms that set off the opposition United Democratic Party. But many observers believe the party had other reasons for organizing protests at this time.
"The real question is whether they [the opposition] are willing to talk over their differences, or if they will reject any settlement leading to independence," said a British political observer.
Growing unhappiness with the Price government is clearly a factor in the disturbances. Much of the opposition proclaims to be against independence as long as Price, who won his last elections in 1980 by a small margin, remains in power. The devoutly Catholic, reformist premier is accused by the opposition of being a closet communist.
Anti-independence feeling runs strong among the white-collar workers in the public service union, which was born and prospered in the service of the crown, but it is not the only element in the current wave of antigovernment feeling.
Also to blame is Price himself, a notoriously remote man who has been in power since 1961. He has not troubled to sell the agreement to the population.
"Everything Guatemala is getting in this deal, they're getting for free," said a market worker. "Mr. Price, he deceived us. He's all-the-time . . . doing everything in secret. But now, we are onto his case, you see."
[Talks to work out details of Belize's independence opened today in London without the participation of the United Democratic Party, Reuter reported. British Foreign Office Minister Nicholas Ridley, chairman of the constitutional conference, said in his opening speech that Britain would not abandon its responsibility to ensure Belize's security.]