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Belize, History

Viceroyalty of New Spain, Belize River, United Democratic Party, landslide victory, national election

In pre-Columbian times Belize was part of the territory of the Maya. It was included in the Viceroyalty of New Spain in the 1500s, and sometime later English woodcutters from Jamaica established a settlement on the Belize River. During the wars between England and Spain in the 1700s, Spain failed to dislodge the British from the area. In 1836, after the emancipation of Central America from Spanish rule, the British claimed the right to administer the region; it was declared a British colony, subordinate to Jamaica, in 1862 and an independent crown colony in 1884.

Long-range constitutional reforms were initiated by the British in 1954, resulting in a new constitution ten years later. Progress toward independence, however, was hampered by an old Guatemalan claim to sovereignty over the territory. When Belize finally attained full independence on September 21, 1981, Guatemala refused to recognize the new nation; about 1,500 British troops remained to protect Belize from the Guatemalan threat.

The territory’s first general election, in 1954, was won by the People’s United Party (PUP), headed by independence leader George Price. Under Price, the PUP won all subsequent elections until 1984, when the first national election was held. The PUP was defeated by the United Democratic Party (UDP), and UDP leader Manuel Esquivel replaced Price as prime minister. Price returned to power after the elections of September 1989. In May 1993 the United Kingdom announced that it would end its military involvement in Belize. All British soldiers were withdrawn in 1994, apart from a small contingent of troops who remained to train Belizean troops.

The UDP regained power in the June 1993 national election, and Esquivel became prime minister for a second time. In July Esquivel announced the suspension of a pact reached with Guatemala during Price’s tenure, claiming Price had made too many concessions in order to gain Guatemalan recognition. The pact would have resolved a 130-year-old border dispute between the two countries. The PUP won a landslide victory in the August 1998 national election, and PUP leader Said Musa was sworn in as prime minister.

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