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. JULY/AUGUST 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- 13 -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 remittances. 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- dren. 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. I 14 REPORT ON THE AMERICASm 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 barriers. 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 out. 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- bulence. 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 JULY/AUGUST '5 i Ci 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- sistance. 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 1985. "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 Delhi.'' 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- nificant. 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 products. 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

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.