Belize In Focus: A Guide to the People, Politics and Culture

Belize In Focus: A Guide to the People, Politics and Culture

by Ian Peedle


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Belize In Focus: A Guide to the People, Politics and Culture by Ian Peedle

The small nation of Belize has long been separated from its Central American neighbors by history, language and culture. Formerly a British colony, this English-speaking country has traditionally looked towards the Caribbean islands rather than Central America for its economic and political links. Yet Belize's enclave status is increasingly a thing of the past, as trade, cross-border migration and a booming eco-tourism industry break down old barriers and put pressure on the country's social structures and natural resources.

As Belize's agricultural mainstays face an uncertain future, the country has opted for ""green tourism"" and service industries as economic alternatives. Beaches, coral reefs and rainforests are now at the forefront of the Belizean economy, a development with serious implications for the country's environment and indigenous communities.

Belize In Focus is an authoratative and up-to-date guide to this spectacular country. It explores:
* The history: Maya culture; Spanish and British colonists; Garifuna and Mennonite settlements; independence and Guatemala's sovereignty claim; Central American or Caribbean?
* The economy: The crisis in traditional farming; fishing and foreign investment; timber and textile exports; Coca Cola's plantation plan; the impact of liberalization; the drugs economy.
* The environment: sea, reefs and rainforest; government policy and forest reserves; logging and land rights; tourism and sustainability; does eco-tourism work?
* The culture: indigenous Hispanic and British influences; immigration and social change; Creole culture; art, literature and music; a nation in transition.
* Where to go and what to see: Must-see landmarks and historical sites as well as the author's expert tips on how to get the most out of a brief visit.

Belize In Focus is one in a series of guides covering the countries of South and Central America and the Caribbean.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781899365357
Publisher: Latin America Bureau
Publication date: 08/01/1999
Pages: 100
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

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Belize has always struggled to find its own national identity. Surrounded as it is by strongly defined and developed cultures, modern Belize has been shaped as much by external forces as by its own internal dynamics. While nationalist politicians, especially the father of modern Belize, George Price, seized on a romantic Mayan cultural ideal in an attempt to unite different population groups around one single cultural theme, the reality was far different. Since the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century the Maya have been a disadvantaged and declining part of Belize's population, and the country's identity is marked more than anything by its ability to absorb other people and cultures into a loose-knit national community.

Early History

Belize was part of the great Mayan civilization that spread throughout the Central American region. When the first Europeans arrived in the early sixteenth century they encountered a Mayan society that had undergone a dramatic transformation since its heyday some six hundred years earlier. Contact with the Europeans was to have a devastating effect on the remaining Maya through disease, slavery and fighting. Many died and many fled, seeking refuge in more remote areas, especially in Guatemala.

Spain and Britain set out the boundaries for modern Belize in the 1700s in the form of logging concessions given to British settlers by Spain, which claimed sovereignty but did not settle the land. These settlers were mainly ex-pirates who were gradually being forced out of their old trade as European governments abandoned their support for their own national privateers and sought to stamp out piracy.

British involvement in Belize grew as the settlers called for protection from attacks by the Spanish and the remaining Mayan population. British armed forces were sent on a number of occasions, including the most famous of Belize's battles, the Battle of St. George's Caye in 1798, which marked the end of Spanish claims to the territory.

Belize's People

In 1871, some two centuries after the settlers first landed and fifty years after Belize's Mexican and Central American neighbors had achieved independence from Spain, Belize was officially declared a British Crown Colony.

By this time the population had grown significantly and the colony's economy had developed almost exclusively around forest products, mainly mahogany, chicle and Iogwood. A large number of Africans were brought as slaves by the settlers from other British territories in the Caribbean, and as part of an agreement with Spain, more than 2,000 people had relocated to Belize in 1787 from the English-speaking settlement of Mosquito Shore on the Nicaraguan/Honduran coast.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Garifuna – the so-called "Black Caribs" deported in 1797 by the British from St. Vincent to Roatan off the Central American coast – began settling along Belize's southern coastline, and in the mid-nineteenth century, there was an influx into northern Belize of thousands of mestizo (of mixed Spanish and Maya descent) and Maya refugees fleeing the Caste War in Mexico's Yucatan peninsular. This war (in Spanish known as the Guerra de Castes) began in 1847 during the Mexican War between Mexico and the U.S., and was fought between the Maya of the Yucatan against non-natives who threatened the traditional Mayan way of life. Many Maya and mestizos fled south as a result of the war and settled in Belize and in the southern Yucatecan state of Quintana Roo.

Following the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century, a small number of Indian and Chinese indentured laborers arrived in Belize, and in the early twentieth century Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian Arabs also began arriving, fleeing political unrest in the Middle East.

Further significant population expansion occurred in the mid-twentieth century with the arrival of Mennonites from Mexico. These skilled farmers quickly established "colonies"- small self-contained farming communities – in the west and north of the country.

Political Development

As the population expanded, and with the increased political involvement of non-whites, political power passed from the handful of original settlers and their descendants – the "forestocracy" – to the British colonial administrations of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These administrations were dominated by the colonial and business elite, particularly the Belize Estate and Produce Company (BEC), which had grown to be the major force in the colony. These colonial governments also gave a growing class of professional educated Creoles- Belize's colored and black elite – their first taste of political power.

The rise of nationalist politics in the 1930s mirrored developments elsewhere in the Caribbean and was given further impetus by a terrible hurricane that hit Belize in 1931 and a fire that swept through the capital city in the same year. A currency devaluation that halved the value of the country's economy was the event that led to the creation of Belize's first political parties, including the party that was to dominate political life in Belize until the 1980s, the People's United Party (PUP).

Formed in 1950, the PUP was led by George Price, and emerged to spearhead, the campaign for Belizean independence. Self-government for Belize was achieved in 1964, at the same time most of the other British Caribbean Crown Colonies were gaining their full independence. It was the unresolved problem of Guatemala's territorial claim on Belize, and the issue of its security that delayed full independence until 1981. Since Guatemala appeared to be serious about taking over Belize as soon as the British left, and since Belize itself had no armed forces, it needed outside protection. So after independence, the British agreed to maintain a full-time army base in Belize, which remained until 1994. Some suspect that both countries knew that Guatemala never really intended to attack, and that this continued British military presence was actually part of a wider regional strategy worked out with the U.S.

Central American Crises

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw modern Belize's greatest demographic change when as many as 40,000 Central Americans crossed into the country in search of refuge from civil war, oppression and economic hardship. Belize's recent history has been one of coming to terms with this population explosion – new Central American immigrants account for about 25 percent of the total population- and its economic, political and social consequences.

The impact of absorbing so many so quickly was partially offset by increases in foreign aid being made available to Belize in the 1980s. The international organization which provided most assistance to Belize during the crisis years was the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Belize was also central to the regional political strategy of the U.S. during this time- it was used as a base of sorts, establishing a major diplomatic presence, joint military operations, and propaganda machinery such as a Voice of America transmitter – and American presence and funding in Belize reflected this importance. As the Central American crises were resolved in the 1990s, organizations such as UNHCR began cutting back and by 1998 had almost ceased operations. U.S. involvement in Belize also rapidly declined during the second half of the 1990s.

Emerging Economy

During the second half of the twentieth century, the export-oriented economy was successfully diversified from its forest base into sugar, citrus and banana production, as well as tourism. Although the economy still remains very vulnerable to external forces, Belize's small population mitigates against the growth of a more diversified local economy.

Despite the high profits that were earned during the colonial era, investments in infra-structure were neglected, and Belize has had to rely heavily on foreign aid to put in the roads, electricity, and other infrastructure necessary for a modern economy.

Attempting to end this reliance on foreign assistance. the government has sought ways to diversify the economy further and to generate its own revenues. The most controversial scheme is the Economic Citizenship Program (ECP), begun in the late 1980s. This program has been mainly aimed at Taiwanese nationals, who pay up to $40,000 each for Belizean nationality. The ECP has led to the latest bout of population growth, with new purpose-built communities inhabited by Taiwanese-Belizeans springing up alongside major highways. The new immigrants have also purchased large tracts of land. This is the first time since the original settlers that a group of new immigrants have wielded such economic and political power and despite the obvious economic benefits, many Belizeans are unhappy and question the wisdom of the passports-for-sale policy.

Shifting Alliances

The impact of European, especially British, involvement in Belize was tremendous and the national institutions and colonial culture put in place during this period are still very visible today. The inheritance includes a close relationship with the countries of the English-speaking Caribbean, especially Jamaica. But new regional alliances driven by changing political conditions and the free-trade paradigm are overtaking post-colonial allegiances. Belize has signed up to be part of an Americas-wide free trade area to be established early in the new millennium. It is also forging closer political, economic and cultural links with its immediate neighbors, most notably Mexico, and is being drawn ever closer into regional Central American political and economic activity as relations with Guatemala improve.

Belize's Westminster-style political systems and structures were introduced by the British colonial government with very little consideration for political realities within Belize's unique society. A growing number of opponents believe the system in operation has been divisive and inefficient and has led to widespread abuse of power. Reformers are calling for a presidential-style system of government, more independent checks and balances over the activities of government ministers, and more effective decentralization of decision-making.

The legal system in Belize also remains closely associated with the British model, and the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council is Belize's highest Court of Appeal. The most famous recent case involving the Privy Council culminated early one morning in 1995.

Hard-liners in the Belize government were determined to show they were serious in the fight against violent crime by carrying out the death penalty on two men sentenced for murder. The two men were driven from their cells to the gallows early on the morning of the planned execution. As final preparations were made, the men's lawyer waited anxiously for the outcome of an appeal to the Privy Council in London. The London judges, with literally only minutes to spare, finally faxed through a stay of execution, which was rushed by the lawyer to the Belize authorities, who spared the men's lives.

This episode gave rise to heated debate on the need for reform of this system; many asked why judges in London should be called upon to decide the fate of Belize's criminals when they knew nothing of the circumstances in Belize. Most Belizeans favor retention of some form of independent final court of appeal but would prefer a regional Caribbean judicial body.

External Influences

There are still significant traces of the colonial era in Belizean life. These include the attitudes and experiences of older Belizeans who were brought up under colonial rule, an education system that has its roots in the British system, and the annual scholarships awarded to Belizeans to study in the UK. British sports such as cricket are still popular, especially in rural Creole communities, and many Belizeans have family connections to the UK either through migration or through inter-marriage, especially with British soldiers stationed in Belize.

But while the British influence has had a great impact, the dominant external influence on modern Belize undoubtedly comes from the U.S. The early twentieth century saw the U.S. begin to replace the European powers as the principal political and economic force in the region.

The U.S. position with respect to Belize was complicated by its policy in Guatemala. In the 1950s, Belize's most influential nationalist politicians saw the U.S. as their natural economic and political ally, singing "God Bless America" and displaying the stars and stripes at their rallies and demonstrations. But the U.S. itself was more anxious to protect its valuable relationship with Guatemala, and did not press for Belize's territorial independence.

American economic involvement in Belize was also slower than hoped for by the PUP, which in the 1960s expected U.S. investment to end British economic dominance. Until fairly recently most American investment went into the purchasing of land for speculative purposes, but a growing number of U.S. businessmen now invest and work hands-on in more productive activities, particularly in tourism, agriculture and garment manufacturing.

Up until the mid-1990s, the major source of U.S. government funding for Belize was probably its aid program, channeled through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Funding peaked at $20 million annually during the late 1980s when the troubles in Central America were at their height, but the end of the crises led to the closing of USAID's operations in Belize in 1996.

The Drugs Boomerang

British and U.S. anti-drug efforts in the Caribbean in the 1960s and 1970s concentrated on forcing farmers out of marijuana production. Belize had been a major marijuana producer and the presence of British troops in the country assisted the anti-narcotics campaign. The continuous spraying of suspected marijuana-growing areas had the desired effect of driving farmers out of marijuana production. In the process, they al so ruined attempts that some farmers had made to diversify into honey production. With marijuana and honey production no longer options, the door opened invitingly for the more lucrative and more dangerous business of cocaine smuggling. Belize, ideally placed between Colombia, Mexico and the U.S., quickly grew into one of the main transit routes for cocaine from Latin to North America.

Reports are rife of light planes landing in the dead of night on major highways to make drug-related transactions. In fact, the problem became so bad on the Northern Highway that the government had to erect pillars along the roadside to prevent planes landing. And there are plentiful accounts of poor and struggling fishermen turned rich and boastful owners of expensive speedboats after "happening upon" bales of cocaine washed up alongside their lobster traps. But the downside of the drug money, which undoubtedly finds its way into Belize's economy, is the misery caused by drug addiction – crack cocaine addiction is a major problem in Belize City and is behind much of the violent crime that has plagued the city for the past decade.

Again, outsiders seem to be holding the strings; in the 1990s there were a number of spectacular inland and offshore drug busts in Belize, usually involving Colombian and Mexican nationals. The drug smugglers, however, seem able to routinely escape custody, amid press reports about the complicity of Belizean government officials – from law enforcement agents up to the ministerial level.

Stolen Cars and Gang Culture

The other smuggling activity against which the U.S. has sought Belize's assistance is the importing into Belize of stolen American vehicles. Belizeans regularly travel to the U.S. to purchase vehicles, which are then driven down to Belize through Mexico. In fact, this is probably the route by which most of Belize's vehicles enter the country.

In the late 1990s, the U.S. requested that Belize be more vigilant in identifying stolen vehicles crossing its borders. This request led to some fierce exchanges between U.S. diplomats and Belize government ministers, especially the Foreign Minister, Dean Barrow. Barrow pointed out that the cars were stolen in the U.S. and had already crossed the U.S. and Mexican borders before reaching Belize. He asked how, if these two countries with all the resources at their disposal were unable to prevent the crime, Belize, with its limited resources, could be expected to do any better.

The political altercations over the smuggling of drugs and stolen vehicles have exposed the sometimes uneasy relationship that exists between the two countries. The U.S., faced with what it saw as Belize's lackluster response in dealing with these problems, threatened withdrawal of a range of economic assistance. Aware of the profoundly negative implications of this breakdown in relations, the Belize government began to make the right noises and fell into step with U.S. wishes.

While the U.S. is worried about Belize's response to smuggling of vehicles and drugs, Belize has become increasingly concerned with a growth in violent crime imported from the U.S. The late 1980s and 1990s saw an explosion in gang-related street crime in Belize, much of which was linked to the drug trade. Fuelled by the deportation from the U.S. of Belizeans who had been convicted of criminal activities, violent street crime escalated out of control in the early 1990s, as Belize City's poor black youth tried to swagger and shoot their way to a better future.


Excerpted from "Belize"
by .
Copyright © 1999 Ian Peedle.
Excerpted by permission of Practical Action Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Diversity and Uncertainty, 4,
1 Influences and Environment: The Forming of Modern Betize, 6,
2 History and Politics: From Enclave to Nationhood, 26,
3 The Economy: Merchant Betize, 46,
4 People and Culture: "A Motley Crew", 63,
5 Where to Go, What to See, 81,

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