BELIZE Will Independence Mean New Dependence?

September 25, 2007

Situated between Mexico and Gua-
temala, only a few minutes by air from
the rest of Central America and facing
the Caribbean, Belize has seen itself as
a link between Central America and the
West Indies. Relations with Central
America have long been impeded by
the Guatemalan claim to Belizean ter-
ritory, while isolation and distance
have limited closer ties to the Carib-
bean. It is still faster for a Belizean to
fly to London than to Trinidad. Belize
is, however, the Central American na-
tion closest to both the United States
and Cuba, a strategic location that has
thrust any foreign association under
close scrutiny by the United States.
In many ways, Belize-with substan-
tial domestic problems-is quickly be-
ing overwhelmed by regional events
outside its control. The new govern-
ment which assumes power in 1985
must face three crucial issues: the na-
tion's changing ethnic composition;
establishing kinship with neighboring
countries; and redefining Belize's rela-
tionship with the United States.
In the Heart of the Caribbean Basin
Radio Belize, the official voice of
the government, used to begin its broad-
cast day by announcing that Belize was
a "new Central American nation in the
heart of the Caribbean Basin." Others
would say it is a Caribbean nation situ-
ated on the Central American main-
land. In fact, the population of Belize
has characteristics that would link it to
both regions. Belizean society reflects
one of the most varied cultural and
racial mixes in Latin America.
The Creoles-descendants of the
original 17th century mixture of Latin
American slaves and British woodcut-
ters and piratesdominate the country
Milton Jamail, professor of Central
American politics at the University of
Texas at Austin, is the author of "Be-
lize: Still Struggling for Independence"
in the May/June issue of the Report.
both culturally and politically. They
comprise some 40% of the population
and are centered in Belize City. The
second most important group (33%)
is the Spanish-speaking mestizo com-
munity, which first migrated from the
Yucatin to Belize in the 1850s. Living
mainly in the northern sugar-growing
regions, the mestizos are close to Mex-
ico both culturally and geographically.
Black Caribs or Garifuna-a mix-
ture of African and Caribbean Indians--
comprise 8% of the population and live
predominantly in the far south. There
are three Mayan groups equalling 10%
of the population-Yucatecan in the
north; Mopan in the west and south;
"New nation in the heart of the Caribbean Basin." Belize City after independence.
and Ketchi in the south. The Ketchi,
originally from Guatemala, continue to
migrate to Belize today.
Add to this mixture some 3,000 Ger-
man-speaking Mennonite farmers (who
came to Belize in 1958 via Canada and
Mexico, to avoid what they saw as
undue governmental interference); a
few hundred merchants of Lebanese,
Palestinian, Chinese and Indian descent;
2,000 British soldiers; a few hundred
North Americans and Canadians; and
recently arrived refugees from Guate-
mala and El Salvador. The cultural
complexity within a very small popula-
tion is mind-boggling.
But not everyone is satisfied to
remain in Belize. Outmigration has
reached such proportions that Belizeans
quip that their three leading exports are
sugar, marijuana and people. There are
thought to be at least 30,000 and per-
haps as many as 50,000 Belizeans liv-
ing in the United States, principally in
New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chi-
-r .---I:--cago and New Orleans. The majority of
the emigrants are Creole or Carib. Be-
lizeans, like many immigrants in the
United States, send a large part of their
earnings home, and are an important
source of national revenue. Rough cal-
culations from the Central Bank indi-
cate that at least 25% of the country's
per capita income stems from these
While most of those choosing to
leave have been English-speakers, those
settling in Belize are primarily Span-
ish-speaking refugees. These new resi-
dents, added to a mestizo community
that migrates at a slower rate than the
English-speakers, are causing a shift
from English to Spanish as the domi-
nant language.
Guatemalans Denied Refugee Status
Thousands of refugees fleeing politi-
cal violence in El Salvador and Guate-
mala have sought safe haven in Belize.
Salvadoreans have regularly migrated
to Belize over the past decade to work
in the sugar harvest. Now, for political
reasons, few return. Although precise
figures are not available, the Salva-
dorean community may number as many
as 7,000. About 500 of these are being
resettled in the Belize River Valley in a
project jointly run by the United Na-
tions and the government. Each family
receives 50 acres of land, assistance in
health care and schooling for its chil-
The rest are scattered throughout the
country. Some have hacked milpas-
small plots of corn-out of the jungle;
others work on cattle ranches or in the
sugar cane fields. As newcomers, the
Salvadoreans have been subjected to
typical prejudices. Many Belizeans
claim they are to blame for increased
violence in the north, and that some are
involved in the marijuana traffic.
Government policy toward the Sal-
vadoreans is ambivalent. While most
are simply left alone or actually aided
by the government, some are being
deported. In February, 79 Salvadoreans
were detained for illegal entry. Then in
April, Minister of Home Affairs V. H.
Courtney announced that all foreigners
would have 90 days to register with the
police and apply for provisional, per-
manent or refugee status.
For the several thousand Guatemalan These Creole men are among the 14% unemployed--prime emigration candidates.
political exiles in Belize, government
policy is less ambiguous. No Guate-
malans are officially recognized as
refugees. The Price Administration
seems intent on avoiding confrontation
with its neighbor, and also fears that an
offer to resettle Guatemalans would
serve as an invitation to the Guatemalan
government to reinforce its claim.
Given the country's tremendous cul-
tural and ethnic diversity, there is sur-
prisingly little conflict. The issue of
language could provide fertile ground
for discord. English, Belize's official
language, is spoken by the vast ma-
jority of the population. But with mi-
gration trends, the balance is slowly
shifting toward Spanish-speakers. The
1980 census figures on language are
confusing, recording only a person's
first choice and not reflecting any bi-
lingual ability. These figures show that
50.6% of the population speak English;
31.6% Spanish; 6.4% Mayan; 6% Gari-
funa; and 3.3% Low Germanri. The lit-
eracy rate stands at 92%.
Probably the most serious distortion
gained by looking only at these census
figures is that there is no mention of the
fact that the main language of com-
munication in Belize is Creole, a patois
based on English. It is important to
note that the Creole language is not
limited to the Creole population. So a
person from Orange Walk district in
the north might speak Spanish at home, learn English in school and communi-
cate with his friends in Creole. Thus
this common language serves to dispel
potential discord and in many ways
helps to transcend racial and ethnic
Choosing Friendships Carefully
Despite Prime Minister George
Price's claim that Belize is interested in
developing diplomatic relations with
all friendly nations, the Belize news-
paper Disweek remains unconvinced.
"The two countries in the region--
Cuba and Nicaragua-that have been
most friendly to us-Cuba was the first
and at that time the only country in
Latin America to support us against
Guatemala-are not allowed to have
relations with us," the paper pointed
Shortly after independence in 1981,
Cuba offered scholarships to Belizean
students and was interested in estab-
lishing diplomatic and commercial ties.
Although the trade would have benefit-
ted Belize and the scholarships were to
replace those formerly given by Gua-
temala, neither interchange was com-
pleted, again due primarily to U.S.
pressure--or fear of U.S. reaction.
Relations with Sandinista Nicaragua
started out well. Nicaragua was a very
active and important supporter of Be-
lizean independence, and Belizean
teachers participated in the literacy
campaign in the English-speaking areas
of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast. More re-
cently, however, relations have cooled.
Price's cabinet no longer attends an-
niversary celebrations in Managua, nor
are there expressions of support for the
Sandinistas coming from Belize.
The United States is not alone in
closely monitoring Belize's external
relations. Prime Minister Price visited
Honduras in March and met with Presi-
dent Roberto Suazo C6rdova. The two
discussed closer ties between the two
countries, and the possibility of bilateral
relations which would involve cultural
and trade accords. Reaction to Price's
visit was quick in coming. Guatemalan
Foreign Minister Fernando Andrade
Diaz Durin said Guatemala would ob-
ject to Honduran recognition of an in-
dependent Belize, and added that his
government would oppose Belize's
participation in any U.S. plan for Cen-
tral America evolving out of the Kis-
singer Commission Report on the region.
The reaction in Belize was mixed;
while there was general support for
closer relations with Honduras, some
feared the move might drag Belize
further into the Central American tur-
Mexican Devaluation Hurts Neighbor
Further evidence of Belizean vulner-
ability was the serious impact of the
devaluations of the Mexican peso in
1982. Cross-border trade had always
been active, but large numbers of peo-
ple began crossing over to the Mexican
community of Chetumal to purchase
items that were now considerably cheap-
er than at home. This hurt Belizean
merchants, and locally produced goods
such as rum. But more important were
cutbacks in imports to Mexico. Since
Chetumal lacks a deep water port, the
city uses the facilities at Belize City.
Goods are imported for Mexico in-
bound via Belize with the Belizean
government receiving a fee. Revenue
An island near Belize City. Tourism and seafood are important to the economy.
15 JULY/AUGUSTfrom this source was down by 25%
after the 1982 devaluations.
The unrest in Central America has
caused the United States to belatedly
recognize Belize's strategic importance,
and Washington has attempted to pres-
sure Belize into endorsing-or at least
not actively opposing-U.S. policy in
the region.
In the last year, Washington's coax-
ing appears to be paying off. Prime
Minister Price met with President Rea-
gan in Washington in May 1983, and
discussed Belize's regional role. In
talks about Belizean security, the two
discussed moving the U.S. military
jungle training school from Panama to
Belize. Special Envoy Richard Stone
and Under Secretary of State for Inter-
American Affairs Langhorne Motley
reciprocated Price's visit in late 1983.
Yet Belize has not given its all to the
new alliance. In 1982 it refused to join
the U.S.-sponsored Central American
Democratic Community. Last March,
Price stated that Belize was not inter-
ested in joining the newly revived Cen-
tral American Defense Council (CON-
DECA), raising further questions about
Belizean defense in the 1980s.
The future of the Belize Defense
Force, now a small 700-person military
unit mainly concerned with internal
police matters, could become a serious
issue. Some are concerned that if the
force were to develop into a military
unit capable of providing for territorial
defense it might lead the military to
move into the political arena, or to
abuses of power. The memory of the
disintegration of Grenada's New Jewel
Movement and the ascendance of the
military is very vivid for Belizeans.
With the departure of British forces a
very real possibility, the United States
may well find it advantageous to step
into the void. While the vast majority
of the force is still trained by the
British, some soldiers are now being
trained by the United States in Panama.
Last August, Price accepted an invita-
tion to tour a U.S. aircraft carrier off
the coast of Honduras.
U.S. Influence Not Unwelcome
While not resigned to U.S. domina-
tion, most Belizean politicians appear
to realize that adjustments must be
made when a small dependent nation
lives in the shadow of a superpower.
Belize is extremely vulnerable to uni-
lateral U.S. actions-and U.S. pres-
sures on the IMF and World Bank--
giving Washington considerable lever-
age. The United States could threaten
to side with Guatemala in the territorial
dispute, or to withhold economic as-
The U.S. Agency for International
Development established bilateral pro-
grams in Belize in January 1983, part
of the funds stemming from allocations
under the Caribbean Basin Initiative.
Fourteen million dollars have been al-
located in 1984, and $10 million are
projected for 1985. Prior to 1983, U.S.
assistance was under $1 million yearly,
most of it through the Peace Corps and
other technical programs. The Price
Administration is hoping to receive ad-
ditional economic aid recommended
by the Kissinger Commission Report, a
total of $14 million during 1984 and
"Belize will profit from these funds,"
Price told the nation in his annual ad-
dress in January. "For this I wish to
thank Dr. Kissinger who personally
promised to help Belize when we met
earlier last year on my journey to New
Much of the U.S. interest and influ-
ence in the country is not altogether
unwelcome. The large Belizean com-
munity in the United States transfers
not only money, but U.S. culture.
North American cultural penetration
via music, film and television is sig-
The importance of television is dif-
ficult to overestimate. Belize has only
had television for a few years, and
most programming is pirated from
U.S. broadcast satellites. So TV view-
ers are treated to a mixture which
includes limited local programming--
like a show encouraging breast feeding
called "Breast is Best"--and imports
such as U.S. evangelist Jimmy Swag-
gart, the Boston Celtics vs. the Phila-
delphia Seventy-Sixers to "Dallas."
But more important, U.S. network
news programs are the main source of
information on international events. So
while their government did not support
the U S. invasion of Grenada in Oc-
tober 1983, Belizeans formed opinions,
for the most part, from what they saw
on U.S. television.
Television has assumed such an im-
portant role in Belize that Radio Be-
lize's audience has shrunk dramatically.
Before the advent of TV, one could
walk the streets and listen to the news
since every house was tuned to Radio
Belize. Belizeans half-jokingly say that
there are two things they will not give
up: the southern Toledo District (which
has often been mentioned as a possible
territorial cession to resolve the Gua-
temala dispute) and television.
A New Colonialism?
What then are the options for Belize?
Its history of colonialism and depend-
ence on Great Britain for revenue and
defense make it difficult to achieve any
sort of real independence. This is espe-
cially true since the United States has
included Belize in its area of national
security concerns. Pinched by economic
realities, will Belize side with the
United States in the region's conflicts?
What about the Guatemalan claim?
Who will provide for defense? What
about the country's changing ethnic
composition? These are all questions
that the new government must tackle.
It seems inevitable that the United
States will play a major role in Belize's
future. New York and other cities will
continue to draw Belizeans looking for
work and the cash they mail home will
remain a source of national revenue.
And given Belize's current orientation,
cultural penetration will likely increase.
But the United States could also be a
source of much needed investment and
offer preferential treatment for Belizean
Price-who deftly steered Belize
to nation status--has found post-inde-
pendence more difficult, and his cur-
rent course appears to be leading di-
rectly into a dependence upon the
United States. When I asked Price if he
expected the United States to request to
station troops in Belize, he replied,
"They will ask," adding, "We are
very close to the U.S. We can't afford
to frighten them, but we don't have to.
We are too small to throw our weight
around. And the British will not be here
forever." Belizeans are likely to find
that the break with Great Britain was
much easier than defining a new rela-
tionship with the United States.

Tags: Belize, Guatemala, George Price, independence

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