George Price: Politician who guided Belize to a state of stable independence

The population of Belize is about a third of a million, composed mainly of Creoles and indigenous Mayans.

They regard themselves as guardians of some of the most luxuriant and pristine rainforest in all the Americas. In centuries gone by, the steamy port of Belize City was famous as being the entrepôt for the highest quality mahogany. Wandering round the cemetery of the Anglican and Church of Scotland churches, I was moved by the familiar British names on the gravestones of scores of young men snatched away in their late teens and early 20s by the dreaded yellow fever, and who paid with their lives for their involvement in the lucrative mahogany trade.

In 1970, the seat of government moved out of Belize City to a new capital being constructed at higher altitude in the foothills, at Belmopan. It was here one evening in 1977, days after a meeting of the European Parliament/Latin American Parliamentary group in Mexico City, that I was taken by the British High Commissioner for an evening at the home of George Price, who was then Premier under the system of internal self-rule, and later became Prime Minister of Belize, as an independent state within the Commonwealth, from 1981-1984 and again from 1989-93. An indelible memory of this bachelor's modest home is a variety of simple Mayan mementos, and how his guarded reception had suddenly warmed on hearing that I had made a point of going to the great Mayan remains at Chichen Itza on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico.

Price's mother, Irene Secilia Escalante, a proud descendent of Mayans, whose empire had dominated Central America, had imbued Price with a sense of his Central American heritage. Twenty years younger than his Creole father William Price, she imbued him with a sense of the splendour of the civilisations of pre-conquest America. At his home that night he was to ignite my lifelong interest in pre-Columbian art through his explanation of the relevance of his far-from-costly artefacts.

His parents sent him to the Holy Redeemer primary school run by the Jesuits in Belize City – "the Jesuits caught me young, and actually I owe my strict and occasionally cruel teachers a lot. They gave me a good grounding before I went to St John's College High School, and an interest in Catholic social justice as encapsulated in the encyclical Rerum Novarum."

On leaving school in 1935, he became a private secretary and errand boy to a timber trader, Robert Sydney Turton, who later generously gave him time off to train for the Jesuit priesthood at seminary in Mississippi and later in Guatemala City. However, Price and a group of his former St John's classmates were caught up in the protests of timber and banana workers against their meagre rewards and conditions and decided to participate in politics rather than following his intention of becoming a Jesuit priest.

In 1947 Price and some of his friends won seats on the Belize City Council. They created a newspaper, the Belize Billboard, and gained the influential sympathy of Arthur Creech Jones, Colonial Secretary in the Atlee government. The importance of the support he gained from Fenner Brockway and other like-minded Labour politicians, he told me, could not have been exaggerated. They gave him the confidence to found a Peoples Unity Party, taking in Creoles, indigenous Mayans and a number of minorities.

In 1954 in Belize's first general election following adult suffrage the PUP swept the board. I quizzed Price on his relations with Guatemala, whose insurgents were the cause of the presence of British troops in significant numbers. He was coy. "I knew the Guatemalans well," he said. "I had studied under the Jesuits in Guatemala City. They are not the enemy you British think they are. I had good relations with them at that time."

In 1957, during the negotiations on constitutional reform, it became apparent that Price was in secret contact with the Guatemalans, and therefore he had an uneasy relationship with successive – somewhat unimaginative, it has to be said – British governors of British Honduras, as the state of Belize then was.

In 1979 Price sought and obtained a mandate for full independence, and a conference was held two years later in which Price made concessions to Guatemala which were not acceptable to a significant part of the population when he returned home. Price was forced to renege on the Heads of Agreement, the document proposing a solution to the Guatemalan claim to Belizean territory, which had been laboriously worked out in London, and it was hardly surprising that the Guatemalans broke off relations and put military pressure on the border with the young Commonwealth state.

Price told me in a letter that part of the trouble was that his old friends in Guatemala City had either died off or had lost influence and office. Uncomfortable though it was, he had to rely on the presence of some 2,000 British troops posted on the Guatemalan border. (When I visited the British units, the commanding officer told me there was no better jungle training: some of the squaddies were more picturesque in their language, referring to the snakes and insects which were part of their daily lives.)

In 1981 Price became the first Prime Minister of the new Commonwealth country (he was made a Privy Councillor in 1982), only to be defeated by his conservative opposition in 1984. Yet he reformed his party and swept all before him in 1989, remaining Prime Minister until 1993. From 1998 to 2003 he held the emeritus position of senior minister in the PUP administration of Said Musa. George Price will go down in the history of the Commonwealth as the architect of the metamorphosis of the colony of British Honduras into the generally successful independent Belize.

George Cadle Price, politician: born Belize City 15 January 1919; Prime Minister of Belize 1981-84 and 1989-93; died Belize City 19 September 2011.

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